this essay began when I encountered a "theological" utilitarian, William Paley (1743-1805), in the pages of Elie Halevy's
(1972) monumental study of Bentham and the secular utilitarian movement.1 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
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. 0f 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:
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
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.
Ground: Commitment to a Radically Benevolent God
Like secular utilitarians, theological utilitarians subscribed to the utilitarian philosophical cornerstone, the happiness
principle -- that "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" provided the best criterion of virtue. Theological utilitarians,
however, were clear and explicit about the sources of happiness's goodness: they invoked a Radically Benevolent God
for that source. Nature's goodness, as they saw it, was absolutely dependent on Nature's Creator's goodness. The God
behind Nature, in other words, must be benevolent, must have intended Nature to be benevolent, and must regard the pleasures
that Nature bestows on man as good and as morally directive for man as well. Such pleasures must have been placed in
Nature for man's enjoyment. Such a God desired men to be happy.
The same Radically Benevolent God
appears in the works of secular utilitarians, too. The secular utilitarians, however, tended to muffle the point or
state it negatively. The difference is telling, because it suggests shyness about this implication of their system.
Let us briefly examine the divergent
rhetorical handling of the Radically Benevolent God premise as it appears in the works of, first, two theological utilitarians,
John Gay and Paley, and second, in those of two secular utilitarians, Bentham and J.S. Mill. John Gay's 1731 "Dissertation
Concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Morality" is one of the earliest and most influential expressions of a theological
utilitarian perspective. Below is his argument for the Radically Benevolent God assumption (Gay, 1731, pp. 774-775):
Now it is
evident from the nature of God, viz. His being infinitely happy in Himself from all eternity, and from His goodness manifested
in His works, that He could have no other design in creating mankind than their happiness; and therefore He wills their
happiness; therefore the means of their happiness; therefore that man's behavior, as far as it may be a means of the happiness
of mankind, should be such. Here then we are got one step farther, or to a new criterion: not to a new criterion of
virtue immediately, but to a criterion of the will of God. For it is an answer to the inquiry, how shall I know what
the will of God in this particular is? Thus the will of God is the immediate criterion of virtue, and the happiness
of mankind is the criterion of the will of God; and therefore the happiness of mankind may be said to be the criterion of
virtue, but once removed.
Gay's essay concerned the search for
a true standard of virtuous action. In the passage quoted above he laid the groundwork for his utilitarianism by suggesting
that God would seek and desire the earthly happiness of mankind. Notice some the elements of his case. First,
it is God who is "infinitely happy." This infinite happiness is combined with "His goodness" which is manifested in
His works -- this, in other words, is justification drawn from Natural Theology. God's goodness can be inferred from Nature.
Such goodness, in turn, implies that "He could have no other design in creating mankind than their happiness." This,
to be sure, is an enormous logical leap in Gay's argument. God might well have been good without placing His
goodness above all of His other divine characteristics. Moreover, Divine justice would seem to demand the administration
of Divine punishment; but is the God Gay has described prepared for such activity? The passage in this sense runs counter
to Scripture, with its abundant evidence of God's anger, wrath, and vengeance. The passage may even be read as questioning
God's omnipotence and omniscience. If, after all, God "had no other design" for mankind than to provide for their happiness,
why was the earth so filled with misery? Why hadn't God simply mandated man's happiness? In these ways Gay's essay
suggests not only the priority of God's Radical Benevolence but the conceptual trade-offs or sacrifices that lay implicit
in such a commitment.
A second example comes from William
Paley's Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, first published in 1785. Here is the best example I know
of theological utilitarianism's case for a Radically Benevolent God:
of coming at the will of God concerning any action by the light of nature is to inquire into 'the tendency of the action to
promote or diminish the general happiness....This rule proceeds upon the presumption, that God Almighty wills and wishes the
happiness of his creatures; and, consequently, that those actions, which promote that will and wish must be agreeable to him;
and the contrary....This presumption is the foundation of our whole system (Paley, p. 43).
Paley was the Natural Theologian par
excellence of his time. His allusion to the 'light of nature' is, as in Gay, a reference to Natural Theology (as well
as one to Abraham Tucker, to whose work he was much indebted). Paley provides us with a statement of the direct dependence
of his happiness principle upon the notion of a benevolent God.
Let us turn, now, to similar, but
equivocal, expressions in secular utilitarian writings. I begin with a long and intriguing passage from Bentham's Principles
of Morals and Legislation (1789):
The dictates of religion would
coincide, in all cases, with those of utility, were the Being, who is the object of religion, universally supposed to be as
benevolent as he is supposed to be wise and powerful; and were the notions entertained of his benevolence,
at the same time, as correct as those which are entertained of his wisdom and his power. Unhappily, however, neither
of these is the case. He is universally supposed to be all-powerful: for by the Deity, what else does any man mean than
the Being, whatever he be, by whom every thing is done? And as to knowledge, by the same rule that he should know one
thing he should know another. These notions seem to be as correct, for all material purposes, as they are universal.
But among the votaries of religion (of which number the multifarious fraternity of Christians is but a small part) there seem
to be but few (I will not say how few) who are real believers in his benevolence. They call him benevolent in words, but they
do not mean that he is so in reality. They do not mean, that he is benevolent as man is conceived to be benevolent:
they do not mean that he is benevolent in the only sense in which benevolence has a meaning. For if they did, they would recognise
that the dictates of religion could be neither more nor less than the dictates of utility: not a tittle different: not a tittle
less or more. (Bentham, pp. 119-120)
Bentham's rhetorical stance is interesting. He draws the
connection between Godly benevolence and the principle of utility as clearly as we saw it in Gay and Paley. But the
connection is made entirely on ontological (and not in natural theological) terms. Bentham is essentially chiding religionists
for permitting their Deity to manifest omnipotence and omniscience but not radical benevolence. The benevolence necessity,
then, is stated negatively rather than positively, presumably because this gives Bentham the appearance of not stating a theological
proposition. But whether it is stated positively or negatively, the logical necessity of a benevolent Deity is evident
in the passage Much the same assertion appears in John Stuart Mill’s essay, "Utilitarianism" (1863), and again we see
the same rhetorical device in use. Mill
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
shifts the burden to the opposition, claiming that the God of the religionists
can match the utilitarian spirit simply by becoming radically benevolent:
We not uncommonly hear the doctrine
of utility inveighed against as a godless doctrine. If it be necessary to say anything at all against so mere
an assumption, we may say that the question depends upon what ideas we have formed of the moral character of the Deity.
