Like everything else in life, all philosophy can be reduced to simple analogy.
I shall demonstrate this by reference to those philosophers who have had the most dramatic impact on the way we think and behave today.
Jeremy Bentham (1784 – 1832)
Few people outside of academia will have heard of Bentham, never mind understand how much influence his ‘thinking’ has had on their lives.
Bentham traveled back in time to the Garden of Eden, there to dig up the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and plant in its place the tree of pleasure and pain. And it is of this tree that Adam and Eve ate, claims Bentham.
“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” Pain and pleasure, claims Bentham, determine what we ought to do, what is right and wrong, what we say, and how we behave. He acknowledges that he cannot prove this, but claims that is because “that which is used to prove everything else, cannot itself be proved.” Convenient!
So Bentham claimed that he had discovered the philosophical calculator, or what he called “felicific calculus” – happy arithmetic. Punch in the data, and out pops the answer. This is Bentham’s “principle of utility” – every action is determined by “the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question,” and that is done by adding to “the sum total of his pleasure,” and diminishing the “sum total of his pains.”
Now if Bentham were true to his thesis, even pain should be capable of producing pleasure. Some people sacrifice and endure pain because it relieves their consciences; others because they derive a kind of pleasure from starving themselves of pleasure for what they consider some higher calling, or for the benefit others may derive from their sacrifice; others will even sacrifice their own lives for the benefit of others, or simply because they cannot face another day of their high pleasure diet. In short, Bentham could simply have said that all actions are selfish.
But he couldn’t do that. If he did, his “felicific” calculator would not work: punch in 2 and up pops 4; punch in 4 and up pops 3. Suddenly we have a hall of mirrors. So Bentham simply declares that any principle which differs from his “principle of utility” must “necessarily be a wrong one.”
He identifies two wrong ones: “asceticism” and “sympathy and antipathy.” The former are religious people who court pain as a matter of “merit and duty” because of the “narrowness of their intellect,” and those who want to cleanse themselves from “the sordes of their impure original.” The latter are those who approve or disapprove of actions because of their own prejudices.
Bentham didn’t seem to recognize the irony in identifying these ‘exceptions’ to his principle. If there are people who do not always seek to maximize pleasure, and some who even court pain, then mankind cannot be under the “governance” of pleasure and pain as Bentham defines it.
But that does not deter Bentham. Instead of re-evaluating his “principle of utility,” he simply says that those who do not respect it “must always be regulated” to prevent them “doing mischief.” And they must be regulated by his “principle of utility.”
And this ‘regulation’ must be done by government: “the business of government is to promote the happiness of society, by punishing and rewarding.”
So Bentham hands government two electrodes: one to infuse pleasure; the other to inflict pain. Thus government compels everyone to be happy. Use of the electrodes is determined by the “effect” actions have on others pursuing their pleasure. Sometimes it is necessary to modify behavior by applying the pleasure electrode to infuse a “disposition” for the kind of pleasure that has a “tendency” to be less harmful to the pleasure of other, while the pain electrode should be applied to those who seriously malfunction – those who simply cannot get enough pleasure, irrespective of the “consequences” to others.
If Bentham’s analysis were purely academic, it could be almost entertaining. Unfortunately, it is the model of the modern democratic state. The right to “the pursuit of happiness” is even enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence. And Western government and society are slaves to the pursuit of pleasure – as long as it does not harm others, of course.
The ‘harm principle’ which has emerged from the “principle of utility” dictates virtually every aspect of modern life, and has defined modern ‘morality’. ‘Morality’ is a function of pleasure; everything and anything which enhances pleasure is good, as long as it does not “harm” others; and everything and anything which inhibits the indulgence of pleasure is bad. Bentham’s contempt for ‘morality’ is the staple of today’s society: “we see the emptiness of all those rhapsodies of commonplace morality, which consist in the taking of such names as lust, cruelty, and avarice, and branding them with marks of reprobation.”
Thus, for decades, we have been showered with “studies” and “research” which ‘prove’ that this or that action, or this or that indulgence, does not cause “harm”. Or “studies” which show that inhibiting certain indulgences does cause “harm” to those who want to engage in them. To put it crudely, ‘morality’ today means doing whatever gives you a kick, as long as it does not ‘hurt’ someone else.
