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The Happiness Philosopher

Interview by Richard Marshall

Bart Schultz is Senior Lecturer in Humanities (Philosophy) and Director of the Humanities Division’s Civic Knowledge Project. He has been teaching in the College at the University of Chicago since 1987, designing a wide range of core courses as well as courses on Philosophy and Public Education, The Philosophy of Poverty, John Dewey, The Chicago School of Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Environmental Philosophy, and Happiness. Here he discusses why the received view of the utilitarians is distorted, ad hominum arguments, utilitarianism and anti-slavery and anti-colonialism, Godwin’s visionary philosophy, the strangeness of Bentham, his radical dream of a world without cruelty, why Foucault and Marx misunderstand him, his radical views on sex, J.S. Mill and his feminism, Henry Sidjwick and gay liberation, his impact on contemporaries like Parfit and Singer and the openness of the utilitarians as a group to the uncanny and weird.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Bart Schultz: I have often wondered about that. I consider myself a child of the 1960s, and those were very philosophical times, what with all the critical theory, Existentialism, Zen Buddhism, philosophies of nonviolent resistance, environmental philosophy, and so on. But when I was in my early twenties, I also fell in love with the work of Bertrand Russell, both his more analytical work and his activist work. I did not at first realize what an enormous debt he owed to one of his teachers at Cambridge, Henry Sidgwick, and to the work of the other utilitarians. He was after all John Stuart Mill’s “ungodson.” So, that may have been the beginning of my interest in utilitarianism. But I also came early on to realize that my other love, psychology, was rife with philosophical issues.

3:AM: Your latest book is out to confound the critics of utilitarianism, or at least to complicate the criticisms. Ernest Gellner and others have seen it as the natural ethical system for the iron cage of modernity whereas in your hands you get a much stranger, almost hippy group of thinkers (well, with Godwin anyway!!!). So first can you sketch what the received view of utilitarianism is in a broad sense and why, broadly speaking, you think this is not totally accurate?

BS: Well, at the crudest level, you encounter it whenever someone dismisses something as “merely utilitarian,” meaning useful in some narrow mundane sense, or as a low-minded attempt to make the means justify the end, or as reflecting an insensitivity to human feeling and creativity because of an obsession with a narrow form of efficiency, as in various Dickensian characters (think Mr. Gradgrind, from Hard Times). It is telling that, in truth, all the great utilitarians, with the exception of Bentham, were highly poetic and loved Romantic poetry, such as Shelley’s—and even Bentham adored music. But I should add that the “received view” is actually a cluster of views, some more sophisticated than others, and these coming from various sources—mainstream economics, Marxian or neo-Marxian economics and ideology critique, various Nietzschean and Foucauldian strands of thought, Kantian or neo-Kantian critics, etc. etc. The first of these sources involves many people who think they are sympathetic to utilitarianism, but the rest of the sources just listed are critical. I should add that the criticisms of utilitarianism by Bernard Williams and John Rawls have also been very influential, lamentably so. In my view, both the economistic sympathizers and the critics buy into a very simplistic and misguided view of classical utilitarianism, missing the emphasis on liberal, humanistic education, character development, altruism, the complexity of consequentialist considerations, and notions of happiness that are much richer than standard utility theory accounts in terms of preference satisfaction. Martha Nussbaum once remarked that current economistic forms of utilitarianism are but a “severed limb” of classical utilitarianism, and that is putting it mildly. I think of the great utilitarians as edging toward a critical theory of happiness, a view that was reflexively aware and critical of the exploitative uses of the notion of happiness.

3:AM: You also defend an ad hominem approach to philosophy in some sense don’t you. Why isn’t this common anymore – indeed is seen by many as a violation of good philosophical principles – after all, it was an approach acceptable to the ancient Greeks, and when did this happen?