If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in
their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other. (Mill, p.
For another sort of evidence one can look once again
at Bentham's opening sentence in his PML. It is a fine example of the same rhetorical quest. Certainly
the notions of "Nature" and "two sovereigns" convey claims not only about the power of pleasure and pain in human motivation
but about their legitimacy as well. Consider, for example, a couple of sentences Bentham did not use.
Suppose he had begun (1) with the purely descriptive assertion that, "Men like pleasure and avoid pain . . . " or, (2) in
an irreverent tone, "Surely the devil himself causes mankind to seek pleasure and avoid pain." Though all three sentences
attach men to pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding, only Bentham's actual sentence blesses and legitimizes.2 Bentham, of course, is not employing God but Nature for such legitimacy,
but, as we shall see, it is the divinized Nature of the eighteenth century Bentham employs (Willey, Ch.
Another example of the same rhetorical tactic comes
from Bentham's only book devoted specifically to theological questions, his Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion
on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind, published in 1822.3 The work was coauthored by George Grote and published under the joint pseudonym of 'Philip Beauchamp.'
It is a remarkable work, and one we will have occasion to examine more closely later on. Beauchamp, in the passage cited
below, is embarked upon a criticism of natural religion. He argues, just as Bentham had in PML, that though religionists
often assert God's goodness, they rarely behave as though they believed in it. There is a thirty-odd year
span between the two quotations, perhaps a measure of how consistently Bentham held the divine-benevolence view.
If he is conceived to be perfectly
beneficent--having no personal affections of his own, or none but such as are coincident with the happiness of mankind--patronising
those actions alone which are useful, and exactly in the degree in which they are useful--detesting in a similar manner and
proportion those which are hurtful--then the actions agreeable to him will be beneficial to mankind, and inducements to the
performance of them will promote the happiness of mankind. If, on the other hand, he is depicted as unbeneficent--as having
personal affections seldom coincident with human happiness, frequently injurious to it, and almost always frivolous and exactive--favoring
actions which are not useful at all, or not in the degree in which they are useful--disapproving with the same caprice and
without any reference to utility--then the course of action by which his favour is to be sought, will be more or less injurious
to mankind, and inducements to pursue it will in the present life tend to the production of unhappiness. (Beauchamp,
Origins of Utilitarianism's
Radically Benevolent God
We must turn
now to the question of the origins of this Radically Benevolent God. My main point in the discussion that follows is
that the attribution of increasing benevolence to God was by no means the sole property of the utilitarian movement but rather
that of a much wider field of 17th and 18th century religious and philosophical thinkers. What is crucial about the
story of utilitarian thought, however, is that the utilitarian camp took the radical benevolence idea more seriously and more
fully exploited its ethical and practical implications. But first, a brief sketch of the wider themes in western thought
that over a period of about two centuries moved Divine benevolence up the hierarchy of godly attributes. A number of
major intellectual shifts must be noted in this account.
Looking back to the 17th century, we find two key trends
important to our story. The first is a growing store of difficulties facing English Protestantism, and the second is the ascendancy
of Natural Philosophy -- or what would soon become more commonly known as "science." The two trends were historically intertwined.
Unlike the adversary relation that English religion and science would manifest by the mid-19th century, in the 17th
Leslie Stephen (1832-1904)
century, science was widely viewed as offering a new resource
for shoring up the faith. As Leslie Stephen put it, "the divines of the seventeenth century believed sincerely that theology
could be exhibited as a body of necessary truth, and, further, that all arguments in favour of theology must tell equally
in favour of Christianity" (1902, vol. 1, p. 80). Science's role as religious rescuer had grown out of the particular
character of the difficulties facing contemporary Protestantism. For one, there was the problem of the expanding world
(and universe) of contemporary European knowledge. Stephen beautifully described the circumstance:
As distant countries, whose
existence had scarcely touched men's thoughts in former ages, or which had been conceived as lying in some dim borderland
rimming the bright circle of Christendom, came daily into closer contact with ordinary life, the true proportions of human
history became manifest. Christendom was but a fragment of the world. Millions upon millions of human beings had
never even heard of its existence; they knew nothing of the one true faith, which to know was life everlasting, and
not to know was to incur everlasting torment. Could all the Chinese, for example, be damned because they knew nothing of an
event which, so far as they were concerned, might have happened on the moon? If not damned, and if, in fact, they were about
as happy and virtuous as Christians, could the Christian faith be necessary either in this world or the next? Throughout
the eighteenth century, the deists are always taunting the orthodox with this startling fact of three hundred million Chinamen
whose case cannot be squared with the old theories. The revelations of astronomy were even more impressive to the imagination.
Once men could think of their little planet as itself the universe, consisting of a level plain a few miles in breadth, and
roofed by the solid vault carrying our convenient lighting apparatus. The revelation, finally clenched by Newton's astonishing
discovery, that the world was an atom in space, whirling round the sun, itself, perhaps, another atom, utterly crushed the
old imaginations which still survive in Milton's poetry. The scenery had become too wide for the drama. (Stephen,
1902, vol. 1, pp. 81-82)
For another, English Protestantism had experienced a seemingly
endless ramification of new and divisive sects. As Willey (p. 6) pointedly put it, religious differences had reduced
points of faith to mere controversy. Surely the Reformation's originators had not expected that the placement of faith
squarely on the biblical texts would lead to so many conflicting interpretations. But disputed exegesis had in due course
become the dominating reality, and the more conflicts arose, the more thoughtful men and women came to realize the necessity
of judging matters on the reasonableness of conflicting views. Hence, a new spirit of rationalism was often the silent
inheritor of Protestant dissension -- much as it had been when Protestantism first assembled its attack on the Roman Church.
