Introducing Change While Respecting the Individual

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), an English philosopher, is principally known for his principle of utilitarianism, which evaluates actions based on their consequences. Bentham believed, motivated by pleasure and pain, people value self-interest above social interest. He maintained that putting his moral theory into consistent practice would yield results in legal theory, by providing justifications for social, political and legal institutions. Objectivism, the prototype of libertarianism, was a philosophy developed by Ayn Rand (1905-1984), during the Cold War blending free markets, reason and individualism. In politics objectivism advocates individual rights to life, liberty and property. Bentham’s thought has a lot in common with that of Ayn Rand. Both Bentham and Rand exalt the individual over family and society; they both argue the individual precedes society, which is simply the sum total of all individuals, thus personal interest dwarfs the social interest.

Jeremy Bentham’s moral philosophy reflects his psychological view that the primary motivators in human beings are pleasure and pain. Bentham is not referring to just to the usefulness of things or actions, but to the extent to which these things or actions promote the general happiness. Specifically then, what is morally obligatory is that which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, happiness being determined by reference to the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. Bentham says that the principle of utility is something that can be ascertained and confirmed by simple observation, and that, if pleasure is good, then it is good irrespective of whose pleasure it is. Bentham suggests that individuals would generally seek the general happiness because the interests of others are inextricably bound up with their own. For Bentham, moral philosophy or ethics can be simply described as “the art of directing men’s action to the production of the greatest quantity of happiness, on the part of whose interest is in view.”

Rational self-interest plays a pivotal role in objectivism, with one’s life having the highest value and standard, and the happiness of an individual being one’s highest purpose. Knowledge is obtained from reason, which develops into a system of judging right from wrong. Ayn Rand argues that if people act egotistically and selfishly society prospers. Rand claims, “To be selfish is to be motivated by concern for one’s self-interest … Selfishness entails: (i) a hierarchy of values set by the standard of one’s self-interest, and (ii) the refusal to sacrifice a higher value to a lower one or to a none value … Because a genuinely selfish man chooses his goals by the guidance to reason – and because the interests of rational men do not clash, other men may benefit from his actions. But the benefit to other men is not his primary purpose or goal, his own benefit is his primary purpose and the conscious goal directing his actions.”1

Bentham claims that “liberty is the absence of restraint” and so, to the extent that one is not hindered by others one has liberty and is “free.” Given that pleasure and pain are fundamental to – indeed provide – the standard of value for Bentham, liberty is good (because it is ‘pleasant’) and the restriction of liberty is an evil (because it is painful). Law, which is by its very nature, is a restriction of liberty and painful to those whose freedom is restricted. He recognized that law is necessary for social order and good laws are clearly essential to good government. He saw the positive role to be played by law and government, particularly in achieving community well-being. Bentham rejected “natural rights” claiming ‘real rights’ are fundamentally legal rights, that exist in law. However, Bentham recognized that there are some services that are essential to the happiness of an individual and that cannot be left to others to fulfill as they see fit, and so these individuals must be compelled to fulfill them.

For Ayn Rand, freedom is based on individual rights, in which freedom of choice, liberty of ownership of property leads to happiness. For Rand, advocacy of free society meant the advocacy of capitalism. Also, Rand celebrated individualism in a mass age, when the control mentality and the fear of bureaucratization and structuring American life was at its highest. She adopted the good self-love of Aristotle that included behaving with dignity and not acting on impulses, and spoke of the importance of self-esteem, as a justifiable pride in one’s accomplishments. Self-esteem was deemed a necessary defense so people could not be taken advantage of and be bamboozled by false guilt into giving up the fruits of their actions. Other actors reinforced her ideas: Friedrich Hayek had a major influence on market liberalization strategies – discrediting government economic planning. Milton Friedman’s neoliberal triumvirate of privatization, deregulation – free trade, and drastic cuts to government spending laid the groundwork for Reagan economic policies of deregulation.

Bentham held that the advantages to a moral philosophy based on a principle of utility (compared to other moral principles) allows for objective and disinterested discussion and, enables decisions to be made where there seems to be conflicts of legitimate interests. Moreover, in calculating the pleasures and pains, in carrying out a course of action, there is a fundamental commitment to human equality. The principle of utility presupposes that “one man is worth just the same as another man” and so there is a guarantee that in calculating the greatest happiness “each person is to count for one and no one for more than one.” However, he realized that seeking general happiness is something that is easy for individuals to ignore, thus he proposes making the identification of interests obvious and, when necessary, bringing diverse interests together would be the responsibility of the legislator.2

Rand claimed that freedom was not based on majority rights, but on individual rights. Rand claimed, “The government was set to protect men from criminals, and the constitution was written to protect man from government.” In her system, rational self-interest produces a drive for productivity and trade. This system supports laissez-faire economics and a system of minimal government with reduced regulation and taxation. By choosing objectivism (Rand’s ideas), one gets around the need to explain social Darwinism. This became an important aspect of minimal government as conservatives closed in on entitlements that are provided to the poor. However, with ongoing economic stagnation, a sense of instability and insecurity descends on more and more communities. Workers feel betrayed by the present economic and government systems that favour the economic elite. In recent elections in the UK and US voters were looking for social and political reform.

Of course, Bentham and Rand had serious differences, altruism being the main one. Rand categorically rejects it, Bentham embraces it. Similarly, while Bentham believes people act selfishly, Rand advises that people should act selfishly in order to enhance social well-being. Altruism is an ethical doctrine that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve or benefit others, if necessary at the sacrifice of self-interest. Bentham criticized those in power for pursuing their own narrow, socially destructive goals, instead of pursuing happiness for all. His solution was to establish democratic rule by the whole society, rather than by a select class. For Bentham, the legitimate functions of government are social reform and the establishment of the conditions most conductive to promoting the greatest happiness, for the greatest number of people.2

Societies that are economically unequal have higher levels of poverty. It is not about the amount of wealth, but about its distribution. Thirty years of deregulation and lower taxes have created a system in with increasing economic inequality between the wealthy and the rest of society. In 1997 Gerald Celente in his prediction in trends 2000 saw the increasing income gap being the cause of street unrest in the first decades of the new millennium, and the solution being the return back to democracy from a plutocracy (government by the wealthy). Reforms to ensue jobs that pay a living wage continue to elude legislators. John Stuart Mill believed nobody could be a good economist if he or she was just an economist. Since the collapse of theology, no field of study has aimed to understand the human condition as a whole. Economics is viewed as a mathematic issue – unfortunately these ‘mathematical problems’ affect human beings.3 Changes need to include more than just tweaking the system around the edges.

In the years following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, when calls for legal, social and political reform were becoming commonplace, the ideas of Bentham became part of a broad reform movement. It is now obvious that the existing economic system does not provide opportunities for most people. The wealthy are the primary beneficiaries of the soaring corporate earnings and the booming market. On the other hand, when the stock market goes up, the the middle-class sees paltry benefits. Social reform is desperately needed. Rand’s version of individualism has failed most individuals. It is time to consider utilitarianism (Bentham’s ideas) which places the locus of right and wrong solely on the outcomes (consequences) of choosing one action/policy over other action/policies. This is about introducing equality, justice and fairness, so that it is not just a perception (like the recent tax cuts), but a reality that the system is no longer gamed for those at the top.

1 Rand, Ayn. (1964) The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. New York: Signet Books p 57-58.

2 Jeremy Bentham

3 Skidelsky, Robert. ((04 Jan 2017) Is Economics Education Failing.

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