Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Brilliance of Bentham.

Many important ideas have been advanced in the history of moral and political thought- Plato on justice; Hobbes on the social contract; Locke on property; Rousseau on democracy; Mill on liberty, etc. The list goes on and on... And those lucky enough to spend their lives pondering the great thinkers of the past (and present) often forget what a luxury and privilege it is.

Here is a thought experiment: Suppose an instructor had only a 1 hour window with which to teach one idea or figure from the history of ethics. And this 1 hour class would be recorded and all future generations around the world would watch it and reflect upon and discuss what you teach.

What issue, insight or idea would you choose that would help equip future generations to meet the challenges they would face?

Hmmm, interesting question! What idea or figure would I choose? If I stop and think about it, I would probably spend that time talking about the philosopher I covered in my second year class today: Jeremy Bentham.

For the record, I am not a Bentham scholar, nor do I consider myself a utilitarian (though perhaps I am a closet consequentialist, as I believe virtuous agents- and aspiring virtuous agents- are really, deep down, sophisticated consequentialists!). So just to be clear, I’m not choosing Bentham because he figures prominently in my own research or writings.

But if there was just one idea or insight I would want the next generation of humanity to consider and reflect upon, as they face the deluge of important issues they face, it would be Bentham’s brilliant “Calculus of Happiness”.

When facing decisions concerning how we ought to live our lives, both as individuals and as societies, Bentham argues that we ought to consider the *consequences* of our actions. More specifically, we should seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. In order to sensibly think about how we could do this, Bentham believes we ought to apply the following calculus of happiness:

1. Intensity of the pleasure
2. Duration of the pleasure
3. Its certainty/uncertainty
4. Remoteness [nearness in time]
5. Fecundity [likelihood that it will be followed by sensations of the same kind]
6. Purity [likelihood that it will be followed by opposite sensations]
7. Extent [the number of persons to whom it extends]

Now, I have chosen Bentham’s calculus not because I think we should endorse it full stop. Rather, I believe that his consequentialist insights are where I think all moral agents should start their reflections (though perhaps not end!). Instead of making decisions based on religious dogma, or abstract thought experiments like Rawls’s original position or Kant’s categorical imperative, Bentham’s public ethic requires us to take seriously *empirical information*. Like the amount of happiness in question, the likelihood this happiness will be achieved, the negative consequences our action could have on others, etc.

Bentham’s concise calculus, more than any other idea I can think of in the history of ethics or political philosophy, captures what I think is one of the (if not the) most important components of living a good life and establishing and maintaining a flourishing society— knowledge.

Whatever one might take the flaws of consequentialism to be (e.g. it permits the violation of side-constraints, ignores the importance of virtue etc.), its main strength, in my opinion, is that it explicitly rules out letting dogma, superstition, ideology, etc. infest our deliberations concerning how to live our lives. And that’s a pretty big asset of a moral and political theory! An asset few contemporary normative theories possess.

Sure I would want to say a lot more, if I had more than the 1 hour window, to talk about the potential problems with Bentham’s calculus, what rival normative theories might offer, etc. But in this thought experiment I am asking us to limit ourselves to just the 1 hour window, for doing this is helpful in reflecting on what we want from our normative theories. For example, is it more important that they achieve the requisite level of precision vs proportionality? Which is more important if we want to increase the likelihood that our normative theories will lead us in the direction of living well? So if the moral compass we leave future generations is Bentham’s calculus of happiness then I think we would not, as many deontologists maintain, be doing them a disservice. Far from it.

Of course I would not want future generations to simply accept and blindly live by Bentham’s calculus (thus making it the secular equivalency of conventional religion). Rather I would want them to think about the pros and cons of Bentham’s utilitarianism. To think about the different ways their actions can impact the lives of others, to think about the uncertainty of the impact their actions can have, and the purity and impurity of their actions, etc... These are all great insights we often ignore! And so I think the brilliance of Bentham has been overlooked by contemporary moral and political philosophers. Bentham’s ideas are perhaps more important today than ever.