Quite naturally, Catholic observers might look on Protestantism's story of diversification and conflict with amusement, and
also with wonder that so many small groups might declare themselves the one true faith. But in England,
at least, such diversity was not always viewed as an evil. For one thing, it bred toleration -- many English thinkers,
"seeing that men unavoidably differ in profound speculation," as Stephen put it, "...learnt to admit the innocence of error"
(1902, vol. 1, pp. 75-76). Also, while detractors might focus on the differences across Protestant sects, more
hopeful souls might look instead at what remained constant and necessary across all of them. In this way
the very diversity of Christian belief set in motion more or less empirical quests for its essential and common denominators.
By now, too, generations of Protestants had learned that the Bible was not altogether complete in its capacity to provide
moral guidance on questions of everyday life or political choice. The Bible, after all, was made up of histories, of
stories, of a mass of particulars and not of the general principles that the new era had grown accustomed to equating with
knowledge in the highest sense.
In several important ways, then, Natural Philosophy or
science spoke to the most vexing difficulties of Protestant faith. Science was universal, and could be expected to speak
as truly to the English as to the Chinese. Science was also general, and might provide a unified body of principles
for the governance of the moral as well as the physical world. Science also meant rationality, and seemed inherently antiauthoritarian
in its perspective. And if these advantages were not enough, was not it true that the most stunning achievement in Natural
Philosophy so far had been made by an Englishman, Newton (1642-1727)? Thus
did Natural philosophy in the late 17th and over the whole of the 18th century come to be regarded as "God's Other Book,"
the study of which was suitable, along with the Bible, for providing the hearts and minds of faith-seeking men with a clear
vision of His character and will. It was to be sure a rosy vision of the relationship between religion and science,
one undoubtedly made possible (as Willey suggested) by the
...fact that the findings of
science, up to date, could fuse harmoniously with the presuppositions inherited from Christianity, which, though shaken by
controversy, still remained as almost unquestioned certainties in men's hearts. For what had science revealed?
Everywhere design, order, and law, where hitherto there had been chaos. (Willey, 1961, p. 5)
But if science held out a helping hand to the faith, it
also brought with it a number of important conceptual demands. Most important of these, I believe, was the need for
a crucial shift in the meaning and definition of "Nature." Nature, as Willey has described, became "deified" by 18th
century thinkers. For if God was now to be made visible through His Creation, then the Creation -- i.e., Nature -- would
of necessity have to become Godlike. This simple parallelism, seemingly as innocent and obvious as blue sky, would require
an enormous shift in habits of Christian thought.
One of the chief attempts to use Natural Philosophy for
specifically theological ends appeared in the form of Natural Theology or Natural Religion. The two names defined a
field of knowledge in contradistinction to Revealed or Scriptural Religion, lately so variously interpreted. Natural
Theology attempted to borrow from the prestige and rationalism of science in search of a Christian God. It was constructed
upon the premise that a naturalistic and rationalistic approach to Christian faith might lead to both proofs of God's existence
and to a Christian image of His divine characteristics. It was an optimistic attempt, to be sure, constructed for the
most part upon the picture of "order, law, and rationality" that Newton and his
scientific legatees had provided. If nothing else, Natural Theology and Natural Religion provided contemporary-sounding
arguments for longstanding Christian commitments -- often drawing upon recent scientific discoveries illustrating the intricacy
of contrivance evidenced in the natural world.
But the argument contained an inevitable circularity.
If natural theologians sought for evidence of God in Nature, it was a specific God, namely a Christian God, they sought.
Thus only observations leading to affirm this prior imagery helped the cause. Natural Theology could not rigorously
demonstrate God's existence or His characteristics, and few Natural Theologians expected it to. Instead, it simply attempted
"...to reconcile both the findings of science and the dictates of reason with the already preexisting emotional and spiritual
commitment which practicing Christians felt toward God" (LeMahieu, p. 53; see also p. 89). It asked, in other words,
not if Nature revealed God but merely if a Christian God were compatible with Nature.
Nature's pleasing scenes might fit nicely into the natural
theological system but its more unpleasant ones posed a new dilemma. Where, after all, might one fit pain, evil, death
in such a new, benevolence-emphasizing perspective? Inevitably, every contemporary natural theologian faced the problem
of evil and tried to explain it away. Evil, for example, might be recast as merely an illusion created by human misunderstanding,
or it might be suggested that a greater good was served by ostensible evil, and so on. This was a rhetorical line and
preoccupation that led straight to explicit, if not always convincing, cases on behalf of God's benevolence. The more
firmly natural theology was embraced, therefore, the more thoroughly God's benevolence required articulation and ontological
priority. This, then, defined the crucial link between natural theology and the utilitarianism of Paley and other theological
A fine example of the lengths to which natural theological
defenses of God's benevolence would go is provided in the famous "Bridgewater Treatises" (1833-1836). The Reverend Francis
Henry, Earl of Bridgewater, left an 8,000 pound legacy for the support of a series of books "on the power, wisdom and goodness
of God, as manifested in the creation." William Buckland, geologist and later dean of Westminster,
was invited to contribute one of the nine planned treatises. Buckland's essay addressed the problem posed by the presence
of carnivores in nature. How, he asked, did the creation of carnivora square with a just and merciful
Creator? Buckland, writes Gould,4
resolved the issue to his satisfaction
by arguing that carnivores actually increase 'the aggregate of animal enjoyments' and 'diminish that of pain.' Death,
after all, is swift and relatively painless, victims are spared the ravages of decrepitude and senility, and populations do
not outrun their food supply to the greater sorrow of all.
