Book Review: Deontology by Jeremy Bentham
Epistemic status: magpie showing off shiny goods she doesn’t understand, young child enthusiastically sharing trivia he learned from a bathroom reader
Being a fledgling Effective Altruist without a philosophy background, I decided to read Jeremy Bentham to understand more about how modern Utilitarianism started. Bentham’s definitive treatise on the subject is An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. I didn’t read that. I’m a good EA who knows “if you want success, seek Neglectedness”. So I read Bentham’s other book on ethics: Deontology (volume 1, volume 2).
Warning: This section has meta discussion about the process of researching this review. You can skip this if that doesn’t interest you.
The first step was to find the book, which turned out to be more complicated than I expected. The canonical version of Deontology exists in two volumes that I linked above. Those volumes were edited and published after Bentham died by his literary executor, John Bowring. Unfortunately, John Bowring was not very good at his job.
The other major Bentham-related project Bowring undertook, an 11-volume collection of Bentham’s works, is summarized on Wikipedia in one savage sentence: “The edition was described by the Edinburgh Review on first publication as ‘incomplete, incorrect and ill-arranged’, and has since been repeatedly criticised both for its omissions and for errors of detail; while Bowring’s memoir of Bentham’s life included in volumes 10 and 11 was described by Sir Leslie Stephen as ‘one of the worst biographies in the language’.”
John Stuart Mill, meanwhile, said about Bowring’s work as a editor for a periodical Bentham founded: “Hardly ever did a number come out without containing several things extremely offensive to us, either in point of opinion, of taste, or by mere want of ability”.
Neither one of these criticisms addresses Bowring’s work on Deontology. It is possible that Bowring did an uncharacteristically good job editing Deontology. But the relative font sizes of their names on the title page did not inspire confidence that Bentham’s ideas passed unassaulted through Bowring’s mind.
It’s subtle, but Bowring definitely made his name larger than Bentham’s.
I then found a newer edition of Deontology, edited by Amnon Goldworth, who had the decency to put his name in a smaller font size than Bentham’s. Unfortunately, this work is not available at my local library, and paying 50 USD for text in the public domain is more than my miserly heart can bear.
I moved on to Plan C: go to the source. University College London, working with kind volunteers, has been transcribing Bentham’s manuscripts and making them publicly available. Deontology makes up the bulk of Box 14, and that’s what I read before writing this.
Relying on Bentham’s original manuscripts to write this review had the disadvantage of being confusing. The original manuscripts are raw, often repetitive, and definitely in need of a good editor to clean them up. However, on the bright side, the original manuscripts are raw, which meant that I got to see passages that looked like this:
The superscripts and strikethroughs in that transcribed text are Bentham adding to and subtracting from his work as he goes along. I know all good writers edit their work, but I rarely get to see it in action. It was really a good experience for me to see that even Bentham, writing towards the end of a storied career, about a topic on which he was the foremost authority in the world, had to make significant rewrites on nearly every page. It made me feel a lot better about my rewrites.
Stars — they’re just like us!
The Old Dinosaurs
When I first realized that Bentham wrote a book called Deontology, I was confused. Everything I knew about deontology indicated that Bentham was not a deontologist. Granted, everything I knew about deontology came from a short conversation I had with another EA, who I’ll call Jane Doe:
Jane Doe: What moral framework do you follow?
Me: Uh… what are my choices?
JD: Well, you can be a deontologist or a consequentialist.
Me: What are those?
JD: Deontologists believe that certain actions are inherently good or bad. Consequentialists believe that actions are good or bad depending on their results.
Me: What does that mean?
JD: Let’s say someone stole a loaf of bread because he was going to die of hunger. A deontologist would say he did a bad thing, because stealing is bad. A consequentialist would say he did a good thing, because he saved his life.
Me: I guess I’m a consequentialist then.
So why was Bentham writing a book called Deontology? Didn’t he know he was on the other team?
