The Dragonfly and Raven

The Dragonfly and Raven

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Does Jeremy Benthem's Utilitarianism Lead Logically Towards a Democracy or Towards a Benevolent Dictatorship?

Here is the first draft of my essay about Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism. It is unlikely that I will post an updated draft, unless major chances are had. I expect there to be some small errors, and for that, I apologize now.

Man is by nature, a social animal. We organized ourselves into different social groupings based on geography, phenotypical features, beliefs, activities, and a seemingly uncountable amount of other differences and similarities that are held by the various members of our species. Within these social groups then, there is not a state of anarchy—but one of order. It is this order that is subject to the purview of politics. It is this order than is discussed and debated in philosophical political thought from the time of Aristotle thousands of years ago in Athens to the debates that are waged today, and everything in-between them. It is the subject of this essay to look at one political philosopher in particular—that being the British Jeremy Bentham. Bentham lived wrote his works during the later part of the Eighteenth Century, and spent much of his time discussing the idea of utility. The question to be examined in particular is whether or not his version of utilitarianism leads logically to a democracy, or whether it leads logically to a benevolent dictatorship—if such a form of government can indeed exist.

Before it can be determined as to which form of government Bentham's utilitarianism logically leads to, one must first understand how his utilitarianism functions. Fundamentally, he links everything that we as a species do to the two fundamental feelings of pain and pleasure. This includes all of the actions that we perform, as well as our sense of what is right, and what is wrong. The four sources of pain and pleasure then, according to Bentham, are physical, political, moral, and religious—termed as sanctions—with physical pain coming from a person or group of persons, political coming from the state, moral coming from “chance persons in the community, and not according to any rule” and religious being from a superior being. He sets out that his Principle of Utility recognizes that this slavery that mankind has to pain and pleasure is an underlying part of all systems. By utility, Bentham is referring to any act or object that produces a benefit, advantage, good, happiness, or pleasure—though if one thinks about it, benefits, advantages, goods, and happiness all produce pleasure in themselves—or that prevents mischief, evil, unhappiness, or pain to an individual or a community—though again, like those things synonymous with pleasure, mischief, evil, and unhappiness are also sources of pain. Thus, utility is essentially any act or object that brings about pleasure or that prevents the bringing about of pain. He believes that all people must and do act in accordance with this principle, even if it is done so unconsciously.

Bentham believes that the correct application of the Principle of Utility is to promote the interest of an individual or community. The interest of the community being the aggregate interest of the individuals that together make the community, and the interest of the individual being a simply arithmetic calculation of the sum of the pleasures minus the sum of the pains that are brought about by the execution of any particular action, where the difference between the pleasures and the pains is positive—that being, having more pleasure than pain. These pains and pleasures are valued, for an individual then, based off of their intensity, duration, certainty—and conversely, uncertainty—, and their propinquity—and conversely, their remoteness. When assessing the value of pain and pleasure for a group, one must also use the same criteria as for an individual, whilst also taking into account how likely it is that the event will occur again—which he calls its fecundity—, the chance that it will be followed by sensations of the opposite affects—which he calls its purity—, and finally how many people it affects—which he refers to as its extent. He argues then that it is the responsibility of government to adhere to the Principle of Utility in regards to the community in which it presides over in any actions that it carries out. Because it is the responsibility of the government to follow the Principle of Utility when legislating for its community, the causes of pain and pleasure are subject to the purview of legislation of the government. It is important to note, however, that all pleasures and pains have much to do with legislation, such as the pleasure that is derived from the strength an individual possesses.  With the question of how the government should act settled, the next logical question is how the government goes about doing this. The answer is quite simply, really. In order to follow the Principle of Utility, the government must reward—or rather, give pleasure—and punish—that being, inflicting pain—on individuals within the community to enforce or reinforce behavior that is in the interest of the community as a whole.

