Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bentham: The Greatest Happiness of Greatest Number

When, Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651) defined 'felicity', i.e. 'happiness', as the maximal satisfaction of desires (whatever they may be), why did it not occur to him to generalize his principle across an entire society?--as Bentham would do at the end of the 18th century. If you are thinking about the basic principles of a democratic state (Bentham was a great admirer of the U.S.), you have to be thinking about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Politicians who don't satisfy the demands of their constituents for ever increasing levels of happiness, don't get reelected. That's just common sense, right? Common sense now, maybe, but not in 1800 and certainly not in 1651. England at that time had just emerged from a bloody civil war about religious principles which had been won by the religious left-wingers of that time, i.e. Puritans. The King, Charles I had been beheaded by the victors in 1649. In 1648, Europe had emerged, so to speak, from 30 years of even bloodier religious warfare, wich had reduced the population of the German states, or statelets, by about 30%. What the world needed, thought Hobbes, was a new kind of state, a secular state, based on secular not religious principles, a state so well organized and so powerful as to make rebellion impossible. Having seen or heard what happens--a war of all against all--when government collapses and the citizenry are thrown back on their own resources, he thought anything was better than that.

Happiness for Hobbes is happiness of this world; there is for him no other. Bentham, who often sounds like Hobbes, clearly shares his secular bias. The legal and political theory he invented, applied, and taught is known as Utilitarianism, which is an unfortunate name--Bentham was not thinking of usefulness in any narrow sense. By 'utility' Bentham means whatever increases pleasure and minimizes pain. So defined, utility can be measured and claims about either increasing or decreasing utility can be verified. Reformers have something real to point to, instead of abstractions. Bentham, through his voluminous writings and many disciples (James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill, were the first and most famous) became the master spirit of his age. In his very fine book on Bentham (1983), Ross Harrison says that "to a large extent the Benthamite state has come to pass: for better or worse, the Benthamite state is our state."

The Benthamite state has its detractors, of whom John Rawls is the most recent and now, following the collapse of Marxism, the most influential. Rawls' main point is that the
Benthamite state does not do enough to protect the rights of minorities and the disadvantaged and Rawls is right. It is not entirely clear, however, how the structure of the Benthamite state--which is the state we've got--should or can be modified to guarantee for all time that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is not practically and therefore politically inconsistant with the greatest possible happiness of all.

Slavery was implicitly recognized in the U.S. constitution and we fought a desperate and bloody war (costing us at least 2% of the population) over the principle (now clear in retrospect) that the rights of minorities cannot be trumped by the rights of majorities. The 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution now guarantees due process and equal protection of the laws to everyone. As our subsequent history has taught us, however, such constitutional guarantees or rights are empty so long as the political will to enforce them is lacking.

1 comment:

  1. Happiness, utilitarianism, democracy—all of these are rejections of faith. In the first half of the 17th century, Europe was the Iraq of its day, dominated by selfless faith. Catholics and Protestants killed each other just as Sunnis and Shiites do today, because it was just and selfless and beautiful. The Inquisition both tempted and forced people to denounce others for having unorthodox thoughts. Chairman Mao did the same during the Cultural Revolution, when everyone in China either had faith or pretended to.

    Jesus Marx, Karl Christ, Mohammed—they're all the same. Faith is a force that makes good people bad and smart people stupid.