Friday, August 17, 2012

This Week's Book: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

This should end up being one of the toughest reads of the entire year. It's very rewarding, though.

August 12-18: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham

Law (1781 - 244 pp.) 

This book has been written on hundreds of times, many of them by commentators far more inured to its context and its place in philosophy than I am. The academic discussion, then, will stay with the academics. This text's value is not limited to those circles, especially given its origin - not as a research paper written at a university, but as what effectively amounts to a policy manual. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation has relevance to policymakers, lawyers and anyone who wants to consider the underlying basis of morality, not just the philosophers who teach it so well. 

Bentham's argument at times feels disconnected between the moral and legislative aspects, although it is ultimately clear that he intends both to be run according to the principle of utility. (Economists now call this "cardinal utility".) While there is a certain lack of insight in the observation that "everyone should do what is best for him or her in the context of greater society" (and how butchered a translation that is...), it must have been a refreshing departure from the sectarianism of the ancien rĂ©gime and the self-defeating stances of what would in the next century be termed the Low Church Evangelical movement. Bentham's preaching of consistency across punishments for perpetrators of identical crimes is a good example of a principle we take for granted today but was not so obvious at the time. 

Everything in the book comes back to that core principle of utility, which is defined in very clear terms at the outset and remains in play throughout. The simultaneously religious and secular nature of An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation makes utility maximization more flexible than it may at first appear. Nothing is ever confirmed or denied, only considered through Bentham's perspective, and it is all very cohesive. One observation I find particularly applicable to our current world is the clear differentiation between moral and religioussanction, the former term being applied to social pressure and the latter to disobedience of a religious mandate. The fuzzy lines between religious and social dictates, i.e. what a religious teaching is versus what the social norm is of a society that associates itself with a particular religion is, themselves act as a sort of commentary on the political gaming Bentham opposes. 

The only qualm I can take with this undeniably seminal work is just how much time Bentham devotes to defining his terms. These lengthy sections can often be skimmed. It would also have been nice to have seen a direct reply to Kant somewhere, considering the inherent opposition those two greats have with each other. When Bentham sets out his principles, though, he sets out timeless notions that I think form the basis of much of how we should perceive both our personal ethics and our legal system. 

Ease of Reading: 1 
Educational Content: 10

No comments:

Post a Comment