Children of Bentham


In our consumer culture, we are all children of Jeremy Bentham. The greatest spokesman for the “philosophy” of Utilitarianism, he is with us through his descendants – Peter Singer of animal rights and euthanasia fame; all those economists fretting over “consumer confidence” indices – and in our minds, we economic men, tirelessly striving to better ourselves, increase our hedonic sum, maximize our utility, search for the best buy, get the greatest value for our money, as we bump around the atomized society of rootless individuals in the great pinball game of the free market, what Borges was perhaps satirizing in his short story, “The Lottery of Babylon.”

Bentham posited that there was nothing of value but pleasure. All of man’s life is a search for pleasure, a shunning of pain. Pleasure is the good. When we claim to act for altruistic reasons, or when we point to people who seem to willingly forgo pleasure for some “greater” good, he informs us that, in fact, this renunciation confers pleasure on the actor, so he is right after all. (Not unlike the thinking of Nietzche, who saw in the “slave religion” of Christianity a sly grab for power. What we call “passive-aggressive” in our therapeutic age.) Examine as you like every oddball, difficult, pain-producing situation: you will always find that the person involved is getting something out it, some secret or not so secret pleasure.

Well, nowadays, we don’t think about the hedonic calculus so much, that philosophy that claims that since pleasure is THE VALUE, the GOOD is simply the action that increase the sum total of pleasure (happiness) for the world. So, do what makes the greatest number more happy. Not a bad course in most cases, but the reasoning is awful. Anyway, along the way, pleasure got translated into money, because, after all, pleasure is so subjective. How do you measure pleasure? We can measure what people pay, or say they will pay, or have paid in the past for this or that, and since money has value, and people don’t usually spend their money carelessly, we can assume that the willingness to pay more means that something has more value for the buyer, and so is giving that person more pleasure. Simple, so simple. We can then construct economics as a science of maximizing value, i.e. pleasure, and thus our consumerist world is born! Everyone is pursuing happiness (Is this what the writers of the Declaration meant?) and buying their pleasure on the free market. Our consumer culture exists for no other end than to allow all to maximize their hedonic sum of utility/pleasure!!

The fact that Jeremy Bentham bequeathed his embalmed body to a London university – there it is in the picture, with his head!  sitting in a glass case in the lobby – would seem to give away the secret that something is clearly WHACK with this point of view. Like some monomaniac intellectuals who have solved the problems of humanity – “Just grant me this, and everything else follows..!” – he bends the facts of the world to fit his formula. Does he tell us what pleasure is? Why are so many disparate things called pleasure? Why assume that they are all one unitary thing? Isn’t he defining everything in a way that he can call it pleasure. (Sort of like believers who tell atheists that there is a God, and no matter how the atheist argues, the believer will point out, he thinks, that the atheist is describing God. Laws of nature, that’s God. Evolution, that’s God. Big bang…) Cite any human behavior involving free will, and Bentham has a way of “proving” that it is motivated by a desire for pleasure. In the end, he is proving that people want the things they want, don’t want what they don’t want, and are happier when they get what they want. We all knew that already.

His system is fundamentally a crackpot construction, but it has been taken very seriously. Worked out to its logical end, it yields a deeply inhuman brutality that can justify anything because, in the end, the sum total of happiness will be increased (…if I kill your handicapped daughter, end your life early so you don’t consume valuable resources, etc.) Another example of reason run amok.

10 Responses to Children of Bentham

  1. Hannah says:

    I enjoyed reading this- thank you very much, I’ve been studying Bentham at college, and it is good to see other, more cynical points of view on the topics he raises. Though i admit that picture still creeps me out.

  2. lichanos says:

    Thanks for the note, Hannah, though I wouldn’t say my take on JB is so much “cynical” as critical…

    Good luck with your work!

  3. pancime says:

    Well, I can’t resist answering this one! As I understand JB his philosophy is based on eudaimonia – a life well lived. Happiness can emerge from many things, including sacrifice. Happiness is no one thing, but there is a good chance happiness will be found in a simple life with good friends. There is a political and a moral philosophy in JBs work, but he is arguably most useful, and most concerned with the political, particularly the legal. That is why he promoted democracy, one person (including women) one vote, to pool all the versions of happiness to make appropriate laws. With of course the ever-present problem of any democracy, majoritarianism, one answer to that being provided by JS Mill. Economics was not so much Bentham’s thing, as the interest of the second, third and fourth generation Benthamites. Markets were of interest because their logic displaced the sinister interest of the aristocracy, and they could be structured to help create wealth, which, in a society of great poverty wasn’t a bad thing. Many Benthamites were vitally interested in a fair distribution of wealth too. Even Engels suggests socialists got a good slab of their ideas out of Bentham. The Benthamite program was to kill off the aristocracy and provide a better life for all. It did atomise, and it did create new wealth disparities, and it did create (or release?) consumer culture. I think it an improvement on what went before, and vastly better than the ideas of Marx have produced. I would prefer to live in Canada, New Zealand or Australia over the USSR, China, or Cambodia – the last three being built on a whacky notion of virtue, I suspect. Well, actually I’d have already been shot in any of those latter three, so to ‘live’ in them is maybe not the right word…
    The point with the happiness principle is you get to choose. That is how it is for example, that he could be among the first to write in favour of homosexuality.
    Benthamite reforms include simplifying the law so it could be understood by all and so it could operate efficiently, women’s vote, the use of legislation as a tool for social change, the empowered executive under the control of the people’s house, the decline of an oppressive idea of virtue as a unifying principle of social formation, decline of oppressive natural law, education for all, use of the state to improve the lot of the people. Now we are educated and relatively wealthy we can cast our minds to a further re-invention of society. But if anyone is contemplating a revolution where my happiness is ignored or to be deliberately reduced, they can probably count me out. I prefer a society designed to maximise happiness, and it is for us all to work out how to make that happen, using the tools of social change so arduously put in place by Benthamites during the 19C!!