Buckland continued: The appointment of death by the agency of carnivora, as the ordinary
termination of animal existence, appears therefore in its main results to be a dispensation of benevolence; it deducts much
from the aggregate amount of the pain of universal death; it abridges, and almost annihilates, throughout the brute creation,
the misery of disease, and accidental injuries, and lingering decay; and imposes such salutary restraint upon excessive increase
of numbers, that the supply of food maintains perpetually a due ratio to the demand. The result is, that the surface of the
land and depths of the waters are ever crowded with myriads of animated beings, the pleasures of whose life are coextensive
with its duration; and which throughout the little day of existence that is allotted to them, fulfill with joy the functions
for which they were created.4
No less than the grand Newtonian vision of a clockwork
universe provided the abiding scientific metaphor at Natural Theology's conceptual base. In an argument familiar
even to this day, the existence of a clock implied the existence of a clockmaker -- and so design in nature's universe implied
the Great Designer. And once again, the metaphor seemed to leave little place for evil in the world. Newton's clockwork
God became coextensive with a law-governed natural world whose chief attributes were order, law, and rationality. Where
fit evil in such a perspective? Here was further evidence of God's benevolence.
Within the halls of doctrinal theology itself, the
emergent commitment to God's radical benevolence faced its most serious obstacle in the longstanding Christian belief in eternal
damnation. One of the most intriguing debates of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries concerned the eternality
of God's punishments for the damned.5 Here,
too, one can see strong forces tugging at an earlier, less benevolent deity on behalf of radical benevolence. The cultural
circumstances and arguments in favor of benevolence are instructive. First of all, the Reformation had been prompted in part
by reactions against the selling of indulgences by the Roman Church. In doing away with indulgences Protestantism also
did away with their site, Catholic purgatory. And with purgatory gone, Protestant faithful were faced with a much starker
prospect in the afterlife: either everlasting heaven or everlasting torment in hell. Many Protestants worried
over the fates of their loved ones. Protestantism had also emphasized Divine predestination, and so the fates of the
damned seemed to reflect ill on the Creator. How, after all, could a just God have created human souls knowing full
well, and before they were born, that they would be damned? Ironically, the more Protestant sects saw themselves as
unique and favored elects, the more it seemed that the overwhelming preponderance of human beings would be sent to hell.
The imbalance was exacerbated by the souls of unbaptized babies, who were likewise denied heaven. In an age of high
infant mortality, it had been estimated that as many as half hell's population were babies.
Other arguments also tell something of the climate of
sentiment. It had been observed that, prior to the day of the Last Judgment, the threat of hell's torments might
act to deter people from sin. But after the Judgment, what purpose could continued punishment serve? The notion
of a Godly contrivance with no purpose ran directly against contemporary patterns of thought. There is scriptural authority
for the idea that one of the blessings of heavenly residence was that of peering down upon the torments of the damned.
But the relish of vengeance, too, seemed out of step with the sensibilities of the times. The third Lord Shaftesbury argued
early in the eighteenth century that real goodness could not be the result either of desire for heavenly reward or aversion
to hell's torments. Real goodness, Shaftesbury argued, had to be for its own sake. It is important to note that
scriptural authority for eternal damnation -- according to D.P. Walker -- is very strong, "as strong as on any point of Christian
faith" (p. 19). The case for mitigation ran against a clear scriptural tide and in doing so indicated how strong was
the pressure on its behalf. Many of the principals of the theological-utilitarian camp -- notably, Priestley, Hartley,
and Paley -- would at one time or another participate in the controversy over eternal damnation.
Utilitarianism as Part of
the English Moral Philosophical Tradition
troubles, science's ascendancy, the century's taste for Natural Theology and distaste for Hell -- all were parts of the general
intellectual climate of the English eighteenth century. Whether one looked at God (Walker,
1964), at Nature (Willey, 1961), or at man (Sheriff, 1982), benevolence and good-naturedness abounded. As Willey put
it (p. 10), the century lost its taste for the tragic sense of life. Naturally, there were detractors, critics, and
renegades to this movement of thought as well, but even in disagreement they were obliged to speak in the vocabularies most
men used. Nothing said so far differentiates utilitarian thought from a broader field of philosophical opinion. What
was it then -- besides the happiness principle -- that defined and united utilitarians? What differentiated them from others?
Utilitarianism descended from a great tradition
of English moral philosophy that stretched back to the Reformation.6 One of the chief consequences of the Protestant Reformation had been the implication that parishioners'
relationships to God would now be much more direct. The priestly intermediary had been removed and the confessional
had gone with him. Lacking both, Protestantism was obliged to take a fresh perspective on sin and the events of the
human conscience. If clergy could neither absolve sin nor clear consciences, what was their appropriate function to
be? Perhaps the best that could be offered was moral instruction -- which is to say, lessons in how to control oneself.
The prevention of sin would have to replace its repentance. Since the provider of such instruction had no special authority
or link with God, it followed that in moral matters "he was obliged to give his proofs as well as his results" (Whewell, p.
3). These considerations seem to have provided the foundations for English moral philosophy.
The earliest writings in this tradition were "casuistries"
-- detailed compendiums of cases in which right conduct was unclear.7 But the historical tendency of
this literature was to move from issues of conduct to issues of conscience. There was a preference for the happenings
William Whewell (1794-1866)
mind, thus anticipating a long English preoccupation with subjective sensibilities.
One reason for this focus was the Protestant conviction that the conscience provided a person's direct link with God's moral
sentiments. Conscience, thus, came to be the ultimate test of good and evil. Yet another tendency moved this literature
away from case-by-case commentaries and toward generalized principles of right conduct -- that is to say, toward "Moral Philosophy."
Whewell saw the seventeenth century as the zenith of these trends: he terms it, "the Epoch of the acknowledged authority of
Conscience as the ground of Morality" (p. 10).
Hobbes shocked contemporary opinion with the notion that
this moral sense, so revered by English moralists, might simply be the product of men's fear of one another. But it was John
Locke who provided the starting place for the utilitarian branch of ethical thought. Locke's singular contribution was his
exclusion of innate ideas from the human conscience -- with them went innate moral ideas as well. Locke could find only
the desire for happiness and the aversion of pain in the human mind -- a sort of proto-utilitarianism. His embargo
on innate ideas laid down challenge to subsequent English moralists: Could the moral feeling -- which gives us approbation
for the honorable act and hostility toward evil -- be accounted for without recourse to innate ideas? In a broad sense
the conflict here is between Locke's unwavering empiricism and the legacy of a Protestant commitment to direct communication
between man and God.