Now on the face of it, who could object to that? The problem is that we know little, if anything, of the consequences of defining human beings as nothing more than creatures in search of pleasure. What we do know is that modern Western society is plagued by a myriad of ailments. Divorce is soaring; juvenile delinquency is out of control; crime is commonplace; drug and alcohol abuse is rampant; teenage single mothers are a dime a dozen; venereal disease is as common as the common cold; and so we could go on. Yet, we do not question whether the ‘philosophy’ of modern society may be the problem; a ‘philosophy’ which has it origins in Bentham’s “principle of utility.” Instead, we call on government to wield the electrodes more, especially the pain electrode, in the hope that government can “regulate” us out of the mess. So humans are being reduced to a species lower than Pavlov’s dogs, except government does not wield a bell to make us salivate, it wields Bentham’s electrodes.
Bentham’s claim that man is governed by pleasure and pain, and must therefore always seek to maximize pleasure, is the same thing as saying that because a car consumes fuel, its sole purpose and use is to consume as much fuel as possible. He cannot conceive that a car may have a purpose other than the consumption of fuel.
Neither can he conceive that this relentless consumption of fuel may release harmful emissions into the atmosphere which may, in the end, see the demise of the car entirely, and the destruction of the environment as we know it.
But at least in respect of carbon emissions we have started questioning the true effects; we haven’t even started questioning the true effects of the relentless pursuit of pleasure.
John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)
Bentham’s “principle of utility” has been ‘refined’ by others. Mill, for example, argued that intellectual and aesthetic pleasures should be accorded more weight than purely sensual pleasures. That’s like arguing that a car consuming high-octane fuel is preferable to a car consuming regular fuel.
Philo (20B.C. – 40A.D.)
Bentham was not original in claiming that man is governed by pleasure and pain. Philo had the pleasure advocates in his day, and predicted others, such as Bentham.
Now when I talk about Philo, I don’t mean the character played by Clint Eastwood in the film Every Which Way But Loose. I mean Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, Egypt, who lived at about the same time as Christ, although there is no evidence that they ever met each other.
It is appropriate here to bring in Philo because he specifically talks about the Garden of Eden, which is where I started with Bentham.
In explaining the significance of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Philo says this about the serpent that tempted Eve. “And the serpent is said to have spoken in a human voice, because pleasure employs innumerable champions and defenders who take care to advocate its interests, and who dare to assert that the power over everything, both small and great, does of right belong to it without any exception whatever.”
Now what I find particularly interesting about Philo is his explanation about the origins of pleasure. He says that animals “pursue pleasure only in taste and in the acts of generation,” that is, for reproduction. So it was with man, he says, until he succumbed to the serpent.
Philo explains it this way. “Now, the first approaches of the male to the female have a pleasure in them which brings on other pleasures also, and it is through this pleasure that the formation and generation of children is carried on. And what is generated by [pleasure] appears to be attached to nothing rather than to it[self], since they rejoice in pleasure, and are impatient at pain, which is its contrary.”
Philo is saying that man was once exactly like an animal, reproducing to ensure the survival of the species. Generally, animals instinctively reproduce at predetermined times and even places. Man, on the other hand, can and does reproduce at any time. But most importantly, man has the ability to reflect on the reasons for reproducing, the consequences, and the obligations that attach to, and arise from, the act of reproduction. Man has the ability to weigh in the balance the instinctive drive to reproduce, and the pleasure to be derived from it, against the consequences of the act. Humans can ask themselves whether they should engage in the act with this person, or at this time of their lives. They can ask themselves whether they should engage in the act of reproduction with only one person, or should they simply satisfy their desire for the pleasure derived from the act, irrespective of the number of people involved. And it is the ability to reflect on these questions which gives rise to what we call ‘obligations’, and what we call ‘morality’.
That is the fundamental distinction between Bentham and Philo. For Bentham, mankind is simply driven on by the pursuit of pleasure like a paper bag in a hurricane.
