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BENTHAM—HIS PRINCIPLES OF MORALS AND
EFORE I notice any of Bentham's more peculiar merits, I must again illustrate the extravagant unfairness to adversaries which was habitual in him. The Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation appeared before the public in 1789. The first chapter of this work is “On the Principle of Utility;” the second, “On Principles adverse to that of Utility.” These adverse principles are stated to be two : The Principle of Asceticism, and the Principle of Sympathy. The Principle of Asceticism is that principle which approves of actions in proportion as they tend to diminish human happiness, and conversely, disapproves of them as they tend to augment it. (ch. II. § III.) The Principle of Sympathy (§ XII.) is that which approves or disapproves of certain actions, “merely because a man finds himself disposed to approve or disapprove of them, holding up that approbation or disapprobation as a sufficient reason for itself, and disclaiming the necessity of looking out for any extrinsic ground.” And these two Principles are, it seems, according to Bentham's view, the only Principles which are, or which can be, opposed to the Principle of Utility Now it is plain that these are not only not fair representations of any principles ever held by moralists, or by any persons speaking gravely and deliberately, but that they are too extravagant and fantastical to be accepted even as caricatures of any such principles. For who ever approved of actions because they tend to make mankind miserable? or who ever said anything which could, even in an intelligible way of exaggeration, be so represented ? Is it possible to guess at whom a writer is pointing who allows himself such license as this? To me, I confess, it appears quite impossible. From these phrases, I should have had no conception what class of moralists were thus held up to ridicule. For of course every one feels that this description of them is given in order to make them ridiculous, even while the expression is grave and tranquil; and Bentham's humour runs into extremes which remove even the assumption of gravity. But who then are the ascetic school who are thus ridiculed ! We could not, I think, guess from the general description thus given; but from a note, it appears, that he had the Stoical Philosophers and the Religious Ascetics in his mind. With regard to the Stoics, it would of course be waste of time and thought to defend them from such coarse buffoonery as this, which does not touch their defects, whatever those may be. With regard to the Religious Ascetics, I may notice a further trait in Bentham's account of them, in order to show how strongly the spirit of satire grew upon him. He says that the principle of following certain courses of action, because they make men miserable, has been extensively pursued by men in their treatment of themselves, but only rarely in their treatment of others, and particularly in matters of government;–that saints have often “voluntarily yielded themselves a prey to vermin; but though many persons of this class have wielded the reins of empire, we read of none who have set themselves to work and made laws on purpose with a view of stocking the body politic with the breed of highwaymen, housebreakers, and incendiaries. If at any time they have suffered the nation to be preyed upon by swarms of idle pensioners, or useless placemen, it has rather been from negligence and imbecility than from any settled plan of oppressing and plundering of the people.” This might appear, one would think, severe and sarcastic enough. But this moderation of his earlier time, when the habit of condemning had not been enflamed by the deference of a school, did not satisfy his later and more imperious mood. In a subsequent edition he appends to this passage a note, “So thought anno 1780 and 1789, not so anno 1840, J. Bentham.” To acquit the governors of nations of a settled plan of oppressing and plundering the people out of a desire for their misery, and of nourishing for this purpose the vermin of the body politic, was only possible for Bentham in the guileless innocence and blind confidence of his youth. And so much for the ascetic principle according to Bentham; for you will recollect that at present, I am not discussing his doctrines, but pointing out his habits of thought and expression;–a task which will not be without its value in enabling us to estimate his doctrines and his arguments. Perhaps, however, in order to show the effect produced by this mode of arguing, if arguing it is to be called, I may quote one of Mr Bentham's disciples, who at a later period (in 1832) published the Dentology of his master, and added some remarks of his own. “The ascetic principle,” he says, “received a mortal wound from Mr Bentham, by his exposure of it in the Introduction to Morals and Legislation. No man is, perhaps, now to be found who would contend that the pursuit of pain ought to be the great object of existence.” It is marvellous to find a man who had so entirely confined his attention to Bentham's writings, as to suppose that there ever were such people, merely because Bentham had said so, in what I must be allowed to call his buffoonery. But this is not a solitary instance of the kind of worship with which Bentham was treated. Every farcical representation which he gave of his opponents was considered as a clear victory, because nobody could be found to own it, as indeed it fitted nobody. He had his world all to himself; for he described his adversaries as he chose, and neither he nor his followers generally took any pains to compare his descriptions of these adversaries with their own account of their own opinions. This may be seen in the case of the other Principle, adverse to that of Utility, which Bentham mentions—the Principle of Sympathy. For who ever asserted that he approved or disapproved of actions merely because he found himself disposed to do so, and that this was reason sufficient in itself for his moral judgments : Or what advantage can be gained to moral philosophy by such misrepresentations as this, whatever it be which is thus misrepresented ? which is a point, here, as in the other case, quite obscure, in consequence of the reckless extravagance of the misrepresentation. In a note however, again, we learn that the philosophers who are all included in this account are Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, Beattie, Price, Clarke, Wollaston, and many others. And as a further example of Bentham's mode of dealing with such matters, I may notice what he says of one class of these. “One man says he has a, thing made on purpose to tell him what is right and what is wrong: and that it is called a moral sense, and then he goes to work at his ease, and says, such a thing is right, and such a thing is wrong. Why? “Because my moral sense tells me so.” And after treating various other classes of moralists with the like fairness, he has suitably led the way to the last class which he mentions. “The fairest and openest of all is the sort of man who speaks out and says, I am of the number of the Elect: now God himself takes care to inform the Elect what is right: &c. &c. If therefore a man wants to know what is right and what is wrong, he has nothing to do but to come to me.”
Extravagant as this ridicule is—for I should try in vain to conceal my opinion that it is nothing better than extravagant ridicule—it has been accepted in perfectly good faith and humble admiration by Mr Bentham's followers. The editor of the Dentology says with the greatest gravity (1.321), “The antagonist to the felicity-maximising principle is the ipse-dixit principle.” And he considers this as so settled a matter that he proposes to use the derivatives of this term, and to speak of ipse-diaritists and ipse-divitism. Certainly, if there have ever been, in modern times, persons who have quoted the words of their master with a deference equal to that which in ancient times gave rise to the phrase ipse divit, the disciples of Mr Bentham are peculiarly and eminently ipse-divitists.
But wild as this mode of dealing with adverse moralists is, (and we have seen that it is used towards all the most eminent moralists of the preceding century,) Bentham appears to have soon come to think that it was too good for them, The Principle of Sympathy and Antipathy, was, he began to think, too tolerant a designation for the doctrine of those who had recognized any other basis of morality than Utility. In 1789, he added to his work a note in which he said that the Principle ought rather to be styled the Principle of Caprice. It is evident that such an expression could only mean that the person using it could not, or would not, understand the reasons given by those whom he thus called capricious. And so far, no doubt, it had a meaning. It is easy for two opposite parties, who do not and will not understand each other's views and opinions, to call each other capricious, as it is to call each other by any other condemnatory term; but it is plain this shows nothing but the incapacity for arguing, in those who use such terms. When men have written long and careful and acute trains of reasoning and speculations, as the moralists have whom Bentham condemns, a man must have