Dispatches from the Archives

Why Emerson Admired Bentham But Rejected His Utilitarianism

by guest contributor Christopher Porzenheim

By Christopher Porzenheim

While it’s become increasingly common since 1970 for scholars to study Ralph Waldo Emerson as a philosopher and evaluate his relationship to canonical philosophers, no one has thoroughly analyzed Emerson’s numerous remarks upon Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, which is now one of the most influential contemporary schools of moral philosophy. This is odd. Emerson says at least as much, if not more, about Bentham than he does about Immanuel Kant, yet a vast amount of attention has been devoted to Kant’s influence on Emerson while very little ink has been spilled on Emerson’s relationship to Bentham. Indeed, so far as I know, Neal Dolan and Bhiku C. Parekh are the only scholars who have published anything on this subject.

Ultimately, I believe an analysis of Emerson’s remarks confirms Dolan and Parekh’s claim that Emerson rejected Benthamite utilitarianism, but also reveals something new—why he rejected his ethics. Understanding why Emerson disagreed with Bentham’s ethics matters because it will help anyone who wishes to compare John Stuart Mill and Emerson, characterize the nature of Emerson’s own moral philosophy or determine where he fits in the philosophical canon. As we shall see, Emerson was likely hostile towards Bentham’s “stinking” and “vulgar” utilitarianism because of the important role virtue and character plays in Emerson’s ethics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, although quite accurately, Emerson recognized Bentham as one among many of the reformers making “accusations of society” in the 19th century (W 1: 228) whose proposed reforms focused on the subject of “Civil Law.” (EL 3: 225-26)

In addition, Emerson had some unambiguously complimentary things to say about Bentham. For example, Emerson is grateful Bentham coined words like maximize, minimize and “international.” (J 7: 69-70) Emerson also believes we should mimic one of Bentham’s habits. According to Emerson, if we wish to have excellent friendships we should primarily spend one on one—rather than group—time with our closest friends, just like how Bentham would only admit one person at a time into his study. (EL 2: 289) More generally, Emerson admires Bentham as a man of ideas (J 8: 465) unseduced by “too fanciful refinements” (EL 2: 289) who loved the truth (J 2: 501-502) and prophetically saw the need to advocate for “systematic Moral Education” in response to the “dark times” of his era. (J 3: 348, EL 2: 97) The rest of Emerson’s praise for Bentham is more ambivalent in its tone.

While Emerson admires Bentham’s aims and intellect, he is also unsettled by the idea that Bentham’s philosophy will be idolized. Emerson thought that Bentham, just like Charles Fourier or Emanuel Swedenborg, was a reformer armed with “a mind of uncommon activity and power” which would allow him to easily impose his philosophical “system” and “classification[s] on other men”. Therefore those with “unbalanced minds” will likely idolize Bentham’s philosophical system and mistakenly think of it as an “end” rather than “a speedily exhaustible means” of reforming society. (W 2: 79-80, EL 3: 140-141, LL 1: 356)

Why is Emerson worried about Bentham becoming idolized? There are at least two reasons. The first is that, as a rule, Emerson believed uncritical hero worship was vicious, whether for writers and poets like Shakespeare or Goethe, philosophers like Plato or Aristotle, or religious figures like Jesus. (W 1: 88, 130-131, 4: 18). The other reason Emerson was uneasy with Bentham is more unique to Bentham. Emerson was always suspicious of very systematic theoreticians like Fourier, Swedenborg, or Bentham: “The more coherent and elaborate the system, the less I like it.” (W 4: 135) This dislike follows from the first reason. Emerson believed that the more comprehensive a theoretical system was, the more likely it would be uncritically worshipped by intellectually complacent pupils. (W 2: 79, EL 3: 140)

Despite Emerson’s concerns there is little evidence that Bentham had anything like a cult following. As Bhikhu C. Parekh relevantly observed in his reception history of Bentham: “If one surveys the controversial writings and the systematic political treatises of the first six or seven decades of the nineteenth century, one finds that the leaders of thought [in America] were untouched by or were unfriendly to Benthamism.” Thus, it seems Emerson’s worry Bentham’s philosophy would be idolized by many of his American contemporaries was unwarranted.

Perhaps the safest general characterization of Emerson’s estimate of Bentham was that he saw him as a positive and negative role model. For, on the one hand, Emerson appears like he may have wished to emulate what he perceived to be Bentham’s life-long focus popularizing one idea. In a journal passage, Emerson asked himself “what do you exist to say?” after approvingly noting that Bentham existed to say one thing “The greatest good of the greatest number”. (J 8: 422) This passage, alongside others, suggests Emerson may have believed he should, like Bentham, focus on popularizing one idea. (JMN 4: 348-349) But, on the other hand, Emerson seems uncomfortable with what he perceives to be Bentham’s monomaniacal focus. As Emerson thought Bentham was “insane on one side” and simply as “crazy” as the popularizer of phrenology Johann Spurzheim for being so eager to repeat one idea over and over again (J 3: 505, EL 3: 140); Bentham “pound[s] on one string till the whole world knows that.” (J 7: 186)

Yet, while Emerson was of mixed minds about Bentham himself, he had no love for his moral philosophy. Emerson’s earliest judgments of Bentham’s philosophy occur in his prize winning Essay on the Present State of Ethical Philosophy. In this youthful scholastic essay, the 18 year old Emerson is dismissive of Benthamite consequentialism, but not openly hostile. Emerson claims that those looking to advance the “science” of ethics should ignore Bentham’s utilitarianism because his “moral arithmetic” is not “necessary” for the “science” of ethics to discover the proper moral “precepts”.

