The Happiness Philosophers: The Lives and Works of the Great Utilitarians by Bart Schultz
Bart Schultz's fascinating study weaves together the lives and works of the four founders of classical utilitarianism—William Godwin, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick—challenging historical interpretations and opening exciting new possibilities for contemporary moral and political philosophy. Schultz reminds us that the founders of utilitarianism were not lifeless proponents of a simplistic theory, but rounded individuals in whose hands the utilitarian project ranged widely over acts, rules, institutions, political economy, politics, law, and much else. Anyone interested in the history of utilitarianism, wider currents in nineteenth-century thought, or contemporary ethics will learn much from this meticulous and thought-provoking book. It would also make an excellent introduction to utilitarianism for senior undergraduates or graduate students in philosophy, history, and related disciplines.
Schultz begins with William Godwin—husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, father of Mary Shelley, and defender of extreme utilitarian impartiality. Schultz presents Godwin as a nuanced thinker whose "life presented in microcosm the evolution of utilitarianism on the matter of partial attachments" (32). In modern terms, Schultz's Godwin is an "indirect" utilitarian: "I do not require that, when a man is employed in benefiting his child, he should constantly recollect the abstract principle of utility, but I do maintain that his actions in prosecuting that benefit are no further virtuous than in proportion as they square with that principle" (quoted, 33).
Drawing on recent scholarship, especially from the Bentham project at the London School of Economics, Schultz offers a revolutionary portrait of Jeremy Bentham as a subtle and exceptionally bold thinker: "at once both the most imaginative and the most wonkish political and legal philosopher who ever lived" (66). Schultz argues that Bentham's hedonism was a multi-dimensional view, akin to Sidgwick's "desirable consciousness"; that he was acutely aware of the gap between psychological and normative issues; that Bentham's influential writings on the Poor Laws undermine popular misunderstandings of his infamous Panopticon by revealing Bentham's insistence that officials themselves must also be monitored; and that Bentham's writings on colonialism and sexual freedom were not only remarkable for their time, but also considerably more progressive than those of later utilitarians.
Schultz's retelling of the familiar tale of Mill's utilitarian upbringing, mental crisis, and life as a public intellectual is fresh and illuminating. His summary of recent scholarship on Mill's utilitarianism—and especially Mill's hedonism—will be invaluable for students and scholars alike. Drawing on recent feminist scholarship, Schultz presents Harriet Taylor Mill—one of the most divisive figures in intellectual history—as the joint creator of some of John Stuart's most enduring contributions to political thought—especially on liberty, the subjugation of women, and the more radical elements of his political economy.
Schultz's Mill is not entirely admirable. Earlier chapters lay bare the one-sidedness of Mill's caricature of Bentham, and Schultz's verdict on Mill's attitudes to colonialism in India and Jamaica is sobering: "Even if we refrain from calling Mill a racist, we are right to call him arrogantly Eurocentric, too complacently accepting of differences as 'inferiority,' and blindly paternalistic on the question of subject peoples beings allowed to rule themselves, making their own mistakes, etc." (203).
Long overshadowed by Bentham and Mill, Henry Sidgwick is now regarded as a central figure in the history of ethics. This revival owes much to Schultz's own magisterial intellectual biography Eye of the Universe (2004). Schultz's overview of recent work on Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics—notably by Roger Crisp, Tom Hurka, Derek Parfit, David Phillips, Katerina de Lazari-Radek, and Peter Singer—is an invaluable resource. But Schultz ranges much more widely, outlining Sidgwick's contributions to the Cambridge school of economics, his commitment (in collaboration with his wife Eleanor) to higher education for women, and especially his lifelong interest in psychic phenomena—which Schultz persuasively [End Page 179] links to Sidgwick's urgent search for a single rational method of ethics. "This was no mere fetishizing of determinateness in ethics. It was a concern about just how tragic the Cosmos might really be" (300).
Schulz's narrative is not one of progress from simple-minded Bentham through mature Mill to Sidgwick's meticulous philosophy. Bentham's hedonism is often closer to Sidgwick than to Mill, and Schultz notes with irony that utilitarianism's "most formidable philosophical defenses have come from those who ground it on something closer to Whewellian intuitionism rather than Millian naturalism" (148). And on many practical issues of central interest to contemporary moral and political thinkers—such as colonialism, racism, and sexual freedom—the pre-Victorian Bentham appears much more progressive than the mid-Victorian Mill or the late-Victorian Sidgwick.