Happy Birthday, Jeremy Bentham!

Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon at University College London, 2003 by Michael Reeve, GNU Free Documentation License Version 1.2

Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon at University College London, photo 2003 by Michael Reeve

Jeremy Bentham, the great English moral and legal philosopher born on February 15, 1748, was a very strange man. A brilliant one, but strange nonetheless. He was a precocious child and advanced in his studies very early, finding Westminster and Queen’s College at Oxford too easy and therefore rather boring. He was trained as a lawyer but decided not to practice law after hearing William Blackstone’s lectures. Blackstone’s treatise Commentaries on the Laws of England is still considered one of the most authoritative and foundational works on English law, so for a guy to consider them so flawed that he’d want to give up his career seems a bit… well, presumptuous. But he demonstrated his own great intellectual capacities through his lifetime of prolific writing, mostly on legal theory, moral philosophy, and social reform. In the end, he earned the right to a certain degree of arrogance.

Bentham is generally considered the father of utilitarianism, the moral philosophy which judges anything that can be judged as right or wrong, good or evil, according to how conducive it is to ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ Utilitarianism, then, is a type of consequentialism, which holds that a thing is right or wrong based on its consequent harms or benefits. Bentham did not invent the principles of utilitarianism; he discovered them in the writings of Cesare Beccaria (who authored the ‘greatest happiness’ axiom), David Hume, Claude Helvétius, and Joseph Priestley. But he spent a lifetime synthesizing these principles into a cohesive, fleshed-out moral philosophy founded on utility, whether a law or action increases or decreases pleasure or happiness. This principle can seem too subjective to apply to matters of law or public policy; after all, what makes one happy can make another less so, and how can we determine whether the happiness of one is greater, or more important, than the happiness of another? Bentham, careful and systematic in his approach to this as he was to everything else, devised his ‘Felicific Calculus’ to solve this problem. Bentham believed that pleasure, a natural phenomenon like everything else in the world, was likewise quantifiable. He hoped his method of assigning unitary measurements to pleasure, then determining their relative values through mathematics, was a way to make his moral philosophy practicable, conducive to real social reform.

To many, the idea that pleasure and happiness could be reduced to mathematical formulas seems very strange; some think he may have had Asperger’s syndrome or another cognitive feature that caused Bentham to view emotion with such scientific detachment. But as socially awkward as he and his ideas often were, his utilitarian philosophy led to him to some moral conclusions that we now consider extremely progressive and much more caring than those typical of his times. For example, he was an early proponent of racial equality, women’s rights, and animal rights. As to animal rights, just as for all classes of human beings, considering only the pleasure and pain of some sentient beings and not others when it comes to morals is unscientific and therefore unjustifiably biased. After all, animals, like all human beings, have feelings too, and their feelings are just as important to them as ours are to us. So, a moral system based on feelings must consider all equally important, so that one unit of pig happiness, for example, is just as morally significant as one unit of human happiness. The only correct way to balance them out in matters of morals and public policy is to apply the Felicific Calculus to determine how much pleasure or pain each experience in any given situation.

At the end of his long and productive life, the committed naturalist arranged to have his body publicly dissected, both for scientific inquiry and to provide an example to others; he believed that a perfectly good body should never go to waste and that everyone should donate their body to science. He also arranged to have his head and skeleton preserved, dressed in his clothes and stuffed to look as lifelike as possible, to be displayed in some public place. The preservation of Bentham’s head, with its glass eyes he had purchased some years before, left much to be desired; the expression it ended up with creeped people out. So his Auto-Icon, as he called it, sits today in its glass case at University College, London with a nice lifelike wax head in its place. His real head is safely stored away where students, who had stolen it over the years in a series of pranks, can no longer get to it.

Read more about the brilliant and eccentric Bentham at:

Jeremy Bentham – by James E. Crimmins for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Jeremy Bentham – University College London website

Jeremy Bentham on the Suffering of Non-Human AnimalsUtilitarianism.com

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Happy Birthday, Frederick Douglass!

Frederick and Joseph Douglass, from the Library of Congress archives, via Lion of Anacostia b

Frederick Douglass and his grandson Joseph, concert violinist who inherited his love of music from his grandparents, from the Library of Congress archives

Let us remember and salute the great human rights activist and Enlightenment thinker Frederick Douglass, on this near-anniversary of his birth.

