Bentham VII--Fragment V
Prof. Bill Long 9/29/05
Exploding the Social Contract
From par. 36-48 Be both exposes the weakness of social contract theory (most famously identified with Locke) and then gives us an alternative theory about how societies ought to be held together. This may have been the theory that made Simon Bolivar and others try to banish Be's thought from South America, because it suggests that we are held together in a society not because of some primitive social compact where we all "hang together," but only by a perception of our own interests. If, at any time, people become of the mind that the powers that be and the current social arrangements are not working to their benefit, they are free to revolt. Or, to put it in Benthamite language, people "should obey in short so long as the probable mischiefs of obedience are less than the probable mischiefs of resistance....it is their duty to obey, just as long as it is their interest, and no longer" (par. 43). Pretty radical stuff, huh? Well, let's see how he develops his case.
The Social Contract
First, a word about par. 31-35. He adverts back to B, to the passage quoted from 47-48, and focuses on B's words about the ancient preservation of mankind being "effected by single families" (par. 31). What B is referring to in this passage is the Book of Genesis, and he take "divine revelation" as his guide for understanding the growth of society. Be just can't follow B's reasoning, and says that "it is time this passage of our Author be dismissed" (par. 33), but it does illustrate B's style. From a distance, "nothing can look fairer: a prettier piece of tinsel-work one shall seldom see exhibited from the shew-glass of political erudition." But what happens when you examine B closely? "Step close to it, and the delusion vanishes. It is then seen to consist partly of self-evident observations, and partly of contradictions" (par. 33).
Having discarded the Scriptural account, as told by B, Be now moves to the mysterious, powerful and highly popular belief in the social contract. This was the great theory expounded by Locke in the 17th century, and B rested his whole theory of the ordered nature of British society on the existence and authority of this earlier "Original Contract." Even though Be says that this theory is "by turns embraced and ridiculed by our Author" (par. 36), he thinks that B's belief in this purported contract lies behind the obsessive deference to the status quo in B.
Be points out that this belief in the "Original Contract," which he refers to as a "chimera," has been "effectually demolished" by David Hume in more recent days. "The indestructible prerogatives of mankind [which he sees B supporting] have no need to be supported upon the sandy foundation of a fiction" (par. 36). FN. 52 is worth an entire essay in itself, but not by me, at least now. It tells of how Bentham himself was "converted" from a belief in the Original Contract to his current belief in utility by reading Hume and Helvetius.
What the Social Contract Meant to People
Before laying out his theory of the utility of law, he takes the occasion to describe how a belief in this "Original Contract" affected the way that rulers saw their relationship to their subjects. The character of this "fiction" was as follows: "That compacts, by whomsoever entered into, ought to be kept; that men are bound by compacts, are propositions which men, without knowing or enquiring why, were disposed universally to accede to" (par. 38). Duties were incumbent on each party to the contract. "Men are bound by compacts," was one rule. The other was, "That if one party performs not his part, the other is released from his" (par. 38). The people promised to the King a general obedience and the King, on his part, promised to govern the people as "should be subservient to their happiness" (par. 39). Be recognizes he isn't being technical in his langauge here: "I undertake only for the sense" (Id.). Thus, because of a belief in a social compact or "Original Contract," the focus was to be more on the nature of promises made than on the "delicate question, when it was that a King acted so far in opposition to the happiness of his people, that it were better no longer to obey him" (par. 39).
Law got into the act but actually confused matters (par. 41) by suggesting that "the most feasible method of governing in opposition to the happiness of the people is, by setting the Law itself in opposition to their happiness." That is, once people had made promises to obey, the law came in to give substance to those promises, and the law, in general, taught people that they needed to adhere to their promises to obey the rulers that be. In this way the whole emphasis on the happiness of the people was lost. So, in an interesting way, Be is trying both to overthrow the notion of an Original Contract while, at the same time, suggesting that such a Contract included the idea of people's happiness as the touchstone of proper rule.
This discussion then allows B to move to his truly creative work in this section, par. 42-48. He asks the question, "but after all, for what reason is it, that men ought to keep their promises?" (par. 42). He will respond that people only owe a duty to obey just so long as it is in their interest to do so (par. 43). When is this? Well, it is detemrined in the same manner "that all other questions of fact are to be decided, by testimony, observation, and experience" (par. 42). But, someone may say, 'people made a promise to obey the King, and it is incumbent on us to be faithful to that promise.' Be would respond that the circumstances, rather than the promise itself is the cause of the obligation to obey. In other words, Be is setting the stage for some pretty radical notions here. We can see it in Law and Economics, which would argue that there really ought to be no moral obloquy attached to breaking a promise; it simply is a matter of cold calcuation. Does the observance of your promise cost you more than the breach of it? If so, then break it.
The same kind of thinking actuates Be. A promise has been made to be sure, but note that it was made by our ancestors and not by us. Thus, for this reason alone, we are not bound by it. But, even if we made a promise to obey, we are not bound by it or, better said, we are bound by it as long as the circumstances remain that would lead us to want to continue to obey it. And, what are those circumstances? That our interests are still being protected in the same manner as we thought they were being protected when we originally "signed on" to the contract. A duty of obedience therefore cannot be predicated merely on the fact of "the intrinsic obligation of a promise" (par. 47).
He concludes with a typical Be flourish:
"Now this other principle that still recurs upon us, what other can it be than the principle of UTILITY? The principle which furnishes us with that reason, which alone depends not upon any higher reason, but which is itself the sole and all-sufficient reason for every point of practice whatsoever."
Thus speaketh Jeremy.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long