Monday, April 04, 2011

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

I was working yesterday on the section of my philosophy book that covers utilitarianism.  I was again fascinated by Jeremy Bentham.

He was of course no friend of faith, but this was not because he was an evil-hearted man.  Ironically, his opposition to the organized church and Christianity was because he was fighting for some things we would consider to be Christian values today.

For example, his goal was for everyone to count in society, not just upper class men from the right families.  He not only wanted all men to be able to vote, even if they came from those dirty, newly industrialized monstrosities like Manchester, but he believed women were fully equal to men and believed the pain and pleasure of children counted exactly the same.

This is a trajectory, and his trajectory led him to ideas we might debate.  He believed, for example, that the suffering of an animal was also a consideration in evaluating the consequences of an action.  He was opposed to the death penalty and saw prison as a matter of reform rather than punishment.  In some work published posthumously, he argued for the liberalization of laws against homosexual practice.  My guess is that American law today is similar to what he was advocating, remembering that they used to imprison and even put to death homosexuals.  Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in England for homosexual practice at the turn of the twentieth century because he ticked off someone in Parliament.

The picture above is Bentham's skeleton dressed up and his actual head at the bottom.  Believing somewhat like Epicurus, he did not believe death was something that should be feared.  He bequeathed his estate to the University of London on one condition (he was its godfather, and it was the first secular university in England that anyone could attend, even if you were not a member of the Church of England).  The condition was that his dressed up skeleton was to be present at all the board meetings.  It is still there in the box above.

So we can disagree with him on his religion, and his simplistic utilitarianism should rightly be tweaked, as John Stuart Mill in fact did.  But from this casual acquaintance, it seems to me that his heart was substantially in the right place.  We are prone to vilify individuals like him because of his "head."  But the Pietist in me, at least from my superficial acquaintance, finds someone here more Christian at heart than scores of the confessing in the Parliament and Church of England of his day.


Steven Jones said...

Agreed. Good thoughts indeed.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Utility is described as "the greatest good for the greatest number".

An act is judged by:
1)intention, as to motivation, which should be internally motivated (the ontological). There are many motivations that are just as "good" as another in a free society.

2.)act itself, as right or wrong the axiological. There are many values that are affirmed in a free society.

3.)the outcome or the teleological. There are many goals that could be motivating factors to the individual.

"Biblical Christianity" is too simplistic to allow diverse views as to motivation, acts, and goals/purposes.

For the Biblical Christian the only motivation is "love" in an act of alturistic concern for the purposes of "the Kingdom of God".

Such simplicity regiments human motivations, and defines values to "love of God and neighbor", while there are various priorities that might be justified and prioritized in different ways throughout a person's lifetime. For one's purpose to be solely defined by "the Kingdom of God" is defining another's purposes or life goals by the defintions of the Church. Such regimentation is not valuing (loving) human capital.

If one values (loves) human capital, then one should inform the individual of the outcomes, purposes, plans and outcomes that are desired, otherwise, the indivdiual has no motivation from belonging to a 'team".
Again, any goals which might be proposed must be of value to the individual themself, and not just a means of produciton for the corporation.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for the lecture, but what does it have to do with Bentham or this post?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Utility is what is used to make "policy decisions". It is the Leaders prorogative to set "outcomes" and "vision".

Therefore, in a Christian context, these are how the "outcomes" or "vision" is set, but they limiting ones within a Constitutional government. Therefore, wouldn't the ethical undermine such limitations?
The Church should be about "the Lord's work", but not in limitation of the individual (unless "the Church" is of more value than the individual, which would undermine the whole suggestion that the Church is for the 'human"...the Church, then, like the rest of mankind would be "for itself".)

I had just read some on utility, regarding ethics and this is why I "lectured"...

JohnM said...

Where did Bentham get his notions? Where did we get our notions about "things we would consider to be Christian values today" if they are really so different than those of the Church in Bentham's time?

If he was "no friend of faith" yet "his heart was substantially in the right place" don't you find that a little disturbing? What are the implications for your faith? Why be a Christian?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

That is just the problem.
Values are defined by the individuals. The child grows to value themselves, hopefully enough to not be driven by "Christian/non-Christian" values, but values that are beneficial to society, that brings about a "greater good". That is not particularly Christian, but it is practical and this is the utility value of it.

Bifucation of life happens when the spiritual is separated from the natural aspects of human flourishing. And I think it bifucates the person as well in his thinking, and being in the world. There is always an attempt to spiritualize everything, as if "holy water" needs to be sprinkled before one can undertake a task.

I argue against the Church defining what values should be for adults, the Church is acting "out of order", unless the adults freely choose to associate with the Church for such purposes. The Church can do all it wants to bring about educating the children, as this was Wesley's position. But, it is also not particularly Wesleyan, as it is "Catholic". 'Moral education", which values tradition/heritage above the value of reason.

