Utilitarianism, Halloween, and Phantasm

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Benthem
Tall Man
The Tall Man

Halloween is coming, and that means it’s time to consider frightening things. And what over the past two centuries has been more horrific than the idea of utilitarianism? Because of it, parts of the Twentieth Century were as bloody as a John Carpenter movie. Thus, can be it be a mere coincidence that Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism resembles the Tall Man from the horror flick Phantasm? Stick with me here; it’s Friday, the day when regular rules of logic are relaxed.

In the Phantasm movies, the Tall Man’s mission, as far as anyone understands its bizarre plot, was to enslave the human race, to turn them into squat, mindless laborers, as dead as they were alive. Now, if that doesn’t sound like socialism—which requires for its existence the philosophy of utilitarianism—I don’t know what does.

There are many refutations of utilitarianism. As far as I know, its resemblance to a 1970’s horror film is entirely new. But this criticism is so novel, that I fear it will be misunderstood. So, here is a (crude, Friday-style) example of a well known objection.

Suppose you and I, and our compatriots, like the Tall Man, decide to make a certain beautiful woman our slave. “Slave” has to be defined: we can be somewhat loose here, but let’s say in the sense of a Roman household slave.

Now, Sally, our slave girl, won’t be happy about her new career trajectory, but she might gradually come to accept—never like, merely accept for the sake of mere survival—her role. But you, I, and our compatriots who have use of Sally’s services will be supremely happy by the turn of events. Oh, sure: some of us might have the occasional qualm, but these will pass in time as we are all convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Is our making Sally a slave wrong? Depends on what you mean by “wrong.” A utilitarian must look at the act and see how it plays out in terms of the happiness of “all” humans. All is a lot: does is mean all living humans, and all those to come, too? How many is that? Does it include infants, the senile, and Sean Penn? Just the people that know us or Sally, or will come into contact with us or Sally?

And just how do we measure the “happiness” of these people? Can we extract from a person their exact and current level of happiness, measure it without error or ambiguity, and also predict how it will evolve in the future? It doesn’t have to be “happiness” whose utility we seek to maximize. It might be “well being” or some other measure of satisfaction. Whatever it is, the problem of satisfactorily gauging it across “all” humans remains.

It is not entirely clear whether this is even logically possible (I say it is not). Clearly, it is not practically possible. However, socialist theory takes this as a premise. A strict Benthamite would say that it is possible to define “all” and “happiness” (or whatever) and to measure it, too. Perhaps not precisely, but well enough to input the figures into a hedonistic calculus, a formula the output of which will tell him the “right thing to do.”

Back to Sally. Her slave-girl status will make her unhappy, but our slave-owning rights will make us happy. How many of us will it take so that our happiness outweighs Sally’s sadness? Human sadness is not infinite; nor is human happiness. This means that there must come a point at which as we add bodies to the slave-holder list, the happiness of owners will sum to a number greater than Sally’s sadness. It probably won’t take too many slave holders, either.

It can be argued that Sally’s slave status will negatively affect the happiness of the non-owners, but that is beside the point. We can always fix up the scenario so that others do not know of Sally.

And we don’t have to settle for just one slave girl: we can work the calculus so that we have many. Especially when we consider that we, the slave owners, are more valuable to humanity than are the slaves; thus, our happiness or well-being counts for more. History reinforces this idea: have you ever met a socialist who did not feel that they were more equal than others?

Well, you get the idea. All sorts of evils can be committed in the name of utilitarianism, as long as you can make the numbers work out “proving” everybody will be better off.

That is why this Halloween, I will dressing up as Jeremy Bentham. To the trick-or-treators, instead of candy, I’ll be handing out copies of his The Influence of Natural Religion upon the Temporal Happiness of Mankind. And if anybody mistakes me for the Tall Man, I’ll set them straight with a lecture on the greatest happiness principle.


  1. anonymous

    As a long time reader of your blog, I am HAPPY to donate $200 for you to purchase a Kindle. The donation doesn’t begin to pay back for the enjoyment I receive from reading your blog. I hope that a Kindle would enhance your enjoyment of reading in general and that my donation would encourage your readers to donate towards your book fund.

    Sorry to be off topic.

  2. I dunno anon. Seems like your post is directly related. After all, your $200 has contributed to greater human happiness than if you had kept it, right? 😉

  3. Pat Moffitt

    “But to manipulate men, to propel them towards goals which you — the social reformers — see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.” Sir Isaiah Berlin Two Concepts of Liberty, 1958

  4. It’s probably only me, but I see an intriguing resemblance between “the Tall Man” and some fellow called “Al Gore”. Strange. But now I know who to dress up as next week-end. It will probably be unseasonably warm, then, btw.

