I’ve just finished one of the most intellectually taxing and fulfilling books on a subject that is very near to my heart. The book is titled, “Justice – what is the right thing to do?”. One of the people mentioned in this book is an interesting philosopher, a man called Bentham.
There was a man called Jeremy Bentham in the 1800s and he did not believe in the idea of natural rights (nowadays referred to as universal human rights) considering the notion to be ridiculous.
In fact, he said the idea of human rights was “nonsense upon stilts”.
He believed that the highest principle of morality – the most important thing in a society – was to maximize happiness and ensure that there is more pleasure than pain in the world.
He argued that everyone was governed by the feelings of pain and pleasure because we all like pleasure and dislike pain.
Had he lived in our contemporary Zimbabwean societies he’d have probably been a strong advocate for extra-marital affairs just because the majority of people seemingly derive pleasure from it.
He’d probably give every cheating spouse a badge and every cheating boyfriend or girlfriend a pat on the back as long as they could justify their actions by saying, “I did it for the pleasure.”
I don’t want to over-simplify the man’s philosophies as this would be misrepresentation of his school of thought.
Instead, I’ll share a bit about the man and let you be the judge of whether that is the kind of thinking we would like our societies reflect.
The kind of thinking that says it doesn’t matter how many people we hurt as long as we derive pleasure from the choices we have made. The kind of thinking that says happiness is the only thing that matters.
The basic sentiment in Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism (the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful in promoting the happiness of the greatest number of people) is that it’s okay to be happy at the expense of others.
To demonstrate how fixated Bentham was with the idea of creating and maximizing happiness; he came up with schemes for ‘pauper management’ where he sought to reduce the presence of beggars on the streets.
He considered that the happiness of the majority was the most important factor in any society.
Bentham observed, first of all, that encountering beggars on the streets reduces the happiness of passersby in two ways. For tender-hearted souls, the sight of a beggar produces the pain of sympathy; for hardhearted folk, it generates the pain of disgust.
Either way, encountering beggars reduces the happiness of the general public. So Bentham proposed removing beggars from the street and confining them to a workhouse.
He considered that the sum of the pains suffered by the public is greater than whatever unhappiness is felt by beggars so he proposed that any citizen who encountered a beggar should be empowered to apprehend the beggar and take them to the nearest workhouse to increase happiness for passerby.
Without realizing it many people live their lives stepping on others to get what they want and to get to where they wish to go. We live in a dog eat dog kind of set up and very few people have any qualms about walking all over someone else just to satisfy themselves.
It seems they don’t care who gets hurt as long they get what they want – pleasure means more to them than doing the right thing.
Bentham died in 1832, at the age of 84 but if you go to London, you can visit him today. He provided in his will that his body be preserved, embalmed and displayed. And so he can be found at the University College London, where he sits pensively in a glass case, dressed in his actual clothing.
Shortly before he died, Bentham asked himself a question consistent with his philosophy: Of what use could a dead man be to the living?
He concluded that in the case of great philosophers it is better to preserve one’s physical presence in order to inspire future generations of thinkers. In fact, modesty was not one of Bentham’s obvious character traits.
Not only did he live strict instructions for his body’s preservation and display, he also suggested that his friends and disciples meet every year “for the purpose of commemorating the founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation,” and when they did, they should bring Bentham out for the occasion.
His admirers have obliged. When the International Bentham Society was formed in the 1980s – the stuffed Bentham is reportedly wheeled in for meetings of the governing council of the college whose minutes record him as “present but not voting”.
Despite Bentham’s careful planning, the embalming of his head went badly, so he now keeps his vigil with a wax head instead of his real one.
His actual head, now kept in a cellar, was displayed for a time on a plate between his feet. But students stole the head and ransomed it back to the college for a charitable donation.
I am sharing the story of this man called Bentham – to illustrate that some people can actually go through life without seeing anything wrong in oppressing other people.
They don’t see anything wrong in hurting, violating or victimizing other people because to them the only thing that matters is that they are happy with themselves.
I know sometimes people sit down to try and understand the cruelty that is inflicted on them; they want their pain, sorrow and struggle to make sense. They want to meet their tormentors and demand an explanation, and ask them why they are hurting them without provocation.
The truth is sometimes you’ll never get the answers; feeling sorry for yourself won’t help either.
Sometimes some people believe, like Bentham, that nothing matters as long as they get pleasure.