Source of book: Borrowed from the library
Another impulse read from the New Books shelf.
I have a good friend who is a thoughtful guy, and we, from time to time, have conversations about religion, philosophy, and ethics and stuff. I recall in particular a conversation from a couple of years back.
At the time, my friend was rather into Christian Apologetics, specifically William Lane Craig. Unfortunately, I loathe apologetics in general, and presuppositional apologetics in particular. While Craig does have some good points, and he is at least far more intellectually honest than the average Evangelical/Baptist/Fundamentalist, he still had several things that rubbed me really wrong. The main one, of course, was Divine Command Theory, which I find to be essentially ethical suicide. (I might have to blog about that some time.) In the context of this conversation, however, the big irritant was Craig’s chauvinism about ethical systems. The presuppositional assumption is that, without some “objective” source of ethics - meaning a supernatural being who has laid down the law - there is no possible way to determine right from wrong in an intellectually consistent manner. And, to the Evangelical/Baptist/Fundie sorts like Craig, that means acceptance of the bible as literally dictated, capable of a single obvious objective interpretation, and so on. Of course, this is a major flaw in presuppositional apologetics in general: they make the leap from “there is a rational basis for belief in an ultimate source of the universe” to “our interpretation of an ancient collection of writings is the only possible conclusion,” which is ludicrous to anyone who pushes the issue.
Anyway, here is where I am going with this. At some point in the conversation, my friend raised the question of how one determines ethics without a divine command. This is a legitimate question, actually, and it is one that has occupied philosophers around the globe for the last, well, four or five thousand years at least. That IS one of the great questions of philosophy. Why are we here? Does life have purpose? And, perhaps most pertinent: How should we live, and why?
At this point in the conversation, my friend brought up the Utilitarians, with kind of a derogatory tone. Which is precisely how Craig and other presuppostionalists respond to any ethical system which does not start with “things are right or wrong because God says so.”
This was not a surprise. In the circles I was raised, the Utilitarians were definitely personae non grata, blamed for every ill of our modern life - well, along with Hegel and Nietzsche. It was obviously their fault for the holocaust, Stalin’s purges, and homosexuality. (And every other possible real or perceived evil.) The claim was that the Utilitarians severed the connection between ethics and the teachings of the Church, so after that, anything was ethically permissible.
That this is a ridiculous straw man should be obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of philosophy.
I will confess, I didn’t really understand the issues until relatively later in life. I wasn’t ready in high school to get into the details. Later, in my late 20s, I did explore things a good bit more, and realized that it was pretty obvious why the Fundie/Evangelical tradition in which I was raised as absolutely freaked out about Utilitarianism. (More on this later.)
At this point, let me give a recommendation: before you read this book, you really should read an introductory book on philosophy. The author assumes the reader already knows the outlines of Utilitarian thought, as well as Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Kant, and others. Trying to read this book without some form of background knowledge is going to be frustrating. Trust me on this.
So, here is my suggestion: go online and find a copy of Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy by Samuel Enoch Stumpf. Various editions have been available for decades - since 1966 - and used copies are fairly easy to find. A hardback 6th Edition (1999) graces my bookshelf, and I have referred to it constantly since reading it cover-to-cover. One of the strengths of the book is that it goes through Western philosophy in chronological order. It really helped me to see that philosophy isn’t a bunch of independent schools of thought, but a long conversation stretching back thousands of years. Each new development is a response and reaction to what came before. You can’t understand Bentham unless you understand Kant and Spinoza and Aristotle. Go get this book. Read it. Then come talk philosophy with me.
Sorry about the long introduction. I thought it might be helpful in seeing where I was coming from both in my own Fundie history and in more recent conversations.
Bart Schultz didn’t write a summary of Utilitarian thought, nor did he intend primarily to defend or criticize Utilitarian philosophy. On the other hand, this isn’t a mere biography of the four great Utilitarians. Schultz weaves the biographical information together with a chronological view of how the ideas of the main characters changed over time. The goal is to let the lives of the Utilitarians shed light on their writings - to show how the men (and women) themselves aid in the interpretation of their ideas.
