Origins of Classical Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham

Portrait of Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill / National Portrait Gallery, London

Lecture by Dr. Ian Shapiro / 01.20.2000
Sterling Professor of Political Science
Adjunct Law School Professor
Director, MacMillan Center
Yale University

Enlightenment Tradition I: Classical Utilitarianism

We’re going to start talking about classical utilitarianism, and we’re going to use as our point of departure Jeremy Bentham, who lived between 1748 and 1832 and came up with the canonical statement of the doctrine of utilitarianism. It’s a doctrine which is still very much alive and kicking in the contemporary West despite all of its problems, and we’ll have things to say about why that is. But I wanted to make a couple of prefatory remarks first about Bentham himself. There are some thinkers in the Western tradition, I guess in any tradition, who have a particular characteristic that Bentham certainly has, and I think of the folks we’re going to read Karl Marx had and Robert Nozick had. And the thing I’m thinking of here is they are the kind of person who takes one idea to the most extreme possible formulation. They ask themselves a question, “How would the world be if this idea that I have is the only important idea,” and they take it to its logical extreme, to an excessive kind of formulation.

And they will go places with their idea that nobody else will go, and so that makes them a little bit crazy. They’re monomaniacal, obsessively consumed with their idea. In the case of Bentham it’s the idea of utility, which we’re going to unpack a little bit in a moment. But what’s always interesting about people like this is that they play out an idea to its logical extreme and that exhibits both its strengths and its limitation just because they’re willing to go when others will not go, think the unthinkable, think politically incorrect things for their time in pursuit of really pushing this idea to the absolute hilt.

And so Bentham is the kind of thinker who I suspect, at the end of the day, nobody will be fully convinced by, but he’s very useful. He’s a very useful diagnostician of what it is about utilitarianism that’s going to be appealing to you and where eventually you’re going to want to put some limits on it just because he goes beyond the limits. And so you can see what happens if you push it all the way to the hilt.

Secondly, I want to just say that Bentham is important as a fountain of more than utilitarianism, but also of modern conceptions of value more generally considered. You’ll see that there were rumblings of the kinds of things he had to say about value in the seventeenth century. Hobbes, for example, who I mentioned last time, criticized Aristotle for not seeing that what is good for some people may not be good for other people, and Bentham builds on that idea. You’ll see Bentham will start to link the good to what it is that people desire.

There were also rumblings of Bentham’s methods in particularly his aspirations to found politics on scientific principles in the seventeenth century. We already saw last time the Hobbesian and Lockean creationist theories of science, but they were really transitional figures. They also gave theological justifications for their arguments as I explained at some length in Locke, in the context of Locke. I didn’t have time to do it with Hobbes, but many of you will know that if you read the second two-thirds of Hobbes’ Leviathan, it’s almost all about interpretation of the scriptures, showing that his scientifically derived principles are also consistent with the Bible.

Bentham sheds all of this. For Bentham he’s not interested in appeals to tradition. He’s not interested in appeals to religion. He’s not interested in appeals to natural law. He dismisses the natural law tradition as dangerous nonsense, “nonsense on stilts.” He’s only interested in a scientific set of principles for organizing politics. And one of the nice things about Bentham, at least from your point of view, is — and we’ll see that utilitarianism values efficiency in many ways, but one of the interesting things or the helpful things about Bentham is that he reduces his whole doctrine to a single paragraph, and he puts that paragraph right at the front of his Introduction to The Principles of Morals and Legislation. So here you have the kind of Cliffs Notes formulation of Bentham’s argument. He says that, “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, as well as to determine what we shall do.” So this is going to be about describing human behavior and about what ought to be the case.

He will point out what we ought to do as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. (That’s the throne of pain and pleasure.) They govern us in all we do, in all we say, and in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection (that’s our subjection to pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding) will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it (to confirm that subjection). In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire (that’s the empire of pain and pleasure): but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and law. Systems which attempt to question it deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, and in darkness instead of light.

That is, in a nutshell, Bentham’s theory; very bold unequivocal statement. He’s saying if you want to understand human beings in a causal explanatory sense all you have to know about them is that they’re going to seek pleasure and avoid pain. And if you want to think about what ought to happen in the design of institutions they should be designed around that fact, to accommodate that fact. And he’s going to develop a system of laws, a system of government that takes into account and is built upon this assumption about human nature, as he would have called it; human psychology, as we would call it today.

Betham’s System: Features of Classical Utilitarianism

Now, I’m going to make five points about Bentham’s system to give you some sense of the full dimensions of it, before we start dissecting it and subjecting it to critical scrutiny. I want to make sure that we understand exactly what his system is. And I want to first of all notice that it is what I’m going to call a comprehensive and deterministic account. I call it a comprehensive and deterministic account in that it’s an account of all human behavior. He wants to say everything you do is ultimately determined by pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding. How plausible?