Turns out, he actually coined the word “deontology”! (He also coined On Brand™ words like international, maximize, and minimize.) Bentham’s deontology is different from modern deontology. I’ll discuss Bentham’s definition below, but I remain confused about why modern deontologists chose this word to describe their belief system. It seems like an own goal for two reasons. First, they adopted a word that came with the baggage of being coined by an ideological opponent. Second, the word is confusing! Consequentialism is about consequences, utilitarianism is about utility, and deontology is about… deon? That’s literally Greek to me.
Ethics, for Bentham, are separated into two realms: dicastic and exegetic. Dicastic ethics are when one person tells another that she ought to do something. Dicastic ethics encompass everything from laws to social norms, and anything in between that prohibits or rewards certain actions. The word dicastic comes from dicast, which refers to each of the 6,000 ancient Athenians who were chosen each year to serve in courts as judges and jurors. The word, for Bentham, still carries that sense of people pronouncing what is and is not permissible. Upon dicastic ethics, Bentham bestows the synonym deontology.
Exegetic ethics, on the other hand, are when people discuss questions without “approbation, disapprobation, or indifference”. This realm of ethics just requires people to talk about topics to uncover more information about them, and in doing so, understand them better. Just like scientists test hypotheses without approving or disapproving of them, exegetic ethicists should discuss questions with the sole aim of gaining knowledge. In this realm, no rewards or punishments are associated with actions.
Deontology and exegetic ethics are not in conflict. Quite the opposite. Exegetic ethics are the foundation of deontology. An ethicist has to talk about ethics before he can persuade others to make them into laws or social norms. Benthem combines both types of ethics in this book. He spends some time in the realm of exegetic ethics, explaining how utilitarianism works. But he spends more time in the realm of deontology, telling his readers that utilitarianism is good. They should follow utilitarianism, and maybe even form social norms that encourage utilitarianism. Bentham could have called his book Persuasion, if Jane Austen didn’t already use that title while he was still finishing this book.
I’m guessing the task of persuasion was important to Bentham because, from his perspective, everyone else was just so wrong. He was remarkably ahead of his time when it came to his moral beliefs. Before I did research for this essay, I envisioned Bentham as a time traveller from today to the past: he shared all my present-day moral beliefs, but he just happened to live in a different time period. But that’s not strictly true. Bentham was wrong about a few things, like when he castigated the Declaration of Independence (“The opinions of the modern Americans on Government, like those of their good ancestors on witchcraft, would be too ridiculous to deserve any notice, if like them too, contemptible and extravagant as they be, they had not led to the most serious evils.”) and hoped Americans would lose the War of Independence. Nevertheless, Bentham was more often than not correct, and his utilitarianism led him to believe a lot of positions that were unpopular at the time. Quoting from utilitarianism.net:
As well as animal welfare and the decriminalization of homosexuality, Bentham supported women’s rights (including the right to divorce), the abolition of slavery, the abolition of capital punishment, the abolition of corporal punishment, prison reform and economic liberalization.
All this in the late 1700s/early 1800s! Either he was wrong, or everyone around him was wrong. Because he had, somewhat literally, done the math, he knew he wasn’t wrong. So he set himself the task of convincing everyone else they’re wrong.
Bentham reserves special vitriol towards the two groups who he thinks caused everyone to be so wrong: the church and Oxford philosophers.
First, the church. Bentham asserts that God must either be a utilitarian or non-existent. If God is truly benevolent, then he, like Bentham, would want the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If he doesn’t want that, then he might as well not exist. Bentham has no patience for the “God works in mysterious ways, so maybe we just don’t understand his benevolence” argument. Benevolence is a human concept. If God is benevolent, he must be benevolent according to the human definition of benevolence. As for any claim that contemplating God is itself an activity that creates happiness — nonsense. It is one thing to enjoy a reasonable activity like sex, but claiming to enjoy God is just ludicrous.