    So Pat Moffitt, are you hinting Briggs is manipulating us? I see his plan worked on Anonymous already. And it looks like Nate’s on board with that, too.

  5. Pat Moffitt

    49erDweet says:
    “So Pat Moffitt, are you hinting Briggs is manipulating us? I see his plan worked on Anonymous already. And it looks like Nate’s on board with that, too.”

    Interesting point– Perhaps Briggs is a Wiccan and his post merely a diabolical spell to force “donations”. Conjuring the Tall Man should have been the give-away.

  6. Ken

    This blog entry is just the sort of stuff that a Liberal Arts education will inspire. Certainly entertaining, with a dollop of seriousness threaded thru like slick propaganda.

    What you fail to not is that the whole concept of utilitariansim (or pretty much any other philosophy of social consequence [real, implied, or blindly believed by mind-controlled cultists]) is a set of values & postulates genrally founded on ethereal blather no more substantial than mood, emotion and a certain cognitive inertia (laziness) masquerading as clever intellectualism.

    Let colleges & universities react to market forces dicated by what works — and the students/grads will be more likely to repulse the onslaught of philosophical utopistic twaddle to counterattack with real data — data that shows when such nonsense has been tried it has performed inferiorily, where it didn’t fail miserably.

    But by corrupting fresh young minds, skulls full of mush, to think like philospher politicians run amok by giving them Benthem’s work, you’re planting intellectual seeds that will lead to the future corruption of our future social order & political institutions. Before people realize the game that’s afoot we’ll all be speaking French with a Canadian accent, eh! Shame on you Briggs.

  7. Doug M

    I don’t like the slave girl analogy. While it is possible to derive a hedonic calculus that justifies anything, I have a tough time believing that many people would accept that your positive utility outweighs your slave’s negative utility, no matter how benevolent a slave master you may be.

    This one works better. If we sacrifice one virgin a year to the volcano and the volcano keeps us safe for another year, then the positive utility to the village outweighs the virgin’s negative experience. Hence, it is immoral for the virgin to refuse to jump into the volcano.

    James Kirk taught me that sometimes the needs of the few — or the one — outweigh the needs of the many.

  8. Doug M:

    That only works as long as the volcano sleeps. Once it wakes, though, there is chaos and second-guessing galore going on. What if this year’s virgin wasn’t? Who is responsible for fixing that dilemma? Or what if the volcano’s fee structure has changed? How do we determine that? All sorts of “what if’s” spring to mind. No, the volcano example is too ambiguous.

    Would use of the “slave” example appeal to you more if Sortition were used to select the slave? Or if the term were changed to “bond servant”?

  9. Doug M


    When doing business with volcanos, dragons, esoteric gods demanding blood sacrafice, foces of nature, etc., you must expect that they will renegote the terms of the contract without consulting all parties.

  10. Bernie

    Ask Thomas Jefferson. His slave Sally Hemings seems to fit your illustration perfectly. His behavior and his pursuit of escaped slaves suggests that the value of his happiness overwhelmed the value of his principles. — All men are created equal…

  11. GoneWithTheWind

    Bernie. Neither you nor I know what happened between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. In fact there is considerable evidence that Thomas Jeffersons Brother fathered Sally’s children. And in fact it is believed that Sally hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s wife’s half sister. I realize that doesn’t totally rule out the possibility the Thomas was fooling around with Sally but I can assure you that in my house it would sure as hell rule it out. Jefferson was known for being opposed to slavery in much the same way people today are opposed to abortion. It is believed Jefferson acquired some slaves to save them not to enslave them in much the same way people today help young women carry their child to birth and either give them up for adoption or mother them themselves as an alternative to abortion. On the other hand you could be right and Thomas was a fool in his personal life in much the same way Clinton was, but I do not KNOW that while on the other hand I KNOW what Thomas Jefferson (and the rest of our founding fathers and mothers) GAVE to us when they founded this geat country.

  12. Sander van der Wal

    The slave girl example shows the consequences of a philosophical theory. So what about the free slave trading market? Are free markets bad because you could (can?) sell and buy people, or something else that is objectionable, like nuclear weapons, according to an agreed price between seller and buyer? If you are willing to make an exception for free markets not allowing them to sell and buy people, or nuclear weapons, why not disallow owning people in utilitiarianism?

  13. Bernie

    Washington at his death freed his slaves, Jefferson did not. The debate over Sally Hemings and Jefferson is an ongoing debate with no obvious means of obtaining a definitive disposition as to the parentage of Sally Hemings numerous children.

    The reality is that Jefferson and many slaveholders used utilitarian logic to defend their slaveholding. On the other hand when you find yourself holding on to the tigers tail, a little utilitarian logic may be unavoidable and all that you have left.

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