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From Theory to Practice: Bentham's Reception of Helvétius

  • MATTHIAS HOESCH (a1)

Abstract

It is widely accepted that Bentham was influenced by the thought of Helvétius. But the fact that Bentham copied some elements from Helvétius leads to the question of how he changed the Helvétian ideas, and in what respects he aspired to go further than Helvétius. Taking as a starting point Bentham's claim that Helvétius was the Bacon of moral science, whereas he himself was to be the Newton, I argue for the following. First, Bentham's theory can be understood as an attempt to work out in detail the theoretical programme that Helvétius outlined in order to reform moral philosophy. Second, in contrast to Helvétius, Bentham's theory is guided by considerations of feasibility, and this leads to claims that are more moderate than Helvétius's claims. Third, whereas Helvétius did not indicate how utilitarian principles should enter political decisions, in Bentham's approach the citizens, and especially philosophers, are considered active political agents.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

References

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1 Documented in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, 11 vols., ed. John Bowring (Edinburgh, 1838–43), vol. x, p. 27 (in the following cited as ‘Works (Bowring) vol., page’). Accordingly, following on from Helvétius's deliberations on ‘genius’, Bentham asked himself at a young age: ‘Have I a genius for anything? . . . And have I indeed a genius for legislation? I gave myself the answer, fearfully and tremblingly – Yes!’.

2 Bentham, ‘Article on Utilitarianism: Short Version’, Deontology, Together with Table of the Springs of Action and Article on Utilitarianism, ed. A. Goldworth (Oxford, 1983), pp. 319–28, at p. 325.

3 Cf. The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2, ed. T. L. S. Sprigge (London, 1968), p. 117. Cf. also the letter to Forster; Correspondence, p. 99.

4 See Works (Bowring), vol. x, p. 71.

5 See quote and references in n. 59 below.

6 The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 1, ed. T. L. S. Sprigge (London, 1968), p. 367.

7 Works (Bowring), vol. x, p. 54.

8 Bentham, ‘A Comment on the Commentaries’, A Comment on the Commentaries and a Fragment on Government, ed. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart (London, 1977), pp. 1–389, at p. 377.

9 University College London Collection of Bentham Manuscripts (in the following: UC) c. 114. See also the letter to Forster: ‘From him I learnt to look upon the tendency of any institution or pursuit to promote the happiness of society as the sole test and measure of its merit: and to . . . regard the principle of utility as an oracle which if properly consulted would afford the only true solution that could be given to every question of right and wrong’ (The Correspondence, vol. 2, p. 99).

10 Cf. Bentham, ‘Article on Utilitarianism: Short Version’, p. 325.

11 Douglas Long claims that Helvétius ‘appears to have influenced and even inspired Bentham in a uniquely comprehensive way’, but he does not try to demonstrate that claim; cf. Long, ‘Censorial Jurisprudence and Political Radicalism: A Reconsideration of the Early Bentham’, in The Bentham Newsletter 12 (London, 1988), pp. 4–23, at p. 8.

12 Harrison, Ross, Bentham (London, 1983), p. 115. In the same general way, Crimmins writes that ‘there can be no doubt that the influence of De l'esprit upon Bentham was considerable’ (Crimmins, James E., Secular Utilitarianism: Social Science and the Critique of Religion in the Thought of Jeremy Bentham (Oxford, 1990), p. 78).

13 Already Sidgwick, Henry noticed that ‘the premises of Bentham are all clearly given by Helvétius’ (Miscellaneous Essays and Addresses (London, 1904), p. 151). See further Halevy, Elie, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism (London, 1934), pp. 1827; Heydt, Colin, ‘Utilitarianism before Bentham’, The Cambridge Companion to Utilitarianism, ed. Eggleston, B. and Miller, D. E. (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 16–37, at pp. 31–3.

14 An exception is Douglas Long, who argues that the concepts of pleasure and pain as well as the idea of physical sensibility are Helvètian; cf. Long, ‘Claude Adrien Helvétius’, The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Utilitarianism, ed. J. E. Crimmins (Toronto, 2017), p. 233.

