Starting March 21, the auto-icon of British philosopher Jeremy Bentham will appear in an exhibit at the Met Breuer titled Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now). According to Bentham’s wishes, when he died, his cadaver was dissected, embalmed, and dressed. His auto-icon, consisting of his skeleton covered by his clothes, topped with a wax head, is typically displayed in a clear case in a hall of University College London. And this spring, Bentham’s auto-icon will journey to New York.
So who was Bentham? Here is a presentation of the basics of his philosophy of utilitarianism. It does not capture all its complexities and nuances.
Bentham was a wealthy British man who was born in the mid 18th century and died in the early 19th century. Trained as a lawyer, he never practiced law. He founded a philosophy known as utilitarianism, the theory that what is morally right and morally wrong can be determined by what is pleasurable for people. At the time, this was a radical theory, because it challenged the status quo. Bentham was suspicious of the motives of the powerful, and concerned that the powerful did not pay enough attention to the interests or welfare of the less-powerful. He thought social policy should benefit all people, not just the privileged; when the interests of people conflict, the right action promotes the pleasure of the most people.
The philosophy of utilitarianism is based on what Bentham called the “greatest happiness principle” or “principle of utility”: if Action A produces more pleasure for more people than Action B, we should do Action A. Period. No action or policy is “good” or “bad” in itself; it is “good” or “bad” only because of the results it brings about. Utilitarianism appeals to the concept of the cost-benefit analysis: to choose between alternatives, a person should directly compare the costs and benefits of each alternative, and perform the action with the greater overall benefit (taking costs into account). It is an intensely practical philosophy.
Many criticisms can be levied against Bentham’s conception of utilitarianism. First, the idea of the cost-benefit analysis can be problematic. Performing a cost-benefit analysis can require us to try to quantify concepts that resist quantification, such as the value of a human life. Second, the flip side of favoring actions which promote the pleasure of most people is that we must take a an uncomfortable view of what is pleasurable for those close to us, and what is pleasurable for ourselves. People generally care most about the welfare of themselves and those close to them, such as family and friends, and utilitarianism seems to require that we disregard this inclination and value the welfare of strangers equally to the welfare of our near and dear. Third, the flip side of the practicality of utilitarianism is that it is a results-focused philosophy. There is a slippery slope from prioritizing results to holding that favorable ends justify questionable means. Consider the example of torturing a terror suspect in order to try to prevent a terror attack; even those who approve of this practice generally do not view it as ethically optimal.
Visitors to Bentham’s auto-icon at the Met Breuer this spring should reflect on the lasting impact of this eccentric and progressive thinker.