Generally, when one thinks of Utilitarianism, one thinks of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Schultz brings in two other luminaries. First is William Godwin (perhaps best known these days for being the eventual husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), but who really set the stage for what Bentham and Mill did within a few years. Likewise, Schultz spends a good bit of time on Henry Sidgwick, who took Mill’s ideas even further by the dawn of the 20th Century. Both of these figures are important, although less known than Bentham and Mill.
William Godwin, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick
Schultz also did something which has been long overdue, which is to consider the three women whose contributions have been largely suppressed and forgotten because of a combination of sexism and prejudice against women who refused to adhere to cultural demands for their gender. In addition to Wollstonecraft (who was largely dismissed for her child out of wedlock and other sexual liaisons - stuff Victorian men were expected to have but women were punished for), there were two others. Harriet Taylor, Mill’s eventual wife (after perhaps a long affair...it’s complicated, as the book points out) collaborated on many of his works - she should be listed as a co-author. Eleanor Balfour - sister of Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister of England - married Henry Sidgwick, and was a significant influence on his philosophy throughout his life. She too likely deserves a co-author credit for his works.
Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, Eleanor Sidgwick
The common factor that these women had is that they were all independent, feminist, and progressive - in an era when this was frowned upon. Men might perhaps be radical, but women were expected to know their place, submit to their husbands, and keep their vaginas virginal. These three, um, perhaps not so much. But, as Schultz points out, it is often their contributions to philosophy that have aged the best. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that it was these women who were most ahead of their time, not just on questions of sex and gender - but on racism, colonialism, and poverty as well. More so than their husbands, they would seem at home in our 21st Century world.
This is a long book, and a dense one. Small print, lots of pages, footnotes, and a plethora of quotes from the subjects and others. It took me a while for that reason. It was quite excellent, however.
Let me try to hit a few highlights, realizing that I will miss so many great lines, quotes, and ideas.
First, let me start with this:
The Utilitarians have been largely slandered and intentionally misunderstood by the reactionary forces in my religious tradition.
Certainly, they have been unjustly mocked for attempting to apply scientific reasoning and reason to the difficult questions of personal - and political - ethics. I think, actually, that this is the reason they have been slandered. At their best, the Utilitarians presented a formidable intellectual and ethical threat to the status quo. The challenged the idea that noble birth entitled one to luxury while others starved. They questioned whether something could be “virtuous” in the abstract, without reference to how it affected others. They raised doubts about church teachings on sexuality, and insisted that “because tradition says so” was insufficient to determine right and wrong.
I think, too, that Utilitarianism has been limited in the popular imagination to a mere individualistic ethical system. Certainly the Utilitarians did examine how each of us individually might approach ethics. But that was less of a concern than the political question: how should public policy be shaped? And this is where, in my view (and many others), the most lasting contribution of Utilitarian thought is manifest.
At its core, then, Utilitarianism asks that we order our politics (and our own actions) with the view to maximize “happiness” and - and this is crucial - minimize pointless suffering.
Two points need to be made here. First, “happiness” in the Utilitarian sense - and in the sense intended in our own Declaration of Independence, the “pursuit of happiness,” isn’t some fleeting, circumstance-based, subjective feeling of pleasantness. Rather, “happiness” means well being, a decent life, a lack of needless suffering. For Jefferson, this meant that it was a god-given right for each of us to pursue well being, a lack of pointless and unneeded suffering. The American Dream, if you will. (Really, the dream of humanity.) So, for the Utilitarians, the goal was to attain this well being, lack of suffering, and good, decent life...for everyone, not just the wealthy.
The second point is this: the goal of Utilitarianism was in large part to avoid policies which inflicted needless and pointless suffering on people. In considering our own actions - and our public policies - we need to consider whether we will harm others. For the same reason, something which benefits a few wealthy powerful people while causing harm to the poor is an ethical evil. In this sense, Utilitarianism is actually rather similar to the teachings of Christ - the ones that modern Evangelicals are thoroughly committed to ignoring in our time. Utilitarianism is “love your neighbor” in action, in that sense. The author also quotes Socrates on this point: “Actions are more reliable evidence than words.”
