Friday, July 04, 2014

The very dubious Bentham

The last time I mentioned Bentham, it was about his underpants.

It's not a stretch from there to note his libertine views on sex, which get a description in this recent review of a book on the subject.  

Jeremy, I take it from the (sometimes) reliable source of Horrible Histories*, was very eccentric in his personal conduct (and not just because of what he had done to his body after death,) but the review does point out that the permanent bachelor did fall in love with women, and seemingly slept with them.  But he does come across as something of a naive Jim Cairns "free love" type:
Of all enjoyments, Bentham reasoned, sex was the most universal, the most easily accessible, the most intense, and the most copious – nothing was more conducive to happiness. An "all-comprehensive liberty for all modes of sexual gratification" would therefore be a huge, permanent benefit to humankind: if consenting adults were freed to do whatever they liked with their own bodies, "what calculation shall compute the aggregate mass of pleasure that may be brought into existence?"
As someone says in comments following the review:
The article criticises Mill but actually supports his idea that Bentham did not really understand human feelings. Anyone who thinks sex=pleasure, pleasure=happiness and therefore more sex = more happiness doesn't understand human emotion.
On Bentham more generally, while Googling around I found this article from earlier this year, and I was somewhat surprised to read that Jeremy was an early proponent of the "Jesus had male lovers" idea which would re-appear again in 1970's gay rights activism.  (I remember some gay rights guy on the old Mike Walsh Midday show, probably in that decade, causing gasps in the largely female audience by making that claim.  I don't know if it was widely rumoured at the time, or later, that Walsh himself was gay.)

But I was more intrigued by this part of the article, showing that Jeremy was a radical in other ways which should cause people hesitation, at the least, about his judgement generally, and utilitarianism:
Bentham also took up the theme of infanticide. He had considerable sympathy for unmarried mothers who, because of social attitudes, were ostracized and had little choice but to become prostitutes, with the inevitable descent into drink, disease, and premature death. It would be far better, argued Bentham, to destroy the child, rather than the woman. Moreover, it was kinder to kill an infant at birth than allow it to live a life of pain and suffering. 
Well, we don't hear about that view of his so often, do we?

Update:  I see that the topic of Bentham and his justification of infanticide was dealt with at First Things last year.  It's a good article that concludes:
 Bentham has here laid out, quite clearly, a fundamental dispute of the modern age: the good life understood as the satisfaction of preferences and unfoiled desires on the one hand and the Platonic idea that justice is found only through the kind of self-restraint that looks beyond pleasure and pain on the other. There is, as Bentham was well aware, no middle ground. Not Paul, but Jesus excels in making this crystal clear.

* as confirmed with this paper, which notes he was extremely eccentric, and concludes he probably had Asperger's.  Bentham as Sheldon:  it does make sense.

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