Bentham, rationalism and conservatism

I came across this piece by Rikk Hill on Jeremy Bentham today, and just wanted to repost it in full, alongside some of my own thoughts, because it’s excellent:

I’d like to talk a little bit about moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and why he has a weird level of celebrity status among people who think like I do.

Jeremy Bentham lived in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, in what we think of as the mid-late Georgian era. That’s important. This is the period in which Jane Austen wrote all her novels. The global policy issue of the era was motivating the abolition of the international slave trade. 3% of the population of England and Wales had the right to vote. Over this period, the Industrial and Agricultural revolutions in Britain mean that instead of 45% of the labour force working in agriculture, a mere 22% of the labour force was required for feeding the nation. At the time, using just under a quarter of your working population to produce enough food was seen as nothing short of a miracle. Today, this number is less than 1%.

He lived in a very different time, is what I’m saying. I can’t stress this enough. It’s desperately important to remember this when thinking about Jeremy Bentham, because his intellectual output is principally characterised by being (a) utterly batshit, and (b) shockingly, eerily, uncannily ahead of its time.

Let’s deal with the batshit stuff first. Jeremy Bentham was a wildly eccentric dude, perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that I used to walk past his corpse every day. It sits in a glass case in University College London. He instructed that after his death, his body should be dissected for medical science, and afterwards, his taxidermied corpse should be put on display. He called this an “auto-icon”; why build a statue to someone when you can just exhibit their body? If you’re around Fitzrovia on a weekday, you can pop in and see it.

He thought the social mores and taboos of his time were arbitrary or unhelpful or outright wrong, and the social mores and taboos around death and the dead were just one example of this. In later life, he became fixated on the role of bodies after death, and suggested decorating public spaces with mummified corpses instead of trees. He also shared his bed with the pig he kept as a house pet, pioneered a form of jogging (which he called “ante-prandial circumgyration”), and maintained largely-unsolicited correspondence with different heads of state from all over the world on the subjects of legal and constitutional reform.

Some of this is to be expected. If you reject the norms of your time and try to re-derive the social order from first principles, you might end up spooning a pig and writing to the President of the United States about codifying the common law. What you might *also* end up doing is independently inventing much of 21st Century Western liberalism, which is what Bentham also did.

There is a sense in which Jeremy Bentham literally invented a lot of the concepts we take for granted as the founder of utilitarianism and a prolific Enlightenment thinker, but there is another sense in which, almost as a side-effect, he came to a variety of conclusions about the social order which wouldn’t gain widespread traction until decades or even centuries after his death. Universal suffrage, sexual equality, decriminalisation of homosexuality, abolition of the death penalty, animal welfare, no-fault divorce… the list of stuff which he essentially inferred from first principles yet ran strongly counter to the prevailing cultural norms is striking.

He was notoriously bad at getting his work published, and almost all of what he wrote had to be collated and published posthumously by friends and proteges. A lot of editorial work went into making these works acceptable to the public, to the point where his defence of homosexuality didn’t come to light until 1931, over a century after he wrote it.

Many of the ideas he advocated have been part of the society we all grew up in for so long that we don’t even recognise them as active choices of how our society is organised, but others are weirdly specific contemporary progressive ideas. For example, he very specifically drew attention to sexual promiscuity of women as being judged disproportionately harshly compared to that of men. He claimed there were other norms, such as sexual fidelity, that undercut any harms that might result from sexual promiscuity, and shaming women on the basis of their sexual appetite just harmed everybody. This is a point that contemporary feminists are still having to make two centuries later. With a few small tweaks, a lot of what he wrote on sexuality could have come straight out of a contemporary discussion on sex-positivity. A reminder: he was writing this at about the same time Jane Austen was writing Mansfield Park.

I am going somewhere with this. I’m not just yammering on about how cool I think Jeremy Bentham is. So here we go. Here we get to the point of this little rant.