15 Cf. Rosen, Frederick, Classical Utilitarianism from Hume to Mill (London, 2003), pp. 93 and 95.

16 Rosen, Classical Utilitarianism, p. 93.

17 Jeremy Bentham's Economic Writings, ed. W. Stark (London, 1952–4), vol. i, pp. 100–1.

18 All passages quoted from UC xxxii. 158 are based on the transcription of Michael Quinn.

19 UC xxxii. 158.

20 That view is described e.g. in Ducheyne, Steffen, ‘Bacon's Idea and Newton's Practice of Induction’, Philosophica 76 (2005), pp. 115–28.

21 Cf. Helvétius, De l‘esprit, p. 42 (II, 2). Because no standard English edition exists, the passages from De l'esprit are, in addition to page numbers, documented with references to the essay (roman numerals) and the chapter within this essay (arabic numerals). Quotations and page numbers are according to the translation by Mudford, William: De l'esprit or, Essays on the Mind and its several faculties (London, 1807).

22 On the Newtonian aspects of Helvétius's theory see Smith, David W., ‘Helvétius and the Problems of Utilitarianism’ in Utilitas 5 (1993), pp. 275–89, at p. 276.

23 Cf. Helvétius, De l'esprit, pp. 9–10 (I, 1).

24 ‘at all times, and in all countries, both with regard to morality and genius, personal interest alone dictates the judgment of individuals’ (Helvétius, De l'esprit, p. 38; II, 1).

25 Explicitly, for example, in De l'homme, vol. 1, p. 187 (II, 16): ‘Pleasures and pains are the moving powers of the universe.’ Passages from De L'homme are documented, in addition to volume/page numbers, with references to the section (roman numerals) and the chapter (arabic numerals); quotations and page numbers adhere to the translation by Hooper, W.: A Treatise on Man; his Intellectual Faculties and his Education, 2 vols. (London, 1810).

26 Helvétius, De l'esprit, p. 40 (II, 2).

27 Helvétius, De l'esprit, p. 92 (II, 11).

28 Helvétius, De l'esprit, p. 90 (II, 10).

29 Cf. Helvétius, De l'esprit, pp. 108–12 (II, 14).

30 ‘who can deny that prisons have disarmed more robbers than religion? . . . It is then only by good laws, that we can form virtuous man’ (Helvétius, De l'esprit, p. 184; II, 24).

31 Helvétius, De l'esprit, pp. 124–5 (II, 15).

32 Helvétius, De l'homme, vol. 1, p. 4 (introduction, ch. 2).

33 ‘the legislator may assign so many punishments to vice, and so many rewards to virtue, that every individual will find it his interest to be virtuous’ (Helvétius, De l'homme, vol. 2, p. 307; IX, 6); ‘All the art therefore of the legislator consists in forcing them by self-love to be always just to each other’ (De l'esprit, p. 185; II, 24).

34 Helvétius, De l'esprit, pp. 121–2 (II, 15).

35 Cf. e.g. Helvétius, De l'esprit, pp. 489 ff. (IV, 17).

36 Cf. Helvétius, De l'homme, vol. 2, pp. 198 ff. (VIII, 1).

37 ‘The almost universal unhappiness of man, and of nations, arises from the imperfections of their laws, and the too unequal partition of their riches’ (Helvétius, De l'homme, vol. 2, p. 205; VIII, 3).

38 Helvétius, De l'esprit, p. xxxi (preface).

39 ‘What is a new truth in morality? A new method of securing or increasing the happiness of nations’ (Helvétius, De l'homme, vol. 2, p. 304; IX, 5).

40 Bentham considers sympathy as a source of motivation, and it is unclear if sympathy for Bentham can be reduced to self-interest. See Schofield, Philip, Bentham: A Guide for the Perplexed (London, 2009), pp. 54–5.

41 Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ed. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart (London, 1970), p. 11. Long argues that Bentham here rephrases a Helvétian idea; see Long, ‘Helvétius’, p. 233.

