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.
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 Déclaration 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.
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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