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Bentham’s Two Sovereign Masters - Examining Bentham’s Influence on the Social Sciences

Jerome Warren
Exploring Economics, 2020
Level: advanced
Perspective: Behavioral Economics
Topic: Microeconomics & Markets
Format: Essay

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Bentham’s Two Sovereign Masters

Examining Bentham’s Influence on the Social Sciences

Jerome Warren | 2017

In the history of the social sciences, few individuals have exerted as much influence as has Jeremy Bentham. His attempt to become “the Newton of morals” has left a marked impression upon the methodology and form of analysis that social sciences like economics and political science have chosen as modus operandi. Indeed, it is hard to find a well-accepted, mainstream economic model today that does not employ some form of utility function, which is a concept deeply influenced by Bentham in his Principles of Morals and Legislation and other works. In fact, if one looks from the median voter theorem to the Lucas critique, from basic microeconomics to the most complex theory for estimating housing allocation, a basic Utilitarian framework can be taken for granted in such models. Thus, one can say the shadow of Bentham extends long over the corps of social sciences.

This means an assessment of the significance and implication of Bentham’s thought on the social sciences is especially of note. If nothing else, his ideas have deeply influenced and contributed to the shape of modern social science in numerous ways. We are going to assess these in the following. We will first attempt to contextualize Bentham, placing him in a historical time and space that authentically represents his ideas within the larger discourse on ideas in general. We will then move on to a more detailed analysis of Bentham’s methodology, before briefly scrutinizing his ontology and then conclude with a multi-layered critique that draws heavily from two writers, Wesley Mitchell and Michel Foucault.

The question might be raised what a “reasonable” assessment of Bentham’s works might resemble. As Mitchell notes, Bentham is a polarizing figure, according with the assumptions and concerns of the individual making the assessment. J.S. Mill believed that “it will be found that those who have accustomed the public mind to these ideas have learnt them in Bentham’s school, and that the assault on the ancient institutions has been, and is, carried on for the most part with his weapons.[1, p. 134] Marx, too, referred to bentham as ”a genius within a sea of bourgeois stupidity"[8, v. 3; p. 614, note: ’Jeremy Bentham’]. However, as we will point out later, Mitchell presents a reasonable argument as to why Bentham’s system could interpreted to be deeply flawed.

Bentham's Time

Bentham was born in 1748 and died in 1832. In terms of thought, this time was marked by the effects of the Scottish Enlightenment on social thought at large, with thinkers like Ferguson, Smith, Hume and others leaving their mark during this era. On a more practical level, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in his home of London. In fact, we already see the deepening of the circuits of capital to the point where Bentham himself wrote a treatise on interest-bearing capital under the title of In Defense of Usury in the form of letters.

Bentham was also a reformer of the type with Robert Owen, Helvétius and Ben Franklin. He advocated for legal reforms such as the codification of common law and was an early advocate of animals’ rights. He was also an atheist.

All of this informs and shapes the background in which Bentham resided in. As Foucault notes, the type of thinking that Bentham and other contemporaries espoused was only possible given a certain combination of elements, including technology, knowledge and a shift away from medieval power relations:

If the economic take-off of the West began with the techniques that made possible the accumulation of capital, it might perhaps be said that the methods for administering the accumulation of men made possible a political take-off in relation to the traditional, ritual, costly, violent forms of power, which soon fell into disuse and were superseded by a subtle, calculated technology of subjection. In fact, the two processes – the accumulation of men and the accumulation of capital – cannot be separated; it would not have been possible to solve the problem of the accumulation of men without the growth of an apparatus of production capable of both sustaining them and using them; conversely, the techniques that made the cumulative multiplicity of men useful accelerated the accumulation of capital.[3, p. 210]

Indeed, we will return later again to the issue of the Benthamite form of Utilitarianism as being an element in a system of techniques or “disciplines” intended to push civilization toward a pole of utility-docility, a point which Foucault makes in the widely influential work, Discipline and Punish.

All of this means the time was ripe for Bentham to make his claims and elaborate his system. Indeed, the idea of “utility” was no novel concept during Bentham’s life. In outlining his utility principle, Bentham even points to the widespread acceptance of the principle in society at the time: Mitchell quotes him as stating

“[t]he opinion of the world (I am speaking of the people in this country [England]) is commonly in favour of the principle of utility . . . .”

Furthermore, Mitchell quotes Elie Havely as writing of the period,

“Towards the end of the eighteenth century, it is not only the thinkers, it is all the English who are speaking the language of utility…” and “[i]t was plain that the doctrine of utility was becoming the universal philosophy in England, and that the reformers must speak the language of utility if they wished their opinions to be understood — let alone accepted — by the public they were addressing.”(ibid)

So, for reasons that lie outside the purview of the present analysis[1], ’utility’ was en vogue during Bentham’s career and so he was in ways adopting the popular idiom of the day.

Benthams' System

In the following we will rehash a number of main points in Bentham’s system. We will begin by outlining the utility principle, move on to summarizing Bentham’s critiques against named opponents of his principle, before then discussing the sources and means of measuring different pains and pleasures.