Bentham doesn’t give any ground to people who want to separate God from religion. Religion, too, must be utilitarian to be useful. But it’s not. Not only does the Bible never mention the principle of utility, it also claims that the pleasures of the afterlife outweigh any earthly pleasures. That contradicts utilitarianism, which privileges earthly pleasures and pains above any dubious afterlife. Bentham goes as far as to suggest that unless you personally receive a religious visitation, you can have no religious duty that outranks your moral obligations.
In this way, Bentham puts religious people into a Catch-22 situation. Either their God and religion are utilitarian, in which case all religious people should start following utilitarianism. Or their God and religion are not utilitarian, in which case they are either false or disastrous. Either way, utilitarianism is the way forward.
I was surprised at Bentham’s open criticism of the church. I just assume that everyone in the olden times (i.e., all the sepia-toned times before World War I) was coy about their atheism. But Bentham talks about religion in a tone that wouldn’t be out of place on Reddit today. In contrast, Bowring, Bentham’s liberty-taking literary executor, does not share Bentham’s convictions. He censors much of Bentham’s discussion of religion before cutting it off quickly with “Ethics, not religion, is the subject of this work. Religious discussion would be here superfluous and irrelevant.” Perhaps Bentham only talked freely in his notes because he always intended to similarly censor himself before publishing?
Bentham is no more cuddly when talking about about Oxford philosophers. First, he talks about how the foundations of philosophy are rotten. Philosophy gives too much attention to Socrates and Plato, who talked nonsense and denied the existence of what every man knows: his own pleasure and pain. When people followed common sense and pursued their own pleasure, Socrates and Plato denigrated them as ignorant and vulgar. Even while they talked about how men should pursue virtue, they were hypocrites who indulged in the same base pleasures they shamed others for.
Next, he takes aim at his contemporary philosophers. “Theoretics,” as he calls them, are similar to people who chase after money and power: they’re looking in all the wrong places. These manufacturers of nonsense spend all their time in contemplation, and still cannot find an atom of good. No sooner does one of them say something, than another contradicts him. At least people who chase money or power get something in return for their efforts; philosophers get nothing. If the theoretics really cared about ethics, Oxford would teach philosophy in a living language instead of in Latin.
Theoretics act like petty tyrants, telling other people what they ought and ought not to do. These rules often line up perfectly with their creator’s whims, and have no better justification for their existence. The theoretics are more concerned with burnishing their reputations than spreading sound ethical principles. Thus, their first priority is to not offend prevailing public opinion. Unfortunately, public opinion trends towards severity for two reasons. One, severe rules allow each man to think he is better than his neighbor, because men always find ways to exempt themselves from tests while enjoying their neighbors failing those very same tests. Two, the more severely a man condemns an act, the more obvious it seems to everyone else that he himself is innocent of that act. The trend towards ever-greater severity results in a system where most books on ethics talk gloomily about strict rules and painful sacrifice.
Bentham disagrees with the church and the fancy philosophers. They have done a lot of damage, but their time has come. Like dinosaurs, they were once mighty and ruled the earth, but Bentham wants to usher in a new era.
If ethical systems are diets, then Bentham’s utilitarianism is intuitive eating. Other diets tell you to follow rules, restrict foods, and track habits. Intuitive eating tells you, “eat what you want”. Other diets tell you that food can be a trap, luring you in only to hurt you. Intuitive eating repeats, “eat what you want”. Other diets tell you that your body can’t be trusted, because it is too easily bought by cheap pleasures. Intuitive eating repeats again, “eat what you want”. Similarly, other ethical systems have a whole host of complicated rules, but Bentham’s utilitarianism has only one: “each person should maximize her pleasure and minimize her pain”.
Speaking of food, here is a page from a Bentham cookbook. How much do I love this? Let me count the ways. (1) He provides the cost of each ingredient, including labour. (2) He doesn’t explain which “Herbs & spice” should be used — “just put in two shilling’s worth, I dunno.” (3) There are no cooking instructions. I think you’re just supposed to boil everything together until it’s edible.