Men are rational animals that will choose what is beneficial to themselves. This is the basis for rational choice theory, I believe, which underwrites the social, and political sciences.

Business interests are invested in such a theory, as well, because contracts are negotiated on the premise that individuals will choose what is in their best interests.

I am just against universalizing some spiritualized message, which uses spritual language, as to the Church's "vision setting" or "language game"...if it to benefit humanity, the children, the parents, or society, just say so. Don't spiritualize it.

Ken Schenck said...

Clearly there was a move toward the notion that "all are created equal" in the 1700s in England and France. The American Revolution was part of this movement. Arguably John Wesley was part of this movement. To us now, it seems the logical outworking of "love your neighbor as yourself." Why the Church did nothing to move society in this direction for 1500 years, I don't know.

Perhaps the Protestant Reformation has something to do with this trajectory. I don't have a solid hypothesis. That the institutional church of the ages did little to empower the little man unfortunately seems a given.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Moral education is human development in understanding civilization, but should not be taught as if it origninated within the context of the Church.

America was founded by those educated in the Classics, and they used "myth" to form the nation's ethos. Today, we have little knowledge of our "grounding" and what is taught at home and Church is little more than emotional zeal that is called "the holy spirit". Wesley did not like enthusiasts...

It is amazing and concerning that Jay Leno can ask the questions he does on the streets of L.A. and get the answers or puzzled responses he does...I also was in that boat, as I did not appreciate history when growing up. I am growing wiser in my old age.

JohnM said...


Not that I expect to convince you here, but for the record I "argue against the Church defining what values should be.." too. Instead, I believe God should, and has. Everyone knows at least something of what those values are. The issue became/becomes fuzzy when deliberate choices were/are made to ignore, suppress, or distort that knowledge. Of course believe the Church should understand, teach, and live those values most clearly.


Before I'd invest so much in a kingdom trajectory model in which "all men are created equal" is a central feature I'd want that solid hypothesis.

Scripture teaches us all people are equal in being as God's image bearers, in falleness, prospect of death and judgement, being loved by God, and possibility of redemption in Christ. Beyond that, while some argument can be made, it is frankly not at all that self evident that all men are created equal, or that radical egalitarianism is a priority.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The Church is an impossible place to have a reasonable discussion about "hot issues" that are pressing our social mores presently. It is assumed because it has been believed always and at all times....etc.

Values that are unchangable are values of character, not how the family is structured. Character can be seen in loyalty and respect, mutuality, and honor. (those terms, esp. honor are understood within the context of the marital partners.) There are all too often crass assumptions about people and "christian values" that are horrendously prejuidiced and inhumane.

No, I don't think people are "all equal" in any way. Talents, motivations personality, etc.

"Christian culture" is a disease in our society, as it puts the brain at the door, and fears everything that "might taint" "the righteouse"! Tired of it!

Ken Schenck said...

John, I would agree with all the "equals" you mention and I would agree that societal egalitarianism is not in any way a priority of Scripture. It is rather a feature of the kingdom of God and a natural working out in society of the principle of "loving neighbor as oneself."

When we have the chance to make the world more like the kingdom and do not, then we become susceptible to the critique Colossians and Galatians make of the "letteralists" of Paul's day. This is my critique of biblical fundamentalism--it trumps the Spirit of Scripture with the letter of Scripture.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

America's balance of power between the 3 branches of government at the highest level was also balanced by the States and the people. There is ideally as balance of power hierarchally and horozonially. So, I don't agree that equality is "just a "Kingdom" thing"...

Ken Schenck said...

Angie, Derrida would love you--the words of others inevitably unravel in your mind into projections of your own consciousness.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Possibly so, but I don't think "collective consciousness will bring about anything but a "Leviathan". I wrote about this on

The reason I bring this up, is because of what I heard an announcer state on NPR yesterday! He stated that men under social contract give up their right to government which acts as a Leviathan to maintain "order in society". Hobbes did not believe in the balance and separation of power, as he believed in centralization of power and limitation/control of the press! This profoundly concerned me!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

But, of course, as a "community organizer", Obama-ites might like to use such language as "Leviathan" in a public forum to gain a "reactive" or "resistant" stance, so, people will become "locally focused", as "community organizers"!!! in thier own country and for the globe...don't we want the globe to prosper and be in heatlh? (the social as the moral concern, instead of individuals maintaining thier own separated goals, or values.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Then, if "social consciousness" is obtained, the masses can be useful for "political goals" of the State, while giving the masses post-modern thought to appease thier individual consiousness (social control) via "God"...this is what Joel Greene does isn't it, in his post-modern "reading of scipture"? It is the 'reader-response' interpretive eye....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

the "post-modern" position is the intellectual plan of conditioning Man, but the behaviorial plan will be "discipleship making"...via "under God" in the "spritual disciplines"...and it will further the goals of "belonging" to community via "the Church", or "local political community"....dissolving individual and American Sovereignty...