Exploration for this essay began when I encountered a "theological" utilitarian, William Paley, in the pages of Elie Halevy's The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism (1972), his monumental study of Bentham and the secular utilitarian movement. Paley, Halevy wrote, had relied upon the rewards and punishments of the afterlife to tie up the loose ends of his theological brand of utilitarianism. I confess to being intrigued by this little discovery — so much so that it prompted the investigation of a series of interesting questions. How, for example, could a philosophical system so deliberately secular as Bentham's utilitarianism nevertheless also include a theological branch? What was the link between the secular and theological schools of utilitarianism? Did they share a common history? And what, specifically, divided them? I wondered most of all whether my "discovery" of theological utilitarianism meant that secular utilitarians might not have been quite as thoroughly secular as they or we were accustomed to believe — and, indeed, whether the secularization of modern social theory in general has been quite as complete as sometimes represented. This last question arises from a simple dilemma. Though Bentham's utilitarianism may have once appeared as a rigorously atheological body of conceptual and ethical commitments, a modern eye detects within utilitarianism the traces of nonsecular purposiveness: utilitarian social theory, after all, proposed a master goal for human life (happiness) and from this goal derived preferred social arrangements and a calculus of virtue. But how, we moderns must ask, could such a human goal (or any other) be derived or defended from within the framework of a purely secular philosophical system? How could the happiness goal's authority be vouchsafed? To the modern eye a rigorously secular view of human existence is limited to descriptive rather than normative assertions. How then was Bentham's secular and descriptive is transformed into the moralist's or the theologian's prescriptive ought?
Bentham's solution to this problem lay in his idea that happiness is good because men seek it and it is man's nature to do so. Bentham declared as much in the famous first sentence of his Introduction to the Principles of Moral Legislation (1789): "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure." Bentham simply declared that what is is right because it is natural. Of course, his solution is hedged about with difficulties. Not all men do pursue happiness or place it high in their hierarchy of life goals — what of Stoics or ascetics? Bentham argued that some men merely postponed happiness into the afterlife — thus indirectly validating his principle. But, and even so, that some men postponed implies that they possessed, and had exercised, the choice to seek or not to seek happiness. Thus, though men might universally prefer happiness, they nevertheless cannot evade responsibility for choosing or choosing not to pursue it. Moreover, a long and venerated Christian tradition saw ethics and morality as counterforces to men's quests for self-gratification. In this view the pleasure inclination was as real and as present as in Bentham's utilitarianism, but it implied the need for control, not ethical validation.
Bentham's argumentation on this point was singularly uncompelling. He wrote that the inclination toward happiness was so fundamental in the human character that it could have no proof or validation — and J.S. Mill (1963) repeated much the same argument more than a half-century later. Bentham in effect affirmed happiness ex cathedra, and so was vulnerable to a serious weakness: If we grant Bentham's "argument from his sense of the fundamental," how shall we know when to reject other, now faulty, visions of fundamental truths advanced by advocates every bit as sincere as Bentham?
The closest Bentham came to a justification for happiness's goodness or ethical warrant is the opening sentence of Introduction (1789). Bentham was a practical man and cared more about the practical applications than the intellectual or ethical foundations of his system. The message of Bentham's famous first sentence was that nature imposes a happiness orientation on mankind. By implication — though Bentham never spelled this out — the forces and laws of nature are good and worth following. But, and once again, on what authority? Nature in the Christian tradition had long occupied the opposite moral valuation, as Willey (1961, p. 4) reminds us:
...the physical world, in spite of its divine origin, was traditionally held to have shared in the fatal consequence of the fall of man, and to have become the chosen abode of the apostate spirits. Science in the Middle Ages was largely black magic; Nature was full of pagan divinities turned devils, and to meddle with it was to risk damnation. Friar Bacon was imprisoned as a sorcerer, and the Faust story illustrates the fascinated horror with which, as late as the sixteenth century, the popular mind regarded scientific knowledge.
Whatever was natural, in other words, was probably bad. On what authority, then, could Bentham declare the contrary?
As we will see, theological utilitarians shed valuable light on the happiness principle's ethical foundations. They can provide us with a revealing perspective on both their own thought and that of their better remembered secular counterparts.
Last modified 14 June 2007