42 Cf. e.g. Bentham, ‚Deontology’, Deontology, together with A Table of the Springs of Action and Article on Utilitarianism, ed. A. Goldsworth (Oxford, 1983), pp. 117–281, at p. 132. Marco Guidi, ‘Jeremy Bentham's Quantitative Analysis of Happiness and its Asymmetries’, Handbook on the Economics of Happiness, ed. L. Bruni and P. L. Porta (Cheltenham, 2007), pp. 68–94, in sect. 2 in that point sees a crucial difference from Helvétius.

43 Bentham, Introduction, pp. 21–9. Such judgements do frequently agree with the principle of utility, but not always.

44 Cf. Bentham, Introduction, pp. 15–33. Michael Quinn, ‘Bentham on Mensuration: Calculating and Moral Reasoning’, Utilitas 26 (2014), pp. 61–104, emphasizes that Bentham tries to establish a rational morality opposed to the Humean tradition.

45 For a comparative analysis of artificial versus natural identity of particular and general interests, cf. Halevy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, p. 88.

46 Bentham, Introduction, p. 34; emphasis by Bentham.

47 See, for example, Bentham, First Principles Preparatory of Constitutional Code, ed. P. Schofield (Oxford, 1989), p. 235; Writings on the Poor Laws, vol. II, ed. M. Quinn (Oxford, 2010), pp. 115–16.

48 Bentham, Introduction, p. 11: ‘to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and law’.

49 Works (Bowring), vol. x, p. 71.

50 ‘And yet there is no law in the land: the legislator hath not yet enter'd upon his office . . . . This is the first day of the political creation: the state is without form and void’ (Bentham, Of the Limits of the Penal Branch of Jurisprudence, ed. P. Schofield (Oxford, 2010), p. 288).

51 Bentham, ‘Preparatory Principles Inserenda’, Preparatory Principles, ed. D. Long and P. Schofield (Oxford, 2016), para. 291, p. 285.

52 Cf. Long, Douglas and Schofield, Philip, ‘Editorial Introduction’, Jeremy Bentham: Preparatory Principles, ed. Long, D. and Schofield, P. (Oxford, 2016), pp. xi–xxviii, at p. xi.

53 Bentham, ‘Preparatory Principles Inserenda’, para. 1027, p. 321.

54 Bentham, Of the Limits, 232; cf. also the Essay on the Influence of Place and Time, in Works (Bowring), vol. i.

55 Bentham, Chrestomathia, ed. M. J. Smith and W. H. Burston (Oxford, 1983), p. 61.

56 Bentham, Introduction, p. 9.

57 UC xxxii. 158.

58 UC xxxii. 158.

59 ‘The Helvetian philosophy, the continuation and counterpart of the Baconian, admitts no jargon of any kind: no talk of relations, much less of eternal relations anterior to the men, the beings between whom they are fancied to subsist: . . . not a syllable about good order, order of things, right reason, equity, nature, natural law, natural fitness of things: no phantoms called in from the clouds to throw dust in the eyes of the learner and cover the want of intelligence on the part of the instructor . . . The measures which any of this jargon has been made use of to recommend may have been salutary or the reverse, but no degree of utility in the measures thus supported, or in any measures supported by arguments that have any other than the principle of utility for their basis, will ever go the smallest way toward changing jargon into sense . . . . The language of Helvetian philosophy is in every case as uniform as it is simple’ (UC xxxii. 158; cf. also Comment on the Commentaries, p. 346–7). In ‘Preparatory Principles Inserenda’, para. 1022, Bentham explicitly refers to De l'homme, II, 11, to demonstrate that Helvétius demands the introduction of an exact language.

60 Here I follow the interpretation in Long, Douglas, ‘Bentham as Revolutionary Social Scientist’, Man and Nature 6 (1987), pp. 115–45.

61 See e.g. Works (Bowring), vol. i, p. 399.

62 Cf. e.g. UC lxxxvii. 18; lxxxvii. 62.

63 Cf. e.g. UC lxxxvii. 135 and UC lxii. 189. See the illuminating description of this topic in Engelmann, Stephen, ‘“Indirect legislation”: Bentham's Liberal Government’, Polity 35 (2003), pp. 369–88.

