The late eighteenth century saw notable rationalist figures in English philosophy. Tom Paine attacked the theology of Christianity as a collection of absurdities in his his book The Age of Reason. The philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) argued for the reform of society based on utilitarian principles. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) terrified everyone with his predictions that poverty and war were the unavoidable consequence of the laws of population. Erasmus Darwin anticipated his famous grandson by suggesting some aspects of natural selection in his surveys of biology. It was a fruitful and disquieting age.
One man decided to apply Enlightenment principles to law and morals. The jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) asked himself why the cobwebbed laws of England—most of them dating back to medieval times—should not be viewed with the same skepticism that scientists were then applying to the inherited wisdom about the natural world. Laws, he believed, should be judged solely on one criteria: whether they function as a net benefit to society. If they do, they are good; if not, they should be discarded.
Bentham was, as we might expect, a brilliant student as a youth; he mastered several languages by his teenage years and consumed books with an insatiable appetite. His reformatory zeal was fired at the age of fifteen, when he heard a lecture on British law by the great Sir William Blackstone. He was outraged by what he perceived to be the undue veneration that Blackstone gave to tradition and authority. Such a perspective, Bentham believed, could only block progress.
Bentham was obsessed with finding a proper way of evaluating right and wrong. How should it be done? In his later writings, Bentham was careful to reject abstract concepts such as duty, equality, honor, right, power, and similar categories. They were nothing but “nonsense on stilts” that impeded understanding, rather than enhanced it. Traditional religion, he also believed, did nothing to advance our understanding of economics, science, or government; he was not quite an atheist, but contented himself with a deism that left no room for divine inspirations.
At the ripe age of twenty three (1776), he wrote A Fragment on Government, a treatise that gave expression to his “utilitarian” philosophy. Bentham argued that a properly formed government should have its powers sanely distributed among various branches, to avoid the temptations of despotism; legislators should be concerned with “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” rather than the will of the chief executive.
His major work, published in 1789, was The Principles of Morals and Legislation. It was a revolutionary work that sought to evaluate human conduct on a purely utilitarian basis, without regard to theology or the dead hand of history. In other words, a law was either “good” or “bad” depending only on whether it advanced the needs of the community. Bentham distrusted both ideologies and theologies.
Organisms, argued Bentham, structure their lives around pain avoidance. Happiness for the group is thus a situation where pleasure is maximized, and pain minimized. Laws and public morality, therefore, should seek to provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism alone should be the ultimate arbiter of taste, morals, and law. The argument sounds simple, but was there ever a job so difficult as trying to provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number?
Yet Bentham was undeterred, and turned his analytical powers to English law. Usury should be permitted, he argued in his work The Defense of Usury, as it was a necessary incentive for free trade. Laws, whether they be commercial, administrative, or criminal, should be composed with one object in mind: how do they contribute to the good of the citizens? Punishments should be humane and rational; trade and commerce should be encouraged without regard to idiotic restrictions imposed by custom and tradition; and all citizens (men and women) should be equal before the law.
In a move that was radical for its day, Bentham argued strenuously for individual liberties. The individual person was the best judge of what was good or bad for himself; he should, therefore, be left alone to do what he wanted, without the hectoring of clerics or legislators. The genders should be equal in all respects; even homosexuality, which was then criminalized in England, should be seen as matter of personal preference (Bentham’s opinions on this subject were not published in his lifetime, being rightly seen as too radical).
The weaknesses of utilitarianism are readily apparent. Bentham, while claiming to despise ideologies, simply substitutes his own for the ones that preceded him. And how are we, in our limited perspective, to know what is to the greatest advantage to the group? Who judges? Is not history and tradition—for which Bentham had such little regard—the primary determiners of what works for the group and what does not?
And is it even proper to evaluate everything from a utilitarian perspective? “Usefulness” itself may be more often in the eye of the beholder than we care to admit. Bentham’s knowledge of history and human nature shows surprising shortcomings: “utilitarianism” in practice can often degenerate into a cover for our own prejudices and preferences. He was vigorously attacked in his lifetime by conservative Tories for being an atheist, a materialist, and an impractical idealist.
Yet much reformatory good came from his pen. His philosophy, warts and all, was like a cleansing wind in the body politic. Advocates and reformers inspired by his writings undertook desperately needed reforms in public sanitation, housing, health, legislation, and judicial process. In the never-ending debate between conservatism and reform, there is a need for both: reform is the gas pedal that moves the vehicle forward, and conservatism is the brake that prevents it from speeding out of control and crashing.
He died in 1832 at the age of eighty-four. Believing that his body, like his philosophy, should act in the greater good, his will instructed that he be dissected in the presence of family. His skeleton and head were then preserved and dressed, and made for public display at University College London as an “auto-icon.” At the very least, Bentham practiced what he preached.
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