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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Some of the Mysteries of Good Character, by Christian B. Miller

The topic of character is one of the oldest in both Western and Eastern thought, and has enjoyed a renaissance in philosophy since at least the 1970s with the revival of virtue ethics. Yet, even today, character remains largely a mystery. We know very little about what most peoples’ character looks like. Important virtues are surprisingly neglected. There are almost no strategies advanced by philosophers today for improving character. We have a long way to go.

We do know, though, that matters of character are vitally important. Consider the news these days, dominated by people like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. Or consider the behavior of our heroes, like Lincoln and King, or our villains, like Hitler and Stalin. Or consider the latest scandals in the entertainment world, professional sports, or politics. So much of what has happened can be traced back to the character of the people involved. And to take it one step further, thanks to the latest psychological research, character traits have been linked to all kinds of things that we care about in life: optimism, academic achievement, mood, health, meaning, life satisfaction…the list goes on and on.

To say that philosophers—who have been studying character extensively for thousands of years—are mostly in the dark about the topic, surely sounds like I am exaggerating, right? Maybe that’s true, but let me offer two concrete illustrations.

1. Neglected Virtues. The moral virtues are good character traits like justice, temperance, and fortitude. Here are two questions (among many others) you can ask about these virtues. First, conceptually, what do they involve? How, for instance, would you characterize a temperate person? Or a heroic one? Secondly, on empirical grounds, do people actually have the virtues (and if so, how many people and which virtues)? For instance, are there actually any temperate people today?

To help with the empirical question, there has been a recent flurry of interest among philosophers in consulting studies in psychology, and thinking about whether the behavior displayed in those studies is virtuous or not. For a virtue like compassion, real progress has been made in reading the relevant studies carefully, with the conclusion being that most people are not in fact compassionate. Unfortunately, philosophers don’t have much of an idea about what is going on empirically with most of the other virtues (and I’m not sure anyone else does either, for that matter). Part of the reason why is that for some moral virtues there just isn’t the wealth of existing studies to analyze, in the way that there is for compassion. Stealing is a good example—as you might imagine, it is hard to do helpful experimental studies of theft.

But part of the reason is also that some virtues have simply not been on our philosophical radar screens. The attention of philosophers has been elsewhere.

Take the virtue of honesty, for instance. If any virtue is on most people’s top five list, it is that one. Yet it has had no traction at all in the philosophy literature. In fact, there has not been a single paper in a mainstream philosophy journal on the moral virtue of honesty in over fifty years.

Or take the virtue of generosity—just three papers in the past forty years (by way of comparison, there are over two dozen papers on the virtue of modesty—who would have expected that to happen!).

So the upshot is that compassion is likely to be a rare virtue. But at this point it is not at all clear how we are doing with the rest of them. Indeed, in some cases we are not even clear what the virtues look like in the first place.

2. Virtue Development. The natural suspicion, of course, is that across the board we are not doing very well when it comes to being people of good moral character. History, current events, the local news, and social media all seem to confirm this. Hence it seems apparent that there is a sizable character gap:

There are moral exemplars, people like Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth, whose character is morally virtuous in many respects.

Examining their lives ends up reflecting badly on most of us, myself included, since it illustrates in vivid terms just how much of a character gap there really is.

To try to at least reduce this gap, it would be helpful to have some strategies which can, if followed properly, help us to make slow and gradual progress in the right direction. Naturally philosophers needn’t be the only ones who can come up with these strategies, but it would be nice if we had something to say that is practically relevant, empirically informed, and actually efficacious if carried out properly.

By and large, we haven’t had much to say. But there are signs that this is beginning to change, thanks to the work of Nancy Snow, Julia Annas, Jonathan Webber, and a few others. In fact, the development of character improvement strategies strikes me as one of the most promising areas of philosophy in the coming decade. Many good and innovative dissertations are there for interested graduate students to tackle.

My hope is that this groundswell of interest in how to cultivate the virtues will continue to expand in the coming years. These are indeed early days in the philosophical study of character. And exciting days too, full of so many worthwhile possibilities to explore.

This article was originally published at OUPBlog.