Think of the counterfactual. How could I live with myself for the rest of my life if I didn’t do it? The pain would be too great. And Bentham considers cases like this sort of thing. Apparently altruistic acts seems ultimately always reducible to the pleasure-pain calculus. One example he considers is people acting from religious motivations and he says, “Ha! Just read the Bible. Look at the descriptions of heaven and hell. Isn’t that a made-to-order pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance?” Hell is described as, you know, the fires of hell, perpetual pain. So, the people who constructed religious doctrines clearly had an understanding of human nature or they wouldn’t have described hell in a way that they described it and heaven in the way that they describe it.

So, the first thing he wants to say is that this is a completely comprehensive explanation of human behavior. Can anybody think of any example that couldn’t be re-described as fitting this pleasure-pain calculus? Yeah?

You may think that there is more complexity to human motivation that’s just not expressible as or reducible to pain and pleasure. I think that’s a very sophisticated and common critique that’s been made of Bentham. If you go and read, indeed if you read the obituary of him that was written by Coleridge, I think it was, makes exactly this point. There was this sophistication to human motivation that isn’t captured in this idea. I think that the truth is Bentham would have acknowledged some of that, but he would have said, “At the end of the day it’s not important because the pleasure-pain calculus overrides when the chips are down. If we’re going to think about what it is that’s going to motivate people, it’s pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance.”

Okay, a second thing that you should notice about this doctrine is that I’m going to call it a naturalistic doctrine. In some ways it’s astounding that writing almost half a century before Darwin, Darwin was born in 1809 and lived until 1882, so writing almost half a century before Darwin, Bentham grounds his principle in the imperatives for human survival. He thinks that the pleasure-pain principle has a natural biological basis. Although there are religious, moral and political sources and sanctions of pain and pleasure, these are all secondary to the physical sources for Bentham.

“The physical,” he refers to at one point, as “the groundwork” of the political, moral, and religious. It is included in each of them. At another point he says we are bound by the principle of utility as “the natural constitution of the human frame” often unconsciously and often when our conscious explanations for our actions are inconsistent with the principle of utility. I’ll come back to that point. If we didn’t abide by the principle of utility, he says in his little essay, The Psychology of Economic Man, he says, “The human species could not continue in existence and that in a few months, not to say weeks or days, we would be all that would be needed for its annihilation.” In other words, the principle of utility expresses our objective interests as living creatures.

A third point that I’m going to make about Bentham’s doctrine is that it’s what I will call egoistic, but not subjectivist. Now, that’s a lot of babble terminology, but let me explain what it means. The reason I’m using those two words together is that they don’t normally go together. That is to say egoistic views are usually subjectivist, so I’m pointing out that they’re not. And by egoistic I mean it is just like in all economics assumptions, the assumption of self-interest. People are self-interested seekers after pleasure, and self-interested avoiders of pain in exactly the way you learn about them in an economics 101 textbook. And we’ll have occasion to examine that self-interested premise in some depth later.

But it’s not a subjectivist doctrine in that Bentham wants to say this is true regardless of what we ourselves say about our preferences. It’s not dependent upon your acknowledging its truth for its being true, okay? So you might think you’re motivated by altruism, or love of your child, or your religious faith. Bentham says, “You’re just muddled and deluded. You don’t understand. Your subjective understanding is not in accord with the science of the matter.” At one point he says, “It is with the anatomy of the human mind as it is with the anatomy and physiology of the human body. The rare case is not of a man’s being unconversant, but of his being conversant with it.” So just as if you have a pain in your side and you don’t know if it’s your liver, or your spleen, or your lung, the rare case is you get it right. He once says exactly the same with your motivation. The fact that you don’t understand, or wouldn’t agree with, or don’t acknowledge what’s motivating you, so much the worse for you. You just have an inaccurate or incomplete understanding of your motivation. You’re just wrong, okay?

So it’s in that sense picks up on the idea this is an objectivist account. It is objectively the case. Whatever people think about it, whatever people say about it, it is objectively the case that they behave self interestedly in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.

Fourth, Bentham’s is a radically consequentialist doctrine.

Bentham takes everything to the extreme. So we are concerned with the consequences of the action and nothing else. It’s an extreme consequentialist doctrine. He’s not interested in our intentions, right? The road to hell is paved with good intentions for Bentham. Now, it doesn’t matter what people intend it matters what happens, right? It’s a radically consequentialist doctrine.

We will see that there’s an alternative tradition of thinking about ethics and politics that is deeply rooted in human intentions when we come to read Robert Nozick and John Rawls and people who draw on Kant’s, Immanuel Kant’s ethics, and that’s what gets to you — to give you all of the jargon up front that is what will be called deontological, sometimes contrasted with teleological. Consequentialist is a kind of teleological doctrine. What does teleological mean?

The end, the purpose, the consequence. So consequentialist doctrines are teleological doctrines. They’re all about the consequences, the purpose, the ends, the goals, the results, whereas what we will talk about later when we get to deontological systems, or the antithesis of that, they focus on intentions, on processes, on procedures, on how you do things, not on where you get to, okay? So Bentham is a radical consequentialist, and you judge a doctrine simply by looking, you judge a possible policy, an action, anything you’re thinking of doing or not doing simply by virtue of what effect it is likely to have and nothing else. Nothing else matters.