BS: One could go into a long story about various strands of modernity versus the ancients, but most of the grand narratives on that front are lacking in subtlety and an appreciation of how philosophers are often more torn about this than one might think. My approach would not be much of a shock to Godwin or Mill, and even today it really is in line of those who think of philosophy as a “way of life” involving more than just disembodied arguments and a belief in certain theoretical propositions. What is also striking is how naïve so many mainstream academic philosophers are about the socially constructed and historically contingent nature of their curriculum and disciplinary practices, the warping and narrowing of philosophy that comes along with academic professionalism, etc. Nowadays, we train students to do philosophy in ways that are largely out of sync with many of the most historically important philosophical practices, such as composing dialogues and living the right kind of life. And this warping and narrowing has, for most of the history of the American Philosophical Association, contributed to the masking of the lack of diversity and inclusion in academic philosophy. I think of my approach as helping to remedy this, as modeling ways of doing the history of philosophy with greater honesty and integrity, rather than with the suave evasion of someone like Rawls.

3:AM: Your new book makes an argument for seeing Godwin as the first utilitarian rather than Bentham but its clear that Godwin’s ideas are not easily classified as utilitarian straight! So can you draw together the salient strands that you find in Godwin’s thinking that make him the first of the group?

BS: There probably is no such thing as “utilitarianism straight,” despite what seems like the initial simplicity of the view, with the bottom line being to maximize happiness. And when it comes to classical utilitarianism, more people are apt to think of J.S. Mill as the greatest of the lot, not Bentham, but in any event, Godwin was no more complex and conflicted than Mill, whom he anticipated on many fronts. The perfectionistic elements in his account of happiness, with the notion of higher pleasures, raise many of the same questions about how to formulate utilitarianism in terms that capture the complexities of human (and non-human) happiness. Moreover, Godwin was the one who struggled with many of the problems of effective altruism and extreme impartialism that people think of today in connection with such genuine and sophisticated utilitarians as Peter Singer.

Singer’s position probably owes more to Godwin and Sidgwick than it does to Bentham and Mill. This is particularly true when it comes to finding a place for particular attachments by deploying an indirect or two-level approach, such that the utilitarian principle is more of a reflective standard than an everyday decision-procedure. But there are many more sides of Godwin that one could bring out. I am struck by how alive Godwin’s reputation is with current philosophically inclined anarchists and feminists. His intellectual partner and the great love of his life was Mary Wollstonecraft, the remarkable feminist writer and activist.

3:AM: His ‘Perfectionism’ led him to some very strange conclusions about the end of humanity and the future, ideas that seem to dovetail neatly into some contemporary ideas about posthumanism and the future of life on earth. Can you say something about this?

BS: Yes, reading Godwin can remind one of Harari’s Homo Deus. He was a visionary thinker, particularly in the first edition of Political Justice, where he suggested that humans might get to the point where they did not need to sleep or reproduce or die. Remember that his daughter, Mary Shelley, dedicated Frankenstein to him, and that he had actually anticipated elements of that classic work in his own novels, such as St. Leon. But Godwin was forthright about how he was speculating here. And when it comes to the end of humanity, there is always the possibility that it will happen not by the growth of artificial intelligence but by the continuation of natural stupidity and sinister interests. It is important to appreciate how the visionary side of utilitarianism is in part what lends itself to fruitful approaches to the environmental crisis. Dale Jamieson has plausibly argued that forms of utilitarianism are better suited for thinking constructively about the ethical challenges of climate change and loss of biodiversity than are more traditional notions of ordinary or commonsense morality, the kind of morality that Kant was so concerned to undergird, , which can be so limited in thinking about who has moral standing and what moral agents owe to one another. To mention but one relevant point, the great utilitarians were much, much better at recognizing the moral standing of non-human animals, and how their suffering also mattered.

3:AM: Bentham was also a strange guy – a child prodigy to boot. You don’t so much refute his reputation as someone who lacked elements of a rounded human being but rather emphasise the way what he lacked gave him insights and positive strengths often overlooked by his rather negative reputation. Can you tell us about Bentham’s character and why you think his reputation is unfair?

BS: He was undeniably strange, one of the strangest human beings who ever lived. In my view, it was the acute kindness of his disposition that drove him to formulate proposals that his many critics have seized upon as revealing that “iron cage” of modernity that you mentioned earlier–the Panopticon prison system, control through architecture and surveillance, being one of the primary examples. But he spun off so many elaborate schemes that it is very difficult to see how they fit together, especially as part of a historical trajectory headed toward a better society. This difficulty is aggravated by the way in which so much of his work remains to be analyzed and published. At any rate, one does not get a real feel for him by just looking at one or another scheme in isolation.

