What Divided Secular and Theological Utilitarians?

From the perspective of secular utilitarians at least, the crucial difference between themselves and any variety of theism lay in the issue of the afterlife. In a sense, the issue was tied, once again, to the question of the qualities and attributes of a Radically Benevolent God. Among theological utilitarians it probably made good sense that such a God would not deny mankind eternal life. Belief in the afterlife also derived from traditional Christian faith. Secular utilitarians, on the other hand, felt the pinch of their empiricism. Though radical benevolence might suggest an afterlife, honest men had to confess that a scientific approach to the question simply left them ignorant. Thus, it was best to stay mute on the matter, and ignore it in the formulation of one's philosophy. This is not to say, however, that all secular utilitarianism ignored the afterlife entirely — as we shall see, the subject provided the central theme for Bentham and Grote's theory of religious belief.

Bentham and his school tended to avoid purely metaphysical discussions, preferring instead the nuts and bolts of practical reform. Thus, it is fortunate that we have 'Philip Beauchamp's' views to fall back upon for a picture of Bentham's secular metaphysics. Beauchamp's discussion of natural religion is of considerable interest, for it dramatically emphasized the importance secularist utilitarians attached to their distaste for the afterlife belief. It also stressed the key role they saw for religion in producing much of man's contemporary unhappiness.

Beauchamp's goal was to consider natural religion from a rigorously utilitarian vantage point. This meant focussing on its consequences, and he began with a very clever rhetorical device for legitimizing this focus. He noted that critics of orthodox religion were often themselves criticized — this, not so much because of their attacks on religion's truth, but rather because religion, whether true or false, was thought to be necessary to public order and personal well-being. Therefore, he continued, it made sense to extend discussions of religion from questions of truth or falsity to estimates of religion's consequences in everyday life (or utility). This, of course, neatly deflected the discussion down the path he wanted to go.

Beauchamp's definition of religion is telling:

the belief in the existence of an almighty Being, by whom pains and pleasures will be dispensed to mankind, during an infinite and future state of existence. And religion is called natural, when there exists no written and acknowledged declaration, from which an acquaintance with the will and attributes of this almighty Being may be gathered....My object is therefore to ascertain, whether the belief of posthumous pains and pleasures, then to be administered by an omnipotent Being, is useful to mankind — that is, productive of happiness or misery in the present life (p. 3).

Natural theologists might well have cried foul at this point, for they had a lively concern with happiness in the present life, too. For example, William Paley's Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, though it relies upon the pursuit of everlasting happiness in the afterlife, is for the most part focused on everyday questions of our temporal existence. But Beauchamp equated natural religion entirely with the afterlife and its rewards and penalties. In other words, he is forcing the issue; he wishes to confront natural religion at what he regards its weakest point. Beauchamp argues first that we can know nothing from direct experience of the afterlife, but he is not simply interested in empirically restricting the natural theologist. He asserts that the things of which men are ignorant are those which they will invest with fear and dread. Pain is a more pungent and more distinct sensation than pleasure, he argues. Hence, in our imaginings of the unknown we are more likely to dwell on pain than on pleasure. A purely mortal existence — where death stopped all — would at least remove from mankind this sort of fear in the present life. It is an opening, and perhaps a not altogether persuasive, shot. But Beauchamp gets better. The pleasure/pain prospect of the afterlife is, of course, conditional on our actions in this life. From this flows the central argument for natural religion's benefit to mankind; it promotes good behavior on earth through the fear of punishment and the desire for reward in the afterlife. But for natural religion to do this, Beauchamp continues, it must illuminate right paths of conduct and it must provide reasons for pursuing them. It must admonish or impel. But, says Beauchamp flatly, we get no rules of conduct directly from natural religion. The argument is odd. Paley, after all, had derived rules of conduct from his happiness principle — just as secular theologians did. But Beauchamp is on a different track.

