June 26, 2012 essays
Smith discusses the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and why it so alarmed the defenders of natural rights.
In my last four essays, I discussed the ideas of Thomas Hodgskin. No discussion of Hodgskin would be complete without considering his great classic, The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832). But in order to understand and appreciate this book, we need to know something about the doctrine that Hodgskin was criticizing, namely, the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). I shall therefore devote this essay to Bentham and then resume my discussion of Hodgskin in the next essay.
Natural-rights theory was the revolutionary doctrine of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, being used to justify resistance to unjust laws and revolution against tyrannical governments. This was the main reason why Edmund Burke attacked natural rightsor abstract rights, as he called themso vehemently in his famous polemic against the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke later condemned the French Constitution of 1791, which exhibited a strong American influence, as a digest of anarchy.
Similarly, Jeremy Bentham, in his criticism of the French Declaration of Rights (1789), called natural rights anarchical fallacies, because (like Burke) he believed that no government can possibly meet the standards demanded by the doctrine of natural rights. Earlier, a liberal critic of the American Revolution, the English clergyman Josiah Tucker, had argued that the Lockean system of natural rights is an universal demolisher of all governments, but not the builder of any.
The fear that defenders of natural rights would foment a revolution in Britain, just as they had in America and France, alarmed British rulers, causing them to institute repressive measures. It is therefore hardly surprising that natural-rights theory went underground, so to speak, during the long war with France. Even after peace returned in 1815 a cloud of suspicion hung over this way of thinking. Natural rights were commonly associated with the French Jacobins Robespierre and others who had instigated the Reign of Terror so a defender of natural rights ran the risk of being condemned as a French sympathizer, a Jacobin, or (worst of all) an anarchist.
Thus did British liberalism don a new face after 1815, as an atmosphere of peace resuscitated the movement for political and economic reforms, and as many middle-class liberals embraced a non-revolutionary foundation for economic and civil liberties. The premier theory in this regard, which would become known as utilitarianism, was developed by Jeremy Bentham and popularized by his Scottish protg James Mill (the father of John Stuart Mill) and by many other disciples.
Bentham did not originate the utilitarian principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number; we find similar expressions in a number of eighteenth-century philosophers, such as Hutcheson, Helvetius and Beccaria. For our purpose, the most significant feature of Benthams utilitarianism was its unequivocal rejection of natural rights.
Natural rights, according to Bentham, are simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, nonsense upon stilts So-called moral and natural rights are mischievous fictions and anarchical fallacies that encourage civil unrest, disobedience and resistance to laws, and revolution against established governments. Only political rights, those positive rights established and enforced by government, have any determinate and intelligible meaning. Rights are the fruits of the law, and of the law alone. There are no rights without lawno rights contrary to the lawno rights anterior to the law.
The significance of Bentham does not lie in his advocacy of social utility, or the general welfare, or the common goodfor this idea, by whatever name it was called, was regarded by many earlier classical liberals as the purpose of legislation, in contradistinction to its standard.