Finally, Bentham thinks everything he’s doing is quantifiable. I gave you just a sliver to read from his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation just so that you could get a sense of how this guy’s mind actually worked. He really thought it was the case that he could develop a kind of science of utilitarianism where he would figure out exactly how many utils, we might call them.  We might call them Standard International Utils, “SIUs,” would attach to a pleasure or pain any policy or action, and that eventually you could figure out exactly what all of the optimal policies were for the organization of society.

He thought about utility. He thought it had really four dimensions. How intense is it? Duration, how long does it last? Its certainty or uncertainty, that is, probability that the result will occur. And what he called propinquity or remoteness, which modern economists would say we discount pleasure into the future. If you say, “I’ll give you a dollar today, or I’ll give you a dollar tomorrow,” you’ll get more utility from the dollar that you get today, okay? So he thought that these were all quantifiable dimensions of utility, so a little unsure about the intensity, but he’s sure that everything else can be quantified. And he set about quantifying. He set about trying to figure out a system of legislation not only for his society, by the way, he started writing constitutions for other countries. And when he ran off to Poland and various places and said, “Look, here’s my utilitarian constitution for your country,” and he was very disappointed when people didn’t rush off and implement it right away. So he truly believed that you could come up with a scientifically demonstrable system of organizing society based on the quantifiable character of utilitarianism.

So one further feature of this quantifiable character of utilitarianism is that he thought we could make comparisons across people. We could do the math across people. We could add up how much utility one person gets from a possible action, and how much utility or disutility another person gets, and redistribute in order to do what he thought we should do, which was to maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number. He’s a complete consequentialist, so we would do whatever we have to do to maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

So, for example, I happen to know that Denise, who’s sitting over there, has got a great capacity for utility. She’s easily pleased. If you give her a book she’ll be just delighted. But Anthony over there is a kind of grumpy guy. If you give him a book he’d say, “Well, why didn’t you give me two books? One measly book.” So, if I have a choice between giving this book to Denise, or giving the book to Anthony, I’m going to give the book to Denise because she’s going to get more utility than Anthony’s going to get from having this book. We don’t really care who has the utility from a social perspective. We want to maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number, okay? But then what we might discover is that Leonid over there has an even greater capacity for utility. He is just a utility monster. He’s got such a capacity for happiness that any little thing that most of us would think is neither here nor there is really going to make him happy. Well, then we should give everything to him, right?

So it’s a doctrine that’s completely uninterested in the distributive side of utilitarianism except in an instrumental way, and we’ll come back to that on next Monday. All you want to do is maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number in society, the total amount of happiness.

Robert Nozick / Wikimedia Commons

Now, here’s a further feature of Bentham’s doctrine and I think it follows from the consequentialism that you should at least notice, because I think it bears on our thinking about, for instance, the Eichmann problem. And this is actually taken from Robert Nozick’s book, in his critique of utilitarianism. He says let’s consider the following thought experiment. Suppose your brain was connected by electrodes to a computer and the computer was programmed to make you have whatever experiences give you pleasure and not to have any experiences that give you pain. So you would, in fact, be unconscious, I think actually in Nozick’s example, floating in a vat unconscious, but you would believe you were doing whatever it is that gives you the greatest pleasure. And the question Nozick asked is, “Would you want to be connected to the machine?”

Who would want to be connected to the machine? Okay, we only have one, two three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, fifteen. I see about fifteen candidates for Nozick’s pleasure machine. Who would not want to be connected to this machine? Okay, we have probably two-thirds of you. Who’s not sure? Okay, some are not sure. Those who wouldn’t want to be connected, why not? I mean, this is great, isn’t it? You don’t have to work anymore. You don’t have to do assignments. You don’t have to show up to class. You just, you know, for the rest of your life, maybe, you’re programmed to have the experiences that give you the most pleasure in life. What could be better than that? Why don’t you want to do it?

The point of life is to have some contrast effects. Richard Nixon said, “Only if you’ve been in the deepest valley can you appreciate the joy of being on the highest mountain,” as he was being run out of the Whitehouse in 1974. Well, you could say, okay, well, in that case we’ll program the machine accordingly so you’ll have certain painful experiences in order to maximize the net of pleasure and pain. Every, I don’t know, every fifth minute you’ll have some unpleasant experience just so that you don’t forget how pleasant the pleasant experience is. We can do that.

It’s not the contrast. It’s not the banality of pleasure, if you like, it’s that the lack of free will or autonomy. But couldn’t we program it to make you think you were acting freely even though you weren’t? I think — what about that? Some people say that’s true of us all, this idea we have free will it’s a lot of bunk. We’re all really basically just acting out sort of impulses and instincts, but we believe we have free will. So you could be made to believe that you’re making choices even if, in fact, you aren’t.

I think there are some people in the room, if we had time to pursue this conversation, there are some people in the room who no matter what you did to the programming in the experience machine they wouldn’t like it, and they wouldn’t like it for two principle reasons, I think. One has just been articulated which is that somehow this seems like an abdication of your own autonomy. And when we think back to the Eichmann problem one of the things that troubled people was his abdication of his autonomy. He’s giving up his free will to say, “Yes or no. I think this is right or wrong. I’m going to do it on the basis of my own autonomous judgment.”