The Principle of Utility

The main element of Bentham’s “felicific calculus” is the principle of utility. Under utility, Bentham understands to mean

…that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, (all this in the present case comes to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered

Therefore, the principle of utility, for Bentham defines

that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever. according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness.

So, in short, the principle is a normative measure for assessing behavior according to its utility, as defined above. However, Bentham wants to extend his principle beyond the “Merely normative” into the realm of description. In fact, the first statement from his Principles reads “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” So, Bentham advances the idea that humankind are governed by Nature by pain and pleasure (“sovereign masters”). So, it is human nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This famed passage is immediately followed by Bentham’s comment that this is both positive and normative in nature: “it is for them to determine what we ought to do, as well as… what we shall do”. Just to emphasize his point, Bentham sums the point up with the following:

"On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to the… throne [of pain and pleasure].

This is a significant comment on Bentham’s part. It means he is setting up a system which both describes what is, as well as what out to be. It is interesting to note that, methodologically speaking, it is the weaker component (the positive) that has more readily found welcome in social sciences research. We will return to this issue in a later section.

Bentham's Enemies

Bentham first sets out trying to establish the primacy of this principle of utility, by deductively juxtaposing it with numerous other competing principles. These are the ascetic, the principle of sympathy and antipathy, the theological principle and a number of other streams of ideas relating to the Enlightenment concepts of common sense, Reason, rationality and Natural Right. We will discuss in brief what Bentham sees in each of these that sets them up in opposition to the principle of utility.

The ascetic principle is basically the inverse of the utility principle. Individuals following the ascetic principle seek to maximize pain and minimize pleasure. Bentham comments that this principle is most frequently expressed in religious terms. Monastic orders, various “Revivalist” sects and flagellants are examples.[1, 2,III]

The principle of sympathy and antipathy refers to a principle which approves of actions “merely because a man finds himself disposed to approve or disapprove of them: holding up that approbation or disapprobation as a sufficient reason for itself, and disclaiming the necessity of looking out for any extrinsic ground”.[1, 2, IX] So, esteem or some other immaterial reward should not motivate our assessment of actions as being good or bad.

Of the theological principle, which we can understand to mean any principle which claims to represent the will of God, Bentham says “this is not in fact a distinct principle. It is never any thing more or less than one or other of the three before-mentioned principles presenting itself under another shape.”[1,2,XVIII] It should be noted that, considering the time, this is quite a radical principle.

The other concepts, of common sense and so on, Bentham interprets to be more or less arbitrary in nature[2], and to be opposed accordingly.

Sources of Pain and Pleasure

For Bentham, there are four major causes of pain and pleasure. These sources would then naturally be the levers that determine human behavior. Firstly, physical pain and pleasures are pains and pleasures that have natural, “earthly” sources. Things like the experience of seeing a rainbow or stumbling on a stone would count as physical pains and pleasures.

Secondly, there are political pains pleasures. These consist of specific public recognition of right or wrong behavior, and are, as such to be equated with official praise or punishment examples thereof would be a public honor and a prison sentence. They are considered by Bentham to be carried out by specific delegated persons, such as judges.

Thirdly, there are so-called moral pains and pleasures. These, Bentham says, are similar to but not the same as their political cousins, but are ultimately more general. This means they are not carried out by special delegated individuals, and can be understood to represent the “normal” approbation and disapprobation our actions generate from those exposed to our actions. Examples of this would be a warm glow associated with helping an elder citizen across the street or the shame associated with engaging in a stigmatized activity, like smoking.

Lastly, we have religious pains and pleasures. These, Bentham suggests, are fundamentally different than the rest, since these “may be expected to be experienced either in the present life or in a future.” (Chpt. 3, VII) This encompasses ideas like eternal salvation or damnation, as well as a certain religious joy or fear that is quite common across confessions (joy at God’s grace or fear of His / Her wrath, one’s sinfulness, etc.).

How Pain and Pleasure Are Measured

For Bentham, pleasures “…and the avoidance of pains, are the ends which the legislator has in view”. It is interesting to note at this point that the audience Bentham has in mind for his Principles is apparently not the general public, but “legislators”. We will return to this point later. At any rate, for Bentham, feelings of pleasure or pain are telos, or ends. This begs the question of the means to achieving these ends.

Ultimately, in the next sentence, Bentham says “It behooves him [the legislator] to understand their [the pleasures’ and pains’] value.” Another interesting statement, because we see in it the instrumentalization of pleasure and pain. This switch is made rather nonchalantly by Bentham, but it is a significant one. Bentham simply assumes that pleasures and pains can be measured with some reasonable accuracy that would then facilitate a comparative evaluation. Indeed, his very next statement is “pleasures and pains are the instruments he [the legislator] has to work with.”

This shows that, at least as regards pleasures, they are for Bentham means as well as ends. Pains are means, and their inverse (“the avoidance of pains”) are means and ends, as well. This duality is important, and reveals Bentham’s connections to the behavioral sciences a la Skinner.[3] Foucault’s suggestion of a “soul” that arises out of punishment conjures up this dual role for sensory stimulation, as well. We will return to this point later.