The exact day of Douglass’ birth is unknown. We know the year, 1818, from his entry in the slave ledger of his master Aaron Anthony. His likely birth month, February, is an estimate. In his later years, Douglass chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14th because, he said, his mother Harriet once called him ‘my Valentine’.

Douglass is among my favorite people that ever inhabited the earth. He was born into slavery in Maryland, was mostly self-educated, escaped to freedom when he was 20, married the loving and strong Anna Murray, and became one of the most eloquent and influential advocates for civil rights in American, and, indeed, world history. He was an author, orator, preacher, activist, statesman, patriarch, musician, and world traveler. I had the joy of following the life and ideas of this motivated, resourceful, brilliant, complicated, and incredibly fascinating person through the United States, and now I’m continuing my research in Scotland, where he spent a relatively brief but very influential part of his life.

Here are a few links to some articles and works of art by, about, and inspired by the great Frederick Douglass, including my own work.

7 Haunts of Frederick Douglass in New York City ~ by Amy Cools for Untapped Cities

Frederick Douglass ~ by Melvyn Bragg and guests Karen Salt, Nicholas Guyatt, and Celeste-Marie Bernier for In Our Time

Frederick Douglass – by Ronald Sundstrom for Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Frederick Douglass  ~ Melvin Bragg discusses the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass with Karen Salt, Nicholas Guyatt, and Celeste-Marie Bernier for In Our Time

Frederick Douglass: In Progress ~ by Leigh Fought

Frederick Douglass Papers ~ at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Frederick Douglass Papers ~ at the Library of Congress

Frederick Douglass: United States Official and Diplomat ~ by the Editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Frederick Douglass and a Valentine, Emily Dickinson and a Snake – by Rob Velella for The American Literary Blog

Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia – by John Muller

Frederick’s Song– Douglass’ words arranged and set to music by SayReal and Richard Fink

From Oakland to Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts I Go, in Search of Frederick Douglass – History of ideas travel series by Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy

Interview with Ken Morris, Anti-Slavery Activist ~ by Ken Morris and Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy Podcast

Interview with Leigh Fought on Anna and Frederick Douglass ~ by Leigh Fought and Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy Podcast

Frederick Douglass in the British Isles ~ History of ideas travel series by Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy in Scotland, England, and Ireland, 2018-2019

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

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Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln!

Abraham Lincoln statue near Westminster Abbey, London, on a winter day, photo 2018 by Amy Cools

Let’s remember and salute the great Abraham Lincoln, father of the United States as it was painfully reborn through the Civil War, on his birthday.

Born on February 12th, 1809, this child of a poor Kentucky farm family was largely self-educated yet rose to become our most revered President since George Washington. He was a hard-working man, from farm laborer and rail splitter to flatboat operator on the Mississippi River, then shop owner, militia captain, postmaster, lawyer, politician, then President of the United States. A popular man revered for his storytelling, conversation, intelligence, and general reputation for high integrity, Lincoln won his second campaign for political office and entered the House of Representatives in 1834. He was a successful and innovative lawyer and revered for his speechmaking. His series of debates with Democratic senator Stephen Douglas in 1858 thrust him into the national spotlight, and while he lost the race to replace Douglas in the Congress that year, his reputation continued to grow, and he defeated Douglas in the presidential race two years later. He won the Presidency as head of the newly formed anti-slavery Republican party.

Lincoln plaque on Old Main, Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, photo 2017 by Amy Cools

Lincoln’s antipathy to slavery was heightened by a memory from his flatboat trip to New Orleans, where he witnessed its horrors first hand. Over the years, his political antislavery position fluctuated although the institution of slavery disgusted him personally. For most of his political career, he advocated the moderate policy of stopping slavery’s spread to the new territories, leaving it in place where it already existed in the expectation that economic and cultural changes would naturally lead to its demise. But the intransigence of the slave states and the contingencies of the Civil War, combined with his own moral hatred of slavery, caused him to change his mind. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 freed all slaves in those states in rebellion, and nearly 200,000 freed black men fought for the Union Army, helping to ensure its eventual success.

Even given his childhood poverty and lack of education, I find Lincoln’s success even more remarkable in light of the recurrent and severe depression he suffered throughout his life. While it can be crippling, it can also make sufferers that much more attuned to the suffering of fellow human beings, deepening the understanding of human nature and increasing the capacity for sympathy. Lincoln was one of these, and his suffering refined his sensitivities and strengthened him, helping to make him the great man he became.

Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, Feb 5, 1865, National Portrait Gallery in D.C., 2016 Amy Cools

Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, Feb 5, 1865, National Portrait Gallery in D.C., photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Having led the nation through the trauma and horror of the Civil War, Lincoln was assassinated only a month after his re-inauguration to the Presidency in 1964, shot in the head on April 14th by pro-slavery actor John Wilkes Booth while attending a play at Ford’s Theater.

Here some writings and works of art by, about, featuring, and inspired by Abraham Lincoln, including some of my own work.

Abraham Lincoln: audiobooks of speeches and other writingsat Librivox

Abraham Lincoln: speeches, letters, and other writingsdigitized by the Northern Illinois University Libraries

Abraham Lincoln: President of the United States ~ by Richard N. Current for Encyclopædia Britannica

April the 14th, Part I ~ song by Gillian Welch

Lincoln’s Great Depression ~ by Joshua Wolf Shenk for The Atlantic: Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a “character issue”—that is, as a political liability. His condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation

To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories ~ by Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy

Me with Abraham Lincoln’s sculpture near David Wills house where he stayed in Gettysburg, PA, the night before giving his great Address. I visited Gettysburg during my 2016 journey following Frederick Douglass

Abraham Lincoln also features prominently in my traveling history of ideas series about the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass. Here are the pieces in that series which feature Lincoln:

Frederick Douglass Lynn Sites, Part 2: Historical Society & Hutchinson Scrapbook
Frederick Douglass, Rochester NY Sites Day 2
Frederick Douglass Seneca Falls, Canandaigua, Honeoye, and Mt Hope Cemetery Sites
Frederick Douglass Chambersburg and Gettysburg PA Sites
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 1
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 2
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Last Day

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address Memorial at Soldier's National Cemetery

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address Memorial at Soldier’s National Cemetery, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Hume's and Abraham Lincoln Scottish soldier monuments,

David Hume‘s grave and Abraham Lincoln sculpture on a monument to Scottish American soldiers, Calton Hill Cemetery, Edinburgh, Scotland, photo 2014 by Amy Cools

Sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Abraham Lincoln with his son and 2 views of his tomb, from Hutchinson scrapbook at Lynn Museum

Abraham Lincoln with his son and two views of his tomb, from the Hutchinson scrapbook at Lynn Museum, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Statue of Abraham Lincoln outside of San Francisco's City Hall, photo 2017 by Amy Cools

Statue of Abraham Lincoln outside of San Francisco’s City Hall, photo 2017 by Amy Cools

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Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

A Charles Darwin display at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Let’s remember and salute Charles Darwin, the thinker who came to understand the basic mechanism by which we and all other species on earth come to be.

Born on February 12, 1809, Darwin was the grandson of Enlightenment physician, poet, and botanist Erasmus Darwin, who posited his own theory of evolution, as had many others, who observed its effects but had not successfully formulated a theory to explain how it worked. Given that his father was also a physician, it seemed natural that young Charles would take up the family profession. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh (my university!) from the age of 16 to 18. Darwin would have attended classes in the original building on South Bridge, now called the Old College, beautifully designed by Robert Adam (it didn’t yet have the dome it has now). While he loved the excellent science education he received there, Darwin decided being a physician was not for him.

Old College Building on South Bridge, University of Edinburgh, where Darwin attended classes

His father then sent Darwin to Christ’s College, Cambridge, with the idea that he could be a minister instead. Darwin did well at Christ’s College, but it was his pursuits as a naturalist that really captured his imagination and into which he poured his best efforts. After he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1831, he continued his scientific study of animals and geologic formations. When the opportunity arose to travel to South America on the HMS Beagle later that year, Darwin took it, and spent the next five years gathering specimens and making detailed notes of his observations of the natural world. Among the wealth of valuable scientific information he amassed, Darwin’s observations of the appearance of apparently designed adaptations in living things; fossils of known and unknown animals sometimes found in the most unexpected places (remains of ancient sea life embedded in rocks at high elevation?!?); and the incredible amount of waste and suffering throughout the natural world, from wasps who laid their eggs in living caterpillars so that the growing grubs would devour them slowly from within to the genocide and slavery routinely practiced against the native people there, gave him much to think about.

Finches in a Charles Darwin display case at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland. The adaptations of finch beaks to food sources provided Darwin a perfect example of how natural selection works to produce the appearance of design.