~ Christian B. Miller is the A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and author or editor of eight books including The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (Bio credit: OUPBlog)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger and Race

Dr Dorothy Ferebee - Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race, speech for Birth Control Federation of America, 1942

Dr Dorothy Ferebee – Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race, speech for Birth Control Federation of America, 1942

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Since the earliest days of her birth control activism, Margaret Sanger has been often accused of being a racist, among other things. To many of her critics, her birth control advocacy must be understood as a nefarious plot to undermine human morals and decency, and any means of twisting her message to convey this are fair game. As I discuss in an earlier piece, a favored method of attack, which persists to this day, is to present a sentence or phrase of Sanger’s out of context to ‘prove’ her ‘true’ beliefs about people of other races. Her detractors even claim that she was on a genocidal mission to reduce or even exterminate black people, Jews, and other immigrant groups by destroying future generations. Never mind that Martin Luther King, Jr. praised her work on behalf of his beleaguered people. Never mind that she worked closely with civil rights leaders such as Mary McLeod Bethune and W.E.B. DuBois. Never mind that she opened clinics to serve black and other minority women because so many existing clinics refused to serve anyone but whites. Never mind that she wrote in 1944:

‘We must protect tomorrow’s Chinese baby and Hindu baby, English and Russian baby, Puerto Rican, Negro and white American babies who will stand side by side… to bring promise of a better future’

Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The Golden Rule

‘What is hateful to thee, do not do until thy fellow man; this is the whole Law. The rest is commentary’ – Hillel the Elder, ca. 30 BCE – 10 CE

This is a particularly beautiful iteration of the Golden Rule, as I remember hearing Christopher Hitchens point out. Rather than recommending that you do to others what you would want done to yourself, which assumes you know best what others would prefer, this Golden Rule is one of restraint and respect. Do not impose, it says: we do not always know what’s best, so live and let live, and do no harm.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Source and inspiration: 

Kloppenburg, James T. Towards Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 41.


New Podcast Episode: Behind the Veil: Rawls, Locke, de Tocqueville, and Human Connection in a Liberal Society

People in a Public Square, cropped, Image Creative Commons CCO Public Domain via PixabayListen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

I’ve been listening to this excellent series from a favorite podcast of mine, the Philosopher’s Zone on Australia’s RN (Radio National), hosted by Joe Gelonesi. There’s this recent series called Political Philosophy in the World, hosted by guest host Scott Stephens, which considers and critiques seven important topics in political philosophy. I just listened to the last one, Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.

In it, interviewee Patrick Deneen offers a series of critiques of liberalism, his own and others’ over its roughly five century history. …The discussion in its entirety is absolutely fascinating, but my attention is caught particularly by Deneen’s observation of a problem with the great liberal political philosopher John Rawls’ famed ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment…. Read the written account here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Behind the Veil: Rawls, Locke, de Tocqueville, and Human Connection in a Liberal Society

People in a Public Square, cropped, Image Creative Commons CCO Public Domain via PixabayI’ve been listening to this excellent series from a favorite podcast of mine, the Philosopher’s Zone on Australia’s RN (Radio National), hosted by Joe Gelonesi. There’s this recent series called Political Philosophy in the World, hosted by guest host Scott Stephens, which considers and critiques seven important topics in political philosophy. I just listened to the last one, Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.

In it, interviewee Patrick Deneen offers a series of critiques of liberalism, his own and others’ over its roughly five century history. (We’re speaking here not of liberalism as commonly understood in the U.S., as political positions on the left of the spectrum, but of classical liberalism, a political philosophy which focuses on liberty and the primacy of the individual.) From the beginning, liberal philosophers and their critics have identified and described possible contradictions in the system itself, and ways in which it may end up being self-defeating in the real world. For example, John Locke, a founding father of liberalism, recognizes that it would require a strong state to protect the autonomy of the individual from competitors and from the ‘querulous and contentious’, and that individual autonomy in a marketplace, unfettered by other constraints, will lead to conditions that foster inequality, discontent, and revolution (at about 4:40 and 14:40, then 10:30). Alexis de Tocqueville observes that though individuals enjoy this autonomy at the beginning, they are left weakened and alone by the erosion of those institutions that create bonds of loyalty and affection in a society, such as family, tradition, and belief (at about 15:00). Deneen, in sum, describes these and various other ways in which liberalism can fail to achieve its end of liberating the individual to achieve their potential to the fullest possible extent.

The discussion in its entirety is absolutely fascinating, but my attention is caught particularly by Deneen’s observation of a problem with the great liberal political philosopher John Rawls’ famed ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment (starting at about 19:00). Rawls’ veil of ignorance is a beautifully elegant method of envisioning and crafting a just society. Imagine you’re looking at a society from the outside knowing you’ll be placed in it with no idea what you’ll be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed or not and at what kind of job; and so on. Given this hypothetical situation, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Behind that veil of ignorance, you’d be motivated to to design a society that’s just and fair, that benefits everyone to the greatest degree possible, since of course, you could be the one who suffers the ill effects of any injustice built into the system.