“But wait,” I hear my readers murmur restlessly. “Bentham wanted ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’, not for everyone to selfishly maximize their personal pleasure.” That’s what I thought too! But in this book, Bentham talks as if “the greatest good for the greatest number” naturally follows when everyone maximizes their personal pleasure. Obviously, there are situations when this is not true: the tragedy of the commons, the prisoner’s dilemma, collective action problems. All of these are situations where “the greatest good for the greatest number” conflicts with individuals maximizing their personal pleasure. But time and time again in this book, Bentham privileges the latter over the former. I’ll go through a few examples below.
First, Bentham talks about how he regrets calling his central thesis the “principle of utility”. To him, the talk about utility has caused too many of his readers to think that utility is something different from happiness. These people then spend too much time trying to increase the “utility” of their communities. In the process, they end up disapproving of the pursuit of pleasure. Bentham wishes he had called his central thesis the “greatest happiness principle,” so that his readers would think more about pursuing pleasure.
Second, Bentham discourages sacrificing one’s happiness for another’s. Sacrifice is no virtue. Giving up your own pleasure in order to ensure anothers’ is not virtue, but folly. Making others give up their pleasure in order to ensure your own is not virtue, but vice. He expresses this most strongly when he says, “Had Adam cared more for the happiness of Eve than for his own, [or] Eve at the same time any more for the happiness of Adam than for [hers], Satan would not have needed to give himself the trouble of temptation. Misery would have saved him from the prospect of their happiness[;] or Death of both would have saved him from the prospect of their existence.”
Bentham does permit sacrifice through a loophole. In a situation where your own interest coincides with anothers’, so that your happiness results from their happiness, you may help them. Bentham thinks this will happen fairly frequently even in a world where sacrifice is discouraged, because people naturally tend to be sympathetic towards others. Somewhat sacrilegiously, Bentham’s attitude towards sacrifice reminded me of Ayn Rand’s. She, too, permitted sacrifice, while framing it as being just a manifestation of rational self-interest. For example, in Atlas Shrugged, John Galt pontificated:
If you wish to save the last of your dignity, do not call your best actions a ‘sacrifice’: that term brands you as immoral. If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty. If a man dies fighting for his own freedom, it is not a sacrifice: he is not willing to live as a slave; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of man who’s willing. If a man refuses to sell his convictions, it is not a sacrifice, unless he is the sort of man who has no convictions.
Bentham even finds a silver lining to the worst possible outcome, where everyone just acts selfishly without ever helping anyone else. Even if a person’s pursuit of pleasure is “purely selfish, without the least tincture of benevolence”, the outcome will be good. As long as pleasure results, it hardly matters whether it resulted from sympathy or selfishness. The way Bentham frames this (“it is not by benevolence that the services have been produced … the good produced is just the same is just as valuable, as if it had”) echoes Adam Smith’s famous quote “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages”.
Third, Bentham privileges individuals over groups when it comes to defining pleasure. No QALYs, stress scales, or other objective measures for Bentham. Instead, everyone is free to define their pleasure in whatever way they want. Any sensation a person pursues is pleasure, any consequences of that pursuit are good. Each person is not only the best judge, but the only judge, of what qualifies as pleasure or pain to her. To tell others what is and is not pleasurable is folly. Bentham acknowledges that letting everyone decide their own definition of pleasure could lead to bad consequences, like people pursuing pleasures that turn out to be unpleasurable, or just chasing after money and fame. But he mentions these pitfalls only briefly, and moves on to repeating that people should be free to pursue their idiosyncratic pleasures.
I think part of the reason for Bentham’s focus on individual pleasure and pain is that this book was aimed at convincing individuals to adopt utilitarianism in their lives. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, his other book, focused more on utilitarianism as applied to the government and society, so it might have a different perspective. In any case, I was surprised at how individualistic this book was. I had assumed that Bentham was the patron saint of putting the greater good above individual wants. It was eye-opening for me to realize the importance Bentham placed on individual pleasure and pain.