He argues that we learn rules of conduct from actual experience and not from natural religion. It is, once more, a strange assertion. Could not experience, in a sense, be regarded as simply another word for our contact with Nature, and thus a means by which Nature provides rules of conduct? In any case, Beauchamp asserts that we can only know that fruit is sweet or that fire burns by trying them out. It follows that we will try to extend our experience of this world to our uncomfortable anticipations of the next. And how is this done? Here, Beauchamp erects a psychology of the theological imagination. Natural religion arises because human beings, faced with unknown fates, will fear the worst and construct imaginary artifacts by which to avoid their fears. The key element in this exercise will be the attributes the human mind attaches to this all-powerful Being who dispenses the circumstances of the afterlife so feared. In other words, natural religion's object is the creation of a protective God. But what sort of God is created? Beauchamp sees that religionists profess God's benevolence but do not act as if they believed in it themselves. It is the same point Bentham expressed earlier in PML:

If we consult the language in which mankind speak of the Deity, we shall be led to imagine that he is in their conception a being of perfect and unsullied beneficence, uniting in himself all that is glorious and all that is amiable. Such is the tendency and amount of the words which they employ. Strange, however, as the inconsistency may appear, it will not be difficult to demonstrate, that mere natural religion invariably leads its votaries to ascribe to their Deity a character of caprice and tyranny, while they apply to him, at the same moment, all those epithets of eulogy and reverence which their language comprises. This discrepancy between the actual and the pretended conception is an infallible result of the circumstances, and agreeable to the principles of human nature (p. 16).

And what feature of 'human nature' is at the base of this curious discrepancy? It is fear — not the Hobbesian fear of other men, but the believer's fear of God and His power. But why does man fear a God whom he has invested with benevolence? The answer goes back to man's dependence on earthly experience. First, Beauchamp notes that religionists endow God with omnipotence. He says that the usual feeling evoked in men by limitless power is an "unmixed" fear — just think how we view the paragons of power in literature (the giants and cyclops, for example), and magnify this dread to infinity. Secondly, religionist say of God that he is unknown and incomprehensible. But this, too, in our worldly experience leads us to fear. For unknowability is "caprice, when confined to trifling occurrences of life; insanity, when it extends to important occasions" (p. 17). True, we laugh at the caprices of a child, but we take more seriously those of a madman. How much more dreadfully would we face the caprice of an all-powerful ruler?

Why our tendency to describe this God in only the most glowing praises? To answer, Beauchamp presents a theory of "praise and blame." Men use praise and blame to influence one another. Praise expresses approval and blame disapproval, but there is another crucial difference between the two: to blame or punish implies the existence of sufficient power to carry out such harm whereas to praise need involve nothing more than the voice to speak it. Thus, there is a gradient of power associated with the use of these two devices. The weak, having no power to blame the strong, attempt to influence with praise; the powerful, with sufficient means to punish, tend to use force or the threat of force. It follows, then, that the greater the differential in power between the powerful and the weak, the greater will be the tendency for the strong to use power and the weak to use praise. In this way Beauchamp resolves the discrepancy between true opinion and behavior. Men praise God, but they actually feel fear, and they praise out of powerlessness.

A central point of the remarkable Beauchamp book is that God's relation to man has become inverted, and from this inversion springs all sorts of "mischief" and costs to human happiness. In Stephen's fine summary:

Religion injures individuals by prescribing useless and painful practices: fasting,, celibacy, voluntary self-torture, and so forth. It suggests vague terrors which often drive the victim to insanity, and it causes remorse for harmless enjoyments. Religion injures society by creating antipathies against unbelievers, and in a less degree against heretics and nonconformists. It perverts public opinion by making innocent actions blameable; by distorting the whole science of morality and sanctioning the heterogeneous dictates of a certain blind and unaccountable impulse called the 'moral instinct or conscience.' Morality becomes a 'mere catalogue of reigning sentiments,' because it has cast away the standard of utility. A special aversion to improvement is generated, because whatever changes our conceptions of the 2. sequence of phenomena' is supposed to break the divine 'laws of nature.' 'Unnatural' becomes a 'self-justifying' epithet forbidding any proposed change of conduct, which will counteract the designs of God.' Religion necessarily injures intellectual progress. It disjoins belief from its only safe ground, experience. The very basis, the belief in an inscrutable and arbitrary power, sanctions supernatural and 'extra-experimental' beliefs of all kinds... (p. 345-346)