Bentham assesses the value of pain according to a rubric that includes a number of parameters. Firstly, intensity: how strong the feelings of pain or pleasure are; duration, how long the sensation lasts; certainty or uncertainty, or how certain or uncertain one can be that a certain behavior elicits a certain response; propinquity, or how proximate the pain or pleasure is; fecundity, or “the chance it has of being followed by sensations of the same kind”; and purity, “or the chance it has of not being followed by sensations of the opposite kind”.

In addition, Bentham also considers extension when discussing measuring several individuals’ experiences of pain and pleasure. The problem with aggregating such sensations via merely summation will be addressed in a later section.

How Bentham Would Assess an Action

Bentham’s recipe for assessing the rightness or wrongness of an action consists of the following ingredients. He says,

[b]egin with any one person of those whose interests seem most immediately to be affected by [the actions] and take account

1. Of the value of each distinguishable pleasure which appears to be produced by it in the first instance. 2. Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it in the first instance. 3. Of the value of each pleasure which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pleasure and the impurity of the first pain. 4. Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pain, and the impurity of the first pleasure. 5. Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side, and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole.

The whole thing looks similar when considering a sum of people, one must simply take account of the extension of the feelings of pain or pleasure. It is easy to see that this setup is, in principle, the core of behavioral models in mainstream economics and political science. The idea of weighing behavior based on its advantages and costs is essential to modern social science research.

Bentham also insinuated in another unpublished work that the calculus could be used to compare sensations in incremental units. This puts him directly in the tradition of modern mainstream social science, for it is on this basis that concepts like marginal utility and marginal costs are based. Indeed, Bentham even spoke at brief of measuring pains and pleasures in an equivalent, a numeraire, and, namely, money. We will consider Bentham’s attempts to derive a numeraire below.

Types of Pain and Pleasure

For Bentham, there are two types of pain and pleasure, pains and pleasures of the simple and complex variety. Complex pains and pleasures are merely composite simple pleasures and pains. Simple pains and pleasures are categorized according to type. These types are pains and pleasures of the senses; pains and pleasures of wealth / privation; the pains of awkwardness; pleasures of skill; the pleasures of amity and pains of enmity; the pleasures of a good name and the pains of an ill name; the pleasure of power; the pleasures and pains of piety[4]; the pleasures and pains of benevolence[5]; the pleasures and pains of malevolence[6]; the pleasures and pains of memory; the pleasures and pains of imagination; the pleasures and pains of expectation; the pleasures and pains dependent on association; and the pleasures of relief from pain.

Mitchell’s critique[7] notwithstanding, we should ask ourselves what Bentham’s empirical basis is for choosing these - and precisely these - pains and pleasures and not any others to raise to the level of analysis. Was there some sort of confirmation bias at work? Do other pains and pleasures exist that are not so easily assessed or measured? These questions are far beyond the scope of the present article to answer, but they are extremely important questions, and their answers ultimately determine the legitimacy of one of the fundamental building blocks of contemporary social sciences research.

It behooves us before moving on to consider what Bentham considered the sensual pleasures and pains to consist of. The pleasures and pains of the senses consists of the pleasures and pains of taste; the pains of hunger and thirst; the pleasures of intoxication; the pleasures and pains of smell; the pleasures and pains of touch; the pleasures and pains of sight; the pleasures and pains of hearing; the pleasures of sex, health and novelty; and the pains of the elements (heat or cold), disease or exertion. In a later section, we will address how contemporary psychology and neuroscience suggests that sensations like pleasure are challenging to reduce to smaller “quants”.

The Numeraire

The problem of (quantitatively) comparing (qualitatively) unique pains and pleasures was discussed above in general. Ultimately, people like Edgeworth offered solutions to this problem. However, Bentham shared the basic views of an Edgeworth and even alludes to a similar thesis to Edgeworth’s (and Marshall’s) in unpublished works:

If of two pleasures a man, knowing what they are, would [as like] enjoy the one as the other, they must be reputed equal. ... If of two pains a man had [as like] escape the one as the other, such two pains must be reputed equal. If of two sensations, a pain and a pleasure, a man had [as like] enjoy the pleasure and suffer the pain, as not enjoy the first and not suffer the latter, such pleasure and pain must be reputed equal, or, as we may say in this case, equivalent.

If then between two pleasures the one produced by the possession of money, the other not, a man had [as like] enjoy the one as the other, such pleasures are to be reputed equal. But the pleasure produced by the possession of money, is as the quantity of money that produces it: money is therefore the measure of this pleasure. But the other pleasure is equal to this ; the other pleasure therefore is as the money that produces this ; therefore money is also the measure of that other pleasure. It is the same between pain and pain ; as also between pain and pleasure. [10, 169f.]

As we shall point out below with regards to prospect theory, the Allais paradox and state dependency generally, there are many cases where human behavior deviates from any such straightforward regularity as might be required for Bentham’s felicific calculus to be a workable approach to describing human behavior. In short, we can say at present that if individuals value different pleasures and pains at different magnitudes, and it is hard or impossible to measure the intensity of experienced pain or pleasure, then it becomes a completely intractable problem to establish money as an intermediary between a measure which itself is not clearly defined or measured.