64 Bentham expressly makes this connection by locating political economy ‘on the Map of Political Science’; cf. Economic Writings, vol. iii, p. 307.

65 UC lxxxvii. 2; cited in Quinn, Michael, ‘Editorial Introduction’, Bentham: Writings on Political Economy, vol. 1, ed. Quinn, M. (Oxford, 2016), pp. xv–civ, at p. xvii.

66 Bentham, Economic Writings, vol. iii, 318; cf. the analogous passage of the ‘Manual of Political Economy’, Writings on Political Economy, ed. M. Smith (Oxford, 2016), pp. 165–268, at p. 168.

67 Bentham, Economic Writings, vol. iii, p. 257.

68 Cf. for example the role of the ‘sponte acta’, i.e. of the activities of individuals which they pursue without state intervention, in ‘Institute of Political Economy’, in Economic Writings, vol. iii, e.g. p. 323.

69 For recent research on the Panopticon project, cf. Beyond Foucault: New Perspectives on Bentham's Panopticon, ed. Anne Brunon-Ernst (Farnham, 2012).

70 Cf. Himmelfarb, Gertrude, Victorian Minds (Chicago, 1995), p. 77–8.

71 Bentham, Writings on the Poor Laws, vol. I, ed. M. Quinn (Oxford, 2001), p. 277 (UC cliib. 332–3).

72 ‘Considered with a view to moral health . . . a Panopticon is a vast hospital’ (Works (Bowring), vol. iv, p. 185).

73 Works (Bowring), vol. x, p. 226.

74 Cf. Bentham, ‘Panopticon; or, The Inspection House’, The Panopticon Writings, ed. M. Božovič (London, 1995), Letter VI, pp. 47–8.

75 In section IV, I will refer to Bentham's education programme as a further example of those concrete projects.

76 Bentham, ‘Preparatory Principles Inserenda’, para. 291, p. 285 n. 52.

77 Harrison, Bentham, p. 113.

78 See Postema, Gerald, ‘Bentham on the Public Character of Law’, Bentham: Moral, Political and Legal Philosophy, ed. Postema, G. (Aldershot, 2002), pp. 65–85, at p. 83; and Hofmann, Wilhelm, Politik des aufgeklärten Glücks (Berlin, 2002), pp. 127–30.

79 Cf. Bentham, ‘Nonsense upon Stilts’, Rights, Representation, and Reform: Nonsense upon Stilts and Other Writings on the French Revolution, ed. P. Schofield et al. (Oxford, 2002), pp. 317–401.

80 Works (Bowring), vol. vii, p. 329.

81 For more evidence for that claim, see Hofmann, Politik, p. 300.

82 As Rosen puts it, there even remains a sphere of private morality where the legislator should not intervene to make citizens better humans; cf. Rosen, Classical Utilitarianism, p. 95.

83 This passage has been treated under the name ‘Utilitarian utopia’ as the most distinctive exposition of Bentham's claims regarding a future ideal society by Long, ‘Bentham’, pp. 130–2, and Crimmins, Secular Utilitarianism, pp. 305–6.

84 Works (Bowring), vol. i, p. 194; cf. UC cxlii. 200.

85 Cf. Helvétius, De l'homme, vol. 2, p. 202 (VIII, 2).

86 Works (Bowring), vol. i, p. 194.

87 Cf. Helvétius, De l'esprit, p. 47 (II, 3) and p. 59 (II, 5).

88 Cf. Wootton, David, ‘Helvétius: From Radical Enlightenment to Revolution’, Political Theory 28 (2000), pp. 307–36, at pp. 322–23.

89 ‘The Catherines and Fredericks seak to endear themselves to mankind . . . . It is by them that the world will be enlightened’ (Helvétius, De l'homme, preface; I follow the translation in Smith, ‘Helvétius’, p. 287).

90 Helvétius, De l'homme, vol. 1, p. 326 (IV, 14).

91 Bentham, ‘Fragment on Government’, A Comment on the Commentaries and A Fragment on Government, ed. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart (London, 1977), pp. 391–551, at p. 399.