The second thing I think that people would worry about is who’s operating the machine. Who’s operating the machine? How do you know that once they’ve got you floating in that vat what you wanted to have done will in fact happen? And so there’s a basic problem of agency and accountability that makes people nervous.

Individual Utility versus Social Utility: The Role of Government

But let’s just put those things to one side for the moment and focus on the rest of the exposition of Bentham’s doctrine. We’re going to come back to all of these issues, I promise you. I just want to get everything out on the table. What he says is that the role of government is, “A measure of government (which is but a particular kind of action, performed by a particular person or persons) may be said to be comfortable to or dictated by the principle of utility when in like manner the tendency which it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any which it has to diminish it.” So again, the bumper sticker version of that for Bentham is, maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

And for those of you who like thinking diagrammatically, if we imagine a two-person society, so A has this much utility, that’s the status quo, right? A has this much utility. B has that much utility, and let’s say there’s some outer limit of possible utility, which we’ll call the possibility frontier. Bentham would say if you draw that line there anything that puts us in this, whatever it is, cloudy zone here, would be a net increase in the total amount of utility in the society; pretty straight-forward claim, right? So we went from there to there. Both would have more utility, but if we went from there, say, to there A’s utility would have gone up and B’s would have gone down, but we don’t care, right, because the total amount of utility in this society has gone up. What we wouldn’t want to do is come anywhere into this area because then utility, the total amount of utility in this society would have decreased.

Okay, so that’s basically the story. Now, you might say, “Well, why do you need government at all if this is the story?” Everybody is — whatever they think, whatever they say, whatever they understand, everybody is a mindless pleasure-seeker and pain-avoider, or perhaps mindful pleasure-seeker or pain-avoider, but they have no control over that. They’re going to just do what they have to do. Why create government with the principle that it should maximize utility in this society? It seems like an odd thing to do. Why would you do that?

So people wouldn’t voluntarily do things that maximize one another’s — maximize the total social utility, right? If taking something from A and giving it to B would increase B’s utility more than it would diminish A’s utility, well A’s not going to go for that voluntarily. B might go and take it, but he may or may not be strong enough to take it. We don’t know. So that’s a very shrewd observation in response to that diagram, and it actually gets to more sophisticated questions about redistribution and utilitarianism.

But there’s, I think, before we get to those questions, there’s a more fundamental level at which Bentham thinks utilitarianism creates the need for government, and that is that there’s a disconnect between what’s individually optimal and what’s socially optimal even before we get to the redistributive questions. We might call it the market failure theory of government. Where other eighteenth-century thinkers had taken the view that when this, you know, Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand, everybody acting selfishly leads to a collectively optimal result. Bentham, we’ll see, thinks that’s true a lot of the time, but not always. There are certain circumstances in which people are likely not to act in a way that produces a common result.

“The great enemies of public peace are the selfish and dissocial passions — necessary as they are…Society is held together only by the sacrifices that men can be induced to make of the gratifications they demand: to obtain these sacrifices is the great difficulty, the great task of government.” And he’s thinking really of, and this may be the first formulation of it that we find, what we today call free-riding, freeloading. He thinks about the provision of something like national defense, what we call, economists call a public good. You can’t be excluded from the benefits of it, right, and it must be jointly supplied. So it says,

If, for example, the commencement or continuing of a war being the question upon the carpet, if, upon his calculation, a hundred a-year during the continuance of the war, or for ever, will be the amount of the contribution which according to his calculation he will have to pay. (You have to pay a hundred dollars a year in taxes to finance this war.) If his expected profit by the war will be equal to 0, and no particular gust or passions intervene to drive him from the pursuit of what appears to be his lasting interest upon the whole. — he will be against the war and what influence it may happen to him to possess, will be exerted on the other side.

Now, why would his benefit be zero? This is rather convoluted prose, but what Bentham’s saying is, “If the war is going to be fought anyway, I get no marginal benefit from supporting it. I might as well oppose it, or I might as well refuse to pay taxes in support of it,” right? And that is the nature of public goods, that people can free ride on their provision because an economist says the two features of a public good are they must be jointly supplied, everybody has to contribute to them, and you can’t exclude anybody from the benefits of them. Like clean air, if we create clean air for some people we’re going to create clean air for all people, okay? So people are going to have to be coerced in the provision of public goods. People are going to have to be coerced to pay for the war.

So that’s one example. Another one that comes up is the so-called tragedy of the commons problem. Suppose you have some common land, and we’ll come back to talking about this in connection with Locke’s social contract theory. God gave the world to mankind in common, on Locke’s story, so long as much and as good is available to others in common. So if you have common land here’s the problem. You’re thinking about grazing your sheep on the common. If I put my sheep onto that common land it doesn’t do any lasting damage, but if everybody grazes their sheep on the land and none of it is allowed to lie fallow, then it destroys the common, okay? So there are too many sheep for everybody to gaze their sheep on the land, but any individual person doesn’t have a reason not to graze his sheep.

