As we have seen, Jeremy Bentham's strictly economic views, especially when he slid back to mercantilism, had no impact on economic thought, even upon his own philosophic disciples such as James Mill and Ricardo. But his philosophic views, introduced into economics by these same disciples, left an unfortunate and permanent impact on economic thought: they provided economics with its underlying and dominant social philosophy. And that dominance would be no less powerful for being generally implicit and unexamined.
Utilitarianism provided economists with the ability to square the circle: to allow them to make pronouncements and take firm positions on public policy, while still pretending to be hard-headed, ‘scientific’, and therefore ‘value-free’. As the nineteenth century proceeded and economics began to become a separate profession, a guild with its own code and practices, it became possessed of an overwhelming desire to ape the success and the prestige of the ‘hard’ physical sciences. But ‘scientists’ are supposed to be objective, disinterested, unbiased in their scientific work. It was therefore assumed that for economists to espouse moral principles or political philosophy was somehow introducing the virus of ‘bias’, ‘prejudice’, and an unscientific attitude into the discipline of economics.
This attitude of crude imitation of the physical sciences ignored the fact that people and inanimate objects are crucially different: stones or atoms don't have values or make choices, whereas people inherently evaluate and choose. Still, it would be perfectly possible for economists to confine themselves to analysing the consequences of such values and choices, provided they took no stand on public policy. But economists burn to take such stands; in fact, interest in policy is generally the main motivation for embarking on a study of economics in the first place. And advocating policy – saying that the government should or should not do A, B or C, – is ipso facto taking a value position and an implicitly ethical one to boot. There is no way of getting around this fact, and the best that can be done is to make such ethics a rational inquiry of what is best for man in accordance with his nature. But the pursuit of ‘value-free’ science precluded that path, and so economists, by adopting utilitarianism, were able to pretend or to delude themselves that they were being strictly scientific, while smuggling unanalysed and shaky ethical notions into economics. In that way, economics embraced the worst of both worlds, implicitly smuggling in fallacy and bias in the name of hard-nosed value-freedom. The Benthamite infection of economics with the bacillus of utilitarianism has never been cured and remains as rampant and as predominant as ever.
Utilitarianism consists in two fundamental parts: personal utilitarianism, and social utilitarianism, the latter being built upon the former. Each is fallacious and pernicious, but social utilitarianism, which we are more interested in here, adds many fallacies, and would be unsound even if personal utilitarianism were to be upheld.
Personal utilitarianism, as launched by David Hume in the mid-eighteenth century, assumes that each individual is governed only by the desire to satisfy his emotions, his ‘passions’, and that these emotions of happiness or unhappiness are primary and unanalysable givens. The only function of man's reason is use as a means, to show someone how to arrive at his goals. There is no function for reason in setting man's goals themselves. Reason, for Hume and for later utilitarians, is only a hand-maiden, a slave to the passions. There is no room, then, for natural law to establish any ethic for mankind.
But what, then, is to be done about the fact that most people decide about their ends by ethical principles, which cannot be considered reducible to an original personal emotion? Still more embarrassing for utilitarianism is the obvious fact that emotion is often a hand-maiden of such principles, and is patently not an ultimate given but rather determined by what happens to such principles. Thus someone who fervently adopts a certain ethical or political philosophy will feel happy whenever such philosophy succeeds in the world, and unhappy when it meets a setback. Emotions are then a hand-maiden to principles, instead of the other way round.
In grappling with such anomalies, utilitarianism, priding itself on being anti-mystical and scientific, has to go against the facts and introduce mystification of its own. For it then has to say, either that people only think they have adopted governing ethical principles, and/or that they should abandon such principles and cleave only to unanalysed feelings. In short, utilitarianism has either to fly in the face of facts obvious to everyone (a methodology that is surely blatantly unscientific) and/or to adopt an unanalysed ethical view of its own in denunciation of all (other) ethical views. But this is mystical, value-laden, and self-refuting of its own anti-ethical doctrine (or rather, of any ethical doctrine that is not a slave to unanalysed passions).
In either case, utilitarianism is self-refuting in violating its own axiom of not going beyond given emotions and valuations. Furthermore, it is common human experience, once again, that subjective desires are not absolute, given and unchanging. They are not hermetically sealed off from persuasion, whether rational or otherwise. One's own experience and the arguments of others can and do persuade people to change their values. But how could that be if all individual desires and valuations are pure givens and therefore not subject to alteration by the intersubjective persuasion of others? But if these desires are not givens, and are changeable by the persuasion of moral argument, it would then follow that, contrary to the assumptions of utilitarianism, supra-subjective ethical principles do exist that can be argued and can have an impact on others and on their valuations and goals.
Jeremy Bentham added a further fallacy to the utilitarianism that had grown fashionable in Great Britain since the days of David Hume. More brutally, Bentham sought to reduce all human desires and values from the qualitative to the quantitative; all goals are to be reduced to quantity, and all seemingly different values – e.g. pushpin and poetry – are to be reduced to mere differences of quantity and degree. The drive to reduce quality drastically to quantity again appealed to the scientistic passion among economists. Quantity is uniformly the object of investigation in the hard, physical sciences; so doesn't concern for quality in the study of human action connote mysticism and a sloppy, unscientific attitude? But, once again, economists forgot that quantity is precisely the proper concept for dealing with stones or atoms; for these entities do not possess consciousness, do not value and do not choose; therefore their movements can be and should be charted with quantitative precision. But individual human beings, on the contrary, are conscious, and do adopt values and act on them. People are not unmotivated objects always describing a quantitative path. People are qualitative, that is, they respond to qualitative differences, and they value and choose on that basis. To reduce quality to quantity, therefore, gravely distorts the actual nature of human beings and of human action, and by distorting reality, proves to be the reverse of the truly scientific.