With his experience broadened, his understanding deepened, and his body strengthened by the rigors of his expeditions, Darwin returned to England a wiser, stronger, more serious man. The first publications of his findings, together with his friendships with influential scientists such as the geologist Charles Lyell, made him famous. Darwin had found his profession. He began to pull together the evidence of his own eyes with the work of other naturalists and scientists to formulate a theory that would explain it all. What would explain a world of living things replete with beauty and waste, some joy and contentment but far more suffering, animals marvelously wrought but more often than not hidden from the human eye either by remoteness, incredibly tiny size, or time through extinction? It was the work of Edinburgh’s own self-made geologist James Hutton, popularized and developed by Lyell, which gave Darwin one key to the mystery. Since it had become clear that the earth was indeed ancient, not young as popular interpretations of the Bible would have it, species had plenty of time to adapt and change to their environment as needed, just as the earth itself had plenty of time to form as it is.

Hutton’s Section near the foot of Salisbury Crags, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, Scotland. On my twice-weekly hikes, I regularly pass by this rock formation. It sparked James Hutton’s realization that the earth must be ancient indeed to give the rocks time to layer, fold, and bend as they do here.

Another key to the mystery was the mass suffering and death Darwin observed. While he mourned it, it was no doubt a comforting realization that it was not designed into the natural world by a divine mind that he was nonetheless bound to worship. Rather, Darwin realized that the living things that could not survive in the environment they found themselves in left those better equipped to do so to reproduce and pass on their adaptations. This realization, this theory of natural selection, Darwin recognized to be explosive as well. It took him about twenty years of careful thought and self-questioning to publish this theory. He knew, for one, that his theory went against people’s natural squeamishness and desire to think of the earth as a friendly home. More than that, Darwin knew perhaps better than anyone what a profound challenge this theory was to orthodox Christianity. But when another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, independently arrived at the same theory, Darwin was galvanized to publish his findings in 1859. His On the Origin of Species went on to become one of the most influential works in the history of thought.

Another Charles Darwin display at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Darwin’s life is a fascinating one in so many more ways outside of the scope of this piece. To learn more about this husband, father, writer, and restless seeker for truth, I recommend the excellent works I’ve linked to below.

Before that, one more thing: I’ve always hated the term ‘Social Darwinism’ because I think it’s terribly misleading. It refers to the idea that societies can be structured so as to direct evolution in some way, for example, by allowing the weakest or least able, as defined by that society, to die off so that the strongest and most able are the most likely to survive and reproduce. But Darwin did not espouse that idea, nor do scientists now understand him to have implied it. For Darwin, as for those who understand the theory of evolution by natural selection as an explanation of a natural process rather than a policy of action, the reason why human beings have become such a successful species is precisely our capacity for empathy and solidarity. It’s the fact that we care about each other as individuals, that we help each other survive and develop our unique capacities that makes us so adaptable, so creative, so able to get by in such a wide variety of environments. Social Darwinism, then, is contrary to Darwin’s own theories about human evolution. Eugenics, ‘survival of the fittest,’ and other such ideas that later thinkers claimed as part of Darwin’s intellectual legacy are not, in fact, his, or ideas that he would endorse given what he actually wrote. The problem with putting Darwin’s name in the term ‘Social Darwinism’ is that it wrongly implies that it was his idea, and therefore leads many to think of him as a cruel and heartless thinker, responsible for ideas which have caused much suffering and death. He was nothing of the sort.

Charles Darwin’s gravestone in Westminster Abbey, London, England. I was naughty and snuck in a quick photo, though photography is not allowed in the city’s places of worship.

Charles Darwin placard at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Learn more about this most influential of scientists and thinkers:

Charles Darwin: British Naturalist ~ by Adrian J. Desmond for Encyclopædia Britannica

Charles Darwin: Evolution and the Story of Our Species ~ iWonder at the BBC

Charles Darwin: various articles ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Darwin Correspondence Project ~ at the University of Cambridge website

Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought ~ by Ernst Mayr for Scientific American, November 24 2009

Darwin Online ~ read Charles Darwin’s books, articles, and other publications online

The Evolution of Charles Darwin ~ by Frank J. Sulloway for Smithsonian Magazine, December 2005

The Origin of the Thesis ~ by Claire Pettitt for The Times Literary Supplement

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Happy Birthday, Simone Weil!