Later, when the mature Emerson judges Bentham’s moral philosophy in his private journals and public lectures his judgements become harsher. Emerson’s outright contempt for Benthamite utilitarianism is well summarized by Bhikhu C. Parekh

in 1831 he [Emerson] wrote in his journal: ‘The stinking philosophy of the utilitarian! Nihil magnificum, nihil generosum sapit, as Cicero said of that of Epicurus.’ [J 2: 455] Two years later, however (a year after Bentham’s death), he [Emerson] wrote to his brother from London: ‘I have been to see Dr. Bowring, who was very courteous. He carried me to Bentham’s house and showed me with great veneration the garden walk, the sitting room, and the bed chamber of the philosopher. He also gave me a lock of his gray hair, and an autograph.… He is anxious that Bentham should be admired and loved in America.’ [L 1: 392] Emerson contributed nothing to that end. He rejected utilitarianism with the same contempt as did his friend Carlyle, by whose views on this subject he was greatly influenced. In 1836, he [Emerson] wrote: ‘I had rather not understand in God’s world than understand thro’ and thro’ in Bentham’s. [L 1: 450]’

This passage from Parekh makes clear that Emerson considered Bentham’s philosophy stinking, ignoble and ungodly, but not so clear why. Some philosophical context can help clarify.

To justify his specific criticism of Bentham’s “stinking philosophy” Emerson appears to be invoking one of Cicero’s arguments from De Finibus; a dialogue written by Cicero in which an Epicurean and Stoic spokesperson defend their ideas about virtue. One of Cicero’s many criticisms of the Epicurean position is that he thinks the Epicureans are mistaken for only valuing virtue instrumentally as a means of securing pleasure, rather than for its own sake. (Cicero. DeFinibus. Bk2.69-73) By invoking Cicero on this point, Emerson implies that this same Ciceronian criticism can be applied to Benthamite utilitarianism. Emerson is right to think so. Like the Epicureans, Bentham’s ethics does not value virtue intrinsically. Bentham’s utilitarianism values actions and things instrumentally insofar as they are conducive to utility (i.e the greatest happiness principle.) Thus, as the Epicureans only value virtue for the sake of pleasure, Bentham can only value virtue for the sake of utility. In contrast, as Jonathan Bishop has noted, Emerson believes that virtue is valuable for its own sake. (W 2: 94-95, 102-103, 121-123, 255) Therefore, Emerson seems to reject Bentham’s ethics because it necessarily denies virtue has intrinsic value (i.e. that virtue is its own reward.) 

Emerson also offers what seems to be a different but related criticism of Bentham’s ethics, namely that it fails to show enough interest in cultivating our character (i.e. in cultivating virtues like temperance, courage, justice, or wisdom.) As Emerson puts it, Bentham is an advocate of a “vulgar utilitarianism” which aims merely at “political or external freedom” and neglects an appropriate concern for “inward freedom also”. (EL 2: 67) Now, it’s undeniable Emerson is objecting to what he perceives to be Bentham’s ethical vulgarity, but not necessarily why. A quick conceptual detour can clarify Emerson’s ire.

Emerson’s critique of Bentham assumes a distinction between what contemporary philosophers sometimes call “positive liberty” and “negative liberty.” Put plainly, I lack some positive liberty if I am an alcoholic, because I cannot freely choose among courses of action; an alcoholic has an intemperate (hence vicious) desire to get drunk all the time which shapes all their decisions. Whereas, I lack some negative liberty if the government imprisons me for drunk driving, because it has interfered with my ability to freely choose among courses of action; I am now constrained to one location.

Because Emerson derides Bentham’s utilitarianism as “vulgar” for focusing its concern on our “political or external freedom” (negative liberties) and not also our “inward freedom” (positive liberties) this suggests that Emerson thinks that ethics should be concerned with helping us cultivate the kind of intellectual or moral virtues that allows us to exercise “inward freedom”. Therefore, Emerson seems irked by Bentham’s utilitarianism because he thinks it neglects an appropriate ethical concern for cultivating a virtuous character. 

We can now safely say a few things about Emerson’s remarks on Bentham. There are at least three patterns. One, Emerson tends to be slightly more kind to Bentham in public lectures and essays, and slightly less in his private letters and journals. Two, Emerson admires and criticizes Bentham for the same quality: a monomaniacal, systematic, and lifelong focus popularizing one idea. Three, while Emerson somewhat admired Bentham as a person, he had no admiration for his consequentialist ethics, which he saw as unnecessary moral arithmetic at best, and ignoble and ungodly at worst.

Ultimately, Emerson appears to have been hostile towards Bentham’s “stinking” and “vulgar” utilitarianism because he believed it considered cultivating character relatively inconsequential and subordinated virtue to utility, rather than valuing virtue as its own reward. Thus, it seems as if the important role virtue and character plays in Emerson’s ethics is driving most of his hostility toward Bentham’s consequentialist moral philosophy.

Christopher Porzenheim is a writer, scholar, and masters student in the philosophy program at Georgia State University. Chris is interested in researching the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular, how Ralph Waldo Emerson wielded Stoicism and Confucianism to create his philosophy of Self-Reliance—with which he supported the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. When in doubt, Chris usually opens up a copy of the Confucian Analects or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for guidance.

Featured Image: Abacus Patent Application filed by Andrew F. Schott. 1964. US Patent Office, US110564A.

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