8694d-justice2bet2binc3a9galitc3a92b-2bles2bplateaux2bde2bla2bbalance2bby2bfrachet2c2bjan2b20102c2bpublic2bdomain2bvia2bwikimedia2bcommonsAs Deneen points out, Rawls, like other liberal political philosophers, recognizes that people in a liberal society may, over time, act not out of true freedom, but as slaves of their individual desires and passions. Since liberalism promotes the idea that society is and should be made of up autonomous individuals freely pursuing their own ends, the values of individuals in that society may become self-serving to the point of destructiveness. This destruction can be of social institutions that provide support and meaning, such as family, tradition, and belief, of liberalism’s own key institutions such as the free markets of goods and ideas, and as we now recognize, of the very environment from which all of this is derived. Rawls posits the veil of ignorance as a way to free ourselves from this trap, by transforming ourselves, in thought, into benevolent, self-effacing avatars of justice. But, Deneen points out, Rawls never really provides an explanation of why we we’d all want to go behind the veil of ignorance in the first place. After all, Rawls’ entire theory of justice-as-fairness as described in his magnum opus A Theory of Justice, which the view from behind the veil reveals to us, depends on the participation of everyone. If even one person remains aloof, that person’s interests and motivations aren’t considered or checked by those of others, which, in turn, is not fair.

From within the thought experiment, the motivation to go behind the veil makes sense: since liberalism is meant to promote the liberty and well-being of all individuals, it makes sense to envision and design a society where some individuals are not allowed to enjoy advantages that limit or even destroy the liberty and well-being of others. But this still doesn’t account for why we’d all want to go behind the veil in the first place. In a liberal society in the real world, only those suffering its ill effects will be motivated to do so, since those who have found relative success within its parameters will be ever more motivated to keep the pursuit of their own interests free from the demands and constraints of others until it serves them otherwise.

With the disconnection from other people which liberalism can tend to foster in mind, as described by de Toqueville and Rawls, I picture a whole society of people behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Then something in this picture strikes me: behind this veil, all the people are looking in the same direction, encircled around the society they must share. They are united, not separated by competing interests nor from the bonds of family, tradition, and belief. They are cooperating as equals, with a shared goal and a shared ethic: the liberty to achieve the fullest degree of perfection that an individual is capable of, with others’ interests as much in mind as their own so far as possible. These interests can and invariably do include family, tradition, and belief. Those with a narrow view of liberalism often speak only of individual interests as involving the individual pursuit for food and shelter, money, comfort, wealth, and prestige, and dismiss family, tradition, and belief as impediments to human liberty. But of course, this is not necessarily so, as we observe their lasting power and meaningfulness in the real world throughout history and to this day, even where liberalism as an institution is most robust. Material comfort and prestige are not and have never been the only and or even, for many, the primary motivators of thought and action in any society.

Behind the veil, then, is that deep need for human connection fulfilled in the context of an idealized liberalism, that the institution of liberalism in the real world can undermine if uncorrected by the state or by an ethic such as Rawls’ justice-as-fairness. Does Rawls have this picture of a united humanity in mind as he devises his thought experiment, though he doesn’t describe it per se? Perhaps Rawls does recognize this motivation for going behind the veil: our realization that while the pursuit of our own individual interests can be fulfilling, it can also undermine our potential of fulfilling our deepest humanity, not only tied to the destinies of others but with a deep emotional need for deep and lasting connections with one another. Behind the veil of ignorance, we are thus united, connected, bonded, sharing a vision, in a state of equal humanity, of a good and just world for all of us.

*Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

~ Also published at Darrow, a forum for culture and ideas

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Alexis de Tocqueville‘, in Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Gaus, Gerald, Courtland, Shane D. and Schmidtz, David, ‘Liberalism‘, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.’ from The Philosopher’s Zone Podcast, Sun May 15 2016, Radio National, Australia. Host: Joe Gelonesi

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Uzgalis, William, “John Locke“, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

New Podcast Episode: O.P. Recommends: Landmark Cases and Injustices, Two Great Works on the Supreme Court

Listen to the podcast episode here  or subscribe on iTunes

This last couple of weeks or so, I’ve been packing in a lot more learning about the Supreme Court, and is it ever fascinating.

It began when I stumbled on Landmark Cases last month, a C-Span series about 12 Supreme Court cases chosen because they had a dramatic impact on the legal landscape in United States history, and because they likewise had a significant impact on the Court itself, as precedent and on its perceived legitimacy, for good or ill….  Read the original essay here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!