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the political in this book. Let’s start with this quote from William Godwin (who is the first subject in this book) from Political Justice:
“Is it well, that so large a part of the community should be kept in abject penury, rendered stupid with ignorance, and disgustful with vice, perpetuated in nakedness and hunger, goaded to the commission of crimes, and made victims to merciless laws which the rich have instituted to oppress them? Is it sedition to enquire whether this state of things may not be exchanged for a better?”
Couldn’t this have been written in our own time? It sure continues to ring true in an era when the idea that the wealthy of society owe the rest of us something is somehow controversial. We have lost the ability to recognize inequality as oppression - something the biblical prophets had no difficulty doing.
I will note in the above, the dedication to education. This was certainly a common theme for the utilitarians. Women, the poor, and (nearly) everyone should have an education, they believed. One can directly trace the thought from here to John Dewey and others who pushed for a universal public education. It is no exaggeration to say that Godwin, Bentham, and Mill deserve much of the credit for the fact that humanity (particularly in the first world) is more literate than any time in history.
I’ll note at this point an interesting question regarding Bentham. Of all the Utilitarians, he was the most prosaic, having little of the sense of wonder and magic that the artistic sorts would have. (Sidgwick, on the other hand, was a friend and devotee of Tennyson, and was poetic as heck.) The author, however, points out that Bentham’s views on education needing to be more about usefulness to the student than cultural indoctrination were more a reaction to the teaching of subservience than contempt for poetry.
Bentham had particular contempt for the role of religion in society - and I am afraid in the era of Trump, I am increasingly of Bentham’s viewpoint on that. Like Bentham, I find that organized religion in our time and his is so far divorced from the teachings and example of Christ as to be unrecognizable. And, furthermore, that it is calculated and focused on justifying injustice and oppression. Here is one quote that stuck with me:
“Destitute of intellectual instruction, man, even in the bosom of the most civilized country, is often found appearing in no better a character than that of a savage. Of the Hulks, and the Penal Colonies - not to speak of the home Prisons - the population is, for the most part, composed of human beings thus abandoned to ignorance, vice, and wretchedness. Such as to the far greater part, appears to be the state of the population under the Church of England.”
Every bit as devastating is Bentham’s observation that religion spends an awful lot of time convincing people to hate things they would not otherwise hate. In our own time (as in Benthams...this is also a theme of the Utilitarians), this includes the endless obsession with sex and genitals and what people do with them.
Mill too was no fan of established religion. He too argued that the poor should have a right to an education - but not by the Church of England, which spent its time trying to convince the poor that they deserved poverty.
I also found interesting Mill’s intellectual crisis, where he felt he needed to somehow revise his views to accommodate the reality he had discovered. (I’m not even going to attempt an explanation - you’ll have to read the book.) The one thing that jumped out at me was the argument - still ongoing today - about how much of our morality is merely an artifact of evolutionary “survival value” versus things that have an inherent “moral value” in and of themselves, separate from evolutionary utility.
While the classic Utilitarians definitely show the defects of the age in which they lived, they had some great ideas which have been influential today. Chief among them was a radical (for their time) feminism. I would also add a shockingly progressive view of poverty and economics. Both of these seem, to me, to be a solid stand in favor of Christ’s teaching, against the forces of Empire and hierarchy.
One of the most interesting parts of the book in regard to feminism was the discussion of Harriet Taylor Mill. Harriet was widely slandered as a shrew and haridan during her lifetime, and later by the biographers of John Stuart Mill. Her contributions to their books were dismissed, and every fault amplified.