Mitchell points out that some of the intractability is remedied by the 1738 (published) discovery by Bernoulli of the notion of expected utility[14] and by the idea his disciples were to make use of later: “the plan of concentrating attention upon the increments of pleasure or pain at the margin.”(ibid, 171) However, we must still ask if pain and pleasure can be subdivided or if the phrase “pleasure or pain at the margin” is at all meaningful. Moreover, even if it can, Stigler[13, p. 310] points out that “we cannot use an equality (or, more strictly, a constancy of the marginal utility of money) that holds for small changes to measure total utilities.” We will return to this issue later in our discussion of the psychological literature.

A number of experiments were carried out which showed a “moral switch”, ie., a “Price” for morality, partly dependent on the state and any payoff structure[8].


Bentham’s view of the world is deeply materialistic. He appears to be a forerunner in behavioral science in reducing much of human behavior to sensory input. He is an Epicurean in outlook in that he saw the highest good as being the attainment of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. His outlook is furthermore heavily influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, as filtered by David Hume, with whose ideas Bentham was acquainted. Hobbes was also clearly a major influence. His work places him as a clear exponent of methodological individualism, the idea that an individual’s actions can be assessed without reference to a larger socium. This view is easily revealed in Bentham’s discussion of assessing the utility of communities, which he typically garners by simply adding up the individual utilities. The issue of emergence – that the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts[12, p. 86ff] – appears to not have been discovered, or to have bothered Bentham in his analysis of human behavior.

The fact that Bentham sees pains and pleasures both as means and ends requires a more thoroughgoing analysis. It certainly entails a perspective that appears a precursor to Skinner’s behaviorism. Chomsky famously dismissed Skinner’s views, referring to Skinner’s claims as “outlandish”[9]. The question of whether Bentham is using pleasure and pain literally as ends was controversial even in Bentham’s time and it was Mills who suggested a separation between “high” and “low” pains and pleasures[10]. And indeed, if we read interpretations like that of Heilbroner’s of Edgeworth and Bentham’s work, we see a certain “beastliness” in their view of human agency: “To build up… a mathematical mirror of reality, the world obviously had to be simplified. Edgeworth’s simplification was this assumption: every man is a pleasure machine. Jeremy Bentham had originated the conception in the early nineteenth century under the beguiling title of the Felicific Calculus, a philosophical view of humanity as so many living profit-and-loss calculators, each busily arranging his life to maximize the pleasure of his psychic adding machine. To this general philosophy Edgeworth now added the precision of mathematics to produce a kind of Panglossian Best of All Possible Worlds.”[6, p. 173]

In cases of numerous pleasures and pains – such as the pleasure associated with skill, – one has to ask if the assumption that such pleasures are both ends and means is reasonable. For, if labour is inherently painful and skill is honed through labour, then labour must be in some sense pleasurable. But this would fly in the face of centuries of social science theory that has assumed a dichotomy of “labour” and “leisure”[11].

Criticism of Bentham’s Method

There are strong traditions of support and opposition to Bentham. His most notable supporter, John Stuart Mill, wrote laudingly in an obituary entitled merely Bentham. On the other hand stood Charles Dickens, whose novel Hard Times features his (dismissive) assessment of Utilitarianism in the guise of Mr. Gradgrind, who says famously,

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

Mitchell, who seems to track somewhere in the middle of obsequiousness and outright dismissal, suggests that this polarizing tendency itself reveals the weakness of Bentham’s attempts: what opinion one has of Bentham’s achievements already depends on one’s standing as either critic or disciple or Bentham. Furthermore says Mitchell,

In the social sciences we are suffering from a curious mental derangement. We have become aware that the orthodox doctrines of economics, politics and law rest upon a tacit assumption that man’s behavior is dominated by rational calculation. We have learned further that this is an assumption contrary to fact. But we find it hard to avoid the old mistake, not to speak of using the new knowledge.[10, p. 161]

Ultimately, Mitchell suggests Bentham is useful to the social sciences in only one way:

Bentham cannot help toward making the social sciences valid accounts of social behavior. But better than any one else he can help us to see the absurdity of the intellectualist fallacy we abjure and practise. For Bentham has no rival as an exponent of the delusions that haunt the backs of our heads, and gain control over our speculations when we are not thinking of psychology. The way to free ourselves from these delusions is to drag them into the light of full consciousness and make them face our other thoughts about behavior.(ibid)

In the following, we will rehash two main criticisms of Bentham: Mitchell’s methodological criticism, and later Foucault’s foundational ontological criticism. This will be followed by a summary of the main points of contention.

Public-Minded Politicians and the Perfectability of Man

One of the possible criticisms of Bentham is his (implicit) assumption of the benevolence of intermediaries between the public and the state; ie., legislators, lawyers, judges and politicians. Claims Mitchell in a footnote

In his earlier period Bentham had tacitly assumed that the authorities would spontaneously adopt any plan that promised to increase social happiness. It took him sixty years to learn that the authorities were seeking their own happiness, not that of the nation.[10, p 177, note]

Therefore, we again see that the prior assumptions we make in formulating our theories is extremely significant, especially at the axiomatic (ie., foundational) level. This calls back to the issues of ontology we raised in an earlier chapter.