In a brave new world where everyone is looking for soma and avoiding nociception, what does a virtuous life look like? Bentham iterates on this answer, starting out with four virtues, then three, and finally settling on just two: prudence and benevolence. All the good a utilitarian does in the world is either an exercise of prudence or of benevolence. Acts conducive to one’s own happiness fall under prudence, while acts leading to the happiness of others fall under benevolence.
For Bentham, doing what is pleasurable is table stakes. If you have to choose whether to eat an apple or a pear, you should choose the fruit that makes you happier. But in more complicated situations, where it is not clear which choice will bring the most happiness, the virtues of prudence and benevolence can help you decide. These virtues transform Bentham’s “pursuit of pleasure” from hedonism to something more closely resembling utilitarianism.
Prudence counsels that you should sacrifice short-term pleasures for greater long-term pleasures.. Prudence also counsels that you should care about others, because how you treat others affects how they treat you. If you want to be treated well, you should treat others well.
In this way, prudence and benevolence are connected. Being loved makes people happy. Thus, prudence requires having other people love you, which means you have to at least seem to love other people. The most effective way to seem to love others is to actually love them, which leads to benevolence.
At first, benevolence seems to be in conflict with Bentham’s desire for each individual to maximize his own pleasure, because benevolence requires considering the happiness of others. But Bentham disagrees. Bentham takes it as a given that almost no one wants to hurt others, or can think about others being hurt without feeling pain themselves. This sympathetic reaction is enough to align people’s interests with the greater good.
Bentham spends a lot of this book discussing other so-called virtues, and reducing them all down to either prudence or benevolence. This discussion got pretty repetitive, so I will discuss just a couple of representative examples.
First, consider grandstanding or showing off. For the non-utilitarian layperson, grandstanding is probably a vice in itself. It is a subset of being proud, which is the deadliest of the seven Biblical sins. For Bentham, grandstanding is only a vice because it violates both prudence and benevolence. It violates prudence because it invites envy towards oneself, which is not likely to make one happy in the long run. It violates benevolence because it humiliates others. The ultimate vice, in either case, is violating prudence or benevolence, not grandstanding in itself.
Second, consider anger. For the non-utilitarian layperson, this is another vice. It is also part of another one of the seven Biblical sins: wrath. For Bentham, anger is a vice only if it violates either prudence or benevolence. Doing something that is likely to make you angry requires imprudence. Wanting to hurt others out of anger violates benevolence. Wanting to hurt others can also violate prudence, because if you hurt others, others are likely to want revenge against you in the future. However, some kinds of anger are virtuous and do not violate either prudence or benevolence. For example, societies punish criminals out of a sense of anger, but that kind of anger is permitted because it helps society achieve justice.
Benevolence increases as a result of two trends. First, as people get older, they are more likely to care about others. Second, as societies get more advanced, people start taking into account more future consequences of their actions. These trends combine to form an enlarging circle of benevolence, where benevolence increases in both intensity and reach. Bentham envisions this circle extending to cover towns, provinces, and eventually the nation. Today, the frontier of the expanding moral circle is even wider, reaching out internationally, to animals, and even to non-sentient natural entities like lakes and forests. Interestingly, the Vox article linked in the previous sentence says the idea of an expanding moral circle was introduced in the 1860s, but Bentham was writing about enlarging circles about half a century before that.
Bentham also mentions positive and negative utilitarianism, although not in those words. In the margins of one of his papers, he discusses how benevolence comes in two flavors: positive and negative. Positive benevolence increases the happiness of others, while negative benevolence avoids diminishing the happiness of others. Much like the expanding moral circle, the distinction between positive and negative benevolence only became popular long after Bentham’s death. Still, it’s interesting to see how Bentham sowed the seeds of the ideas utilitarianism would expand to cover.
