Jeremy Bentham and Marvin Olasky

Some more thought for the day. Because some days need more than one thought. And because Bentham is out of copyright, and because this is funny stuff. I haven’t been used to think of Bentham as a funny guy, but that just shows how much I know.

In looking over the catalogue of human actions (says a partizan of this principle) in order to determine which of them are to be marked with the seal of disapprobation, you need but to take counsel of your own feelings: whatever you find in yourself a propensity to condemn, is wrong for that very reason…In that same proportion also is it meet for punishment: if you hate much, punish much: if you hate little, punish little: punish as you hate. If you hate not at all, punish not at all: the fine feelings of the soul are not to be overborne and tyrannized by the harsh and rugged dictates of political utility.

Footnote: 1. 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 it is”.

2. Another man comes and alters the phrase: leaving out moral, and putting in common, in the room of it. He then tells you, that his common sense teaches him what is right and wrong, as surely as the other’s moral sense did: meaning by common sense, a sense of some kind or other, which he says, is possessed by all mankind: the sense of those, whose sense is not the same as the author’s, being struck out of the account as not worth taking…

4. Another man says, that there is an eternal and immutable Rule of Right: that that rule of right dictates so and so: and then he begins giving you his sentiments upon any thing that comes uppermost . and these sentiments (you are to take for granted) are so many branches of the eternal rule of right.

5. Another man, or perhaps the same man (it’s no matter) says, that there are certain practices conformable, and others repugnant, to the Fitness of Things; and then he tells you, at his leisure, what practices are conformable and what repugnant: just as he happens to like a practice or dislike it.

6. A great multitude of people are continually talking of the Law of Nature; and then they go on giving you their sentiments about what is right and what is wrong: and these sentiments, you are to understand, are so many chapters and sections of the Law of Nature.

I particularly like all that because it describes so well something I read a few minutes after I read it, in an interview-article on Peter Singer in a Christian magazine of a rather, shall we say, strict orientation. ‘Strict’ there is a euphemism for various tendentious words like mindless, unreflective, bible-thumping; that sort of thing.

Don’t expect Peter Singer to be quoted heavily on the issue that roiled the Nov. 2 election, same-sex marriage. That for him is intellectual child’s play, already logically decided, and it’s time to move on to polyamory. While politicians debate the definition of marriage between two people, Mr. Singer argues that any kind of “fully consensual” sexual behavior involving two people or 200 is ethically fine. For example, when I asked him last month about necrophilia (what if two people make an agreement that whoever lives longest can have sexual relations with the corpse of the person who dies first?), he said, “There’s no moral problem with that.”

If you read the article you’ll notice that the author doesn’t trouble to say why in fact consensual sex between however many people or with a corpse is not ethically fine. Doesn’t even trouble to note that there might be something to say. Just takes it for granted – thus filling out Bentham’s portrait nicely. Obviously he thinks it’s icky therefore it’s wrong and there’s no need to say anything more, just as there isn’t about same-sex marriage.

And then he wraps it up with a neat summation:

This is important not only for Princeton and similar institutions but for all of American society. In the absence of debate at our leading universities, each election is an attempt by people connected to biblical ethics to hold off an onslaught by those who have imbibed Singerism and try to win by ridicule what they cannot achieve by honest reporting of reality.

Biblical ethics. Right. Which biblical ethics? The stuff about dashing babies’ brains out against walls? Jesus’ repudiation of ‘family values’? No? Well why not? Well we know why not, it’s much the same as what Bentham is talking about. It’s all pretense, in short. He means ‘the biblical ethics that prop up the prejudices I already have, and not the others.’ Phooey, now I’m not amused any more, I’m irritated. That’s no fun.

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