An odd personality who never fails to split opinion

Utility and Democracy

January 26, 2007

For someone so indefatigably devoted to making himself clear, Jeremy Bentham remains a singularly elusive figure. Ever since he published his first book in his early thirties, he has had warm admirers, many in due course thinkers of considerable distinction in their own right: John Stuart Mill, the great French historian Elie Halevy and Herbert Hart, the most distinguished British legal and political philosopher of his generation.

Just as, consequentially, he also attracted devoted followers and disciples in his own lifetime, notably James Mill and Etienne Dumont, who went to remarkable lengths to carry his message to a wide audience in Britain, on the continent of Europe, and in due course even to the newly independent republics of South America. Historians continue to dispute how dense and pervasive the influence of that message really was across the Britain of the later 19th century; but it is hard to see how the question could even arise with any other major British political thinker. Its persisting vitality as a question itself testifies to a rare form of political efficacy.

Philip Schofield's study of Bentham's political thought, Utility and Democracy , has many admirable qualities and will greatly assist anyone setting out to take Bentham's measure today. What it will not do is appreciably close the gap between his hero's partisans and admirers and the far larger numbers who wish to grasp why his thought has had such an impact and would like to judge for themselves quite how seriously to take it.

Bentham himself was undeniably a trifle odd and more than a little obsessive. The suspicion that his thought may perhaps not deserve to be taken entirely seriously has lingered around it for well over a century and drawn unmerited plausibility from both the oddity and the obsession.

Schofield has devoted his intellectual lifetime to Bentham's service and is now director of the Bentham project and general editor of his Collected Works , in an impressive lineage from Jimmy Burns to J. R. Dinwiddy and Fred Rosen. The Collected Works have been in train for 45 years already and now run to 26 volumes, with many previously published works yet to be reissued to the same exacting standards, quite apart from the manuscript residues with their legendary illegibility.

Utility and Democracy has the ease and familiarity that comes from living for more than two decades in such intimacy with the intellectual and material legacy Bentham left behind him: as much a milieu of existence as a simple place of work. It is attractive, modest, lucid in detail, meticulous, but also a little hermetic. Schofield reports Bentham's sense of humour dutifully and cites many of his more dashing formulations. But he does not strive to be amusing himself and lacks Burns's gaiety and gift for evocation or Rosen's droll sense of Bentham's quainter features.

In partial compensation, he makes an unusually determined attempt to present the development of Bentham's political thought on the basis of his vision of nature, the place of human beings within it and the ways in which they can and cannot hope to know reliably about it and communicate stably and accurately what they know. This works well for conveying the depth and integrity of Bentham's purposes, the human promptings that underlay his utilitarianism and the disciplined, if relentless, drive to transcend these promptings and ground his conclusions in a framework of understanding that took nature as it was but reached bravely beyond the anthropocentric. The least settled aspect of Bentham's legacy is the force of his refusal to take animal suffering any less seriously than human suffering. For those who doubt that humans should eat other once-sentient creatures and are certain that they should not raise and kill them in order to do so, Bentham has, some claim, to be a hero in the Romantic mode and there remains an obvious ethical horizon to storm in his colours.

Schofield makes nothing of this issue, no doubt judging it irrelevant to politics (though it is hard to exaggerate the political implications of taking Bentham seriously in this respect). He also stolidly ignores the glittering assault of Bentham's most formidable modern traducer. Michel Foucault's selection of the Panopticon - Bentham's strenuously but vainly touted model prison - as a paradigm for the ways in which humans have reconstructed their lives together over the past two centuries, made him the hobgoblin for an entire epoch and invested him with a sinister aura wholly at odds with his real personality. Foucault himself was scarcely seeking to contribute to the Bentham project, and there is a case for seeing his response as too scurrilous and historically irresponsible to merit close consideration. But here too there may be an element of misjudgment. Bentham meant to change the ways in which human beings understood their relations with one another, and along with these the settings in which they lived. Seen clearly, that is quite a violent intention, however generous the sentiments that prompted it. Whatever else Foucault may have missed or been blithely unaware of, he certainly registered the violence of that intention and offered, in a sense, a countervailing violence of his own.

Where Schofield is at his best is in the detailed working-out of Bentham's changing conception of politics more conventionally construed and the varying appeal that representative democracy held for him as a form of government. Here, his treatment is fuller and more reliable than any predecessor, as he plainly means it to be. An unsympathetic view of the sequence would be that Bentham flirted with the idea of representative democracy for France in the run-up to the meeting of the Estates General, thought better of it for anywhere (especially in Britain) in face of what then ensued, but came durably round to it again more than a decade later in cumulative frustration at the failure of his own political career and the blunt refusal of Britain's Government to take up and implement the Panopticon. What struck him when he reflected on these setbacks was the pervasiveness of sinister interest within the British state and the impracticability of taming this, still less eliminating it, without a comprehensive reconstruction of the state, subjecting it to the power of the majority of the population. You do not have to have pure and elevated motives to reach correct conclusions, and few today have much motive to side with Lord Eldon against Bentham. But for all the assiduity with which he developed his newfound (and mildly belated) insight, it is far from evident that in his uninterruptedly democratic phase Bentham did discern clearly how any state and the society it claims to order can be effectively subjected to the power of all its citizens. That remains a very strained description of the circumstances in Britain (or anywhere else) today.

Politics, too, is an elusive business; and sinister interest, for all its incontestable prominence, remains a slender resource for taking its measure.

John Dunn is a fellow of King's College and professor of political theory, Cambridge University.

Utility and Democracy: The Political Thought of Jeremy Bentham

Author - Philip Schofield
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 370
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 19 820856 1

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