We can provide considerable evidence that politicians’ interests often deviate from voters’, including a well-cited and reported study by Gilens and Page[4].

The Normative versus the Positive

The issue of the duality of Bentham’s system was criticized by Mitchell, who emphasizes the extreme quality of the assumptions of rationality inherent in individuals, stating that

Since whatever is amiss in the opinions or conduct of mankind is due to “ intellectual weakness, indigenous or adoptive,” education must be the one great agency of reform. And since the understanding is made up of associations among ideas, the forming and strengthening of proper associations must be the great aim of education." [10, p. 176]

Therefore, we assume that individuals behave a certain way, and if they do not then they are exhibiting intellectual weakness or indigenous behaviors that do not aid us in achieving pleasure. Foucault’s criticism extends this tack further, but it is worth noting here that Bentham was a major support of “reformative” education and punishment, “hence his financial support of Robert Owen’s scheme of industrial education at New Lanark, hence his claims for the Panopticon Penitentiary as ” a mill for grinding rogues honest, and idle men industrious." The terminology reminds one again of Dickens, and - looking forward - of Foucault.

Ultimately, Bentham’s positive theory appears to be a framework for coercion rather than an outright descriptive theory of human behavior. Mitchell states, “[p]tactical conclusions regarding what ought to be done, then, were the chief product of Bentham’s science.”[10, p. 179]

Calculation versus Classification

Mitchell furthermore addresses the issue that Bentham’s felicific calculus actually included very little calculation! According to his critique, Bentham “ relies upon classification, and not upon calculation”. Moreover, he continues, Bentham separates “everything he discusses”, ie.

.…pleasures, pains, motives, dispositions, offenses, “cases unmeet for punishment ” etc. — into kinds, limits his quantitative comparisons to relations of greater and less, and makes even these comparisons chiefly among phenomena belonging to the same kind."[10, p. 169]

So, in the end, Bentham is comparing apples and pears. He himself came to this realization:

’Tis in vain to talk of adding quantities which after the addition will continue distinct as they were before, one man’s happiness will never be another man’s happiness : a gain to one man is no gain to another : you might as well pretend to add 20 apples to 20 pears . . .[10, p. 167]

Ultimately this lack of any precision as to actually calculating (measuring and comparing) pains and pleasures both on the individual and aggregate level appear to deeply constrain the application of the felicific calculus as a moral tool.

Dwelling a bit on the last point, as remarked above, the problem of measuring and comparing pains and pleasures is a real one. “Indeed,” asks Mitchell, “can any individual put a definite figure upon his own pleasures and pains, let alone compare them with the pleasures and pains of other men?” Mitchell ultimately concludes that Bentham himself dwelt at great lengths on this conundrum. Mitchell suggests the model needed “more assumptions” in order to compensate.

Specifically, the problem exists of recording or assessing the intensity of experiences. Asks Mitchell, “Can any man count the intensity units in any one of his pleasures or pains, as he counts the duration units?”ibid. “Bentham,” he answers, “usually assumes that he can, without telling how.” The related problem of cardinal utility plagues social science research till the present. See [5] for an overview of this debate.

Moreover, there appears to be no support provided for many of Bentham’s axiomatic points. These are provided neither in anecdotal nor in any more endearing form.

Further contradictions

Mitchell discusses the contradiction in Bentham between work as pain to be avoided (especially as seen in his Table of the Springs of Action and seeing skill in occupation as a pleasure to be enjoyed (in the Principles). He writes in a footnote,

This omission of pleasure in labor is clearly no oversight; indeed it must represent a deliberate change of opinion; for in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation Bentham had included “ The pleasures of skill, as exercised upon particular objects. ...”[10, p. 175]

Foucault: The Anatomy of Power

As Mitchell states[10, p. 166], Bentham realized that his basic framework “can scarcely be applied except individual by individual”. For Bentham, this was not a big problem, according to Mitchell, “[so] long as [Bentham] was thinking only of the problem of punishments”.(ibid) This is significant. Why? Because punishment is an area that both deeply interested Bentham and which forms an area of jurisprudence and violence which has been interestingly interpreted by a number of influential thinkers, ranging from Nietzsche to Foucault.

The Development of the “Disciplines”

Before we get into Foucault’s discussion of punishment, it is important at present to address his assessment of the development of the modern secular state, as this interpretation influences his assessment of the role of punishment in society.

Historically, the process by which the bourgeoisie became, in the course of the eighteenth century, the politically dominant class was masked by the establishment of an explicit, coded, and formally egalitarian juridical framework, made possible by the organization of a parliamentary, representative regime.[3, p. 211]

So, the political rise of the bourgeoisie as the new dominant social force shaping society was effectively masked by a system that (formally) guaranteed equality before the law to all citizens. “But”, Foucault continues,

the development and generalization of disciplinary mechanisms constituted the other, dark side of these processes.(ibid)

So, a system of de facto equality is augmented by a “generalization of disciplinary mechanisms”. These mechanisms are discussed at length by Foucault and constitute “tiny, everyday, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micropower that are essentially nonegalitarian and asymmetrical which we call the disciplines”. These, in turn support the guaranteed system of rights, according to Foucault. Thus, for Foucault,

…although, in a formal way, the representative regime makes it possible, directly or indirectly, with or without relays, for the will of all to form the fundamental authority of sovereignty, the disciplines provide, at the base, a guarantee of the submission of forces and bodies.(ibid)

In fact, Foucault argues that the entire architecture of liberties was built upon the edifice of corporal discipline:

The contract may have been regarded as the ideal foundation of law and political power; panopticism constituted the technique, universally widespread, of coercion . It continued to work in depth on the juridical structures of society, in order to make the effective mechanisms of power function in opposition to the formal framework that it had acquired . The “Enlightenment, ” which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines.(ibid)

The Anatomy of Power

And here, we turn to Foucault’s thundering criticism of Bentham.

Foucault makes a number of broad claims in Discipline and Punish, and among them are his attempt to construct a so-called “anatomy of power”, by which he refers to the construction of a set of theorems, beliefs, rationales and methods by which “the operations of the body” can be “controlled” and “corrected”.

“These methods,” claims Foucault, “which assured the constant subjection of [the body’s] forces and imposed upon them a relation of docility-utility.”(ibid) Here is meant both the more constrained sense of discipline, bearing on punishment, as well as the broader sense in which it refers, for instance, to a research program. For, Foucault really does believe that these techniques exist on the axis of knowledge-power-coercion. And as far as regards docility-utility, he intends this to mean that the (subjected) individual of the present era is rendered useful in the most general sense of the word and at the same time the various “systems of micropower” constrain her much like Odysseus as his ship rows between Sylla and Charybdis.

Naturally, Bentham is at the center of this endeavor according to Foucault, and his Panopticum prison design – for which the British Crown paid him £35,000 – forms the most blatant manifestation of the total subjugation, regimentation and control Foucault speaks of in discussing the disciplinary methods. Indeed, Bentham stands at the center of the complex that Foucault establishes: self-system-technique. Particularly the spectrum docility-utility bears on Bentham’s work as a moral philosopher and a legal theorist.


As Foucault points out, one of the major shifts in the turnover from the old forms of aristocratic power to the new bourgeois state is the shift to less direct forms of violence. Whereas the ancient regime required costly arrangements which had to continually “reinforce” themselves (what Foucault refers to as “levying”[3, p. 208]), the new order would employ certain techniques, what is referred to as disciplines

The development of the disciplines marks the appearance of elementary techniques belonging to a quite different economy: mechanisms of power which, instead of proceeding by deduction, are integrated into the productive efficiency of the apparatuses from within, into the growth of this efficiency and into the use of what it produces . For the old principle of “levying-violence , ” which governed the economy o f power, the disciplines substitute the principle of “mildness-production-profit. ” These are the techniques that make it possible to adjust the multiplicity of men and the multiplication of the apparatuses of production

The important point that Foucault makes is that punishment is thoroughly a political act “possessing [its] own specificity in the more general field of exercising power”[3]. Nietzsche makes a similar point, when he comments that “as the eye was made for seeing and the hand for gripping, punishment was conceived of in order to punish”[12] and “observing injury does one good, and causing injury does one even more good”[13].

Neuroeconomics and Psychology

There is considerable research pointing to inequalities in the assessment of loss and gain. Prospect theory suggests that a larger expected gain is required to compensate for any given expected loss. This points to certain methodological issues with the attempt to 1) compare pleasures and pains and 2) use money as a means for this.

In a number of repeated game environments, it was discovered that individuals often engage in behavior that directly reduces their own welfare in order to punish.[2]

The late psychologist of emotion at the University of Amsterdam Nico Frijda points out the conundrum of trying to assess the role and function of pleasure in an essay entitled On the Nature and Function of Pleasure. Frijda concludes that through the roughly century of research, many inconclusive and contradictory findings regarding the function, purpose and origins of pleasure have been derived. However, Frijda lists five general conclusions, drawn from a survey by Arnold:

First, pleasure is not some kind of sensation. Second, it never stands alone but always is a “gloss” to some other experience, including one’s general condition. Third, pleasure is certainly not a quale, a specific irreducible experience. It does not even have a characteristic phenomenology, as has the color red or the experience of bright pressure. Fourth, even an experience of “bright pressure” has something of this gloss. “Bright” and “dull” distinctly produce different semantic differential ratings. Fifth, examination of feelings of pleasure is severely hampered by the feeling’s evanescence. Attention directed to it rather than to the pleasant object or sensation makes it vanish.[7, p. 100]

Especially the second and third conclusions serve to damn the foundations of Bentham’s system, for, if 1) pleasure never stands alone and 2) is not an ’irreducible experience’, this raises serious questions as to any approach that seeks to raise pleasure above all other ends as the most vital or important. It means, furthermore, that any such attempt is at best incomplete. Furthermore, if from the second conclusion we can draw that pleasure is more or less state dependent, then we must infer from this that experiences that in some cases would elicit pleasure, would in other cases produce pain. If there is no clear distinction between the two, then there is little use cataloguing and attempting to compare them as if such a distinction existed.

Sexism and Racism

While one could point out that such phenomena were quite common at the time, one should ask how far Bentham’s commitment to reform went, as he makes comments that in effect prop up the ideational world of patriarchy and even makes statements that can be taken to be racist. We will take each of these charges up in turn.

As to Bentham’s sexism, we have the following passage from the Principles:

The health of the female is more delicate than that of the male: in point of strength and hardiness of body, in point of quantity and quality of knowledge, in point of strength of intellectual powers, and firmness of mind, she is commonly inferior: moral, religious, sympathetic, and antipathetic sensibility are commonly stronger in her than in the male. The quality of her knowledge, and the bent of her inclinations, are commonly in many respects different.

One might assume that it is needless to say that this is nonsense, but there are still individuals in powerful positions in today’s society who make similar claims[14]

Again, this type of sexism could be dismissed as belonging to the general milieu of the time and not substantively influencing Bentham’s system. but in a passage nearly directly following the above-quoted one, Bentham states,

The religious biases in the two sexes are not apt to be remarkably different; except that the female is rather more inclined than the male to superstition; that is, to observances not dictated by the principle of utility

So, in fact, Bentham is defining women’s behavior as being inferior with respect to the utility principle, which for him is the utmost law of Human Nature (Bentham: 1,i). As such, he explains away gender inequality by reference to an a priori statement that is totally unfounded. This accusation is far more damning, in the author’s opinion, than the former charge.

Sadly, Edgeworth continued the bias against women and the lower classes, which Heilbroner describes astutely in the following passage from the classic The Worldly Philosophers,

While trade unions might gain in the short run through combination, it could be shown that in the long run they must lose—they were only a transient imperfection in the ideal scheme of things. And if high birth and great wealth seemed at first to prejudice the outcome of the economic game, that could be reconciled with mathematical psychics, too. For while all individuals were pleasure machines, some were better pleasure machines than others. Men, for example, were better equipped to run up their psychic bank accounts than women, and the delicate sensibilities of the “aristocracy of skill and talent” were more responsive to the pleasures of good living than the clodlike pleasure machines of the laboring classes. Hence, the calculus of human mathematics could still function advantageously; indeed it positively justified those divisions of sex and status which one saw about him in the living world.[6, p. 174]

As an example of a racist comment of Bentham’s, let us take up his notion of the “biases” that race supposedly bestows:

A man of negro race, born in France or England, is a very different being, in many respects, from a man of French or English race. A man of Spanish race, born in Mexico or Peru, is at the hour of his birth a different sort of being, in many respects, from a man of the original Mexican or Peruvian race. This circumstance, as far as it is distinct from climate, rank, and education, and from the two just mentioned, operates chiefly through the medium of moral, religious, sympathetic, and antipathetic biases.[1, 6, XL]

This would, if we would extend it to its full extent, entail that the human race’s behavioral structures are largely genetically predetermined. We cannot hold it against Bentham that he was unfamiliar with genes, but to make such unfounded claims in a supposedly “unchallengable” book severely reduces the work’s total trustworthiness.

Ultimately, one can raise the objection that with Bentham, as with all thinkers of eras gone by, one should separate the wheat from the chaff. However, it is the author’s belief that in certain instances, the assumptions that lead to statements such as those quoted above are intrinsically tied to the methodological framework that Bentham expounds. Therefore, it may not always be possible to separate “good” theory from “bad” assumptions, as one follows naturally from the other.

. The question is then, whether the theories of such a man could still be considered useful, despite such biases. One way to weigh this question is to look at how they were used by his followers. Particularly Ysidora Edgeworth draws on and deepens the gendered notions inherent in utility theory and extends these to include classist notions.


Ultimately, Bentham is an expounder of a world view that is deeply materialist and influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment and the vicissitudes of the Industrial Revolution. He grasped on to a concept (utility) that was becoming increasingly ubiquitous at the time among reformer circles and built a moral and philosophical world view on this foundation. Given the constraints of thought at the time, it is important to note that Bentham’s philosophy did define an advance over and against the prevailing doctrines of the time, which were in part still deeply religious, despite the inroads won by and through the Enlightenment, and later the American and French Revolutions. This is particularly apparent when considering Bentham’s accusations against the “enemies” of the principle of utility. The fact that he addresses theological principles at all is perhaps unfathomable to a modern citizen, but is a sign of the times Bentham resided in.

Bentham’s system is steeped in methodological individualism and paved the way for individuals like Edgeworth and Marshall, who erected the Byzantine edifice of modern microeconomics on Bentham’s “wide” foundation. The neoclassical tradition in economics owes him a large debt and it sadly shares much of his methodological weaknesses. We attempted to point some of these out above. The issues and contradictions we pointed to include (potentially) the irreducibility of pain and pleasure into infinitesimal units; the inability to draw quantitative comparisons from qualitatively distinct phenomena; the inability to precisely measure pain and pleasure; the problem of determining whether a numeraire exists by which “comparable” pains and pleasures can be equated (Bentham suggests money); the logical paradoxes involved in viewing the principle of utility as both a positive and a normative principle; Bentham’s unrealistic assumption of public-mindedness in politicians; the fact that Bentham’s “calculus” consists of very little calculation, and very much classification; controversial classification of pains and pleasures; facilitating the consolidation of power in the hands of the bourgeoisie; consisting of a mechanization of human relations in the form of industrial relations of production; resting on false assumptions as regards human behavior and genetics; and containing certain racist and sexist passages which may erode the scientific nature of the examination.


[1] Jeremy Bentham. The collected works of Jeremy Bentham: An introductionto the principles of morals and legislation. Clarendon Press, 1996.

[2] Samuel Bowles and Sandra Polania-Reyes. Economic incentives and social preferences: substitutes or complements? Journal of Economic Literature, 50(2):368-425, 2012.

[3] Michel Foucault. The foucault reader. Pantheon, 1984.

[4] Martin Gilens and Benjamin I Page. Testing theories of american politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens. Perspectives on politics,

12(3):564-581, 2014.

[5] John © Harsanyi. Cardinal utility in welfare economics and in the theory of risk-taking. Journal of Political Economy, 61(5):434-435, 1953.

[6] Robert L Heilbroner. The worldly philosophers: The lives, times and ideas of the great economic thinkers. Simon and Schuster, 2011.

[7] Morten L Kringelbach and Kent C Berridge. Pleasures of the brain. Oxford University Press, USA, 2010.

[8] Karl Marx. Theorien über den Mehrwert:(vierter Band des “Kapitals”), volume 1. Dietz, 1956.

[9] John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism. Longmans, Green and Company, 1901.

[10] Wesley C Mitchell. Bentham’s felicific calculus. Political Science Quarterly, 33(2):161-183, 1918.

[11] Friedrich Nietzsche. Zur genealogie der moral (gm). Kritische Studienausgabe, 5, 1967.

[12] Anwar Shaikh. Capitalism: Competition, conflict, crises. Oxford University Press, 2016.

[13] George J Stigler. The development of utility theory. i. Journal of Political Economy, 58(4):307-327, 1950.

[14] George J Stigler. The development of utility theory. ii. Journal of political economy, 58(5):373-396, 1950.

[15] Thorstein Veblen. The instinct of workmanship and the irksomeness of labor. American Journal of Sociology, 4(2):187-201, 1898.

[1]    But which are perhaps addressed in Foucault’s suggestion in the Discipline book that the origins of the “disciplines” lay in the same font as that of the Industrial Revolution (see block quote above).

[2]    eg., “How does one define what is and is not common sense?” etc.

[3]    Skinner’s view was that human behavior was influenced or directed by stimuli.

[4]    These are ultimately examples of religious pains and pleasures.

[5]    “the pleasures / pains resulting from the view of any pleasures / pains supposed to be possessed by the beings who may be the objects of benevolence”[1, Chpt.4, X & XXVI]

[6]    “The pleasures / pains of malevolence are the pleasures / pains resulting from the view of any pain / pleasure supposed to be suffered by the beings who may become the objects of malevolence”[1, Chpt. 4, XI & XXVII]

[7]    We will address Mitchell’s assessment of Bentham’s influence in the social science at greater extent in the next section. At the present, it should suffice it to know that Mitchell considered Bentham to be a “Linnaeus of morals”; rather than a Newton.

[8]    Even the existence of a payoff can make people “switch off” their morality and adopt a more cost-benefit perspective. See .

[9]    Claim made in an interview with the author. See [last accessed 16th September, 2017.

[10]  “The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness” [9, p. 100].

[11]  For a fascinating discussion on this concept, see Veblen[15].

[12]  “von alters her hatte man in dem nachweisbaren Zwecke, in der Nützlichkeit eines Dings, einer Form, einer Einrichtung auch deren Entstehungsgrund zu begreifen geglaubt, das Auge als gemacht zum sehen, die Hand als gemacht zum Greifen. So hat man sich auch die Strafe vorgestellt als erfunden zum Strafen. Aber alle Zwecke, alle Nützlichkeiten sind nur Anzei- chen davon, daß ein Wille zur Macht über etwas weniger Mächtiges Herr geworden ist und ihm von sich aus den Sinn einer Funktion aufgeprägt hat; und die ganze Geschichte eines >>Dings<<, eines Organs, eines Brauchs kann dergestalt eine fortgesetzte Zeichen-Kette von immer neuen Interpretationen und Zurechtmachungen sein, deren Ursachen selbst unter sich nicht im Zusammenhange zu sein brauchen, viel- mehr unter Umständen sich bloß zufällig hintereinander folgen und ablösen””[11, Aphorism 16]

[13]  “Leiden-sehn tut wohl, Leiden-machen noch wohler”

[14]  See, for instance, the claim by then President of Harvard, Larry Summers, that women are not as qualified to undertake scientific research as men. [Last accessed 30th September, 2017].

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