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As I See It... (30 May, 2006)

30 May, 2006

Jeremy BenthamIt was very nice, after such a long interval, to be seated in my usual chair in the friendly ambiance which permeates the study of my friend Antrobus, who has sadly been absent from my column of late.

“…it’s not that I object to everything an American does, or says, it’s to what the average American thinks. Fortunately, Americans seem to be constituently averse to serious thought - which means setting ideas in a pattern to convey precise and concrete meaning - he is much happier and safer burbling abstract platitudes.

“It is the British intellectual who has been responsible for carrying on this long and dubious debate on “Human Rights”, which has taken my fancy to dispute with my nephew Tito - you know, the fellow in the World Bank. I have asked him to furnish me with sound evidence of who has been handing out these so-called human rights right and left, and on whose authority, and for what reason? He has promised to set his mind to this task.”

Antrobus took a long swallow of his whisky-soda and replaced the crystal tumbler on a side table, picked a cashew nut from a small porcelain bowl, and popped it into his mouth.

I have been reading an article, parts of which may amuse you, and I have brought a cutting with me, from which I now propose to read :

Bentham was correct. There are no fundamental human rights. The concept, said the great Utilitarian, is ‘nonsense on stilts’. It induces tendentiousness, large legal fees, and possibly wars.

Last week saw Britain engulfed in a Halloween of Human Rights. Bishops in cassocks and counsel in wigs were flying in and out of parliament, courts and broadcasting studios like so many Harry Potters on broomsticks. Afghan hijackers and ranting mullahs had a human right not to be deported. A Nigerian visitor had a human right to a National Health Service heart transplant. A released killer had a human right not to have his parole terms enforced. The dying had a human right to euthanasia and the living a human right to reject a cancer-carrying embryo.
Bentham might have said there are ‘reasons for wishing there were such things as human rights’, but that does not mean that such rights actually exist.

“It’s odd you should bring up Jeremy Bentham. I’ve just finished reading a monograph on him. Let me fetch it.” Antrobus returned with it in his hand. After another large swallow of his whisky-soda, he found a page, and began to read :

“Jeremy Bentham, was born in London in February 1748. He is described as a British philosopher, economist, and jurist, who founded the doctrine of Utilitarianism. A prodigy, he was reading serious essays at the age of three, playing the violin at age five, and studying Latin and French at age six. He entered the University of Oxford at 12, studied law, and was admitted to the bar; however, he did not practice. Instead he worked on a thorough reform of the legal system and on a general theory of law and morality, publishing short works on aspects of his thought. In 1789 he became well known for his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

“What wonderful men have been produced in the past. If you ask me, this planet will die of mediocrity mixed with madness. Look at Tony Blair - just look at him! Bentham did many things which would be called somewhat eccentric today, and lived to be 84. The irony of it is that in spite of his denials and wriggling, he believed in a strange variety of “rights”, which were certainly “human”! He was the leader of the Philosophical Radicals, whose members included James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill, a prodigy like himself. (Greek and Latin at three!) They founded and edited the Westminster Review.”

How fascinating you make him sound, old boy. Those were the times we should have lived in. We would have been among our peers, and think of all the fun I would have had! But let’s continue to discuss on Bentham’s theories, and the roundabout way he led his argument to make Utilitarianism the basis for reform. He claimed that one could scientifically ascertain what was morally justifiable by applying the principle of utility. Actions were right if they tended to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of persons. Happiness was equivalent to pleasure. Through a kind of moral mathematical calculation of pleasures and pains, one could tell what was a right or a wrong action. If all pleasures and pains were of the same order, then a utilitarian evaluation of moral, political, and legal activities would be possible. This was a universe Bentham intellectually created, and in which he wished to live.

“I suppose I shall have to agree eventually with what you are propounding. In the meantime, leaving aside his esoteric views on humanity’s needs for proper understanding, let us look at Bentham’s extraordinary antics when he was well and truly dead! Let me read you the conclusion of this pamphlet, and we shall have another drink. I think you shall certainly need one!” Antrobus picked up the booklet and read out in a voice as still as death :

“Bentham died in London on June 6, 1832. In accordance with his wishes, his naked body was dissected in the presence of certain select friends. What follows you will scarcely give credence to, but it’s all quite true. His skeleton, fully clothed, and crowned with a wax head, under a large hat, the original having been mummified, and placed under the chair on which the skeleton sat, is kept in a glass case at University College, London, which he helped to found.

“What do you make of all this?”

I consider it a superb final gesture of a man who has not properly been studied and evaluated. What a truly Gothic man he was! He must have greatly admired Horace Walpole, and enjoyed reading The Castle of Otranto again and again...

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