Philo sees this enhanced perception as an opportunity for man to rise above pleasure which, he says, if pursued for no purpose other than itself, is “more miserable than death.”
Philo warns that “those who have previously become the slaves of pleasure immediately receive the wages of this miserable and incurable passion.”
It is this ability to harness pleasure, and the ability it brings to designate acts as good or bad, that defines man, and differentiates him from beasts.
So Philo would have seen that a car does have a purpose other than the consumption of fuel. He would even have noticed that the consumption of fuel for no other purpose than the consumption of fuel would cause harm to the environment. Philo had the benefit of witnessing the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure by the Romans of his day; a passion for pleasure which ultimately led to their downfall.
Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804)
Kant can be summed up like this: he would have noticed that cars do not simply consume fuel for the sake of consuming fuel; sometimes they slow down, and even stop, consuming less fuel; he would have noticed that there are signs which seem to have this effect on cars, and that these signs are mostly obeyed because of fear of the police.
What Kant claimed to have discovered is a moral faculty in man. He claimed that man is conscious of a “moral law” through reason, and that the ‘impulse’ to conform to this “moral law” is not through some “intervening feeling of pleasure and pain,” or even “intuition,” but through “the concept of freedom.”
This is how Kant sums it up: “these laws are only possible in relation to freedom of the will; but freedom being supposed, they are necessary; or conversely freedom is necessary because those laws are necessary, being practical postulates. It cannot be further explained how this consciousness of the moral law, or, what is the same thing, of freedom, is possible.” Perhaps Kant should have called his book on the subject A Critique of Pure Impractical Reason.
Kant’s “moral law” can be explained like this: the “law” part = freedom = freedom to choose; the “moral” part = good and evil. So the “moral law” means we are free to choose between good and evil. Using the motor car analogy, Kant is saying that there are signs (laws) which, if obeyed, make a good driver, but that we are free to obey them or not, and face the consequences. This is what he says: “There is something so singular in the unbounded esteem for the pure moral law [the road signs], apart from all advantage, as it is presented for our obedience by practical reason [freedom], the voice of which makes even the boldest sinner tremble [the police], and compels him to hide himself from it ..”
Obeying the signs defines a “person himself as a good or evil man.”
Now Kant does not advocate renouncing pleasure altogether, but only that when “duty [to obey the moral law] is in question we should take no account of happiness.” Using the car analogy again, all Kant is saying is that consuming as much fuel as possible is good, except when we come across a sign; then we should obey the sign, even if that means we don’t consume any fuel.
And that, thought Kant, is the purpose of a car – consume as much fuel as possible, except when obeying a sign means we should slow down, or stop: a kind of Utilitarian Buddhism.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)
Nietzsche believed that only one kind of car mattered: the powerful, fast and glitzy sports car. All other cars are “common” – “similar, ordinary, average, herdlike.” They are all “mediocre.” Or at least that is the general consensus.
That is Nietzsche’s “will to power.” He despaired at the trend toward universal similarity; the creation of a dull world – “this degeneration and diminution of man into the perfect herd animal … into the dwarf animal of equal rights and claims.” Nietzsche did not want a world where everyone drives around in a Trabant, scrupulously obeying the signs, terrified that they may have an accident. He hated the “imperative of herd timidity: [that] we want that some day there should be nothing more to be afraid of!”
At least Nietzsche acknowledges that he has no idea of a car’s purpose. But since we have them, he says, we might as well have the most powerful, the fastest, and the most aesthetically pleasing, not one of those ordinary cars without style, with plastic seats, chugging along on a puny diesel engine.
And Nietzsche doesn’t care about carbon emissions.
Yet Nietzsche would be the first to acknowledge that his “will to power” is only his “interpretation.” The genius of Nietzsche is his observation that everything is “interpretation, not text,” especially when it comes to philosophy. In that he agrees with the Preacher in Ecclesiastes: “[God] hath set the world in [man’s] heart, so that no man can find the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end” [Eccl 3:11], and “though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it” [Eccl 8:17].