And so it goes. What is important about Beauchamp's book, however, does not lie solely in the particulars of this argument, but also in the argument's crucial initial assumption. Because it is an attack on natural religion, Beauchamp does not seem, himself, to work from theological assumptions. But this is only appearance. What we see here is in fact a systematic and exhaustive case on behalf of the absolute priority of Godly benevolence. Many features of Beauchamp's attack on natural religion are traceable to the fact that some other Godly characteristic (omnipotence or unknowability, for example) is given greater importance than benevolence or, on the other hand, that claims of benevolence are not embraced tightly enough. The key to Beauchamp's case is an assertion of Godly benevolence in a dramatic and sweeping way. But because it does so by attacking religionists' departures from the universal Benevolence assumption, its seems not to make a positive ontological case at all.

And yet it is arguable how much, in fact, the afterlife question truly accounts for differences in secular and theological utilitarianism. Because the afterlife is infinitely long, and heaven and hell are very different, a rigorous commitment to a belief in the afterlife might completely dwarf any considerations of earthly happiness. This is a point that Beauchamp makes. Of course, the point depends upon the notion that temporal happiness is somehow inconsistent with one's afterlife prospects. This view theological utilitarians denied. Indeed, a book like Paley's Moral and Political Philosophy addressed temporal, and not post-temporal, happiness as its central topic. Thus, the afterlife seems to have provided Paley's utilitarian system with little input. there were, of course, some inputs. Post-temporal rewards and punishments could provide a convenient device for solving one or two nettlesome difficulties.

For example, Paley — just as Bentham — was oblige to confront the problem of the connection between happiness and accepted standards of public morality. Why, for instance, should not a just and good man assassinate a tyrant, if the action would relieve the suffering of thousands of subjects? Paley's answer — much like Bentham's — is that there is a fundamental necessity for general rules. In other words, the assassin would set an example whose limits could not be rationally contained. In this way, incidentally, both Bentham's and Paley's ethics tended to beat a path back to Kant's generalized maxim. In any case, Paley argued that we must divide the consequences of action into the particular and the general. The particular consequences may be beneficial, but the general may be bad. Paley recognized, however, that the bad general consequences of assassinating an evil tyrant lay in the public knowledge of the event — if no public knowledge, then no bad example, and no weakening of the general rule. And so he confronted the problem of utilitarianism's apparent consistency with and approval of perfectly secret, "just" assassinations. it was here that Paley used his theological trump: the "general judgment" at the world's end will bring all secrets to light — and what could be the purpose of such general judgment if not for God to dispense rewards and punishments?

The afterlife, though it so well epitomized the secular distaste for all theism, does not tell us a great deal about the differences between works like Paley's The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy and Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. What, then, does? One is struck especially by Paley's general and prescriptive social agenda, as contrasted with Bentham's much more restricted and proscriptive one. In Paley's hands the principle of utility becomes a means for instructing men in their duty. Backed up with the power of a divine Nature's laws, Paley is interpreter to men of these laws' meanings and proper implications. There is a fundamental conservatism here. Paley's political theory, like his Natural Theology, seeks possible Divine rationales behind existing social arrangements. (One thinks of the conservatism often associated with twentieth-century social functionalism.) Paley also takes a strong line on his conception of the sources of human happiness, which strongly flavors his image of utility. For Paley, happiness did not consist in the "pleasures of sense," by which he means

...as well as the animal gratifications of eating, drinking, and that by which the species is continued, as [i.e., also] the more refined pleasures of music, painting, architecture, gardening, splendid shews, theatric exhibitions, and the pleasures, lastly, of active sports, as of hunting, shooting, fishing &c." (p. 15).

Such pleasures were of short duration, repetition dulled them, and our eagerness for them often left us disappointed with their actual experience. Neither did happiness consist in a pardon from our cares and responsibilities. And, finally, happiness would not be found in greatness or rank. Paley's conception of happiness is built on solid Protestant virtues: (1) the social affections — "Those persons commonly possess good spirits, who have about them many objects of affection and endearment, as wife, children, kindred, friends"; (2) the exercise of our faculties toward some end — what Paley called "engagement," (3) modest habits, and, finally, (4) good health.

