Inventor, neologist, inveterate planner and schemer, the English political philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) racked up any number of firsts during his lifetime. Strictly speaking, he was not the first person to embrace utilitarianism--the philosophy with which he is usually credited. But he coined the words "international" and "preprandial" and dreamed up the panopticon, the high-surveillance prison that Michel Foucault would later make famous as an expression of the sinister coercive power of the modern state.
Bentham also devised an interest-bearing currency (he called it "circulating annuities"), an underground icebox (the Frigidarium), and a system for long-distance communication (the "conversation tube"), which, despite the limited technology of his day, neatly presaged the telephone. More than one hundred years before Brigitte Bardot was born, Bentham devoted an entire section of his model penal code to cruelty to animals. And according to Philip Schofield, a scholar at University College, London, Bentham may well have been the world's first jogger--an activity he referred to with characteristic exactitude as "circumgyration."
This winter Bentham may add another first to his list when he becomes the first human being to attend his 250th birthday party. Two dozen scholars are marking the occasion with a conference at the University of Texas. And thanks to a live video hookup connecting the revelers in Austin with the philosopher's residence in London, Bentham--what's left of him--will be at the party, too.
It sounds like a lurid publicity stunt, but it's nothing less than what the eccentric Brit intended. As a utilitarian, Bentham believed in promoting the greatest good for the greatest number with the least amount of pain. Accordingly, he left instructions in his will for the preservation of his corpse so that humankind might "reap some small benefit by my disease" and--more to the point--so that his followers might take inspiration from his continued presence in their midst. Today, Bentham's "Auto-Icon" (his skeleton minus the head, for which a more palatable wax replica has been substituted) resides fully dressed inside a glass box at University College, London.
What more efficient way to represent oneself to posterity than to serve as one's own memorial? (Was he also the first performance artist?) It probably never occurred to Bentham, however, that his final act might someday have more than one meaning. No longer just a poster boy for the movement--efficiency embodied--the Auto-Icon has become a particularly apt symbol of utilitarianism's ambiguous status today: a much loved, much despised theory that, depending on whom you ask, has either outlived its uses or is just now coming into its own. As UC-Berkeley law school professor and conference participant David Lieberman puts it: "Utilitarianism has long been out of favor in academic jurisprudence and moral philosophy. But, paradoxically, it's more than ever before at the center of government decision making."
In the nineteenth century, utilitarianism was a driving political force. Bentham peddled his blueprint for a democratic constitution to countries all over the world--the Portuguese nearly adopted it--and his disciples briefly had their own party, the Philosophic Radicals, in the House of Commons. In this country, however, Bentham had less luck. When he wrote to the White House in 1811 to propose that the Americans try out his civil and penal codes, James Madison gave the Brit the cold shoulder. No doubt the utilitarian's scorn for both the doctrine of natural rights--good revolution, bad foundations, was Bentham's take on the War for Independence--and the separation of powers struck the author of The Federalist Papers as misplaced.
Now, however, Benthamism is back in style, albeit in a new, high-tech guise. Rational-choice theorists, number crunchers, cost-benefit analysts: These are the utilitarians of the 1990s. And though Bentham would hardly recognize his ideas in the policy wonks' computer algorithms, the goal is still very much the same--calculating utility preferences.
"Utilitarianism fits in very nicely with our highly technologized age," says Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago and a speaker at the Bentham conference. "Because we can quantify in such sophisticated ways, we assume we can apply econometrics to everything--family, work, love." David Lieberman agrees. "Bentham is the perfect icon for what modern society has become," he observes. "Aggressively materialistic, aggressively technocratic, aggressively hedonic."
But just because Benthamism is Us doesn't mean the professors necessarily approve. "Bentham's claim was that there was a first principle that should guide all public policy: the greatest happiness," says James Fishkin, a professor of political philosophy at UT, who is directing the conference. "But now we see all kinds of problems with that notion: What about the interests of the few? The minority? The vulnerable? We want to tell him what he got right and what he got wrong."
To that end, Fishkin is asking some of his panelists to address their remarks directly to Bentham's video presence. And if the results of our informal survey are any indication, the skeleton may be in for a rough ride. Chicago's Elshtain, for example, will deliver a paper titled "Bentham Stuffed"--an allusion, she explains, not just to her subject's physical state but to her sense of utilitarianism's "conceptual poverty" as a philosophy of human life. More sympathetic but still critical, UT philosopher David Braybrooke will ponder "Bentham's Master Idea: Could It Have Turned Out More Happily?" "Bentham was his own worst enemy," Braybrooke argues. "His master idea was that social policy should be chosen according to statistical
evidence of its impact. Unfortunately, as soon as he got this idea, he came up with the `felicific calculus' of pleasure and pain. And this concept has driven out of sight other ways of collecting statistical evidence." Even UT's James Galbraith, one of the few economists planning to attend the conference, says he has serious reservations about utilitarian-inspired economic theory today. "The whole field of welfare economics is in dire straits," he says. "We can't escape the necessity of evaluating social conditions, but there must be ways forward that bypass the utilitarian approach."
Still, no matter how nasty things get, Bentham is expected to remain a perfect gentleman throughout the ordeal. And he will be richly rewarded for his stoicism. Fishkin is planning to surprise the birthday boy with an elaborately decorated cake--a meticulous replica of Bentham's beloved panopticon.