This was finally formulated in a rigorous way by a man called Garrett Hardin. The tragedy of the commons that if you have commons they’ll be destroyed because each person will do something that makes individual rational sense but not collective rational sense. So this is, again, it’s not exactly the same as the free-riding problem, but it’s related to the free-riding problem. I won’t see any reason in the world why I shouldn’t graze my cow or my sheep on the common, but when everybody does that we destroy the common. It’s a bit like walking down the street with a soda can and you think, “Should I take the trouble to cross the street to put it in a recycling bin or just throw it in the trash?”

The Measurement of Utility

I’m going to a few points about the measurement of utility, which we bumped into in a glancing kind of way last time, but we’re going to dig into it a little bit. And then we’re going to move from that into talking about utility and distribution in classical utilitarianism; how we should think about the measurement of utility across the whole society and what implications Bentham’s argument has for that, and I think you’ll start to see why classical utilitarianism became such an ideologically powerful doctrine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

So just briefly to recap, we talked last time about Bentham’s principle being maximized, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” The idea being that if you think of, in this case, a very simple two-person society, and you think of that as the status quo, A has that much utility, B has that much utility. Anything on this side of the status quo would be an improvement for society. The greatest happiness of the greatest number will have been increased.

Now, that’s all very abstract, and by way of trying to make it somewhat more concrete, let’s notice two features of utility measurement. The first, as I said to you last time, as far as Bentham is concerned, this is a doctrine of what I called objective egoism; that people are self-interested and behave self-interestedly, but that we can figure out what’s likely to motive them regardless of their own interpretation of their actions or behavior. We have our interpretation; remember, Bentham says the rare case — as with the physiology of the human body, so with the anatomy and physiology of the human mind, it’s the rare case that you get it right about yourself. And it’s the objective scientific calculus that’s going to tell us what maximizes people’s utility.

Now, you might say, “Well, how is that actually going to work?” So there are two steps here. The first one is that he thinks all utility is quantifiable. I went through that last time, but the piece I didn’t mention is that it follows from that that utility is reducible to a single index, and in this case Bentham’s thinking of money. Money is going to be the measure of utility in his scheme, and that means that we could think of these units of utility as having a kind of dollar value. So anytime you think this doctrine is crude or extreme, remember my point that this is a guy who takes every thought to the logical extreme.

But if so you get one, let’s just for simplicity say, say one Standard International Util costs a dollar. And let’s suppose you experience two Standard International Utils of pain from coming to class. Then I could make you indifferent between coming to class and not coming to class by paying you two dollars. It could get you to come to class if I paid three dollars, and I would not get you to come to class if I paid a dollar, right? And so that’s the second point. In the first instance we say that utility is quantifiable and expressible through money, but then related to that, and as indicated in the example I just gave you, we can work with a doctrine of revealed preference. We can vary the price that we charge admission for the course. So let’s say we charge — let’s imagine there are three of you and one of you experiences two utils of pain from coming to class, one experiences three utils of pain, and one experiences two utils of pleasure. There’s one perverse student in the audience who actually likes coming to the class. So then we would find that if we paid a dollar, one of you would come. If we increase it to two-fifty, two of you would come, and so we could vary the price to get information about your utility.

And we could even influence your behavior without actually changing your preferences, and that’s a very important distinction to make. Your enjoyment from coming or not coming to class wouldn’t change, but your behavior would change if we varied the price; so that we can influence your behavior by manipulating the incentives without regard to what your underlying preferences are, and we could allow them actually to stay the same. You’d rather be at home asleep, but if the price is high enough you’ll come anyway.

Classical Utilitarianism, Distributive Justice and Diminishing Marginal Utility

Okay, so that’s all well and good at the level of thinking about one individual’s behavior, but what about thinking about society in more general terms? When we talk about utilitarianism in Bentham’s system, classical utilitarianism, we see that he operates with these numbers that attach to specific actions or policies and that we can make comparisons across individuals. So to put this in the jargon of economists, Bentham allows interpersonal comparisons of utility. Bentham allows interpersonal comparisons of utility. We can say that if you take one unit of utility from one person and give it to another person their utility will go up and the first person’s utility is going to go down. Okay, so it’s a doctrine of interpersonal comparisons of utility.

And for those of you who are mathematicians here it might also be worth noting that Bentham operates with cardinal scales. These are additive things. You can actually think about these as sort of lumps of pleasure or pain experience that are moved around across people and can be added and subtracted. And so I put up just here to sort of — so you can think your way through this doctrine. If you imagine a status quo, a perfectly egalitarian world in which each person has six units of utility, you can start asking yourself, “Well, let’s imagine if we could redistribute things.” What would that mean as far as Bentham’s doctrine is concerned?

What I’ve given in this first column as a potential departure from the status quo is the utility monster example we talked about last time. If it turns out Leonid has a vastly superior capacity to experience pleasure than anybody else, then we could get a huge increase in total utility by taking a lot from B and C and giving it to Leonid, so that we would say “allow,” right? Or we could think of this change from the status quo — we go to a more inegalitarian society and, again, the greatest happiness of the greatest number has increased. We have a world here where there are eighteen utils and a world here where there are nineteen utils.