Positive reinforcement for actions that are in line with the Principle of Utility is fine and good, as it is bringing pleasure into the world, but what about the idea of punishment? Punishment is, after all, bringing pain into the world, which does, at its surface, appear to be in contradiction with the Principle of Utility. This is however, not the case—that is, if the punishment is given rightly. Punishment, according to Bentham, is an important part of maintaining order in society, and the formula for how punishments should be given is quite simple, really. First, in order for the state to punish, a law must first be broken. This can be a law such as theft, or it can be the breaking of a contract—or as he says, to be more general, compact—between multiple parties. Second, one must consider the intentionality of the act, the circumstances in which it occurred, and the consciousness of the conditions that accompanied it. All of these should be considered in what punishment should be given. This is because while punishment is evil, as it is bringing pain into the world, it is the lesser of the two evils that are present; that by punishing an individual, the government is providing enough pain that the calculus that the individual will make in the future regarding the same action they performed will lead them to the conclusion that it is not worth doing said act again; in regards to others, that the example made by punishing the individual who committed the crime will be enough to dissuade them from conducting the same or similar acts. However, the government should not hand-down punishments that are either too heavy nor too weak—the punishment should be just enough to change the calculus of the individual, and nothing more—for any more would be bringing unneeded pain into the world. By this same logic, there are times in which no punishment should be given, such as when an action bring no mischief, when the cost of the punishment is higher than the mischief that was brought about by the act, if the punishment would be ineffective—as is the case with ex post facto punishment, of ignorance of the law (but not ignorance through negligence, which is inexcusable), of infancy, of intoxication, of insanity, of actions of defense of self, of unintentional, unconscious, or involuntary acts—or if the mischief would cease without any punishment being given.

That covers how a government should go about adhering to the Principle of Utility. However, what a government is has not yet been defined. It is obviously associated with a group of people, but how is not revealed by Bentham in his discussion of the Principle of Utility. Instead, he discusses it in his A Fragment on Government. In this work, Bentham is responding to an author who is trying to lay out what governments are and how they function—among other things. The author says that society forms to protect the individuals within in—both in their persons, but also in their rights—and that governments exist as a way to organize societies. The original government then, is set up by the general consent of the people involved—that being the governors and the governed—and the government itself remaining as long as the two aforementioned groups fulfill their obligations in the compact that they have formed—namely that the governed will give obedience to the governors, and that the governors will act in the interests of the governed. Thus, according to Bentham, the proper amount of government is as much “as necessary to preserve and to keep that society in order.” However, there are qualifications in being a governor, and for government itself.

First, in order to be a governor, one must posses certain endowments. The endowments that are believed important are wisdom, goodness, and the ability to have and effectively use political power. He then asserts that there are three types, or as he calls them, species, of government—being monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Monarchy is defined as rule by one, democracy rule by “all,” and aristocracy rule by a number between one and all. These three types of government, it is argued, have their advantages and disadvantages. Monarchy is said to be the best at the execution of law, as the efficacy of the execution of law is based on the will of that which is executing it—as will that is both swift and true with a single person. However, a monarch lacks in wisdom and goodness as compared to an aristocracy or a democracy. Aristocracies excel in wisdom, but are poor in execution and in goodness when compared to the other forms of government, while democracies excel in the goodness at the ends of their laws, while their efficacy and the execution is lacking comparatively. So are the three forms of government as laid out in A Fragment on Government. While Bentham makes no direct assertions as to which is the most desired of these three forms of government, he does leave clues as to what he believes is the correct form of organizing society, which lead into the logical form of government that results from his utilitarianism—that being either a benevolent dictatorship or a democracy.

