Politics and Morality: Jeremy Bentham


While other Enlightenment philosophers appealed to natural law, a set of universal truths, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) said natural law is nonsense; nonsense on stilts. Bentham is the father of utilitarianism, which states that we should do whatever maximizes the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. This idea is very much alive and kicking and is the basis of many current public and foreign policies.

How would we judge what would bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number? Bentham maintained that science can be employed to do so and that this can be calculated mathematically. Whatever the calculation shows, that is what we should do.

Bentham’s view of human nature was that humans do whatever gives them pleasure and avoid whatever gives them pain. If humans think otherwise, if they think they ever behave altruistically, they are deceiving them selves. He said, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”

If we didn’t live by the principle of utility, he says in The Psychology of Economic Man, “The human species could not continue in existence and that in a few months, not to say weeks or days, we would be all that would be needed for its annihilation.” His is an extreme consequentialist doctrine.  That is, only the end result matters; it does not matter how you get there or what your motivations are. He believed that all of this is quanitifiable in units of utility; ultimately he used money.

Bentham’s ideas of self-interest are the foundation of any Economics 101 textbook. Humans are rational, self-interested and mathematically predictable. These concepts are currently being challenged by behavioral economists.

A problem arose: If the right thing is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number, is it right to redistribute wealth so that everyone has the same amount? Bentham did not want to go there, so he said that while this would be true in theory, in practice the rich will burn their crops before sharing and so everyone would be worse off. This is sort of reverse trickle down economics: the idea that the richer rich people become, the better off everyone is. Bentham said, No, they will rebel and destroy everything, so equal income is out.

 Bentham said, “Law does not say to man,Work and I will reward you but it says: Labour, and by stopping the hand that would take them from you, I will ensure you the fruits of your labour — its natural and sufficient reward, which without me you cannot preserve.” Although labor creates, it is law which preserves.

What do you think? Is the doctrine of the greatest happiness for the greatest number a good one? Is it troubling that motives and methods are totally discounted? Will the rich really burn their crops before sharing? Can all these things really be measured and quantified? Or is that claim to certainty nonsense on stilts?

If a presidents cuts taxes and the GDP rises, was that the cause and effect? Did other variables go unnoticed?

If 90% of the citizenry would be happy if 10% of the citizenry were killed off, would that be a good thing to do? It would bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number, right?

The flaws in Bentham’s extreme utilitarianism may be apparent, but remember-this is the basis for current economic theories as well as domestic and foreign policy, (“realpolitik” as Henry Kissinger called it.) What do you think?

Moral Basis of Government, Yale Open Courses: Politics and Morality http://oyc.yale.edu/political-science/plsc-118

Behavioral Economics: Mind Over Money

Behavioral Economics: Dan Airely “Predictably Irrational”


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