Locke would win. Utilitarianism's point of departure from
this tradition turned on the question of innate moral ideas. Gay's essay (1731) is the most convenient starting place.
Surely there has never been an essay less likely to win a solid place in the history of ideas than John Gay's "Dissertation
Concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue and Morality," for it was (1) published as a preface to someone else's book
(Edmund Law's translation of King's Latin Essay on the Origin of Evil ); (2) published anonymously; (3) Gay's
only published work; (4) quite short; and (5) inclined to be overlooked by subsequent utilitarian writers who owed it acknowledgment.
In any event, Gay lighted the way toward a Lockean/Utilitarian solution to the "moral sense" problem.
He began with with the universal utilitarian assumption
of a Radically Benevolent God, in a passage I have already cited. A variety of themes may be read into Gay's paper,
but the important line concerns his handling of one crucial question: How is it that men come to attach approbation
or opprobrium immediately upon witnessing an action. The problem was this: Gay believed that happiness flowed
from virtuous action. Thus, men's enlightened reason, alone, might lead them to be virtuous. But Gay was aware,
too, that men experienced feelings of approbation or opprobrium when they witnessed actions that could have no bearing on
their own happiness. Also, one might feel good about his own act without knowledge of its future payoff in happiness.
How did men come to feel these emotions? Gay stated the problem thus:
the generality of mankind do
approve of virtue, or rather virtuous actions, without being able to give any reason for their approbation; and also, that
some pursue it without knowing that it tends to their own private happiness.
Here we have the phenomenon that the "moral sense" had
in the past been called upon to account for. In a sense, Gay has already solved the fundamental Lockean problem. What
Locke saw as the non-answers of happiness and pain, Gay has invested with moral implications. In Gay's hands, happiness and
pain become moral loadstones. For Gay, God places happiness in men so that they will know how to behave, and men who
follow the happiness loadstone, then, make themselves and their communities happy. This is theory distilled from a thickly
theological brew. All that remains for Gay is to answer how men sense the virtue in action (which is to say, the happiness
it will produce) when they cannot know or anticipate the happiness reward.
Gay's answer is that men come to associate the
pleasurable rewards of past experience with the anticipated consequences of future action or action merely observed in others.
We first perceive or imagine
some real good, i.e. fitness to promote our natural happiness, in those things which we love and approve of. Hence...we
annex pleasure to those things. Hence those things and pleasure are so tied together and will also occur. And the association
remains even after that which at first gave them the connection is quite forgot, or perhaps does not exist, but the contrary
Gay gives the example of money: Men may start out
in life desiring the things money can buy, but will in the end come to enjoy the acquisition of money for its own sake.
He tells us that
...they join money and happiness
immediately together, and content themselves with the fantastical pleasure of having it, and make that which was at first
pursued only as a means, be to them a real end, and what their real happiness or misery consists in. Thus the connection
between money and happiness remains in the mind; though it has long since ceased between the things themselves.
Mild as these comments may seem to us, this was a radical
departure in perspective for Gay's contemporary readers. It would set in motion a chain reaction going from Gay to the
associationist psychology of David Hartley, to Priestley's abridgment of Hartley, and thence to Bentham and James Mill.
The crucial point was that Gay had managed to provide an empiricist explanation of the apparently internal moral sense.
The theory also provided just what was wanted by both secular and theological camps. When secular utilitarians looked
back on Gay, they saw a solution to both the vexing problem of the feeling of an interior moral sense and to the equally vexing
fact that this feeling might operate at times when an action's consequences were not in clear view. On the other hand,
when theological utilitarians looked back on the same writer, they saw a God who (1) made happiness the direct consequence
of virtue, and (2) contrived matters so that happiness was remembered or associated with the moral actions that initially
prompted it. In this way men's morality could persist beyond the occasions in which they directly experienced virtue's payoff.
English utilitarianism, whether secular or theological, incorporated these two essentials, the happiness principle and an
associationist model of moral sentiment.
What Divided Secular and Theological
From the perspective of secular utilitarians at least,
the crucial difference between themselves and any variety of theism lay in the issue of the afterlife. In a sense,
the issue was tied, once again, to the question of the qualities and attributes of a Radically Benevolent God. Among
theological utilitarians it probably made good sense that such a God would not deny mankind eternal life. Belief in
the afterlife also derived from traditional Christian faith. Secular utilitarians, on the other hand, felt the pinch
of their empiricism. Though radical benevolence might suggest an afterlife, honest men had to confess that a scientific
approach to the question simply left them ignorant. Thus, it was best to stay mute on the matter, and ignore it in the
formulation of one's philosophy. This is not to say, however, that all secular utilitarianism ignored the afterlife
entirely -- as we shall see, the subject provided the central theme for Bentham and Grote's theory of religious belief.
Bentham and his school tended to avoid purely metaphysical
discussions, preferring instead the nuts and bolts of practical reform. Thus, it is fortunate that we have 'Philip Beauchamp's'
views to fall back upon for a picture of Bentham's secular metaphysics. Beauchamp's discussion of natural religion is
of considerable interest, for it dramatically emphasized the importance secularist utilitarians attached to their distaste
for the afterlife belief. It also stressed the key role they saw for religion in producing much of man's contemporary
Beauchamp's goal was to consider natural religion from
a rigorously utilitarian vantage point. This meant focussing on its consequences, and he began with a very clever rhetorical
device for legitimizing this focus. He noted that critics of orthodox religion were often themselves criticized -- this,
not so much because of their attacks on religion's truth, but rather because religion, whether true or false, was thought
to be necessary to public order and personal well-being. Therefore, he continued, it made sense to extend discussions of religion
from questions of truth or falsity to estimates of religion's consequences in everyday life (or utility). This, of course,
neatly deflected the discussion down the path he wanted to go.
Beauchamp's definition of religion is telling. It
the belief in the existence
of an almighty Being, by whom pains and pleasures will be dispensed to mankind, during an infinite and future state of existence.