  4. lichanos says:


    Thank you for your learned and enthusiastic appreciation of JB! I think I made clear in my post that I don’t think he’s all bad, that in fact, his way of thinking is pretty good. As you say, the alternatives are not too brilliant. You are right, however, I was too hard on him as I made my rather narrow point.

    My concern with JB is more on the very theoretical/philosophical side, and the way that a vulgar and one-sided use of his ideas can lead to very stupid and awful consequences. I guess you could say that about anyone with “big” ideas, but there it is.

    As an engineer, I am surrounded by Bentham’s offspring: economists doing cost/benefit analyses of all sorts of stuff (useful, within limits); planners who do economic analyses of aesthetic benefits – yes, really!, and hedonic calculation gone wild. Also, there is Peter Singer, who takes JB’s ideas to their worst extreme in many ways.

    [I clearly recall my amazement as a former philosophy student then attending a civil engineering conference, when I heard an address on economic valuation of landscape aesthetics in highway route selection. I’m sure you can get your wheels turning and imagine the surveys that are employed to determine residents’ “willingness to pay” for pretty views, trees, quiet, etc. Then the economic formulae come out, and presto, the answer! But in the end, we all feel, even the engineers, that something was not accounted for…Does it matter? What method should we use? This is the only one we have, it’s replicable, and it’s OBJECTIVE. So it goes…]

    Benthamite ideas act as a solvent that dissolves any competing analysis into dreck in many philosophical investigations. Again, this is not to say that his ideas in the realm of politics – the art of the possible – are not very salutary. I have a rather narrow range of interest, and I just wanted to register a dissenting (I think it’s dissenting) view here.

    Ahh…and lest we dimiss the sinister completely from JB’s reputation, did he not come up with the Panopticon Prison? An interesting example of Enlightenment reformism that maybe isn’t so humane after all…But, everything in context.

  5. pancime says:

    Hi Lichanos,

    I have spent my life avoiding the horrors you describe. I wish there was a viable alternative…! People will be excessive in whatever they do. It’s weird.


    P.S. I think the Panopticon was a replacement for the hell of the hulk prisons. Not heaven maybe, but, arguably, a step in the right direction.

  6. lichanos says:

    Bravo, Pancime!

    An alternative? A culture not based on deep materialism? Well, there are no good models for that. Really, the problem is so NEW.

    Once again, I was too hard on JB – thanks so much for your post.

  7. pancime says:

    ‘Really, the problem is so NEW.’

    I couldn’t agree more. Some people look for a new age. In my view the new age started 200 years ago when we more or less tossed the idea of virtue out the window after a couple of thousand years, and replaced it with the idea of happiness as the central organising principle – thus elevating democracy over the Platonic ruler. It is all so new we are still in shock from what we have done! And still learning how to properly run the show.

    There are many different democracies, from Switzerland’s direct democracy to Canada’s appointed upper house. And there are many different economies, from the free-market Anglo to the socialistic Scandinavian. These are all experiments running concurrently. It is an incredible era of experimentation we are living in. A bit like the experiments of the Greek states, writ large.

  8. lichanos says:

    With increased material abundance, the question of “happiness” rather than endless toiling for all appears. I tend to see the great change as the one from nature-driven scarcity to abundant human produced surplus.

    You are right, we are in a great big experiment that will go on for some time…if we don’t blow ourselves up!

  9. pancime says:

    Hi Lichanos

    If you combine…

    1) H.L.A. Hart. Between Utility and Rights, vol 79 Columbia Law Review, 1979, p828 (my notes for that are simply: ‘We are in a transition stage between util and rights. We have no idea what we are doing.’)
    2) Mill, On Liberty – ‘It is proper to state that I forgo any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.’
    3) MacIntyre, Alasdair, After virtue: a study in moral theory, London : Duckworth, 1985
    4) Darrin M. McMahon, From the happiness of virtue to the virtue of happiness: 400 B.C.-A.D. 1780, Daedalus 133.2 (Spring 2004): p5(13)
    followed by
    5) McMahon, Darrin, Happiness: A History, Grove Press, 2006
    and then, just for fun
    6) Fénelon, The Adventures of Telemachus, the Son of Ulysses, [Télémaque] 1699.
    7) followed by a dose of stuff about JB

    …I think if becomes inevitable that one thinks of this as a new era. The titles alone pretty much tell the tale. But then, select any 7 writings and you could probably convince me of just about anything…

    In any case, I totally agree with what you say about living with material satiety.

    I’ll stop bugging you now with all this – thanks for the interesting post and great conversation.

  10. lichanos says:


    Your “bugging” is appreciated and always welcome here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: