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The principle of asceticism never was, nor ever can be, consistently pursued by any living creature. Let but one tenth part of the inhabitants of the earth pursue it consistently, and in a day’s time they will have turned it into a Hell.
- Jeremy Bentham

In Search of . . .

Varying Verity - Truth never changes, only our understanding into what it is . . .


Jeremy Bentham

Pragmatism as Utilitarianism in Practice


As Americans we pride ourselves as being a practical 'People'. We seek answers and solve problems. For many, that is the essence of purpose and the justification for a pragmatic approach to society. But the legacy of best known pragmatists, John Dewey and William James, in the form of their departure from Platonism thought, has burden our own contemporary world with a very different version of the practical. Their pragmatism follows the result of "collectivism" - the scourge of mankind. But is this the real meaning of the pragmatic approach to problems? One will find the answer to this question in the historic context of Utilitarianism.

It has been popular to blame the roots for modern "collectivism" on the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. Changing conceptions of governmental responsibility, has long been cited as a correlation in the influence of Benthan. But the other great thinker on this subject, John Stuart Mill, frames the viewpoint of his predecessor, Bentham.

"It is probable, however, that to the principle of utility we owe all that Bentham did; that it was necessary for him to find a first principle which he could receive as self-evident, and to which he could attach all his other doctrines as logical consequences: that to him systematic unity was an indispensable condition of his confidence in his Own intellect."

In its most simply and pure form, utility is that which works! But what does it mean and what is involved with that which is the practical method in solving a problem? And how is such an approach applied to government and public policy? Bentham's utilitarian doctrine was principally concerned with the legislation of morals. His principle of utility, has it is in vain to talk of the interest of the community, without understanding what is the interest of the individual.

The foundation of all valid decisions, are based upon a perceived benefit to the person making that judgment. This basic and universal characteristic, applies to all mankind and has matured to consider the betterment of the community, as a condition of civilized conduct. What is lost to the modern pragmatist is that key to Bentham's major work, stated clearly in the title: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. By linking morality to utility, we are presented with this conclusion from - Of Human Actions in General, II:

"The general tendency of an act is more or less pernicious, according to the sum total of its consequences: that is, according to the difference between the sum of such as are good, and the sum of such as are evil."

For those who are cautious to rely upon a prime mover, or reject the influence of the mystic "categorical revelation", Bentham provides a most sensible and practical standard for behavior.

Contrast the recognition that morality is the proper foundation for utility with the most popular forms of pragmatism. Fundamental to pragmatism is a strong antiabsolutism: the conviction that all principles are to be regarded as working hypotheses rather than as metaphysically binding axioms.

Another pragmatist - Charles Sanders Peirce held that an intrinsic connection exists between meaning and action - that the meaning of an idea is to be found in its "conceivable sensible effects" and that humans generate belief through their "habits of action." Note that the disconnect from a constant morality, is a central theme in the evolution of pragmatism. The leap to accepting a "secular humanism" is an easy transition for those who accept that a constant morality is a diminished factor in achieving the practical end. With a recognition that moral conduct has a relative interpretation, "situations ethics" become the new standard. All in the name of the pragmatic . . .

Is this really the kind of practicality that we as a country want to accept?

But Bentham does not base his morality on divine revelation. He says in Chapter II Of Principles Adverse to that of Utility:

"It is plain, therefore, that, setting revelation out of the question, no light can ever be thrown upon the standard of right and wrong, by any thing that can be said upon the question, what is God's will."

Can genuine self interest be achieved without the underpinnings of a moral standard that is based upon our codes for behavior that has been traditionally associated with divine law?

The Chicago school of pragmatism were a central force in philosophy, contesting realism and idealism for supremacy in metaphysics, epistemology and value theory. But can that same fault be attributed to the utility of Bentham? Again John Stuart Mills speaks to this point: Bentham derived the idea, as he says himself, from Helvetius; and it was the doctrine no less, of the religious philosophers of that age.

The need to related conduct back to morality is just as indispensable to the utility of the community as the interest of the individual, is to himself. Consider how it applies to the economic realm.

"The practical value of capitalism flows from the need to protect the creativity and freedom of thought of the individual. But isn’t this also a profound moral principle? Most of today's intellectuals still recognize that we need to protect the thinking of the artist or the scientist—but the same principle applies equally to the worker, the executive, and the industrialist. Only capitalism fully recognizes the moral right of the individual to think and to act on his thinking—not just in his personal life or intellectual life, but also in his economic life . . . Stated in more fundamental terms, capitalism is practical because it relies on the inexhaustible motive-power of self-interest . . . the principle that each man is an end in himself, not a mere cog in the collective machine to be exploited for the ends of others."