And religion is called natural, when there exists no written and acknowledged declaration, from which an acquaintance with
the will and attributes of this almighty Being may be gathered....My object is therefore to ascertain, whether the belief
of posthumous pains and pleasures, then to be administered by an omnipotent Being, is useful to mankind--that is, productive
of happiness or misery in the present life (p. 3).
Natural theologists might well have cried foul at this
point, for they had a lively concern with happiness in the present life, too. For example, William Paley's Principles
of Moral and Political Philosophy, though it relies upon the pursuit of everlasting happiness in the afterlife, is for
the most part focused on everyday questions of our temporal existence. But Beauchamp equated natural religion entirely
with the afterlife and its rewards and penalties. In other words, he is forcing the issue; he wishes to confront natural
religion at what he regards its weakest point. Beauchamp argues first that we can know nothing from direct experience
of the afterlife, but he is not simply interested in empirically restricting the natural theologist. He asserts that
the things of which men are ignorant are those which they will invest with fear and dread. Pain is a more pungent and more
distinct sensation than pleasure, he argues. Hence, in our imaginings of the unknown we are more likely to dwell on
pain than on pleasure. A purely mortal existence -- where death stopped all -- would at least remove from mankind this
sort of fear in the present life. It is an opening, and perhaps a not altogether persuasive, shot. But Beauchamp gets
better. The pleasure/pain prospect of the afterlife is, of course, conditional on our actions in this life. From
this flows the central argument for natural religion's benefit to mankind; it promotes good behavior on earth through the
fear of punishment and the desire for reward in the afterlife. But for natural religion to do this, Beauchamp continues,
it must illuminate right paths of conduct and it must provide reasons for pursuing them. It must admonish or impel.
But, says Beauchamp flatly, we get no rules of conduct directly from natural religion. The argument is odd. Paley,
after all, had derived rules of conduct from his happiness principle -- just as secular theologians did. But Beauchamp
is on a different track.
He argues that we learn rules of conduct from actual experience
and not from natural religion. It is, once more, a strange assertion. Could not experience, in a sense, be regarded as simply
another word for our contact with Nature, and thus a means by which Nature provides rules of conduct? In any case, Beauchamp
asserts that we can only know that fruit is sweet or that fire burns by trying them out. It follows that we will try
to extend our experience of this world to our uncomfortable anticipations of the next. And how is this done? Here,
Beauchamp erects a psychology of the theological imagination. Natural religion arises because human beings, faced with
unknown fates, will fear the worst and construct imaginary artifacts by which to avoid their fears. The key element
in this exercise will be the attributes the human mind attaches to this all-powerful Being who dispenses the circumstances
of the afterlife so feared. In other words, natural religion's object is the creation of a protective God. But
what sort of God is created? Beauchamp sees that religionists profess God's benevolence but do not act as if they believed
in it themselves. It is the same point Bentham expressed earlier in PML:
If we consult the language in
which mankind speak of the Deity, we shall be led to imagine that he is in their conception a being of perfect and unsullied
beneficence, uniting in himself all that is glorious and all that is amiable. Such is the tendency and amount of the
words which they employ. Strange, however, as the inconsistency may appear, it will not be difficult to demonstrate,
that mere natural religion invariably leads its votaries to ascribe to their Deity a character of caprice and tyranny, while
they apply to him, at the same moment, all those epithets of eulogy and reverence which their language comprises. This
discrepancy between the actual and the pretended conception is an infallible result of the circumstances, and agreeable to
the principles of human nature (p. 16).
And what feature of 'human nature' is at the base of this
curious discrepancy? It is fear -- not the Hobbesian fear of other men, but the believer's fear of God and His power.
But why does man fear a God whom he has invested with benevolence? The answer goes back to man's dependence on earthly
experience. First, Beauchamp notes that religionists endow God with omnipotence. He says that the usual feeling
evoked in men by limitless power is an "unmixed" fear -- just think how we view the paragons of power in literature (the giants
and cyclops, for example), and magnify this dread to infinity. Secondly, religionist say of God that he is unknown and
incomprehensible. But this, too, in our worldly experience leads us to fear. For unknowability is "caprice, when
confined to trifling occurrences of life; insanity, when it extends to important occasions" (p. 17). True, we laugh
at the caprices of a child, but we take more seriously those of a madman. How much more dreadfully would we face the
caprice of an all-powerful ruler?
Why our tendency to describe this God in only the most
glowing praises? To answer, Beauchamp presents a theory of "praise and blame." Men use praise and blame to influence
one another. Praise expresses approval and blame disapproval, but there is another crucial difference between
the two: to blame or punish implies the existence of sufficient power to carry out such harm whereas to praise need
involve nothing more than the voice to speak it. Thus, there is a gradient of power associated with the use of these
two devices. The weak, having no power to blame the strong, attempt to influence with praise; the powerful, with sufficient
means to punish, tend to use force or the threat of force. It follows, then, that the greater the differential in power between
the powerful and the weak, the greater will be the tendency for the strong to use power and the weak to use praise.
In this way Beauchamp resolves the discrepancy between true opinion and behavior. Men praise God, but they actually
feel fear, and they praise out of powerlessness.
A central point of the remarkable Beauchamp book is that
God's relation to man has become inverted, and from this inversion springs all sorts of "mischief" and costs to human happiness.
In Stephen's fine summary:
injures individuals by prescribing useless and painful practices: fasting,, celibacy, voluntary self-torture, and so forth.
It suggests vague terrors which often drive the victim to insanity, and it causes remorse for harmless enjoyments. Religion
injures society by creating antipathies against unbelievers, and in a less degree against heretics and nonconformists.
It perverts public opinion by making innocent actions blameable; by distorting the whole science of morality and sanctioning
the heterogeneous dictates of a certain blind and unaccountable impulse called the 'moral instinct or conscience.' Morality
becomes a 'mere catalogue of reigning sentiments,' because it has cast away the standard of utility. A special aversion
to improvement is generated, because whatever changes our conceptions of the 2. sequence of phenomena' is supposed to break
the divine 'laws of nature.' 'Unnatural' becomes a 'self-justifying' epithet forbidding any proposed change of conduct, which
will counteract the designs of God.' Religion necessarily injures intellectual progress. It disjoins belief from its only
safe ground, experience. The very basis, the belief in an inscrutable and arbitrary power, sanctions supernatural and 'extra-experimental'
beliefs of all kinds... (p. 345-346)
And so it goes. What is important about Beauchamp's
book, however, does not lie solely in the particulars of this argument, but also in the argument's crucial initial assumption.
Because it is an attack on natural religion, Beauchamp does not seem, himself, to work from theological assumptions.
But this is only appearance. What we see here is in fact a systematic and exhaustive case on behalf of the absolute priority
of Godly benevolence. Many features of Beauchamp's attack on natural religion are traceable to the fact that some other
Godly characteristic (omnipotence or unknowability, for example) is given greater importance than benevolence or, on the other
hand, that claims of benevolence are not embraced tightly enough. The key to Beauchamp's case is an assertion of Godly
benevolence in a dramatic and sweeping way. But because it does so by attacking religionists' departures from the universal
Benevolence assumption, its seems not to make a positive ontological case at all.
And yet it is arguable how much, in fact, the afterlife
question truly accounts for differences in secular and theological utilitarianism. Because the afterlife is infinitely
long, and heaven and hell are very different, a rigorous commitment to a belief in the afterlife might completely dwarf any
considerations of earthly happiness. This is a point that Beauchamp makes.
Of course, the point depends upon the notion that temporal happiness is somehow inconsistent with one's afterlife prospects.
This view theological utilitarians denied. Indeed, a book like Paley's Moral and Political Philosophy addressed
temporal, and not post-temporal, happiness as its central topic. Thus, the afterlife seems to have provided Paley's
utilitarian system with little input. there were, of course, some inputs. Post-temporal rewards and punishments
could provide a convenient device for solving one or two nettlesome difficulties.
For example, Paley -- just as Bentham -- was oblige to
confront the problem of the connection between happiness and accepted standards of public morality. Why, for instance,
should not a just and good man assassinate a tyrant, if the action would relieve the suffering of thousands of subjects?
Paley's answer -- much like Bentham's -- is that there is a fundamental necessity for general rules. In other words,
the assassin would set an example whose limits could not be rationally contained. In this way, incidentally, both Bentham's
and Paley's ethics tended to beat a path back to Kant's generalized maxim. In any case, Paley argued that we must divide the
consequences of action into the particular and the general. The particular consequences may be beneficial, but the general
may be bad. Paley recognized, however, that the bad general consequences of assassinating an evil tyrant lay in the public
knowledge of the event -- if no public knowledge, then no bad example, and no weakening of the general rule. And so
he confronted the problem of utilitarianism's apparent consistency with and approval of perfectly secret, "just" assassinations.
it was here that Paley used his theological trump: the "general judgment" at the world's end will bring all secrets
to light -- and what could be the purpose of such general judgment if not for God to dispense rewards and punishments?
The afterlife, though it so well epitomized the secular
distaste for all theism, does not tell us a great deal about the differences between works like Paley's MPP
and Bentham's PML. What, then, does? One is struck especially by Paley's general and prescriptive
social agenda, as contrasted with Bentham's much more restricted and proscriptive one. In Paley's hands the principle
of utility becomes a means for instructing men in their duty. Backed up with the power of a divine Nature's laws, Paley
is interpreter to men of these laws' meanings and proper implications. There is a fundamental conservatism here.
Paley's political theory, like his Natural Theology, seeks possible Divine rationales behind existing social arrangements.
(One thinks of the conservatism often associated with twentieth-century social functionalism.) Paley also takes a strong
line on his conception of the sources of human happiness, which strongly flavors his image of utility. For Paley, happiness
did not consist in the "pleasures of sense," by which he means
...as well as the animal gratifications
of eating, drinking, and that by which the species is continued, as [i.e., also] the more refined pleasures of music, painting,
architecture, gardening, splendid shews, theatric exhibitions, and the pleasures, lastly, of active sports, as of hunting,
shooting, fishing &c." (p. 15).
Such pleasures were of short duration, repetition dulled
them, and our eagerness for them often left us disappointed with their actual experience. Neither did happiness consist
in a pardon from our cares and responsibilities. And, finally, happiness would not be found in greatness or rank. Paley's
conception of happiness is built on solid Protestant virtues: (1) the social affections -- "Those persons commonly possess
good spirits, who have about them many objects of affection and endearment, as wife, children, kindred, friends"; (2) the
exercise of our faculties toward some end -- what Paley called "engagement," (3) modest habits, and, finally, (4) good health.
Bentham's approach differs radically. In Bentham's
hands God's Radical Benevolence is a call to rational reform. As he sees it, God has not implanted the same sources
of happiness in all men but left the matter open to individual variation. Thus, Bentham does not wish universally to
prescribe conduct but rather to arrange social institutions so that individuality might find easier expression. Bentham's
orientation is essentially libertarian rather than moralistic. He is interested in what minimum of acts men should not
perform rather than the broad field of what they should. This, of course, accounts for his relatively restricted focus on
criminal law. Such a focus is not simply a byproduct of the fact that PML was a fragmentary work, it also
reflects something important about Bentham's underlying sense of mission. Bentham, thus, plays Luther to Paley's Calvin.
Paley, like Calvin, would prescribe all, whereas Bentham, like Luther, would leave to individual consciences those things
God did not explicitly demand of men.
There is a lesson here, I think. One might be inclined
to think that the outline of Bentham's social program derived ultimately from his principle of utility. A look at Paley,
however, suggests that this cannot be altogether true. That both men held the principle of utility and nevertheless had quite
different views of social policy shows that something else was at work in the production of their social views. What mattered
more than the principle, it seems, was whether one viewed the existing social world as fundamentally sound or fundamentally
unsound, whether one viewed the role of the moralist as that of prescribing a great deal or, on the other hand, proscribing
as little as possible. It mattered, too, how God chose to relate to his world of men. In Bentham's view, God (via
Nature) had placed in men an immanent force (happiness) which orients them, individually, to their life courses. This
view is atomistic. In Paley's view as well God gave man happiness for this directive purpose, but Paley's God had a
much more important role in the arrangement of social circumstances. For Paley, more often than not, whatever was,
was probably right.
