Monday, February 6, 2017


Jeremy Bentham and Natural Rights

Jeremy Bentham did not originate the utilitarian principle of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”; there are similar expressions in a number of eighteenth-century philosophers, such as Hutcheson, Helvetius and Beccaria. The most significant feature of Bentham’s utilitarianism was its unequivocal rejection of natural rights.
Natural rights, according to Bentham, are “simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, — nonsense upon stilts” So-called moral and natural rights are mischievous fictions and anarchical fallacies that encourage civil unrest, disobedience and resistance to laws, and revolution against established governments. Only political rights, those positive rights established and enforced by government, have “any determinate and intelligible meaning.” Rights are “the fruits of the law, and of the law alone. There are no rights without law—no rights contrary to the law—no rights anterior to the law.”

How can the legislator possibly know which measures will promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number? To this question classical liberals in the Lockean tradition had answered, in effect: By respecting the natural rights of individuals. Thus if social utility is the general goal of legislation, natural rights are the standard, or rule, which must be followed if this goal is to be achieved.
Bentham broke with this venerable tradition, in which utility and rights were seen as different aspects of the same process, by rejecting the entire scheme of natural rights and by proposing that social utility serve as both the goal and standard of political activity.

According to Bentham, the “happiness of individuals, of whom a community is composed…is the sole end which the legislator ought to have in view [and] the sole standard, in conformity to which each individual ought, as far as depends on the legislator, to be made to fashion his behavior.” Natural rights are not only a groundless fiction, one that is incompatible with an empiricist methodology, but they are a highly dangerous fiction to boot, because they have traditionally been used to undermine the authority of governments. In short, natural rights are “terrorist language.”

Bentham repeatedly refers to the quantity and measurement of pleasures and pains, but nowhere does he address the serious problems of dealing with pleasure and pain quantitatively (as if they can be added together in a single sum); nor does he explain how it is possible to quantify and compare the subjective feelings of different individuals.
(This latter problem is now called the problem of interpersonal utility comparisons.)
Bentham concedes that his hedonic calculus, like the theory of natural rights, is based on a fiction, or unreal abstraction. But he also claims that his fiction is “successful” because it can function as a practical guide for legislators.

So the crucial point was this: Who is to decide whether a given person assesses his interests correctly or not—the individual or the government? After all, Bentham conceded that people can make mistakes about what will promote their happiness, but who should determine when these mistakes are made and when they are not? Bentham’s theory suggests such decisions should ultimately be made by a legislative authority, not by individuals, for it is the job of legislators to calculate the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and they are empowered to enforce their decisions.
This was what so infuriated Bentham’s liberal critics, such as Thomas Hodgskin and Herbert Spencer, and this is the key to understanding the rift in nineteenth-century British liberalism that was precipitated by the immense influence of Jeremy Bentham.
The utilitarians, according to their critics, had undercut the moral foundation of a free society by their rejection of natural rights.

Bentham’s ideal legislator reminded his critics too much of Plato’s philosopher-king—that wise and benevolent social planner who has the best interests of his subjects at heart.
How often in human history, they asked, have political rulers actually governed with the best interests of their subjects at heart? Never, or almost never, they answered. And, given human nature, may we realistically expect that rulers will magically lose their self-seeking inclinations immediately upon gaining power, forgoing their own interests for the sake of the common good? Or may we expect rulers to behave like other mortals, and continue to pursue their own interests through the coercive instrumentality of government?

Bentham was aware of this problem, and he found an answer in his theory of democracy. If the franchise were extended, if the people at large were able to elect their rulers, then there would emerge an identity of interests between the rulers and the ruled, for people would surely never vote against their own interests.
Bentham’s natural-rights critics generally favored democratic reform, but they were not nearly so sanguine about its prospects. Democracy is desirable, but it is not a cure-all. Like many of their American counterparts, they believed that a majority could tyrannize over a minority as surely as any tyrant. Indeed, they regarded democratic despotism as more dangerous than monarchical despotism, since a despot can be resisted more easily than a majority. Only a theory of natural rights, which defines the proper limits of government, can morally empower minorities to demand that their rights be respected, whatever the form of a government may be.
(from somewhere)

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