Or think about this case, we might think of this as a kind of schematization of the Eichmann problem. If the utility that the Aryans gain from practicing genocide and ethnic cleansing against the Jews exceed the utilities that the Jews lose, there would be no reason under Bentham’s doctrine not to do it.

Okay, now there’s a certain ambiguity in the phrase, “Maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” which Bentham never finally resolves. The ambiguity is whether he’s saying just maximize the total, so here the total’s bigger than eighteen, here the total’s bigger than eighteen, here the total’s bigger than eighteen, so it’s obviously the case that it’s preferable, on Bentham’s scheme, to the status quo.

Or is he perhaps saying maximize the utility of the majority, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, the greatest number simply meaning the majority? But in that second interpretation you could still get highly inegalitarian distributions being judged superior to the status quo, because if you imagine going from here to here we’ve got a majority here experiencing twelve utils of pleasure, and here we have a majority of two experiencing seventeen potentially utils of pleasure. So there is some ambiguity there as to just what Bentham meant, but most of the time he is taken as having meant just the crude statement, “Maximize the total amount of utility in the society.” And so that nuance between whether we’re saying the greatest number means a majority or just the total amount is not something that will detain us any further.

Now, you could say, “Okay, so far so good, but isn’t all of this a little counterintuitive?” After all, if you compare — let’s focus on the difference between the status quo and distribution IV here. These people might be on the verge of starvation. Surely giving them a unit of utility is going to be much more enhancing to their happiness than giving A a unit of utility.

Diminishing marginal utility, the principle of diminishing marginal utility of all good things. And this is the idea just encapsulated, to make it a little bit more dramatic: if you don’t have a car and somebody gives you a Porsche Turbo, your utility’s going to go up a huge amount, right? But if you already have a Porsche Turbo and somebody gives you a second one, you’re going to get less new utility from the second Porsche than you had from the first. And if somebody gives you a third one you’re going to have less utility, less new utility from the third one that you had from the second. It’s not that you won’t get any new, but you’ll get less.

And the principle of diminishing marginal utility says that this line will get flatter, and flatter, and flatter toward infinity. You’ll always get more utility from a new increment of the same good, but it’ll be less new utility than you got from the previous increment of that same good, okay? That’s the concept of diminishing marginal utility. The new utility you get diminishes at the margin. Each new Porsche is less valuable to you than the previous Porsche. Now, is that plausible?

There are a lot of people who think that the principle of diminishing marginal utility means that money is less important to people as they have more of it. After we said the principle of diminishing marginal utility of all good things, right? Money is a way of purchasing good things, so your example might be thought to suggest that this implies the more money you have the less important money is to you, okay? So you’re right, but notice what that means. Does it mean that rich people will care less about money? It’s a tricky question because the first impulse is to say, “Yes, they’ll care less about money,” but the answer is no. Why is the answer no?

They need more money to get the same amount of happiness precisely because of the principle of diminishing marginal utility. So you got it exactly right to see that money creates some problematic examples for the principle of diminishing marginal utility. But the thing that follows from it is that, for Donald Trump to get more utility, you have to give him a huge amount of new money just for him to get the same amount of new utility as somebody who only has ten thousand dollars, right? So the way to think about the desire for money it’s a bit like sort of a heroin addict needs more, and more, and more new heroin to get the same hit, right? So the more money you have, actually the more money you will want in order to get the next marginal increment of utility. So we should expect rich people to be greedy by this theory, not to become more and more indifferent to money. Very important assumption and a lot of people get that wrong when they think about the principle of diminishing marginal utility.

What about the examples I threw out there, beer and aspirins? They’re a bit like the sort of left shoe examples, right? I don’t think those are actually deep problems for Bentham’s theory because I think what he would say is, “Well, you’d drink beer and at some point you would sell the beer rather than make yourself paralytically drunk and feel terrible.” You’d sell the beer and use that to buy some other good that would give you increasing utility at a diminishing marginal rate. So the main thing is that the fungibility of utility and its expressibility in terms of money, although as was pointed out here, when we think about the diminishing marginal utility even of money, we shouldn’t think that that makes you care less about money the richer you get; rather it will make you care more about money the richer that you get.

Okay, now, here’s a historical statement about the principle of diminishing marginal utility. Every serious economist since the eighteenth century has assumed that the principle of diminishing marginal utility is true, including Jeremy Bentham. You can’t do economics without assuming that the principle of diminishing marginal utility is true. And I think if you threw out some of these problematic instances like integrity, I think that what Bentham would have said, or what any economist would have said, “Well, yes, there are some things that are not capture-able easily, or easily captured by this idea, but if you want to get it right, if you want to see how people are going to behave, if you want to get it right, it’s a better assumption than any of the competing assumptions you could make. It’s going to get you closer to the truth more of the time than not assuming the principle of diminishing marginal utility is true.” So Bentham would have probably said that, I think, if questioned or if somebody had probed with some of these counter examples. So it’s the best assumption you can make given that you’ve got to assume something.