However, as later biographers noticed, she really wasn’t like that. The problem was, she failed and/or refused to be a good Victorian woman. Her marriage to John Taylor was troubled, and, despite the fact she bore him three children, it was difficult at best. Reading between the lines of her writing (with Mill) on domestic violence and divorce, there is good reason to believe he was abusive to her. Eventually, they would separate, although the would, of necessity, remain legally married. Her intellectual collaboration with John Stuart Mill was apparently a huge scandal, despite a lack of evidence of sexual intimacy. (Indeed, there is reason to believe he was impotent.) Rather, the idea that a woman might be merely a friend without benefits was rather unthinkable. On the other hand, there was definitely an emotional connection. After Taylor’s death, they did eventually marry. Her’s was a “complicated” life by female Victorian standards. And, she wrote extensively with a distrust for “conventional” marriage. As a later biographer would explain:
“Finding a way to construct such a life took consummate skill in a society that disallowed divorce, prevented married women from maintaining financial independence, and discouraged women from obtaining a liberal arts education.”
The same biographer would also note a fundamental hypocrisy of Victorian society. And, let’s be honest, of our own as well:
“Selflessness is the kind of virtue society tries to instill in women. (Men tend to be hypocrites on this score, since they are allowed some freedom for their own desires, while women wound their wings at every attempt to expand them against their gilded bars.”
Harriet’s influence on Mill is readily apparent in their mutual work, On the Subjection of Women. I really wanted to quote several pages that were reproduced in this book. Let the following suffice, as a cogent description of the effects of social pressure on women to be a certain way. This pressure makes it difficult to ascertain exactly what the differences are (if any) between the sexes.
“All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men. They are so far in a position different from all other subject classes, that their masters require something more from them than actual service. Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave, but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear; either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections. And by their affections are meant the only ones they are allowed to have - those to the men with whom they are connected, or to the children who constitute an additional and indefeasible tie between them and a man. When we put together three things - first, the natural attraction between opposite sexes; secondly, the wife’s entire dependence on the husband, every privilege or pleasure she has being either his gift, or depending entirely on his will; and lastly, that the principal object of human pursuit, consideration, and all objects of social ambition, can in general be sought or obtained by her only through him, it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character. And, this great means of influence over the minds of women having been acquired, an instinct of selfishness made men avail themselves of it to the utmost as a means of holding women in subjection, by representing to them meekness, submissiveness, and resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man, as an essential part of sexual attractiveness. Can it be doubted that any of the other yokes which mankind have succeeded in breaking, would have subsisted till now if the same means had existed, and had been as sedulously used, to bow down their minds to it?”
Damn mic drop after that one. And it gets even better:
“Stand on the ground of common sense and the constitution of the human mind, I deny that any one knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. If men had ever been found in society without women, or women without men, or if there had been a society of men and women in which the women were not under the control of the men, something might have been positively know about the mental and moral differences which may be inherent in the nature of each. What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing - the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others. It may be asserted without scruple, that no other class of dependents have had their character so entirely distorted from its natural proportions by their relation with their masters…”
It’s as if Mill had viewed the toxic teachings of the Fundie cults my wife and I spent time in - or sat through a 21st Century Evangelical sermon on gender essentialism. Oh yes, this is one reason we left and will never go back. The Utilitarians argued for women’s suffrage, among other feminist causes. I believe this is one of the biggest reasons why Fundies loathe them, and have grossly slandered them.
Now, let’s take a look at the Utilitarian approach to poverty. Again, here it is helpful to see Utilitarianism as a reaction against other ideas. I have mixed feelings about Edmund Burke, but I will grant that his ideas were in direct reaction to the French Revolution. And he has some great points. He identified why people like me, who are essentially center-right in temperament and philosophy, have a distaste for revolution, preferring reform. And also why we are deeply concerned about the modern American Right, which combines a Gilded Age approach to inequality with a vicious racism. Burke had his weaknesses, though, and it is best to view the Utilitarian approach to poverty and economics as a reaction to the worst of Burke, rather than a confirmation of Marx. (Indeed, the Utilitarians had a bias toward individual freedom, rather than government control, in many cases.) Likewise, the Utilitarians were in conversation with Adam Smith - who was far less libertarian or social darwinist than the modern disciples of Ayn Rand would have you believe.