Simone Weil via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Simone Weil, born on February 3, 1909, lived only thirty-four years. She died as an unintentional martyr to her ideals on August 24th, 1943; she contracted tuberculosis when her overworked, underfed, exhausted body, working for the French Resistance in England, could not fight off disease. As she had done before, Weil refused to eat more than wartime rationing allowed to others, or to accept extra medical help. In a sense, allowing herself to become so run-down that she collapsed and died soon thereafter seems inconsistent with one of her central beliefs: that morality is centered on obligations to one another. When she debilitated herself through overwork and malnourishment, she rendered herself unable to fulfill those obligations she believed in. Yet in working for the benefit of others among those doing the same work, and demanding of herself that she do so under the same hard conditions that many others had to struggle in, Weil continued her long practice of putting her ideals in practice and in the process, testing them. The idealist, deeply spiritual Weil, in this way, often acted as a sort of empirical ethicist.

Weil was born to well-to-do, agnostic Jewish parents who provided her a very comfortable, secure childhood. Her high level of intelligence was evident from a very early age, and she received an excellent education. She surpassed the brilliant Simone de Bouviour in her École Normale Supérieure postgraduate exams. Yet Weil resisted employment as a full-time academic; she was intensely interested in common human concerns such as labor rights and politics. While teaching philosophy, Weil took time to travel to Germany to help her determine why Nazism took such hold there, and donated much of her time and skills to groups who supported working people. She left teaching in 1934 to work in a factory for some months, to observe conditions for unskilled working women. Weil then followed her activist instincts into joining Spain’s Republican efforts against the far-right, authoritarian Francisco Franco’s revolt in the Spanish Civil War, but an injury rendered her unable to complete her combat training, so she lent her support through her primary skill, writing. After she and her parents fled the Nazis first from Paris (she worked for a time as a farm laborer in rural France during this period), then from France, Weil joined Charles De Gaulle’s Free France movement from their London center of operations. Weil’s practice of observing work conditions and political movements first-hand undoubtedly contributed greatly to the force of the ideas she drew from such experiences.

Throughout all of this, Weil had many mystical experiences and converted to Christianity, with many of her beliefs overlapping Catholic doctrines, However, she refused to be baptized or ally herself with any one sect, prioritizing personal spiritual transformation over ritual. Weil wrote creatively and deeply on spirituality and theology; among her most original ideas was that the silence of God was necessary for creation to happen; he wasn’t dead, despite all appearances, he was just absent from the places where creation happens.

Weil had also long thought deeply about the liberal philosophy of human rights, and came to the conclusion that it was an ultimately empty concept on its own. Since it was not centered on a robust concept of human obligations, it was ultimately unworkable: rights, so conceived, could be and often were bought and sold, and while non-interference can mean rights are not violated, this means little when we need support that human rights theory doesn’t necessarily entail that we give to one another. It was only a commitment to fulfilling one’s obligations to others that well-being, bodily integrity, and every other aspect of each person’s humanity can be respected and protected. Weil put this idea to the test by working at that auto factory, as described above, where she observed the effects of the mechanical process of mass assembly on herself and other workers; to her, it appeared dehumanizing, harmful to the moral and spiritual self, instilling docility. In this and other institutions of a rights-based, private-property-centric society, Weil saw that aspects of humanity were rendered into something tradable in the marketplace, and interpersonal relations were reduced to contractual agreements, real or implied. Such a system allows for justice to be dispensed differently, or for differential access to basic human needs, according to one’s ability to pay. While I believe it’s true that liberal societies’ commitments to universal human rights have brought about a level of peace, prosperity, and individual liberty unparalleled in all other types of society throughout history, Weil’s ideas provide important insights into how a liberal system based on individual human rights might not consistently promote human well-being and personal fulfillment unless it is balanced by a robust ethic of interpersonal obligations.

Learn more about the spiritual philosopher and activist Simone Weil, who Susan Sontag called ‘one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit,’ at:

‘God Isn’t Dead, He’s Silent’: Simone Weil Dies, Very Young ~ by Nettanel Slyomovics for Haaretz

Gravity and Grace ~ by Simone Weil

Should We Still Read Simone Weil? ~ by Heather McRobie for The Guardian

Simone Weil ~ by A. Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and Benjamin P. Davis for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Simone Weil ~ by Susan Sontag for The New York Review of Books

Simone Weil articles, assorted ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Simone Weil: French Philosopher ~ at Encyclopaedia Britannica

What We Owe to Others: Simone Weil’s Radical Reminder ~ by Robert Zaretsky for The New York Times‘ Stone blog

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!