George Walford: In Pursuit of Precision

He calculated happiness, invented both the modern jail and the word “intentional” and now sits, though with a waxen head, in University College. He published little of his own work, but produced some 70,000 sheets of manuscript to be turned into books by other people, some of the most influential first appearing in French and then being re-translated back into English. Best known of the Philosophical Radicals, he is recognised as a precursor of modern liberalism (in the British sense of that term) and his work constitutes an exposition of some of the main features of the parastatic ideology, the ideology of precision.

Jeremy Bentham did not invent either the concept or the phrase “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” but he drove them into the public consciousness and with help from others, Edwin Chadwick and J. S. Mill among them, developed their implications into the theory of Utilitarianism. As the term implies, he aimed his work directly at practical ends; not for him the refusal of the extreme eidodynamics to present blueprints. He worked hard for parliamentary reform and the secret ballot, devised schemes for more effective sewage disposal, for workhouses and for the “Panopticon,” a prison laid out like the spokes of a wheel so that one warder from a central position could survey the whole interior. (Like a good liberal he hoped to make money from his invention, but was disappointed. He ended up having put in more work for less financial reward than most members of the legal profession for which his father had had him trained). These inventions led him back into study of the theory of the law and of thought and language, psychology and metaphysics as involved in this.

The political individualism which begins to emerge in this ideology appears in his work on what he termed – displaying some verbal individualism himself – “Private Deontology” (more familiar as personal ethics). He and his followers were occupied with political problems and institutional change, but in going beyond what is to what ought to be this implies a confidence that one’s personal ethics have been sufficiently developed to be justifiably set against authority and tradition. Bentham and his colleagues were striving to substitute one single, universal, rational, critical standard for varying, prejudiced, partial and superstitious attitudes, and although the concept of such a standard, and even the details of their particular one, had not been worked out by them alone, they still accepted it, and propagated it, on their own personal intellectual authority. At first seeking the support of benevolent despots – at one time he hoped that Catherine the Great would adopt a code of laws based on his principles – he later came to rely, more democratically and in the full spirit of the Enlightenment, on the good sense of the people at large. With happiness as his object and law as the means by which it was to be attained, the method he used was not tradition, authority or religion, but reason. He identified this with his utilitarianism, saying of something that it was “reasonable, i.e. conformable to the principle of utility,” and of “sympathies or prejudices unconnected with the principle of utility” that they were “therefore irreconcilable to reason.”

“Reason” carries a range of meanings, from the simplicities of pub discussions (while they remain good-tempered) to the bottomless depths of Hegelian dialectic. For Bentham the term implied, above all else, clarity and precision. His earliest manuscripts include an attempt to prepare a dictionary giving clear definitions of each term used in morals, and he defined one meaning of “logic” as “the establishment of clear and determinate ideas.” Locke and Descartes stood high among the influences he acknowledged, each of them as a worker in the clarification of ideas. When Bentham speaks of “clear, distinct, determinate ideas” he is particularly close to Descartes, and we recall that in Descartes’ conception not only the intellectual world but the material world also consisted of distinct, determinate particles – he called them “vortices.” It is the particulate, atomistic, mechanistic conception characteristic of the ideology of precision, and it links up with a distinctive approach to social problems. Not for the adherents of this ideology the method of the advanced eidodynamics, identifying one feature of the social structure – private property, or authoritarianism – as the root of all evil and working on the assumption that if only that be suppressed or eliminated all else will be added unto us. Bentham and his fellows treated each issue by itself – they strove to be clear and precise about them all but clarity and precision indicate no course of action – as modern liberals advocate a range of reforms without attempting to identify any one fundamental source of abuses and malfunctions which, if corrected, would bring all the particular issues into line.

In his work on legal reform – a main preoccupation – he set himself against the old common law in favour of statutes and codification, on the ground that although common law relied on precedents, in practice acceptance or rejection of these was up to the judge in each case. Common law was in fact judge-made law, and it was made after the fact, when the case had come up for judgment. In the absence of codified statues the citizens could never know in advance, dearly and precisely, what they might legitimately do.

Relative magnitude was too loose an approach for Bentham; he sought to quantify pleasure, and pain, using money as a measure:

if I having a crown in my pocket and not being thirsty, hesitate whether I shall buy a bottle of claret with it for my own drinking or lay it out in providing sustenance for a family… it is plain that so long as I continued hesitating the two pleasures of sensuality in the one case, of sympathy in the other, were exactly worth to me five shillings: to me they were exactly equal.

The attainment of that repeated “exactly” satisfies Bentham that in this instance his problem has been solved, but he realises that human affairs call for a level of precision going beyond mere mechanical measurement; an extra £10 of income will bring greater pleasure to a poor person than to a rich. Social status affects personal responses, people are not simply an assemblage of separate individuals. This is implied also by the formulation of the general principle: “the greatest good of the greatest number”; this can mean reducing the good of any one for the benefit of the totality. With further development the role of the collectivity comes to bulk larger and the protodynamic ideology, in political affairs the activity of reform in the sense of fundamentally re-shaping the society, comes to suppress the atomistic approach. Bentham himself never effected the transition, but J. S. Mill, and later the Webbs, managed it in substance if not in all details.

(Based on Bentham, by Ross Harrison 1983. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. All quotations in Bentham’s words as given by Harrison).

from Ideological Commentary 37, September 1989.