3:AM: Can you summarise the key ideas of Bentham’s radical dream?

BS: Yes, he wanted a society without cruelty, where the lowest and most dispossessed groups would have a decent shot at making a living and living with self-respect, and would not be denied the best pleasures that life can afford.

3:AM: He had very powerful views about slavery didn’t he and fought against it – not just black slavery but any kind of tyranny? Can you say what his ideas were in regard to this – and how they fitted in with other utilitarian thinkers ideas?

BS: Boralevi’s classic work on Bentham and the Oppressed should be read by anyone inclined to criticize Bentham on the basis of what Foucault, Marx et al said about him. The range of his activist sympathies was amazing—subjected colonies, blacks and other peoples of color, women, the incarcerated, non-human animals. Although obviously critical of the notions of natural rights or natural law—“nonsense upon stilts”–he in later life went further than any of the 18th or 19th century rights theorists in calling for radical democratic reform.

3:AM: He was a radical when it came to sex as well wasn’t he? Can you lay out why this area of his thinking is so important and forward thinking?

BS: He was one of the most extraordinary sexual libertarians of all time—and it is ironic that Foucault, an iconic gay social theorist, should have missed that side of him entirely. He wanted to see the end of legal penalties for same sex activities and other victimless “crimes,” but really, his attitude was much more radical than that. He blamed religious morality for pointlessly and cruelly depriving people of the pleasures of life, including the pleasures of sex in a wide variety of forms. One of my favorite lines from him runs: “It is wonderful that nobody has ever yet fancied it to be sinful to scratch where it itches, and that it have never been determined that the only natural way of scratching is with such or such a finger and that it is unnatural to scratch with any other.” His criticisms of religion, especially the Church of England, are harsh, but hilarious—he blamed St. Paul for being sex negative and foisting that on Christianity.

3:AM: JS Mill is probably the most famous of the utilitarians. In particular an individualistic (too individualistic?) liberalism, women’s emancipation, a the development of a healthy public sphere grounded on progressive civilisation and happiness are all his legacy. Can you sketch out for us the main components of his thinking first.

BS: Yes, and really, all the great classical utilitarians and their significant others were feminists and sexual reformers, though none of the others reached the level of Bentham. Mill was a brilliant writer, and nowhere more so than in his classic work The Subjection of Women, the work of his that I wish people would read first, as an introduction to him. He was a critic of “adaptive preferences”—inauthentic preferences reflecting warped desires in response to oppression or obstacles—long before Sen and Nussbaum. As he put it in On Liberty, he was championing “utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” But when Mill said “man,” he really did mean “men and women,” and the interests of humanity that he was referring to here meant their interests in cultivating their full range of capabilities and a character capable of living a free, autonomous life. Happiness, a mix of higher and lower pleasures, was to be found in that, which also involved the progressive development of human sympathy such that the individual would seek self-development in harmony with others, rather than in opposition to them. Mill, following his mental crisis as a young adult, was profoundly influenced by Romanticism and a positive view of the emotions, something that was reinforced by his intellectual partner and the great love of his life, Harriet Taylor, who influenced Mill in the direction of a type of cooperative socialism. They hoped that through liberal education, freedom of thought and conscience, and the growth of the economy of cooperative societies, society could realize those progressive interests of humanity.

3:AM: You say that there is a huge potential for emancipation in his work – can you say how you think we ought to judge his legacy and how it both compliments and deepens (and perhaps even veers off at some points) from Bentham?

BS: Well, the first example that comes to mind concerns his feminism. If the great utilitarians were around today, they would be totally horrified by the ongoing challenges to gender equality—the discrimination and violence against women. Mill, for example, would be more in agreement with Catherine MacKinnon than not, particularly on the issue of violence against women, an issue that Mill and Taylor were profoundly troubled by. And there are other examples as well. I do think that Jamieson’s point about utilitarianism being relatively free of the limitations of Kantianism, Aristotelianism, etc. on environmental issues is a very important one. If there is such a thing as “green virtue,” utilitarianism is better able to defend it than the alternatives, which fail so badly on the ethical problems involved in dealing with future generations where such notions as reciprocity, consent, duty, etc. are inadequate to the task. But of course, of the great utilitarians, Mill and Sidgwick also represent some object lessons when it comes to failing to address racism with the same critical force that they brought to other causes.