Here is a summary of Deontology from a contemporaneous (and contemptuous) review.
Now the Utilitarian faith is this: that those actions are moral which tend to produce the greatest possible happiness, and those actions immoral which have a contrary tendency; that virtue is the preference of a greater remote good to a less adjacent good; that vice is only a false moral arithmetic; that the ablest moralist is he who calculates best; the most virtuous man, he who most successfully applies right calculation to conduct; that moral sense and right reason are nothing more than empty and pompous forms of ignorant dogmatism; that it is idle for a man to get into an elbow chair and talk about duty, because every man who hears him is thinking about interest; that ought and ought not are phrases without meaning, except with reference to pleasure or to pain; that if any man were to act always with a correct view to his own interest, he would secure to himself the greatest obtainable portion of felicity; and that if every man, acting correctly for his own interest, obtained the maximum of obtainable happiness, mankind would reach the millennium of accessible bliss, and the end of morality, the general happiness, would then be accomplished; that the only purpose of an intelligent moralist is to prove that the immoral act is a miscalculation of self-interest, and to show how erroneous an estimate the vicious man makes of pains and pleasures; that unless he can do this he does nothing, and that if he can accomplish this he has achieved everything; for that it is in the very nature of things impossible that any man should not pursue that which he seems likely to produce to him the greatest sum of enjoyment.
The above quote lays out clearly that measuring and optimizing pleasure is at the center of Bentham’s utilitarianism. But what happens if everyone starts measuring and optimizing happiness? That would turn people into unreasonable
paperclip utility maximizers. Possible outcomes include:
Utilitarian Alice starts murdering young healthy organ donors so their organs can be used to save five other lives.
Utilitarian Bob starts breeding enough crickets to cover the Earth mile deep in crickets because crickets have the highest happiness-out to calories-in ratio.
Utilitarian Cindy starts coding an AI that will feel 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 utilons every time some presses its spacebar. This AI’s happiness will outweigh any human happiness or sadness, thus creating a utilitarian heaven on earth.
When I started reading the book, I expected Bentham to propose ideas that would make the above hypothetical situations possible. Having finished the book, I’m no longer so sure. Bentham’s ideal utilitarian looks more like:
Utilitarian Dan starts trying to be more happy more often. He practices prudence and benevolence. As he grows older, and his society becomes more advanced, he finds more and more happiness in being benevolent. He starts being more benevolent, but never so much that he feels like he is sacrificing his own happiness.
Bentham really seems to believe that a world full of Utilitarian Dans would be a world with the greatest good for the greatest number. So does the Effective Altruist Scott Alexander met at EA Global:
In fact, his philosophy was that you should do exactly what you feel like all the time, and not worry about altruism at all, because eventually you’ll work through your own problems, and figure yourself out, and then you’ll just naturally become an effective altruist.
I think that sounds lovely, and I hope it’s true.
Below are a couple fun facts I learned that didn’t quite fit in anywhere else.
Jeremy Bentham founded a periodical called the Westminster Review. After his death, the periodical moved to 142 Strand in London, right across the street from the offices of a then-new magazine called The Economist. Both publications shared at least one writer, thus beginning a long-lasting overlap between the kind of people who are sympathetic to utilitarianism and the kind of people who like The Economist. (I am only throwing slight shade here, because I belong to both groups.)
Some of the papers in the Transcribe Bentham archives came from Aaron Burr. Yes, Hamilton fans, that Aaron Burr. They lived together for a while, and both supported equal rights for women. Burr liked Bentham so much he sent a bust of Bentham to his daughter, Theodosia. I assume this is the old-timey equivalent of putting a joint selfie on Instagram.
Most footnotes are formatted as folio_number/image_number. You can find the text by appending these two numbers to the end of http://transcribe-bentham.ucl.ac.uk/td/JB/014/. This particular snippet comes from 049/001. In other words, http://transcribe-bentham.ucl.ac.uk/td/JB/014/049/001 ↩︎