Treating everything you know about the world as suspect and trying to reason about it from as small a set of assumptions as possible is, to my mind, one of the fundamental tools of analytical thought. Not everyone agrees with me on this. There is a particularly annoying strand of post-cultural-turn thought which rears its head whenever I try this in public. “What’s that?” it’ll say, “you’re trying to infer objectively-grounded facts about the universe? Well you *can’t*, you naive silly sausage, because whether you like it or not, you’re in a *culture*, and that culture permeates your entire conception of reality, and you can’t ever really know anything, so there!” Then it sits there, like a cat that’s inordinately smug about what it’s just dropped in the litter box.

I’m not *entirely* unsympathetic to this idea. We are a product of the culture we’re raised in. It would be silly to think that if I grew up 12th Century Saxony or early Imperial China that I would have the same moral and political sensibilities that I do now. I would probably believe what most other people in those times and places believed. Given that, maybe it is unreasonable to think that I can somehow discard the biases of my own culture.

But then I look at Jeremy Bentham, who, at a time when the morality of chattel-slavery was still a hotly-debated topic, was saying that It’s Okay to Be Gay and we shouldn’t slut-shame. Throw in a Belle and Sebastian album and an animated gif of a puppy fighting it’s own reflection, and he could be on Tumblr.

Jeremy Bentham’s method is my method. My justification for progressive liberalism comes from starting at the same premises he started at and playing them forward. It’s phenomenally easier for me to do that than it was for Jeremy Bentham, because we’ve had 200 years of progress and I’m surrounded by other people who have the same set of object-level beliefs as I do. Those people are happy to support this method when it’s advocating LGBT+ rights and sex-positivity, but if it delivers anything from left-field, that’s when the knives come out.

Here is a radical proposition: Jeremy Bentham wasn’t just ahead of his time — he was ahead of *our* time. This was definitely true as recently as 1967 when homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK. Maybe in another hundred years we’ll all be taking our pigs for an ante-prandial circumgyration along a row of mummified corpses. Taking a less facetious tack, over half of his writings have never been published. Who knows what he wrote which we would find bizarre today but which our great-grandchildren wouldn’t bat an eyelid at.

More generally, maybe you can’t have the visionary foresight without the eccentricity. Even among progressive people, who pay a lot of lip-service to celebrating diversity, there is a surprising amount of hostility to weird nerds re-deriving the social order from first principles. When we’re judging people for doing this, maybe we should remember Jeremy Bentham. Perhaps this method has more value than meets the eye.

You probably won’t be surprised to find out that I’m a Bentham enthusiast myself. In fact, the very name of this blog is inspired by his idea of ‘felicific calculus’. I think Hill is exactly right that Bentham’s greatest legacy, and what inspires so many of his followers is his relentless questioning, his demand that everything be justified from first principles.

It’s an approach that makes a lot of sense to me, and has probably helped me personally. I think I would have struggled to get through university at Oxford as well as I did without being able to call ‘bullshit’ on the archaic traditions, norms and practices and be confident that if it looked stupid and I didn’t understand it, it probably was. What I’m saying is that Bentham has helped me avoid being cowed and intimidated by tradition.

But I think there’s a downside to this, too. Bentham never married, and I sometimes wonder how lonely and isolated he felt. The eccentricity that Hill lauds can disconnect us from others. For example, animal rights are far less controversial than in Bentham’s day, but there is a certain loss for vegetarians who can’t share in a turkey Christmas dinner. More fundamentally, I think the Benthamite approach risks missing the value of the familiar or customary because we’re too busy challenging and criticising to commit and give ourselves over emotionally. That might be an alternative description of my time at Oxford.  I can begin therefore  to understand how someone like Michael Oakeshott could articulate a completely opposite approach for a completely opposite disposition, but one with its own pleasures.

I think this double edge applies to politics, too. Hill is absolutely correct that Bentham was ahead of his time because he took nothing for granted and challenged everything. But I think Conservatives have a reasonable counterpoint when they say not every political institution or practice can be justified in a way that is easily articulated and that the mere fact that they have survived ought to count for something in their favour. Social progress can be fragile, as the history of radical politics has shown us.

None of this is intended to undermine Hill’s points, which I basically agree with. This is only intended as a slight counterbalancing corrective, to say that there might be negative issues with pure, undiluted Benthamism.


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