Saturday 7 June 2014

Jeremy Bentham

I was listening to a repeat of Sean Moncrieff on Newstalk FM this week as he interviewed Caitlin Moran. She was, as ever, both funny and provocative and made a telling point: if you ask a sufficiently young child what they think about how society treats women (or blacks) they cry out "That's not fair" with the implication that, just as soon as they are able, they'll go and do something about this manifest inequity. As someone who never properly grew up, I start to get all het-up when I hear people saying that homosexuals shouldn't be allowed to get married. It's the mirror of making jews live in a ghetto, or that if women are not exactly the property of their husbands all their property is. Tsk tsk, that's all in the past you may say but The Boy told me yesterday that a more or less equally qualified woman in his engineering firm unaccountably brings home about 20% less than him. When you discount the utility of, or dispossess, women, blacks, wheelchair-people, homosexuals you prevent them contributing to society in creative ways. Moran floated the idea that countries with the most repressive regimes are, for this reason, stupider countries - less creative, less productive, less affluent and more preyed upon by multi-national capital. We have so many planet-fakkin' problems to deal with globally and nationally which have developed under the watch of straight white males, that it is squandering the resources for a possible solution if we SWMs fail to enable and empower everyone.

This reminds me of a recent visit of Nobel laureate James "DNA" Watson coming yet again to Ireland to be presented with another honorary degree.  During his speech, Watson proceeded to make so many sweeping, disparaging & offensive remarks about large swatches of humanity (women, chinese, blacks, children, pensioners, handicapped, gays) that the smart boys at the back started to compile an impromptu Venn diagram to see if there was anyone left who hadn't been dissed.

I think I'm probably a Utilitarian, because I'm quite superficial in the efforts I'm prepared to put in to teasing out difficult philosophical problems. I'm straight utilitarian in my answers to trolleyology problems - when presented with the, rather artificial, dilemma about whether it is ethical to pull a lever which kills one man remotely to save the lives of five people then I come down on the side of the greatest good for the greatest number.  Yes, and I do so even in the more immediate case where you are only able to save the Five but seizing a fat man by the lapels and tumbling him over the parapet of a bridge to block the trolley-track.  Many people baulk at doing violence directly but are happy enough to press a utilitarian button.
In following the logical without being squeamish about the actuality, I am trying to walk in the footsteps of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).  He developed the Principle of Utility: Act so as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number.  Governments do this all the time when they attempt to allocate the limited resources that we the tax-payers are prepared to stump up for their common-good schemes.  Most governments are are actually a long way from the utilitarian principal because rich people, white people and male people get better access to things than the poor and the dispossessed.  Worryingly, rich 'people' includes corporate persons like MegaCorp Multinational.

I like Bentham for exposing fuzzy wishful thinking in his rejection of Natural Rights. When Jefferson started off his US Constitution with "We hold these truths to be self-evident  . . .", Bentham thought "Whoa! Do we?". He famously critiqued La D├ęclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen de 1789 as "nonsense on stilts", at least partly because he recognised that our ideas of what is correct, ethical and moral behaviour is hopelessly constrained and massaged by the family and society in which we grew up. Darwin, for example, saw the natural world as a metaphor for entrepreneurial capitalism, because that was how everything looked to him, not least because he married a Wedgwood of the megarich multinational pottery family. Bentham's position was that any statement about what rights were was in reality a claim about what rights should be.

What Bentham proposed instead was an extension of legal rights and he was years ahead of his time on the necessity to legislate for universal suffrage (including women!), freedom of written and spoken expression, free of sexual expression, freedom (as in anti-slavery).  He wanted to abolish the death penalty which,  in his time, was handed out like visiting cards at a Japanese business meeting. He was also repelled at lesser examples of physical violence all the way down to smacking a child. For an insight into how totally off the wall these his ideas seemed to his contemporaries, when he suggested that it would be meet and proper that his body should be stuffed and displayed in a cabinet in University College London, that idea was added to the list.  Indeed it was implemented (R) decades before most of the rest of his cranky ideas which we are only now getting to adopt.

In contrast with Louis Brandeis, of whom I treated two days ago, Bentham was not big about privacy. Indeed he rated transparency, not only the virtue of, say, a journalist exposing the shenanigans of a public servant, but also in everyone of us being scrutinised by our neighbours to ensure that we are working for the common good.  Whoa, not me thanks Jeremy! Whatever about that Big Brother nightmare, Bentham invested years of time and money promoting the spanopticon, a prison were the perps were to be kept in a goldfish-bowl perpetually under the gaze of their warders.

You can make the philosophical conundrum one-dimensional by setting Bentham's morality of actions determined by their consequences against Immanuel Kant's idea that we should be guided by some extrinsic ideal Right to determine what we do, regardless of the actual consequences.  It is wrong to tell lies because honest dealing is the basis of any functioning society therefore we should never tell lies; that is the sort of Kantian authoritarianism that, for example Michael Sandel thinks is probably a good idea. I loath Kant, insofar as I understand what he has to say: his black-and-white world of moral rectitude lacks both sense-of-reality and compassion.  Bentham wanted us to be kinder to the dispossessed but recognised that we couldn't always achieve good without doing some harm along the way.  Finding the balance between these competing claims is hard work but ultimately more forgiving than when it is claimed that X has an inalienable right to Y.

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