In trying to justify socio-political acts as well as legislations, nothing is more abused by politicians than Jeremy Bentham’s Principle of Utility (more popularly referred to as the Utilitarian Principle).
Many politicians – senior ones included – would refer to the Utilitarian Principle and quote whatever they could muster out of it in their attempt at justifying, for example, the necessity for undertaking certain actions which is based solely or primarily by the fact that it is the “rights of the majority” to do so. To put it simply, it is said that “we are mandated by the majority and therefore we have the authority to do this.”
If only Jeremy Bentham was still alive and not just a preserved skeleton and head all dressed up and sitting down in his “Auto-icon” in University College, London. If he was, I am sure he would die of laughing so hard at such preposterous utilisation (pun not intended) of his Utilitarian Principle.
Essentially, Bentham, in his seminal work, “An Introduction to the Principles of Moral and Legislation” posits that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” In other words, Bentham’s principle dictates that if an act brings the greatest happiness to the biggest number of people, that act would be a right act to do.
Now, if we apply that to an act of a government which has been legally – and thus validly – elected by the majority of voters in a democratic system, such government would be viewed as a good government if it carries out acts or pass legislations which bring the highest degree of happiness to the most number of people.
Which begs the question, can that government, by virtue of it being elected by the majority, argue that all its acts and legislations which it sponsors at all time after its election are good and valid? Put it on a different way, can it be argued that just because I have been elected by the majority, all my acts in the future are deemed to be the acts of the majority and therefore they must be good?
Bentham would have committed suicide if it could.
Although Bentham was at pain to make sure that his theory is not abused or so plainly misrepresented, such argument led to somewhat misconceived critics, such as can be found in Gerald Postema’s "Bentham and the Common Law Tradition" (Oxford, 1968). Postema argued that Bentham had failed to analyse the notion of justice in his work. Some critics even argued that Bentham’s theory gives the notion that an act of murder would be a good act if such murder brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.
Of course those who prefer to abuse or misread Bentham’s principle would continue doing so by tying up blinkers over their eyes when they come to the part where Bentham argues against tyranny and oppression. I truth, Bentham was concerned of the possibility of tyranny being perpetuated by the majority over non-conformists or the general minority. That led him to propose an ideal state with the required institutions to prevent such tyranny and oppression as well as to address such acts if they took place. Above all, Bentham advocated toleration as an answer to oppression. And before this is abused, let me say that he did not by any means propose that oppression be tolerated.
The fallacy that in a democracy, the majority is always right and thus the acts of the majority must always be accepted is demonstrated by another scholar, Alexis de Tocqueville. In “Democracy in America”, Tocqueville puts it succinctly:
“A majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? . . . For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them. . .”
Tocqueville, together with Herbert Marcuse, is of course one of democracy’s fiercest critics. Marcuse in his seminal work, “The One Dimensional Man” warns of the days when democracies would seduce the masses with “administered reality” which would in turn reduce them into some form of slaves to popular and mainstream thoughts and conformity.
Allow me to end this week’s column with what Tocqueville sees as the danger of democracy in the USA in his time:
“In my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their irresistible strength. I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny. When an individual or a party is wronged in the United States, to whom can he apply for redress? If to public opinion, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislature, it represents the majority and implicitly obeys it; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority and serves as a passive tool in its hands. The public force consists of the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing judicial cases; and in certain states even the judges are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or absurd the measure of which you complain, you must submit to it as well as you can.”