What we see in this account is how the economic relates to the legitimate individual self interest. This is consistent with the Utilitarianism as Bentham proposed. But we must remember that both Bentham and Mill were subjects of the Crown, during the time of empire. Their advocacy for the virtue of individual Liberty were tempered with leanings toward support of a Humanitarian Intervention.

As see in this essay, when Mill calls: "Intervention to enforce non-intervention", he starts down that road that leads to the errors of the pragmatists that in turn, embraces the altruism of "collectivism". Utilitarianism has a valid meaning when it is confined to the ranks of moral policy that works for a practical end, which benefits individuals. Pragmatism does not have to be a dirty word, nor should it be an uncritical behavior. Solutions are fine if they are practical within the realm of real world options that adhere to moral means and seeks to achieve benefits for citizens. But this goal must be tied to the self interest of the individual, and their moral conduct - if public policy is ever to reach - real utility in practice.


A memo to practical politicians
by George F. Smith

American politicians need to understand the rules of the game if they are to retain office.  It must be a game to them -- how could anyone seriously impose upon their fellow citizens a leviathan of red tape, taxation, waste, and corruption while criminally neglecting the one function they're responsible for?

But since they're committed to playing politics, this is what they need to remember:  money.  They'll need it to stay in office.  They get it by selling their services.  Through committee memberships, they make their influence known, meet with relevant lobbyists, and collect payment in exchange for promises.  The donations fund propaganda campaigns to get re-elected, following which they pay off their debts and continue the cycle of influence-peddling.

It cannot be overstressed: In a political system where legislation is bought and sold, money rules.  Ideological issues are after-the-fact rationalizations.  If certain industries line politicians' pockets, tariffs or import restrictions are necessary to protect American jobs and to help those industries "adjust" to changing conditions.  If no donations are forthcoming, perhaps free trade is the right way to go.  It's that simple.

Defending the Constitution, which they pledge to do, will not get them re-elected.  Most of their constituents have barely heard of the Constitution.  So what if it occupies the top box of the federal government's organization chart, as published by the Office of the Federal Register?  Elected officials should keep a copy of the chart in their offices and plaster a $5 bill in place of the Constitution, as a tribute to the founder of our modern system.  It's not as if the Constitution were some king of old who could make heads roll for gross insubordination.

Politicians should be concerned about the real world and the future -- as it extends to the next election.  They must be practical people -- it's a matter of survival.  Theories are for academics and other idlers.  The people who count are the people who can help them get ahead.

In politics, to be is to be perceived.  To be successful, is to be perceived as effective.  No one's going to give money to a pol who can¹t turn the powers of government in the donor's favor.  Being perceived as effective means being surrounded by malevolent enemies who are capable of stopping a politician's good intentions.  Such enemies become scapegoats when promises aren't fulfilled.

Politicians have packed us in a snowball that is rolling downhill at breathtaking speed.   To assuage doubt, they should occasionally issue assurances that their activity is necessary to preserve our heritage of freedom and maintain world peace.  Here's the argument in raw form: Our founders thought it practical to risk their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to fight the world's most powerful military force.  It was obviously practical -- how else could George Washington have been elected president, if not by the political trick of defeating the British?

After winning our independence in 1781, they decided they had fought the war for something called man's rights.  This, of course, was the precursor to the more enlightened concept of today known as group rights.  A bunch of pols from the thirteen colonies got together and wrote the Declaration of Independence and dated it 1776, so future historians and schoolkids would believe they fought for liberty, instead of political power.  They spelled out what they meant by liberty in the U.S. Constitution.  The Constitution vested sovereignty in a strong central government to which the people owe their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.

Unfortunately, in the early years of our democracy, certain recalcitrants prevented the government from operating the way it should.  They fostered dangerous notions of the U.S. as a republic with a limited government.  Then in 1860, a Martyr came along and saved us, and we've been on the path of righteous freedom ever since.

That our path has been consistent with our founders ideals is evidenced by our progressive income tax, virtual abolition of the right of inheritance, establishment of a central bank, and free compulsory education regulated by the state.  In an act of unintended flattery, Marx and Engels stole these ideas from our founders and incorporated them in the 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party.

Today, revisionists are trying to push different interpretations of the nation's birth.  But let them talk.  The FBI will nail them as terrorists if they talk about the Constitution.   Issues are for amusement purposes only. Political power is the only reality.

The practical politician recognizes this and acts accordingly.

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