I am not a Utilitarian, when it comes to moral philosophy. And I am not into celebrities. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to “meet” Jeremy Bentham, the father of Utilitarianism, who is currently in visit at the Met-Breuer museum in New York City. To be precise, of course, it is Bentham’s famous “auto-icon” that is visiting, as part of the fascinating “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body” exhibit, which has just opened and will go on until July 22nd.
The auto-icon is made of the preserved remains of Bentham, dressed with his own clothes and sporting his favorite cane, which he nicknamed “Dapple.” The head is actually a very realistic wax replica based on portraits from the time, as the actual one did not fare well during the chemical process that Bentham instructed his friend and physician Thomas Southwood Smith, to carry out for preservation purposes. It is currently exhibited where the auto-icon normally resides, at University College London, looking rather ghastly, I’m told.
Bentham came up with this strange idea for a number of reasons. For one thing, he wanted to stick it to the Church of England, which at the time (he died in 1832) still had a monopoly on dead people. Bentham, who was a stunningly progressive man for his culture, thought the church was “irredeemably corrupt.” The second reason was so that his body could be dissected for medical research (by his friend Smith). At the time medical doctors had little available material for the purpose, mostly a few hanged criminals, courtesy of the Crown. Lastly, and most importantly, he had a vision of setting an example, ideally leading others to do the same, getting some utility from their bodies.
He explained what he meant in his last essay, entitled “Auto-Icon; or, farther uses of the dead to the living” (you can read it here). He wrote that “[Just as] instruction has been given to make ‘every man his own broker,’ or ‘every man his own lawyer’: so now may every man be his own statue,” envisioning auto-icons being waterproofed and dispersed among trees on people’s estates, kept as decoration, or even used as “actors” in historical theater and debates. I guess it did not occur to him that the most natural and probably useful way to get some “utility” from our dead bodies is to let them naturally decay (e.g., inside biodegradable coffins), thus slowly rejoining the cosmic cycles.
Needless to say, Bentham’s vision did not take hold, and people are still buried in expensive coffins that actually postpone the natural recycling process, though an increasing number of people now opts for cremation. Of course, that wasn’t the only idea he put forth that did not pan out. His most famous contribution to philosophy, the first version of Utilitarianism, was so badly flawed that his follower and student John Stuart Mill immediately had to propose major modifications.
Bentham put forth as the “most fundamental” axiom of moral philosophy that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” This “greatest happiness principle” was to be cashed out by equating happiness with pleasure and unhappiness with pain:
“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.” (The Principles of Morals and Legislation, ch. 1, p. 1)
I guess I’ve got a good excuse not to go to the gym this morning, then. It’s painful, not pleasurable, to me… Bentham’s principle puts his philosophy squarely in the realm of psychological egoism, rarely endorsed by philosophers of any time or place, one of the few exceptions being Thomas Hobbes, of all people. (This is not to be confused with the so-called “rational” egoism of Ayn Rand, by the way.) The problem with Bentham’s version of Utilitarianism is that it inevitably leads to a sort of minimum common denominator of human actions. It defines, for instance, certain actions as immoral because they cause us pain, even though such actions (say, sacrificing us for the good of another) would appear to be moral under most other frameworks. Moreover, if pleasure is all there is to happiness, it is hard to see why we shouldn’t all hook ourselves up to a pleasure machine and be done with it.
These are the reasons that brought Mill to make his famous distinction between high and low pleasures:
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” (The Collected Works of John Sturart Mill, vol. 10, p. 212)
Of course things are much, much more complex than this, and interested readers will find an in-depth discussion of Mill’s version of Utilitarianism, and of his critique of Bentham, in this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
But it wasn’t as much the intricacies of Utilitarianism, or the differences between Bentham and Mill (or between them and modern Utilitarians like Peter Singer) that was on my mind while I was contemplating the auto-icon. After all, the work was part of a broader exhibition that (as the Met-Breuer description puts it) “explores narratives of sculpture in which artists have sought to replicate the literal, living presence of the human body.”
Rather, I took Jeremy and many of the other works exhibited on the two floors that hosted “Like Life” as a memento mori: artistic reminders of what Seneca called the ultimate test of our character, because, in reality, we die (a little) every day, and have our whole lives to prepare for the final exit. Too often, especially in the United States, we are in denial of the ultimate natural phenomenon that affects all the biological world. We don’t talk about death; we try to stay away from the corpses of people who died, even when they belonged to our loved ones; we speak of death by way of euphemisms, as in “he passed away”; and some among us even dream of immortality through likely impossible new technologies such as mind uploading (which, conveniently, are always a few decades away).
Looking at Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon I pondered why we are so scared of what is both natural and indeed necessary, if life is to continue. And, again, I was reminded of the words of Seneca:
“Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause.” (To Marcia, On Consolation, XIX)
What is left for us to do then? What another Stoic philosopher famously advised:
“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.” (Discourses I, 1.32)
So I did. After saying goodbye to Jeremy, my daughter, my partner, and my friend Skye went off to a nice lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant, enjoying once more good food and good company, the sort of thing that makes life worth living. Right now, though, it’s time to get to the gym…