On Bentham and Utilitarianism

by Mario Rizzo

An interesting discussion has begun at Marginal Revolution on “Benthamite utilitarianism.” It started with a small comment I made on Tyler Cowen’s remark regarding the discussion of Robert Frank’s position goods idea. Then Tyler responded in a post. And then I made a comment. It is all here.

Discussions of this subject can be interminable. So perhaps just a little is best.

3 thoughts on “On Bentham and Utilitarianism

  1. I have a question.

    To what degree have we shifted the ground on Bentham. All of his writing seems to me to be building a case for reform of the legal system. Bentham has been on the right side of a great number of reforms; from strictly legal ones (different degrees of crime should be treated differently) to social ones (women’s suffrage and legal tolerance of alternative lifestyles). When we try to see Bentham’s system as a complete moral system that can guide social policy (as thought of in a post-Prussian Bismarkian world) do we err?

    Can we take Bentham has having an implicitly deliminated sphere? If I read Bentham thinking that his advice is restricted to legal reform I start taking issue with some of the claims that Hayek makes about his constructivist rationalism. Maybe we should make clear that the problem is with Benthamites rather than Bentham. Where is the best place I should start to disabuse myself of this confusion?

  2. I think that a far better variation on the utilitarian theme can be found in books like those by Henry Hazlitt (“The Foundations of Morality”) and Leland Yeager (“Ethics as a Social Science”).

    Hazlitt’s formulation is an attempt to develop the notion as he sees it being used in Mises’ writings. And it certainly represents a “rule” rather than an “act” utilitarian framework. (And this in spite of Frank Knight’s rude and crude attack on Hazlitt’s book.)

    I am not saying that they offer “definitive” demonstrations of the superiority of the utilitarian approach. But they offer forms of the argument that are reasonable and commonsensical in thinking about social problems.

    Richard Ebeling

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