3:AM: Sidgwick is the final ‘happiness philosopher’ you discuss in your book, and of course you have written about him before. He’s probably less well known outside of philosophy circles than Bentham and JS Mill certainly and probably even Godwin, but he’s had enormous influence – Parfit was a great admirer and Pete Singer is also. He was very well connected and knew all the establishment figures of his day – so why is he so relatively obscure? Is it because his writing is dry and his ideas cautious or is it more to do with his own self-assessment, his crisis of faith and his strange ‘inner intellectual life’? Or is it that he was seen as too Victorian at a time when Victorianism was being thrown out for something much more modern and exciting (like Wittgenstein for example), as it seemed then? (Sorry about the length of that one!)

BS: I have always found it difficult to write about Sidgwick without doing so at length, so you are excused. There is no denying that at the beginning of the twentieth century, Sidgwick’s own students, Russell and Moore, and others in the Bloomsbury group, regarded him as out-of-date, a stodgy old man (neither at that point realized how much of Sidgwick’s outlook they had absorbed). Lytton Strachey had considered including him in the cast of Eminent Victorians, his scathing put down of the previous generation. But it also needs to be said that Sidgwick himself did an excellent job of concealing his more interesting sides, his bolder and more radical sides.

He is a case in point of someone who was weighed down by notions of proper academic professionalism and respectability, feeling that as an academic in a prominent position he was not always at liberty to say what he thought. This is part of the reason why his deep friendship with one of the early champions of what would later be called gay liberation, the brilliant classicist and literary critic John Addington Symonds, was obscured for so long. Sidgwick was adept at keeping his friends out of trouble and avoiding scandal. It is not so surprising that in the Methods of Ethics he developed an elaborate justification, in abstract terms, of the utilitarian case for keeping some parts of morality “esoteric.”

3:AM: Can you outline for us the key ideas of Sidgwick and in particular indicate the directions he took hedonistic utilitarianism that previous secular utilitarians had not?

BS: Well, I just indicated one, but there were others as well. On the philosophical side, one should consult such works as Roger Crisp’s The Cosmos of Duty and Peter Singer and Kasia de Lazari-Radek’s The Point of View of the Universe, along with such older works as Jerry Schneewind’s Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy. The symposium that I edited on The Point of View of the Universe is available. Sidgwick had a very keen philosophical eye, and he was the first to note the significance of future generations for thinking about such matters as whether to maximize total or average utility. And when it came to foundational metaethical matters, he really turned some things around, grounding utilitarian principles on a cognitive intuitionism that owed more to William Whewell, the arch critic of utilitarianism, than to Mill.

His special, non-reductive but non-metaphysical form of cognitive intuitionism has had a big impact on Parfit, Singer, and many others. And Sidgwick also had a more acute religious sensibility than most of his predecessors, a sensibility that ultimately turned him into one of the most important parapsychologist in history, as he sought empirical evidence for the reality of the afterlife. He spent an enormous amount of time trying to get to the bottom of ghost stories. This is another side of him that is only vaguely hinted at in his more academic moral philosophizing. He did not find the hard evidence that he hoped to find, for an afterlife, but he did come to believe in telepathy.

3:AM: These guys and utilitarianism are stereotypically thought of as being secular and materialistic but in many of the figures there were spiritual, sometimes even weird parapsychological elements running through. Can you say something about this and how important these esoteric interests were for the movement? Do you think they rather diminish the ideas or do they indicate an open-mindedness and non-dogmatic approach that may be lost to contemporaries of mainstream academic philosophy and something we may regret having lost?

BS: I think that the great classical utilitarians were admirable in their shared openness and willingness to embrace the weird and uncanny. The world is a very weird place, and they captured more of that weirdness than their contemporaries.

Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers was far ahead of its time in showing how intellectual and philosophical progress has often been embedded in strange and esoteric practices.

In many respects, they are more the immediate predecessors of someone like William James, who dedicated his great work The Varieties of Religious Experience to Mill, than to the neoclassical economists or the bureaucrats of the iron cage.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books other than your own that you can recommend to the readers here at 3:AM to take us further into your philosophical world?

BS: See above! Also, Dale Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 22nd, 2017.