Bentham's approach differs radically. In Bentham's hands God's Radical Benevolence is a call to rational reform. As he sees it, God has not implanted the same sources of happiness in all men but left the matter open to individual variation. Thus, Bentham does not wish universally to prescribe conduct but rather to arrange social institutions so that individuality might find easier expression. Bentham's orientation is essentially libertarian rather than moralistic. He is interested in what minimum of acts men should not perform rather than the broad field of what they should. This, of course, accounts for his relatively restricted focus on criminal law. Such a focus is not simply a byproduct of the fact that An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation was a fragmentary work, it also reflects something important about Bentham's underlying sense of mission. Bentham, thus, plays Luther to Paley's Calvin. Paley, like Calvin, would prescribe all, whereas Bentham, like Luther, would leave to individual consciences those things God did not explicitly demand of men.

There is a lesson here, I think. One might be inclined to think that the outline of Bentham's social program derived ultimately from his principle of utility. A look at Paley, however, suggests that this cannot be altogether true. That both men held the principle of utility and nevertheless had quite different views of social policy shows that something else was at work in the production of their social views. What mattered more than the principle, it seems, was whether one viewed the existing social world as fundamentally sound or fundamentally unsound, whether one viewed the role of the moralist as that of prescribing a great deal or, on the other hand, proscribing as little as possible. It mattered, too, how God chose to relate to his world of men. In Bentham's view, God (via Nature) had placed in men an immanent force (happiness) which orients them, individually, to their life courses. This view is atomistic. In Paley's view as well God gave man happiness for this directive purpose, but Paley's God had a much more important role in the arrangement of social circumstances. For Paley, more often than not, whatever was, was probably right.

God's Relationship to Man, and Halevy's Identity Principles: It is tempting to try to use this notion of God's mode of relation to the social world as a means for interpreting some of the secular utilitarian varieties Halevy acquainted us with. For example, why not explain "natural," "artificial," and "fusion-of-interest" schools in terms of their implicit styles of connection between God and man? The "natural identity of interests" position seems to demand that man trust God — even when each man pursues his selfish interests God makes community interests prosper as well. Here, in other words, the notion of happiness as a God-to-man communication device is taken very seriously. God must be trusted to orchestrate — or what amounts to the same thing — to have at some time in the past orchestrated the world so that happiness has an almost magical prescience. This, one might call the "Strong Providence" position — the position of Mandeville, Smith, Godwin, and Malthus — for it required a Providential order adequate to turn private vice into public virtue.

A weaker Providence lay in the idea that a Radically Benevolent God had placed in men themselves a desire for the happiness of their fellows. In this case the maintenance of public order and the fostering of the community's good shifted from God to man. Here was the doctrine of the "good-natured" man, which Halevy called the principle of the "fusion of interests" and is probably best remembered as the "moral sense" school. Its chief representatives were Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Brown. There is a big gap between Strong and Weak Providence. Strong Providence, first of all, logically implied anarchism — it is little wonder that this variety worked best in the economic sphere where it could rely on the comfortable assumption of an economically rational man. Weak Providence, however, definitely suggested the need for legislation and social control. Not all men would be equally good or have sufficient goodness, and not all good men would be good all of the time. God, then, was not so strongly directive, and placed no inevitable connection between men's actions and beneficent outcomes for all.

Notice how differently happiness operates in these two schools: In the Strong Providence case men are invited simply to follow their inclinations. Even if their actions appear selfish and bad, Providence will set things right. Here men are rather like happy-go-lucky dogs, free to romp as they like, and only hampered by a legacy of false (Christian) moral sensibilities. In the Weak Providence case, however, men themselves, and not the world system, are imbued with goodness. Here men do not seem dog-like but rather must be thoughtful agencies prepared to orchestrate the social world for the furtherance of goodness. They are responsible for their social institutions and for changing them in order to maximize mankind's happiness.

Finally, we have Bentham's "artificial identity of interests" model. As we have seen already, it involved a God who imbued men with differing senses of happiness and with the power to make mistakes or to do wrong. Here there is no divine blessing for social institutions but instead an invitation for change. It falls to man collectively to arrange the social institution of punishment so that the interests of the individual will be maximally identified with the interests of the community (pp. 17-18 in Halevy).


Victorian Overview Victorian Philosophy Victorian Religion Victorian Religion

Last modified 14 June 2007