92 A similar claim is made by Wootton, ‘Helvétius’, p. 332 n. 33.

93 Bentham, First Principles Preparatory of Constitutional Code, p. 283; cf. Bentham, Constitutional Code: Volume I, ed. F. Rosen and J. H. Burns (Oxford, 1983), p. 36; Works (Bowring), vol. iii, pp. 471–2; as well as the numerous references in Hofmann, Politik, pp. 282–4.

94 Emanuelle de Champs, ‘Utility, Morality and Reform: Bentham and Eighteenth-Century Continental Jurisprudence’, Bentham's Theory of Law and Public Opinion, ed. X. Zhai and M. Quinn (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 184–207, at 207, refers to ‘public opinion’ in connection with Bentham as ‘an agent of change’. Rosen highlights that in Bentham, the moral sanction ‘was associated with an active and critical public opinion’ (Classical Utilitarianism, p. 92).

95 Bentham, ‘Nonsense upon Stilts’, p. 319.

96 A differentiated picture of the ‘conversion’ is drawn in Philip Schofield, Utility and Democracy: The Political Thought of Jeremy Bentham (Oxford, 2006).

97 Cf. Works (Bowring), vol. iii, p. 507.

98 Works (Bowring), vol. i, 457.

99 Cf., e.g., Mill, James, Political Writings, ed. Ball, T. (Cambridge, 1992), p. 41.

100 Bentham, Writings on the Poor Laws, vol. II, pp. 6–7.

101 Bentham makes the criticism that pauper education ‘has scarcely hitherto been deemed worth a thought’ (Bentham, Writings on the Poor Laws, vol. II, p. 167).

102 Bentham, Chrestomathia, p. xiii. There has been a debate concerning the question how far Chrestomathia was indeed intended to provide skills necessary for political participation, or was rather more oriented to the need for economic growth at Bentham's time. Without doubt, Chrestomathia includes more political education than Bentham's proposal on pauper education. Cf. Itzkin, Elissa, ‘Bentham's Chrestomathia: Utilitarian Legacy to English Education’, Journal of the History of Ideas 39 (1978), pp. 303–16, and Taylor, Brian, ‘A Note in Response to Itzkin's “Bentham's Chrestomathia: Utilitarian Legacy to English Education”’, Journal of the History of Ideas 43 (1982), pp. 309–13.

103 Bentham, Writings on the Poor Laws, vol. II, p. 184.

104 Bentham, Writings on the Poor Laws, vol. II, p. 168.

105 Quoted according to Crimmins, Secular Utilitarianism, p. 314.

106 Quoted according to Crimmins, Secular Utilitarianism, p. 315.

107 Documented in part in Bentham, Legislator of the World: Writings on Codification, Law, and Education, ed. P. Schofield and J. Harris (Oxford, 1998).

108 Cf. Pollard, Sidney, ‘Der klassische Utilitarismus: Einflüsse, Entwicklungen, Folgen’, Der klassische Utilitarismus. Einflüsse – Entwicklungen – Folgen, ed. Gähde, U. and Schrader, W. (Berlin, 1992), pp. 1033; Thomas, William, The Philosophic Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice 1817–1841 (Oxford, 1979).

109 Bentham, ‘Article on Utilitarianism: Long Version’, Deontology, together with A Table of the Springs of Action and Article on Utilitarianism, ed. A. Goldworth (Oxford, 1983), pp. 283–318, at p. 290 (my emphasis).

110 I am very thankful for the helpful comments of Kurt Bayertz, Michael Quinn and two anonymous reviewers. Furthermore, I would like to thank the participants of the 14th Conference of the International Society for Utilitarian Studies, Lille Catholic University, France and the members of the coordinated project group ‘The Liquefaction and Solidification of Normativity’ of the Cluster of Excellence ‘Religion and Politics’ for their constructive feedback. A former version of the article was translated by Sarah L. Kirkby, and I am thankful for the fruitful cooperation. This work is published with the kind support of the Cluster of Excellence ‘Religion and Politics in the Cultures of Pre-Modernity and Modernity’, University of Münster, Germany, through funding from the Excellence Initiative run by the Federal Government and the states.

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