First, let us look to back to Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. In this work, Benthem lays out his Principle of Utility, and otherwise talks about how it is applied to legislation, taking no particular stand as to any particular form of government being better than another. However, toward the end of this work, he does talk about the motives of individuals, which is important when trying to determine if a single individual should be running a government, or if many should. In the last part of the work, in the section on the penal branch of jurisprudence, he raises the question as to whether or not a man can be brought to care for the well-being and happiness of others, concluding that while the only certain happiness he will attempt to satisfy is his own, that man does have some intrinsic motive, if only at a level of his own social status, to care for other members of the community. Sympathy would also be important in this regard. Therefore, if one is to rule, they must have a bias towards sensibility and sympathy, and they must possess a great enough intellect to understand that by helping others that they are doing good—in short, good private ethics.23. While this does not point directly towards a benevolent dictatorship, where the dictator would be the person who is most disposed towards the aforementioned traits, it does rule out the idea of a direct democracy, in favor of more elite democratic republican models of government. All that Bentham shows here is that whomever would legislate would simply need to have good private ethics.

Now, we must turn again back to A Fragment on Government. If we look to the segment on the differences between a natural and a political society, Bentham states that a political society is a positive one, while a natural society is a negative one, with a political society being one in which people have a habit obedience to a person or a group of persons, while a natural society is one in which people have a habit of conversing with each other while not having a habit of obedience to a person or group of persons. Again, like the previous example of Bentham's biases towards one form of government or the other, this example does not help the cause of a democracy. It is natural for people to converse with each other, as was the ways of bands of humans back in time immemorial. While this is referred to as tribalistic government today, it is democratic in nature. Now, this does not rule out the idea of an democratic republic, but it does most certainly hurt its prospects, pointing more toward an aristocratic or monarchical form of government. At the same time, Bentham also uses an example that favors democracy more than it favors a benevolent dictatorship. In describing how people can interact with one another, he describes the idea that a person may both give and receive orders at the same time—even governors. Because a benevolent dictatorship would be a monarchical form of government, in that there is only one ruler, the benevolent dictator, this logic would not apply to it, but rather to an democracy or some other non-monarchical mixed form of government.

Of particular relevance to the question at-hand is Bentham's discussion of the British House of Commons—which is a democratic institution. When discussing it, there is brought up the issue of poverty among the members. It is argued that if they are poor, then they cannot be educated, and if they are not educated, then would be illiterate, and therefore ignorant, and altogether unfit for the job they have. While he eventually counters this by countering the assumption that the members elected would be poor, there is still the issue as to the status of the electorate. In the Britain of the day, and in the current Capitalistic world that we live in today, the majority of people live in poverty. The majority of the people are un—or at the very least, under—educated. While illiteracy is not nearly as large of an issue as it would have been at the time of Bentham, it does still exist—but more so, ignorance exists. Without a proper education, people are able to read, but not able to properly sift through the massive amounts of information that is available to them—leading to beliefs in such ludicrous things as vaccinations causing autism and global climate change not existing, or not being caused by mankind. Given this, it would seem that the majority of people, when poor, un and/or under-educated, and ignorant, they are ripe for manipulation and mistakes—mistakes that an educated elite, or a single benevolent dictator, chosen from the ranks of those predisposed to good private ethics as Bentham laid out in his An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation, would not make. This is compounded with the fact that the poor work hard and long, and with little time for leisure, they are unable to contemplate and reflect on legislation, and thus are prone to act rashly. It was true at the time of Bentham, and it is true today, with people having to work multiple jobs just to get by.

Looking at all of this combined, it would seem that the most effective, and thus the most logical form of government that comes from the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham would that of a benevolent dictatorship. While Bentham does believe that people can both give an receive orders, and does have faith in legislators picking the path of legislation that produces the least mischief—there does not appear to be much else that he says in favor of democracy. Most of the utilitarianism that Bentham lays out applies to all forms of government—especially in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, which only really lends itself towards either a benevolent dictatorship or a republic of some sort. In A Fragment on Government though, Bentham leans heavily in favor of dictatorial or aristocratic—used here to mean oligarchical—forms of government, with the idea of a negative natural society and positive political society to all-together justified fear of ignorance and the uneducated making decisions in government. If we look at Bentham's utilitarianism, it would seem to lead logically toward a benevolent dictatorship.