So, for the Utilitarians, it was natural to question whether the status quo was ethical - or inevitable. Mill wrote in his biography a number of statements on economics which I found fascinating and pertinent to our own modern discussion. First, Mill questions a conflation of free enterprise with oppression of labor. And credits Harriet with the idea, by the way.
“This tone [of Harriet’s] consisted chiefly in making the proper distinction between the laws of the production of Wealth, which are real laws of nature, dependent on the properties of objects, and the modes of its Distribution, which, subject to certain conditions, depend on human will. The common run of political economists confuse these together, under the designation of economic laws, which they deem incapable of being defeated or modified by human effort; ascribing the same necessity to things dependent on the unchangeable conditions of our earthly existence, and to those which, being but the necessary consequences of particular social arrangement, are merely coextensive with these. Give certain institutions and customs, wages, profits, and rent will be determined by certain causes; but this class of political economists drop the indispensable presupposition, and argue that these causes must by an inherent necessity, against which no human means can avail, determine the shares which fall, in the division of the produce, to labourers, capitalists, and landlords.”
Again, a mic drop moment. I had a conversation just today with a doctrinaire right-winger who seemed to insist that there was no possible way to change the allocation of wealth and income. Economic laws (which largely benefited him) were fixed, and human efforts to change things were doomed to failure - and would indeed fuck up the economy at large. Meaning - Always Cut Taxes™. No matter what the circumstance. Mill (Harriet, really) point out what should be obvious: there is no inevitability about landlords and capitalists reaping the vast majority - and growing share - of the production of an economy. It isn’t the result of immutable laws. It is the result of particular customs, laws, and institutions. And these can be changed.
Later, Mill makes another fantastic argument. I wish I could quote it in full, but it is too long. Here is the best of it:
“What is true is, that wages might be so high as to leave no profit to the capitalist, or not enough to compensate him for the anxieties and risks of trade; and in that case labourers would be killing the goose to get at the eggs. And, again, wages might be so low as to diminish the numbers or impair the working powers of the labourers, and in that case the capitalist would generally be a loser.”
This much is actually classic Adam Smith. There is a gap here, however, as Mill points out. Smith calls this the “higgling of the market.” Mill notes that, given powerful employers, and individual workers, wages will be at the bottom end of this. Unionized labor would push wages toward the higher. Realistically, as Mill notes, sometimes mistakes are made, and the limits on both ends are violated, making adjustments necessary. But Mill makes a moral judgment, which I not only agree with, but believe is at the heart of the evil of the present-day right.
“But, having regard to the greatly superior numbers of the labouring class, and the inevitable scantiness of the remuneration afforded by even the highest rate of wages which, in the present state of the arts of production, could possibly become general; whoever does not wish that the labourers may prevail, and that the highest limit, whatever it may be, may be attained, must have a standard of morals, and a conception of the most desirable state of society, widely different from those...of the present writer.”
Exactly. This is a key point of Utilitarian politics: the goal should be greater happiness for the greatest number, not a high level of happiness for the elite few, and misery for everyone else. That this is the polar opposite to today’s American Right is pretty much beyond dispute. Rather, they are convinced that employers need ever-increasing power of workers. It’s a totally different standard of morals than I have. I hate to say that, as I am inclined toward conservatism. But that isn’t a value of today’s right - they have sold their souls to Ayn Rand’s philosophy which is that the capitalists deserve as much as they can squeeze out of everyone else.
Speaking of Adam Smith, how about this from The Wealth of Nations:
“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
That sounds practically Marxist in comparison with today’s Right.
In each section, Schultz examines the legacy of each Utilitarian. After all, philosophy is a continuing conversation, not a set of boxes containing separate philosophies. As a general rule, I am not a particular fan of Peter Singer (although he has the occasional good point.) I tend toward Martha Nussbaum, and her application of Utilitarianism to a modern world. One particularly fantastic section in the book is the one in which Nussbaum expounds on Mill’s views of patriotism. I have written a bit about that. Both Mill and Nussbaum have amazing things to say on the topic - things which are so relevant today, in a time when the American Right stands in opposition to Mill’s ideals.
