Children of Bentham

January 21, 2008


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.