Because we cannot, or have not yet, identified a discernible purpose for mankind being on this earth, says Nietzsche, we simply make up the rules as we go along. But sooner or later someone will come along to throw all these rules out the window, and impose his own tyrannical rules. Nietzsche says this: “It is interpretation, not text; and somebody might come along who, with opposite intentions and modes of interpretation, could read out of the same ‘nature’, and with regard to the same phenomena, rather the tyrannical inconsiderate and relentless enforcement of claims of power – an interpreter who would picture the unexceptional and unconditional aspects of ‘will to power’ so vividly that almost every word, even the word ‘tyranny’ itself, would eventually seem unsuitable, or a weakening and attenuating metaphor – being too human – but he might, nevertheless, end by asserting the same about this world as you do, namely, that it has a ‘necessary’ and ‘calculable’ course, not because laws obtain in it, but because they are lacking, and every power draws its ultimate consequences at every moment. Supposing that this also is only interpretation – and you will be eager enough to make this objection? – well, so much the better.”
Nietzsche was right, of course! We’ve had Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and now the likes of Al Qaeda. And there will be more. Ironically, though, the greatest danger stems from our so-called democratic institutions. The prospect of such a tyrannical “interpreter” gives government license to wield Bentham’s electrodes with ever greater enthusiasm and urgency. So we see a proliferation of laws to “regulate” us into discarding our ‘prejudices’ so that some day we shall have “nothing more to be afraid of!” – except, perhaps, our own ‘tyrannical’ governments?
But government has to protect us, we are told, not just from the tyrannical “interpreter”, but also from our own predilection for causing ourselves harm; especially through carbon emissions. And that brings me to Albert Schweitzer.
Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965)
Before I have every ‘philosopher’ screaming at me that Schweitzer is not a philosopher, let me acknowledge that. His existential tendencies, it seems, banished him from that exclusive club.
He said this: “In this world we can discover nothing of any purposive evolution in which our actions can acquire meaning.” So he agrees with Nietzsche and the Preacher on that.
But he claims that our “will to live” comes to the rescue. “As in my own will-to-live there is a longing for wider life and for the mysterious exaltation of the will-to-live which we call pleasure, with dread of annihilation and of the mysterious depreciation of the will-to-live which we call pain; so is it also in the will-to-live all around me, whether it can express itself before me, or remains dumb.
“Ethics consists, therefore, in my experiencing the compulsion to show all will-to-live the same reverence as I do to my own. There we have given us that basic principle of the moral which is a necessity of thought. It is good to maintain and encourage life; it is bad to destroy life or obstruct it.”
This is how Schweitzer describes “reverence for life” man: “Life as such is sacred to him. He tears no leaf from a tree, plucks no flower, and takes care to crush no insect.”
So Schweitzer wants us to fill our cars with unleaded fuel, take care not to splatter insects on the windscreen, and not drive over grass.
That, for Schweitzer, is the purpose of a car because, he says, we can never discover any other purpose.
So Schweitzer, even if he isn’t a ‘philosopher’, rounds off the ‘thinking’ that influences us today – consciously or unconsciously. An inspiration for the environmentalists, the greens, and even the animal rights brigade.
These ‘philosophers’, together with those who have ‘refined’ and expanded on their ‘thinking’, have thus defined modern Western ‘morality’. A ‘morality’ that is an amalgam of the pursuit of pleasure tempered by the ‘harm principle’, environmentalism, banishment of prejudice (for which read – those who do not subscribe to the accepted norms of political ideology), and the quest for safety, all held together by Bentham’s electrodes.
Yet this amalgam doesn’t identify the purpose of a car – it describes dodgem cars at a fair ground. And it has created the modern Liberal Fundamentalist state!
Furthermore, it has also created modern Logo Man – Nietzsche’s herd man with a brand. Life only has meaning in proportion to the accumulation of Logo’s: more Logos, more happiness.
And since we labor under the fiction that we agree to be governed by the majority, the majority is easily manipulated, by appealing to their ‘will-to-vanity’, into believing that the pursuit of Logos is the pinnacle of civilization – and ‘studies’ prove that!
That we ‘consent’ to be governed by the majority is again, not surprisingly, another philosophical ‘waste product’.
Copyright © Joseph BH McMillan 2007 All Rights Reserved