Brad DeLong has two posts up defending Richard Layard’s defence of Benthamism against criticism from Fontana Labs and Will Wilkinson. I think Brad is misinterpreting Bentham, so while his defence might be a defence of something interesting (say, preference utilitarianism) it isn’t much of a defence of Bentham.
Here’s the start of An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation where Bentham sets out his views.
I. Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light.
But enough of metaphor and declamation: it is not by such means that moral science is to be improved.
II. The principle of utility is the foundation of the present work: it will be proper therefore at the outset to give an explicit and determinate account of what is meant by it. By the principle of utility is meant 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. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.
III. By utility is meant 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: if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community: if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual.
The problem with interpreting these is that “advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness” do not really come to the same thing. At the very least, it is clear that advantage and pleasure do not come to the same thing, and which (if either) of these good and happiness are is part of what’s at dispute. But for interpreting Bentham, it’s very important to realise that he did view them as the same thing.
Now compare this to what Brad’s preferred view.
Happiness—utility—plays a very special role in Bentham’s philosophy. It is defined to be that which is maximized by the choices of a rational and reasonable person with enough time for reflection and sufficient information about the situation. To say “I would rather be unhappy and free than happy and a slave, and thus I have refuted Bentham” is to miss the point entirely.
At its core utilitarianism is two commands:
- Respect people’s choices—those made with enough information, after sufficient deliberation, when they are in possession of their faculties. You want to know what is good for someone? Watch the choices that he or she makes. Watch them carefully.
- A good society is one in which as much of what people would choose for themselves—with enough information, after sufficient deliberation, when they are in possession of their faculties—is attained, taking care that when there is a tradeoff between one person’s preferences and another’s, each one counts equally.
Those seem to be obvious and unexceptionable foundations for morality. Thus: You know who got it pretty much right? Jeremy Bentham.
Brad’s nowhere here defending the view that what matters most for morality is a particular kind of experience. What matters for him is “what people would choose for themselves”, i.e. preferences, and preference satisfaction isn’t a kind of experience. If people choose different kinds of experiences, or even things that don’t maximise their own chances for good experiences (as when people take life-endangering jobs so as to provide goods for their children) they are getting what they choose, but not maximising utility as Bentham saw it. In principle my preferences can be satisfied by things that happen after I die, even if I don’t get any extra experiences after I die, in which case we certainly couldn’t identify preference satisfaction with any kind of experience.
As I said, I don’t want to get into the pros or cons of the moral view Brad is espousing here. I just want to make an historical point, that it’s a mistake to think Bentham viewed preferences rather than experiences as the core of utilitarianism. It was a great advance over Bentham (I think) when later philosophers made this move.