God's Relationship to Man, and Halevy's Identity
Principles: It is tempting to try to use this notion of God's mode of relation to the social world as a means
for interpreting some of the secular utilitarian varieties Halevy acquainted us with. For example, why not explain "natural,"
"artificial," and "fusion-of-interest" schools in terms of their implicit styles of connection between God and man?
The "natural identity of interests" position seems to demand that man trust God -- even when each man pursues his selfish
interests God makes community interests prosper as well. Here, in other words, the notion of happiness as a God-to-man
communication device is taken very seriously. God must be trusted to orchestrate -- or what amounts to the same thing -- to
have at some time in the past orchestrated the world so that happiness has an almost magical prescience. This, one might
call the "Strong Providence" position -- the position of Mandeville, Smith, Godwin, and Malthus -- for it required a Providential
order adequate to turn private vice into public virtue.
A weaker Providence
lay in the idea that a Radically Benevolent God had placed in men themselves a desire for the happiness of their fellows.
In this case the maintenance of public order and the fostering of the community's good shifted from God to man. Here
was the doctrine of the "good-natured" man, which Halevy called the principle of the "fusion of interests" and is probably
best remembered as the "moral sense" school. Its chief representatives were Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Brown.
There is a big gap between Strong and Weak Providence. Strong Providence, first of all, logically implied anarchism -- it
is little wonder that this variety worked best in the economic sphere where it could rely on the comfortable assumption of
an economically rational man. Weak Providence, however, definitely suggested the
need for legislation and social control. Not all men would be equally good or have sufficient goodness, and not all
good men would be good all of the time. God, then, was not so strongly directive, and placed no inevitable connection between
men's actions and beneficent outcomes for all.
Notice how differently happiness operates in these two
schools: In the Strong Providence case men are invited simply to follow their inclinations. Even if their actions
appear selfish and bad, Providence will set things right. Here men are rather
like happy-go-lucky dogs, free to romp as they like, and only hampered by a legacy of false (Christian) moral sensibilities.
In the Weak Providence case, however, men themselves, and not the world system, are imbued with goodness. Here men do
not seem dog-like but rather must be thoughtful agencies prepared to orchestrate the social world for the furtherance of goodness.
They are responsible for their social institutions and for changing them in order to maximize mankind's happiness.
Finally, we have Bentham's "artificial identity of interests"
model. As we have seen already, it involved a God who imbued men with differing senses of happiness and with the power to
make mistakes or to do wrong. Here there is no divine blessing for social institutions but instead an invitation for
change. It falls to man collectively to arrange the social institution of punishment so that the interests of the individual
will be maximally identified with the interests of the community (pp. 17-18 in Halevy).
we make of all this? Perhaps we should think of two quite different senses of the idea of happiness -- one corresponding to
the twentieth-century's notion and the other to the eighteenth's. In the twentieth-century version the pursuit of happiness
oftentimes expresses a radically secular and hedonistic value. It suggests not a moral but an experiential basis for
action. Indeed, pronouncements for happiness may even suggest the inaccessibility of any other bases of value.
Hence, happiness denies transcendence and implies a more general nihilism.
The eighteenth century view was much different.
To understand it we must have a feel for the richly theological atmosphere of the time. For example, though for us Newton's
laws seem to require no particular involvement on the part of God -- save perhaps setting up the system and starting it running
-- nevertheless to Newton and his contemporaries the Newtonian world system required God's constant attention (see Heimann,
1978). God was thought to provide the medium in which the laws of nature operated and only His constant attention kept
So eighteenth-century thinkers saw happiness as a moral
loadstone, something God had placed in man so that man would know God was good and know what God expected of man. This loadstone,
then, did not imply hedonism or nihilism but a special and direct theism. If Bentham was not entirely forthright about
his happiness concept's theological implications, we have nevertheless seen how thoroughly -- even when he was attacking religion
-- a benevolent Deity was involved in his system.
Bentham avoided positive assertions about this God, but
he shared in a utilitarian tradition in which this God played prominently. Moreover, he can be expected to have shared
in other intellectual furniture of his time. Because Bentham did not make positive assertions of the sort the theological
utilitarians did, he left a blank canvas where expressions of theism might have been made. On that blank canvas modern
interpreters have imagined a meaning for "happiness" that is much closer to a twentieth than to an eighteenth-century conception.
The lesson of this history may be that that utilitarianism in particular and social theory more generally were secularized
in the eighteenth century not so much because Bentham and his school rejected God but rather because the theological tradition
they were rooted in had produced a God who had become superfluous to social thought. A God fully committed to men's
happiness might, after all, be safely disregarded for practical purposes. With the happiness loadstone in men's hearts
-- telling them always which road was right -- man could henceforth study man himself to know God's will. There can be little
doubt that Bentham bore no love for organized religion. One wonders, though, how Bentham might have viewed the prospect
of his own Radically Benevolent God fading into oblivion.
There were other theological utilitarians, of course, including John Gay, David
Hartley, Abraham Tucker, Joseph Priestley, and George Berkeley (see Albee, 1902).
Halevy notes, incidentally, that Bentham's first sentence was copied "almost word
for word" from Helvetius (Halevy, p. 26).
See Stephen (1950, vol. 2, pp. 338-361) for an intriguing discussion of this book.
4 My account, including the two quotations, is borrowed from Gould (1983, pp. 32-33).
5 My discussion of eternal torment is drawn entirely from D.P. Walker (1964).
6 My discussion is based on Whewell (1858) and Stephen (1902,
7 An early example of such work was entitled The Whole Treatise of Cases of Conscience, distinguished
into three books, taught and delivered by Mr. W. Perkins, published about 1600.
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