“I never said that we should not have a particular love of and attachment to our own nation...I compared our relation to our country to our relationship with our own children: just as good parents love their children more, but still, compatibly with that, may and should seek a nation in which all children have decent life-opportunities, so too we may love our own nation more while seeking a world in which all citizens have decent life-opportunities.”
AMEN! Is it really that hard? Apparently so to the Steve Kings of the world, who throw shade on “other people’s babies,” thus setting themselves up for hell. (Nope, tired of sugarcoating this one. I don’t believe in the traditional Evangelical hell - but I believe that if it exists, the overwhelming majority of white Evangelicals right now are competing to purchase a one-way ticket there. Seriously. Read Matthew 25 again.)
Before I finish, I really should mention the Utilitarians and sexuality. I believe this is another reason why the Fundies I grew up with hated them. They dared to challenge the misogyny that underlies “traditional” sexual rules. In addition to the feminist ideas that women were not the chattel of men, and should be able to choose their partners - and divorce if they wished - the Utilitarians pushed back against another trend in the culture.
Jeremy Bentham was the first Utilitarian to question the proscription of homosexuality. From his point of view, both the risk of overpopulation and the idea of human freedom indicated that this might be legitimately questioned. It wasn’t just Bentham, however. By the time of Henry Sidgwick, there was a full-on puritanical witch hunt under way. The Criminal Law Amendment Act in England was a mixed bag, to be honest. (Seriously, note that raping a 10-13 year old was a misdemeanor - and the Act didn’t do much to fix that.) The main issue, however, was a re-criminalization of homosexual contact, even when anal intercourse couldn’t be proved. This is the law that put Oscar Wilde in prison, and led eventually to his death. The late-Victorian witch hunt against LGBTQ people is pretty obvious, both in England and in America. It coincided with a reaction against Feminism and social change in general. Hey! Sounds like today too!
There is a fun passage in this book on Sidgwick and his associates. He was part of “The Apostles,” an intellectual group that included Tennyson among others. A number of gay men were part of the group, and Sidgwick, however sympathetic, did his best to censor the erotic or philosophical writings of these men (particularly John Symonds) out of a fear it could get them prosecuted. Symonds probably originated the idea of sexual orientation as we know it now, and the Utilitarians examined the issue using reason, rather than religious teachings - yet another reason why Fundies hate them…
One not-so-pleasant part of this book is the examination of the racism of the Utilitarians. This is, alas, a common experience in reading about pretty much any Victorians. The Empire was considered noble, and non-Europeans lesser humans at best. I wish I could say that this was unique, but it wasn’t. It is difficult to find any white writer of the era that didn’t share the prejudice and blind spot. Although all of the Utilitarians suffered from this problem, it was particularly sad to see that Sidgwick, who was the latest in time and the most prone to doubt about his ideas, was enthusiastic about Charles Henry Pearson, who pretty openly advocated for genocide of non-whites. (On a related note, Pearson would fit right in with Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Steve King. And, sadly, Hitler a half century later. Just vicious racism and a view of whites as superior. All too familiar…)
Again, this isn’t unique to the Utilitarians. It is a problem the vast majority of Victorian whites suffered from - it is the rule, not the exception. But, on the other hand, they did pretty universally deplore slavery - even before it was cool. The Utilitarians advocated for universal education, universal suffrage, and human freedom and thriving, before such concerns became mainstream. In our own era, we owe a lot to the Utilitarians that we don’t even realize. I have been struck this year with just how much of the modern American Right is actually a reaction against Utilitarian values. A reaction against a belief that government should be for the common good, not just the good of the wealthy few. A reaction against Feminism. A reaction against the egalitarian impulse in general.
At its core, Utilitarianism is about the common good. It is about considering the needs of others and rejecting selfishness. These are values in short supply these days.
Let me close, however, with a line from the author’s epilogue:
“Arguably, if today we were to follow the lead of the great utilitarians, a decent education for all would be more of a priority, and the world would be less cruel.”
I cannot agree more.