Diminishing Marginal Utility, Practical and Absolute Equality


But now, and now I want to come back to the sophisticated point that was made in the middle at the back there a few minutes ago, when you start to think about the utility that people at the bottom of the social order derive from a particular good, versus the utility that the people at the top of the social order derive from some particular good, because in Bentham’s scheme, remember, we are allowing comparisons across individuals. Let’s suppose a two-person society, again, and let’s suppose it consists of Donald Trump — well, it can be a multi-person society but we’re just going to focus on two: Donald Trump and a homeless woman living out of a left luggage locker in Grand Central Station. Actually there are no lockers at Grand Central but there are at Penn, at Penn Station, okay? And the question is, should we take a dollar from Trump and give it to the bag lady. What? Should we? Yes? No? How many think yes? Okay, yeah, almost everybody.

Why? Because by assumption with the principle of diminishing marginal utility we take the dollar from Trump up there, his loss of utility is negligible, but we give it to the woman who’s starving down here, and her gain in utility is enormous from that dollar, right? So we should take the dollar from Trump. Let’s assume there’s no dead weight loss to the government and all of that for right now. We will just keep it simple. We should take that dollar from Trump and we should give it to the bag lady, and the greatest happiness of the greatest number will have increased, right? But then maybe we should take another dollar, shouldn’t we? I mean it worked the first time, so we should take a second dollar from Trump and give it to the bag lady, and a third dollar, and a fourth dollar. When are we going to stop?

We’re going to stop at the point of perfect equality, right? We’re going to keep redistributing until they have the same amount. So now you should be able to start to see why classical utilitarianism was a doctrine that was thought to be profoundly radical and frightening to rich men, because it has this built-in impetus for downward redistribution. You can say well, there’ll be cost, there’ll be dead weight loss to the state and so on, but still the underlying logic says take it from Trump and give it to the bag lady, right? At the margin that’s what you should do.

And Bentham completely saw that this was an implication of his doctrine. Now, Bentham was a fairly radical guy. He was a supporter of democracy, which was a radical thing at that time. But he wasn’t as egalitarian as all that, and he wanted to temper the downward redistribution that flows from his principle, and so he makes a distinction between what he refers to as “absolute” and “practical” equality. He says,

Suppose but a commencement made, by the power of a government of any kind, in the design of establishing it (absolute equality, that’s redistributing to equality), the effect would be — that, instead of every one’s having an equal share in the sum of the objects of general desire — and in particular the means of subsistence, and the matter of abundance, no one would have any share of it at all. Before any division of it could be made, the whole would be destroyed; and destroyed, along with it, by those whom, as well as those for the sake of whom, the division had been ordained.

He’s basically saying, if you want to reduce that to a bumper sticker, he’s saying the rich will burn their crops before giving them to the poor, and that is a common argument in politics. It’s the sort of reverse of trickle-down, right? Trickle-down is the notion that you allow inequality because the rich will create more wealth for everybody, right? The pie bigger for everybody, and so the greatest amount of utility is increased by allowing inequality. This is the inverse claim. Bentham’s saying, “Well yes, in principle absolute equality would maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but in fact if a government set out to do that, the rich would rebel.”

And this is a claim that is often made in everyday politics. So you’ll destroy incentives to work, is the claim that you’ll hear when we have arguments about raising taxes in the run up to the fall elections, right? In the transition to democracy in South Africa people said the white farmers will destroy their farms before turning them over to the majority. It turned out not to be true. So those examples put on the table, what sort of force does this claim have? It’s really an empirical claim, and we don’t really know how much the rich will tolerate before burning their crops. Presumably they’ll allow some redistributive taxation, but we don’t know how much, and a lot of the day-to-day argument of politics turns around how much.

So Bentham makes a distinction between absolute and practical equality, and he says, “We should redistribute to the point of practical equality, but not to the point of absolute equality because redistributing beyond practical equality has this perverse counter-trickle-down logic and that’s not going to be acceptable from the standpoint of the principle of utility.”

Okay, so when you allow both interpersonal comparisons of utility and you assume diminishing marginal utility, utilitarianism becomes a very radical doctrine. You can hedge it in to some extent with claims of this sort, but they are themselves controversial and you’re going to get into a very messy world of macroeconomic predictions and counter-predictions about whether and when you reach this point of practical equality, or when the gains from downward redistribution are offset by the losses from the shrinking of the pie.

What about Rights?

Now, some of you might have said, “Well, at the beginning of this course of lectures, Shapiro said, ‘Every Enlightenment thinker is committed to postulants. One is that we can have a scientific theory of politics, and the other is that individual freedom operationalizes a doctrine of rights is the most important good.’ Now, having sat through these lectures on Bentham, I can see what he’s saying about science. Bentham has this monomaniacal view of science. He’s got his objective egoism. He can figure it all out, what will maximize social utility, and run around the world writing constitutions for people, can devise a whole public policy that’s going to scientifically maximize the utility of society, but I’m not seeing a whole lot of room for rights in this doctrine. It seems to allow ethnic cleansing, even genocide. It seems to allow redistribution from one person to another, all justified on the grounds that this is maximizing the total utility of society. Well, even if it is, how does this respect individual rights?”

