Meeting Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham auto-icon

Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon, photo by the Author

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.

(You can hear the whole fascinating story as told to Nigel Warburton by Philip Schofield, Director of the Bentham Project, over at the Philosophy Sites podcast.)

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.”

Like Life

Another piece from the Like Life exhibit at the Met-Breuer, photo by the Author

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…

109 thoughts on “Meeting Jeremy Bentham

  1. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo Malagoli: This is something that Lynn Margulis said repeatedly. Dropping our anthropocentrism means coming to term with species death, not just individual death.


  2. Robin Herbert

    I just had a sleepless night with this jumble of ideas swirling around in my head, Bentham’s headless corpse being carted around the world, the good that came his ideas, Epicurus, atoms, Aristotle and machine metaphors, Laland’s book we were recently discussing.

    I am forming this wonderful idea about how ideas form, how absurdity and mockery can sometimes kill good ideas but can sometimes make them better by stripping them of the absurd parts or just the absurd language.

    In particular origin of life theories always struck me as absurd and improbable but when you recast them all without the agency metaphors that origin of life theorists always seem to use they start to sound quite reasonable.

    The creationists were right in their mockery, not about the various speculations and theories, but rather about the agency metaphors. Lose that language and start thinking in terms of chemical reactions that result in repetitions of patterns and they are much easier to understand.

    Not that any are necessarily right or even on the right track, but it seems important to be able to communicate the idea that it is not an impossible thing to happen (as I was almost beginning to think)

    The folks at the DI may have done some good despite themselves.

    No time to tidy this kernel of an idea at the moment, but it did seem to me a worthwhile take on how we co-operate to create culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Massimo Post author


    I don’t think specieism is nonsense, at all. And for reasons similar to Bentham’s. And as you know I’m not a utilitarian. I find any dismissal of the suffering of sentient animals to be callous and clearly immoral. And yes, I know perfectly well that I’m talking from an anthropocentric perspective. I’m an anthropos, where else could I talk from?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Daniel Kaufman

    Neither I nor Williams has argued for the dismissal of the suffering of sentient animals, but I’ll just leave it at this point, as we don’t seem to be communicating.


  5. Massimo Post author


    this is a blog devoted to discussion, you can leave it at whatever point you’d like, but it would be more instructive for everyone if you explained a bit more precisely what you (or Williams) are argung and why. A link to another source won’t do, we are in a living room havign a chat among friends, not in an academic setting.


  6. brodix


    That is a very informative link.

    It well illustrates life and emotion as a bottom up dynamic, while reason seeks to rationalize the top down forces constraining and defining it, from the ancients and their anthropomorphism, to the moderns and their desire to quantify everything.

    What are the Gods, but explanation for the unknown?

    We on the other hand, assume measurement is knowledge, so we seek the most elemental units.


  7. SocraticGadfly

    Physically, we’re nowhere close to people living to 200 at all, let alone a healthy 200. So far away I’d consider the question purely rhetorical. And, if that’s an attempt to start a sorites, no, at some point, Massimo can bring in the demarcation issue.


  8. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo: People can read the Williams paper and make up their own minds. I’m only willing to go around so many times in a forum like this. Arguments carry on for far too long, as far as I am concerned.


  9. Massimo Post author


    of course people can read the entire paper and make up their minds. But you, I, and others are here to facilitate learning, right? I mean, people can go and read Kevin Laland’s book on their own, without my summaries. And yet.

    And yes, I agree that arguments can go on forever, and that there is a diminishing return.But in this case I missed the argument entirely. I don’t recall you presenting the argument, only referring people to the paper. If that’s all you are willing to do that’s okay, of course.


  10. SocraticGadfly

    A few things could lessen the ennui of eternity. Hiking and traveling to new places. Photography while there. Books! And YouTube, for the vast classical music treasures, as well as a variety of world traditional classical music, modern world music and more.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Alan White

    I’m sorry to have laid ground for unfortunate remarks, and I join Massimo in recalling that I can have the highest esteem for a colleague and yet also have deep disagreements with her. I apologize to Dan and Massimo and others if I seem at all disrespectful.

    I used to have yelling-level arguments with a colleague over abortion (she ultraconservative, I pretty liberal). Then she lost a pregnancy mid-term, and we hugged and wept over it. I once said in a faculty meeting that I might disagree with her, but I would give her a kidney if she needed it. And I meant it.

    I think Williams’ argument is not at all antithetical in its point to anything I have said here. I’ve tried to show that his point about the source of ethics is a different one than about the theoretical structures of ethics. That’s all. The question of anthropocentricism can be expressed by means of either Williams’ concerns or that of how moral theory is framed, but all I wish to argue is that they are not necessarily the same concerns. Perhaps Dan might want to argue that Williams’ concerns are more primary than those of moral theory and commitments to intrinsic value. Even so, those concerns are conceptually distinct (seems to me).

    Liked by 1 person

  12. wtc48

    Socratic: “Could “viritual death” lessen fear of actual death? Read about halfway down this VERY interesting piece, which also has thoughts on implicit bias (Yes, I went there) and other things.

    I’m amazed that anyone could write an article like that without referring to any accounts of LSD experiences. When I read the following, I felt that that subject was near at hand:

    “It might be that the spiritual endeavor for liberation or detachment can lead to new illusions.”

    Perhaps that’s all buried so far in the past that it no longer relates to people’s actual experience. Nevertheless, people have been attempting to unpack everyday experience for a long time, in search of new clues or insights. I think it was Gurdjieff who made the cryptic comment after a session with nitrous oxide: “Think in other categories!”

    On fear of death, I remember my first experience of it at age seven, but it wasn’t the thought of my own death that suddenly brought me to a sense of panic and horror, but the realization that my parents and grandparents, being so much older, would undoubtedly die before me.


  13. Robin Herbert

    If you think about it, it is very species to care about the suffering of other animals.

    Who are we to say that the callous indifference of the leopard or the house cat is not the morally superior attitude?


  14. milesmutka

    I don’t know much about Bentham or his work, but the process of auto-iconization could probably be considered a form of performance art today. There are of course others in history who have attempted something similar, like monks who have purposely fasted and meditated themselves into preserved mummies.

    The modern way to do it would not involve wax, but instead one word: plastination. The body world exhibitions do not have famous people as far as I know, or display the names of the persons who donated themselves, but we are to believe that they all volunteered to be on display with some of their parts dissolved. [Of course the process works better the shorter the time between death and plastination, as explained in the movie Anatomie (2000).]

    Even plastination may become obsolete with future technology. There are already VR apps where you can walk around inside your own MRI/CT scans.


  15. brodix


    Looking out on the world today, how much are we all Sisyphus?

    “This time is different!”

    Yes, it gets more complex and we take different routes, but do we ever really reach the top of the mountain? Does it even exist, or are we on a treadmill?

    We do live on a ball.

    As I keep arguing, I think our linear assumptions about life need further examination.


  16. Massimo Post author


    “Who are we to say that the callous indifference of the leopard or the house cat is not the morally superior attitude?”

    We are the only ones that can possibly make that determination. An to apply moral reasoning to leopards and house cats, or even calling their behavior “callous indifference,” is a clear category mistake.


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