Utilitarianism – Analysing the validity of its criticism in Hard Times

In the beginning of the 19th Century, Jeremy Bentham gave a systematic account of the previously fragmented philosophy of Utilitarianism. His approach towards the social constructs that governed pleasure and pain, or reward and punishment, was founded largely in hedonism. He held that humans were ruled solely by pleasure (or the absence of it) and therefore all actions must be weighed in regard to acquisition of maximum amount of pleasure for the maximum number of people. Utilitarianism deconstructs every action and evaluates it with the help of logic and facts. It stresses the importance of an individual’s happiness before others.

This theory in principle was appealing to many. He set down seven factors for the weighing of pleasure – Intensity(the amount of pain/pleasure), Duration(duration of time), Certainty(how much an action is likely to cause pleasure), Proximity( how close the feeling would be to the action), Fecundity( how likely it is to cause further sensations), Extent( the number of people affected) and Purity(the amounts of opposing sensations involved). Bentham went further to suggest that fundamental morality must also be defined not from a socially ethical perspective but rather from an analysis of the consequent pleasure/pain to be generated from it.

Thus, in his view, laws needed to be flexible according to society’s changing perception of pain and pleasure. He aimed to evaluate the usefulness of existing institutions, practices and beliefs. He lived through a time of major social, political and economic change and the ‘industrial revolution,’ with the massive economic and social shifts that were caused by it, the rise of the middle class, revolutions in France and America are all reflected in his considerations on existing institutions. Many of his works give an insight into the great need for reform which was lacking, or sometimes misguided in that age.

Bentham founded a group of intellectual philosophers called the ‘Philosophical Radicals’, or simply the ‘Benthamites’, which had some of the leading thinkers of the age as members. But Bentham’s philosophy came under heavy assault by his opponents when he (infamously) suggested that pub games had the same importance as poetry, as long as they both gave equal amounts of pleasure to the participants. This meant that Benthamites were only interested in the Quantity of pleasure but not in the intrinsic Quality that is to be found in more subtle forms of pleasure.

This meant that primeval pleasure would be favoured, asby the majority. The first sentences spoken in Hard Times are “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. ” This immediately hits the reader with a forceful impression of warring factions of thought – Fact and Fancy. The entirety of the novel is devoted to a drawn-out battle between products of these two factions – Some mild, others very extreme. Bounderby is one such impossibly extreme character, who takes the notion of individuality to megalomania.

He is also the only one that keeps a firm belief in the system all through the novel. But as it turns out, his whole existence is based on lies and deceit. He was never a self-made man, and therefore his obsession with ‘Fact’ is hypocritical and baseless. Sissy Jupe is another very important character, because she is one of the sole representatives of ‘Fancy’ or rather, a value system based on emotional judgment, in a town full of Utilitarian dogma. We see that after all events have transpired, Sissy is the one who ‘survives’ with the ideology she started out.

Also, Dickens was very concerned about the welfare of the poor working class people. In his novels, they are always victims of an unfeeling capitalist system which only takes interest in squeezing maximum output for minimum wages. Stephen Blackpool is a classic example of a simple, honest worker who falls victim to the politics of a class division between rich and poor. He is essentially a martyr for the cause of integrity. It is important to note that even the workers’ union shows the same selfish attitude as Bounderby. Thus it is not suggested that working class people do not have baser human qualities.

Dickens has artfully demonstrated the monstrous nature of a generation that is taught to embrace egoism and to discard emotion. Tom and Bitzer are the pitiful epitomes of Utilitarian upbringing, in Dickens’ viewpoint. Tom secretly hates the system he has been forced to swallow, but is ultimately a spineless, selfish man who does not have any moral standing and tricks his own friend and employer. The same can be said of Bitzer. Even so, Dickens has taken a very narrow view of Utilitarianism, which exaggerates the flaws of Bentham’s philosophy to the point of creating a dystopian world out of it.

Dickens published hard Times in 1854, hence was unaware of a radical shift in Utilitarian Philosophy which was published later by John Stuart Mill in 1863. James Mill was a member of the Benthamites, and a strong advocate of Bentham’s views. He brought up his son, John Stuart Mill, on principles of Bentham’s Utilitarianism. John was taught to discard emotions and to think rationally, adhering to facts. When John reached adulthood, he had an emotional breakdown, after which he realised how cold and machinistic the ideals of Jeremy Bentham were. John became apathetic towards Utilitarianism.

He however continued to believe in the superiority and potential of the ideas of Utilitarianism, but lacked interest in promoting it. He believed that his father’s method of education was too analytical and ignored the development of his emotional self. Here we see that John Mill’s trajectory in life rivals that of Thomas Gradgrind Sr. , in that they both were staunch supporters of the philosophy till they were disillusioned by emotional upheavals within their lives. John Mill eventually wrote a treatise on Utilitarianism, which is now known as the second-generation Utilitarianism.

In it, he criticised Bentham’s perspective of treating all kinds of pleasure equally, and of valuing individual interests over those of the community. Mill believed that each individual can, and should pursue his/her own happiness, provided it does not disrupt harmony between public and private interests. In this regard, it is the duty of the judiciary to make the two interests coincide. To quote Bertrand Russell, a noted 20th Century philosopher, “It is to the interest of the public that I should abstain from theft, but it is not to my interest except where there is an effective criminal law punishing me for it.

Thus, the criminal laws are methods of making the interests of the individual coincide withthe interests of the community. ” Mill also actively voiced his concern for the apparent disregardof intellectual pleasure that first-generation Utilitarianism advocated. Mill argued that people could only enjoy subtle forms of pleasure if they were given the capacity to do so, through education. Saying that momentary intercourse was better than a long-lasting relationship, because it provided higher pleasure, was wrong on the account that it ignored the intrinsic value of emotional happiness and security brought about by love (not lust).

He said that the ‘desirable’ in Bentham’s philosophy should not be seen as ‘what can be desired’ but rather ‘what ought to be desired’, paving the way for intellectual betterment through the guidance of higher rationality. In conclusion, it is the opinion of many critics that Dickens has ably mocked hedonistic ideology, but his criticism does not do justice to the benefits of Utilitarian self-analysis.

Also, Bentham wrote some important treatises on social issues, including a call for the emancipation of women, because in his philosophy both men and women deserved equal happiness because there was no significant intellectual disparity between the two sexes. It was only because women were denied education that they could not voice their problems in the public forum. Mill furthered this treatise and made efforts to actualise it, laying grounds for the philosophical backbone of the feminist movement. Merely focusing on hyperbolic flaws of utilitarianism, Dickens’ Hard Times unfairly disregards the many finer attributes of Bentham’s rationale.