Am I just wrong? Is there some elementary thing I’ve missed here? There’s not much room for rights in Bentham’s doctrine. So I’m just wrong that these Enlightenment thinkers were committed to individual rights? It would be a reasonable inference from what I’m said so far. But remember, for Bentham when we try to maximize utility in the society, individual motivation is vital. This is a passage I read to you last week, but I’m just repeating it, “The great enemies of public peace are the selfish and dissocial passions — necessary as they are…Society is held together only by the sacrifices that men can be induced to make of the gratifications they demand: to obtain these sacrifices is the great difficulty, the great task of government.”

He’s saying you have to work with individual motivations. You can’t ignore them, and I think that is the point that’s behind his distinction between absolute and practical equality. The rich will burn their crops before giving them to the poor. You have to take that into account. You have to see individuals as the basic generators of utility. In another piece of Bentham’s writing which I didn’t have you read, but I’ll just put it out there because it’s where you start to see our old friend the workmanship ideal creeping by the backdoor into utilitarianism. Bentham says, “Law does not say to man, Work and I will reward you but it says: Labour, and by stopping the hand that would take them from you, I will ensure you the fruits of your labour — its natural and sufficient reward, which without me you cannot preserve. If industry creates, it is law which preserves. If at the first we owe everything to labour; at the second, and every succeeding moment, we owe everything to law.”

So another way of thinking about this is, that Bentham’s idea of the state is essentially regulatory. It stays the hand of somebody else who would steal your goods, but the government cannot itself create utility. Labor creates utility, and this is why I say that workmanship, that idea that we first confronted when we talked about Locke, comes into utilitarianism by the backdoor, because Bentham’s going to say, “Unless you respect individual rights you’re not going to be able to maximize utility for the society as a whole.”

So the state is basically a regulative state, not a state that’s actively involved in creating utility for individuals. It will do some redistribution to the point of practical equality, but the basic idea is that the state should be hands-off with respect to the utility creation in the society. It’s industry that creates utility — labor, work — so incentives are going to be important going forward if you’re going to maximize utility. So that’s the way in which we see that even a classical utilitarian like Bentham is going to resist dispensing with the doctrine of individual rights.

Now, there’s a problem, though, with his mode of doing this, and the problem arises because the claim that the rich will burn their crops before giving them to the poor might not be true. And even if we get to less extreme circumstances like South Africa before and after the transition, when we look at actual debates in contemporary politics in the United States, this is what we see. Ronald Reagan comes in and says, this is in 1980, “If we cut taxes, the pie will get bigger for all and they’ll be actually more revenue,” and so utilitarianism says do it. And the Democrats say, “No, they won’t,” and it’s an empirical argument. And you will find, if you go back now and look at what happened during the 1980s, perfectly credible economists will line up on both sides because they cut the taxes, but, of course, eight other things happened as well that affect the macro-economy, right? And disentangling how much the tax cuts were responsible for what happened, versus how much many other things that happened were responsible, nobody really knows.

Or if you look at the current debate we watched and are watching unfold about the economic stimulus. If the economy turns around between now and November, the Democrats will probably do a lot better than if it doesn’t, but the Republicans will say, “Well, it would have turned around faster if we hadn’t had all this taxation.” And Paul Krugman will say, “Well, it would have turned around even faster if we had had more taxation.” And so a lot of the problem in debating incentives, once you get into the real world of macroeconomic policy-making, is that (a) you never have the counterfactual; you can’t go and rerun history without the stimulus, right, or without the Reagan tax cuts. And (b) the sheer complexity; so many other things happened — the price of oil goes up, or the commodities collapse, or the dollar, or this, or that, or the Chinese revalue, do or don’t change the value of their currency. Â

So that when it gets down to it, you’re never going to get a definitive answer to the question what is the point of practical equality. When have we passed the point of practical equality, to use Bentham’s terminology? Are we close to it? Have we gone by it? Are we nowhere near it? There have been periods in our history when we’ve had top marginal tax rates of 90 percent, right? Reagan thought a top marginal tax rate of 40 percent was beyond the point of practical equality. You’re never going to get a definitive resolution of those questions.

But if we think back to what the aspiration of the early Enlightenment was, it was certainty. To use the example, remember, I read to you from Hobbes, from his Epistle Dedicatory to his Six Lessons to the Professors of Mathematics; he said, “For the things we don’t make, we can’t know we can only guess about the causes,” right? Well, here we’re guessing about the causes. We don’t really know and there will be — the people who want either policy will be able to find a plausible set of experts to defend their view. So you’re getting to this very messy world of macroeconomic prediction, if you want to put some limits on the radical edge of classical utilitarianism. And as a matter of history, that’s not how it went.

As a matter of history, how it went was to rethink the analytical structure of utilitarianism in a way that completely defanged its radical redistributive edge without any reference to these messy macroeconomic considerations.



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