Jeremy Bentham's dubious contribution to personal utilitarian doctrine -in addition to being its best known propagator and popularizer – was to quantify and crudely reduce it still further. Trying to make the doctrine still more ‘scientific’, Bentham attempted to provide a ‘scientific’ standard for such emotions as happiness and unhappiness: quantities of pleasure and pain. All vague notions of happiness and desire, for Bentham, could be reduced to quantities of pleasure and pain: pleasure ‘good’, pain ‘bad’. Man, therefore, simply attempts to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. In that case, the individual – and the scientist observing him – can engage in a replicable ‘calculus of pleasure and pain’, what Bentham termed ‘the felicific calculus’ that can be churned out to yield the proper result in counselling action or non-action in any given situation. Every man, then, can engage in what neo- Benthamite economists nowadays call a ‘cost-benefit analysis’; in whatever situation, he can gauge the benefits – units of pleasure – weigh it against the costs – units of pain – and see which outweighs the other.
In a discussion which Professor John Plamenatz aptly says ‘parodies reason’, Bentham tries to give objective ‘dimensions’ to pleasure and pain, so as to establish the scientific soundness of his felicific calculus. These dimensions, Bentham asserts, are sevenfold: intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity and extent. Bentham claims that, at least conceptually, all these qualities can be measured, and then multiplied together to yield the net resultant of pain or pleasure from any action.
Simply to state Bentham's theory of seven dimensions should be enough to demonstrate its sheer folly. These emotions or sensations are qualitative and not quantitative, and none of these ‘dimensions’ can be multiplied or weighted together. Again, Bentham raised an unfortunate scientistic analogy with physical objects. A three-dimensional object is one where each object is linear, and therefore where all these linear units can be multiplied together to yield units of volume. In human valuation, even with pleasure and pain, there is no unit common to each of their ‘dimensions’ and therefore there is no way to multiply such units. As Professor Plamenatz trenchantly points out:
the truth is that even an omniscient God could not make such calculations, for the very notion of them is impossible. The intensity of a pleasure cannot be measured against its duration, nor its duration against its certainty or uncertainty, nor this latter property against its propinquity or remoteness.4
Plamenatz adds that it is true, as Bentham states, that people often compare courses of action, and choose those they find most desirable. But this simply means that they decide between alternatives, not that they engage in quantitative calculations of units of pleasure and pain.
But one thing can be said for Bentham's grotesque doctrine. At least Bentham attempted, no matter how fallaciously, to ground his cost-benefit analysis on an objective standard of benefit and cost. Later utilitarian theorists, along with the body of economics, eventually abandoned the pleasure-pain calculus. But in doing so, they also abandoned any attempt to provide a standard to ground ad hoc costs and benefits on some sort of intelligible basis. Since then, the appeal to cost and benefit, even on a personal level, has necessarily been vague, unsupported and arbitrary.
Moreover, John Wild eloquently contrasts utilitarian personal ethics with the ethics of natural law:
Utilitarian ethics makes no clear distinction between raw appetite or interest, and that deliberate or voluntary desire which is fused with practical reason. Value, or pleasure, or satisfaction is the object of any interest, no matter how incidental or distorted it may be. Qualitative distinctions are simply ignored, and the good is conceived in a purely quantitative manner as the maximum of pleasure or satisfaction. Reason has nothing to do with the eliciting of sound appetite. One desire is no more legitimate than another. Reason is the slave of passion. Its whole function is exhausted in working out schemes for the maximizing of such interests as happen to arise through chance or other irrational causes...
As against this, the theory of natural law maintains that there is a sharp distinction between raw appetites and deliberate desires elicited with the cooperation of practical reason. The good cannot be adequately conceived in a purely quantitative manner. Random interests which obstruct the full realization of essential common tendencies are condemned as antinatural... When reason becomes the slave of passion, human freedom is lost and human nature thwarted...
(T)he ethics of natural law sharply separates essential needs and rights from incidental rights. The good is not adequately understood as a mere maximizing of qualitatively indifferent purposes, but a maximizing of those tendencies which qualitatively conform to the nature of man and which arise through rational deliberation and free choice... There is a stable universal standard, resting on something firmer than the shifting sands of appetite, to which an appeal can be made even from the maximal agreements of a corrupt society. This standard is the law of nature which persists as long as man persists – which is, therefore, incorruptible and inalienable, and which justifies the right to revolution against a corrupt and tyrannical social order.5
Finally, in addition to the problems of the pleasure-pain calculus, personal utilitarianism counsels that actions be judged not on their nature but on their consequences. But, in the non-Bethamite, mere cost-benefit (rather than ‘objective’ pleasure-pain) analysis, how is anyone to gauge the consequences of any action? And why is it considered easier, let alone more ‘scientific’, to judge consequences than to judge an act itself by its nature? Furthermore, it is often very difficult to figure out what the consequences of any contemplated action will be. How we are to find the secondary, tertiary, etc. consequences, let alone the more immediate ones? We suspect that Herbert Spencer, in his critique of utilitarianism, was correct: it is often easier to know what is right than what is expedient.