The Quality Of Life

Happy hedonists

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.321.7276.1572/a (Published 23 December 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:1572
  1. Roy Porter, professor
  1. Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, University College London, London NW1 1AD

Attached as I am to University College London, I often bump into Jeremy Bentham— that is, his stuffed body on display in the college that he helped to found just over 170 years ago (embalming, he thought, was cheaper and more effective than sculpture). Bentham was the founder of utilitarianism, the philosophy that proclaimed that the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” (the “felicific calculus”) was the only scientific measure of good and bad, right and wrong—the only worthy goal in life.

For that great reformer, seeking utility was the basic fact of human nature. Everyone's psyche was programmed to pursue pleasure in precisely the same way as bodies necessarily gravitated towards each other, obeying a law of nature. The only difference was that people could pretend they were behaving otherwise, could protest that they were motivated not by vulgar, selfish, hedonistic drives but by supposedly higher, more altruistic ideals. For Bentham, however, all that, to use a favourite phrase of his, was but nonsense on stilts. Did not self denying Christian martyrs expect their bliss in heaven? Did not party poopers such as Scrooge get their kicks out of being killjoys? And did not Queen Victoria find being not amused highly amusing indeed?

Bentham, who judged that pushpin (a tavern game; we might say “pool”) was as good as poetry if it gave as much pleasure, wanted all such “gainsayers” to come clean. And there lies one of the reasons that, as historian and as human being, I feel so drawn towards the 18th century: the Georgians were remarkably frank and forthright about being pleasure loving. “Happiness is the only thing of real value in existence,” proclaimed the essayist Soame Jenyns; “pleasure is now the principal remaining part of your education,” Lord Chesterfield told his dim son.

The hedonism debate

The quest …

View Full Text

Sign in

Log in through your institution

Subscribe