Monday, February 25, 2013

Previous Posts on Bentham

Tonight I finished my annual lecture on Jeremy Bentham and this inspired me to dig up some old blog posts on Bentham which I thought I would re-post here. The first is from the entry "Bentham, Sacred Values, and Ideal Theory" originally posted in 2011, and the second post from 5 years ago now (boy how the time flies!) titled "The Brilliance of Bentham".

"Bentham, Sacred Values, and Ideal Theory"
*originally posted in 2011*

It seems each year when I teach Bentham it stimulates some new ideas which I post about here (see here in 2010, and here in 2008). So this year is no different, as I am spending "reading week" pondering, once again, the brilliance of Bentham.

Next week my intro to political theory class covers Bentham, and then Mill. As I have mentioned before on this blog, if I had only a 1 hour window to teach a class on only one moral or political thinker who I believe would have the maximum impact on improving our ability to think and act morally, it would be Bentham and his calculus of happiness. Why? Because it has the potential to help us overcome many of the cognitive biases that impede our ability to make rational and moral decisions.

Over the past few weeks I have started researching the social psychology literature on the topic of "sacred values". These are values that people believe are absolute or inviolable. Sacred values are things people believe should never be subject to trade-offs with lesser, non-sacred values. I am interested in seeing how the study of sacred values might apply to political philosophy and theory, in particular, to "ideal theory" in debates about justice.

Here are a few examples of expressions of sacred values from the last 40 years of political philosophy:

"each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override"

"liberty upsets patterns"

"inequalities deriving from unchosen features of people’s circumstances are unjust"

"If you're an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?"

These different works of political philosophy are unified not only by their appeal to sacred values (typically liberty or equality, or a serial ordering of such values), but also by the methodology they employ to activate the appeal of ascribing a primacy to such values. This is typically done via abstraction and/or idealization. The theorist asks us to consider an artificially devised choice situation, one designed to reveal the "intuitive" foce of ordaining some value or values as "sacred" and inviolatible.

Bentham sought to replace our reliance of intuitive appeals to "sacred" values with a secular, rational ethic. Rather than invoking fanciful or abstract thought experiments that track our most basic moral intuitions about justice or fairness, Bentham instead urges us to consider the expected consequences of our actions in the "here and now (and future)". Viewed in this light, most injustice in the world stems from the fact that our laws and customs are not premised on a rational and competent assessment of their impact on human happiness. They are based instead of unquestioned customs, religion, cognitive biases, etc. Bentham offers us a transformative secular ethic.

To be a moral agent we must ponder the intensity of the pleasures or pains our actions will cause, the number of people affected by our actions, the likelihood that other pleasures or pains will be caused by our actions, etc. Tradeoffs of different kinds are thus inevitable. Responsible moral agents must realize that difficult decisions have to be made, and Bentham's calculus of happiness offers us some guidelines for thinking such decisions through.

Bentham's moral ethic thus enhances our moral deliberations, it compels us to develop the complex skill-set needed to act so that we maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Whereas moral and political theories that appeal to sacred, inviolable values typically close our minds and in doing so impair our ability to think and act morally in the real world. Deontology champions the primacy of sacred values and principles, and thus it forbids entertaining the kind of deliberation required in tradeoffs ("dirty hands"). This can leave individuals and societies ill-equipped to face the tough challenges we face, whether it be balancing concerns of liberty with concerns of security, or tackling the economy, climate change or healthcare. I will have more to say about this in a future post.

Of course one might reply that Bentham, and utilitarianism more generally, is just another example of a theory premised on a "sacred value"- namely, the value of happiness (or the principle of utility). I suppose that is true, at least to some extent. And that is why I prefer to endorse a pluralist ethic that makes virtue, rather than principle, the central focus of an account of justice.

But I do think there is an important difference between prioritizing happiness (or welfare) and prioritizing a value like liberty or equality. I won't work out that response here, but I think it is an interesting objection, and one worth responding to. Furthermore, the nature of a good like happiness is such that it will not pre-determine which tradeoffs can be made in advance of a full consideration of the relevant facts. And that stands in contrast to the stance of someone like Rawls, who argues that "a basic liberty can be limited or denied solely for the sake of one or more other basic liberties, and never for reasons of public good or perfectionist values". So if utilitarianism is premised on a sacred value its slogan would be something like "limit utility only for the sake of more utility". And that does not strike me as inherently problematic as deonotological theories are, for it invites us to get into the devil of the details. But again, I am not trying to defend utilitarianism here. I merely wish to point to an important feature of it that I think makes it a much more attractive moral and political theory than deontological theories.

So I hope you enjoy my Bentham video! And I hope to post a few more substantive things on sacred values and ideal theory in the weeks to come.


"The Brilliance of Bentham" *originally posted in 2008*

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.