Sunday 7 January 2018

Bentham's Corpse

Bentham, in repose

In this essay, I’m going to delve deep and without anaesthetic into the vagaries of ethics. Tis a dark place full of furies. I don’t usually enter into this territory as I find it completely unsatisfying from an intellectual point of view. The questions are often simple but the conclusions please no one, mainly because there are no concrete answers to be found. Of course, you could argue that this the case for most philosophical speculation and I would agree to some extent. However, there are philosophical questions to which sensible conclusions can be made, albeit not embraced by all. The main difference, say, between debates concerning what constitutes knowledge and what constitutes ethics, is that there is something intellectually tangible to be gained by reflecting on what constitutes knowledge, but ethics is like trying to keep a grasp on a very slippery eel whilst your hands have been ‘lubed up’ with an expensive dermatological cream.   

The ideals of ‘Utilitarianism’ were first articulated, in any depth anyways, by the 18th-century savant, Jeremy Bentham and further enhanced by John Mills in the 19th century. As a digression, Bentham's corpse has been preserved and resides in a glass case, on show, at University College London. To be fair his head is made of wax and the skeleton has been stuffed with hay and then covered with his best Sunday attire. What a macabre gift to mankind.

Bentham's basic tenet is easy to state: In society, we should strive for the maximum good.

I'll leave the Great Man himself to outline the cardinal principle: 'Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do… By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government. Arse, big fat, arse'.

Very clear, isn't it?

This philosophy does not absolve us from evil. Evil is allowed and some will suffer if the maximum benefit is accrued to the most. Let us illustrate this philosophy with a thought experiment, outlined below.

Consider a man dying of kidney failure, for convenience sake, we shall refer to him as Mr Mugumbo. Unfortunately, a suitable donor cannot be found and the poor fellow will die in the next few days.  A tenured philosopher has a fantastic idea and states it thusly: “Let us initiate a lottery amongst our populace.  But instead of giving the ‘winner’ squiddoodles of free cash (no such thing), let us condemn the elected/selected to death and harvest their ripe organs in such a way that we save five people, including the wretched, Mr Mugumbo”. All the philosophers around the table agree as one. We have to accept, according to this scenario, that philosophers hold absolute political power- may Woden preserve us.

Tis true, according to the principles, outlined above, that this represents the optimal outcome. The sacrifice of one life for the many accrues the greater good. The High Priest, Caiaphas expressed the same when condemning Jesus to death: “It is better this man dies so the nation shall live”. This is expediency at its rawest. It looks like Bentham’s thesis had already been anticipated nearly two thousand years before; there is truly nothing new under the sun. Of the healthy fifty million adults (for sake of argument) one is be picked at complete random each week. Does this system appear fair?.

An important assumption in this line of reasoning is that each individual has equal, value, merit and worth. I would state that this is not the case and to accept this premise is to invite a form of communism; an anathema to right thinking folk, almost anywhere, North Korea included.

After stating our cardinal principle, what mischief/havoc can we make? This reflection raises a few interesting questions (no shit, Flaxen). 

1. What if the person chosen for harvest happened to be a renowned neurosurgeon who saves many from brain maladies throughout the year and the lucky organ recipients happen to be estate agents. If our surgeon saves ten folk a year would it be ethical to kill him to save five?

2. A billionaire philanthropist is chosen. This gentleman gives largesse in huge quantities to immunise millions against a deadly disease.

3. The man responsible for choosing the donor also came up with the idea of selective harvesting for the 'greater good'. By chance, he chooses his daughter. Would we castigate him he decides to choose another?

There are other scenarios we can posit, but I think we have enough information to base our critique.

Firstly, is it true that everyone has the same intrinsic worth? I would say nay. Even if it twas the case how can it be defined? The head of the lottery is not prepared to carry out the principles he helped to define, all but vaguely- but can we blame him? This illustrates the impracticality of utilitarianism. If it could work, or work at all, it could only exist within a society without emotion where everyone is endowed with an implacable will. As we are not so disposed, or unflinching robots, we must reject the philosophy on these grounds alone. Utilitarianism hits a brick wall when sentiment is involved. Also, for an ethical system, I find it morally repugnant. Sacrificing individuals as mere organ repositories is inherently indefensible in a society considering itself above the barbarian.

Finally, I would like to touch on our notion of justice. The adherent of utilitarianism would be happy to kill an innocent man if the greater good of the many was satisfied. How could a civilised justice system prevail under such circumstances?

The whole 'philosophy' reeks of implausibility and is impossible to apply in a just and empathetic society. It could only be fulfilled in a madman's dream (?or nightmare). As you can guess I am no sympathetic commentator on utilitarianism and consider the philosophy, at best, rank sophistry and at its most crass, simply silly.

Bentham's head


  1. Perhaps we should look at when he was writing. At that time a few rich and powerful people were happy to inflict misery on millions in order to make themselves more r and p. Actually we're going back to that, aren't we?