Bentham’s Fallacies, Then and Now

by Peter Singer

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He has been named one of the 100 most influential thinkers in the world by Time magazine.
MELBOURNE – In 1809, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, set to work on The Book of Fallacies. His goal was to expose the fallacious arguments used to block reforms like the abolition of “rotten boroughs” – electorates with so few electors that a powerful lord or landowner could effectively select the member of parliament, while newer cities like Manchester remained unrepresented.

Bentham collected examples of fallacies, often from parliamentary debates. By 1811, he had sorted them into nearly 50 different types, with titles like “Attack us, you attack Government,” the “No precedent argument,” and the “Good in theory, bad in practice” fallacy. (One thing on which both Immanuel Kant and Bentham agree is that this last example is a fallacy: If something is bad in practice, there must be a flaw in the theory.)

Bentham was thus a pioneer of an area of science that has made considerable progress in recent years. He would have relished the work of psychologists showing that we have a confirmation bias (we favor and remember information that supports, rather than contradicts, our beliefs); that we systematically overestimate the accuracy of our beliefs (the overconfidence effect); and that we have a propensity to respond to the plight of a single identifiable individual rather than a large number of people about whom we have only statistical information.

Bentham did not rush to publish his work. An abridged version appeared in French in 1816, and in English in 1824, but the complete work remained in manuscript form until its publication this year as part of an ongoing project, under the editorship of Philip Schofield of University College, London, to publish Bentham’s collected works.

Some of the fallacies Bentham identified still make frequent appearances, while others are less relevant. The “wisdom of our ancestors” fallacy has often been invoked in debates over same-sex marriage. Anyone familiar with political discussion in the United States will instantly recognize a more specific version that could be called the “wisdom of the Founding Fathers” fallacy.

Another fallacy popular both in Bentham’s day and in ours is what he characterized as “What? More jobs?” By “jobs,” he meant government spending, and he considered this a fallacy because blanket opposition to more government spending fails to take into account the good that the extra employees will be able to achieve.

The “fallacies” that really challenge the modern reader, however, are those that characterize arguments that today are widely accepted even in the most educated and enlightened circles. One of these, Bentham says, in a jarring juxtaposition, “may be termed Anarchy-preacher’s fallacy – or The Rights of Man fallacy.”

When people argue against a proposed measure on the grounds that it violates “the rights of man” – or, as we would say today, human rights – they are, Bentham claims, using vague generalities that distract us from assessing the measure’s utility. Bentham accepts that it may be to the advantage of the community that the law should confer certain rights on people. What threatens to bring us closer to anarchy, he argues, is the idea that I have certain rights already, independent of the law. Whereas the principle of utility calls for inquiry and argument, Bentham believes that those who advocate such pre-existing rights disdain both and are more likely to stir people up to use force.

Bentham’s objection to “natural rights” is often cited. Less frequently discussed is what he calls “the Posterity-chainer’s device.” One example is the Act of Union between England and Scotland, which requires all succeeding sovereigns of the United Kingdom to take an oath to maintain the Church of Scotland and the Church of England. If future generations feel themselves bound by such provisions, they are, Bentham thinks, enslaved by long-dead tyrants.

Bentham’s objection to such attempts to bind posterity applies not only to the union that created the UK, but also the one that formed the US: Why should the current generation consider itself bound by what was decided hundreds of years earlier? Unlike the framers of the US Constitution, we have had centuries of experience to judge whether it does or does not “promote the general welfare.”

If it does, we have all the reason we need to retain it; but if it does not, don’t we have as much power and as much right to change the arrangements under which we are governed as the framers had to prescribe them in the first place? If we do, why should provisions that make the constitution so difficult to amend bind a majority of the electorate?

In the case of the unification of two or more previously sovereign states, Bentham is sensitive to the problem of providing assurances to the smaller states that the larger ones will not dominate them. Given what he takes to be the impossibility of tying future generations’ hands, he places his trust in the belief that sooner or later, after having been under one government, “the two communities will have become melted into one.”

Public support for independence in Scotland and Catalonia shows that this is not always the case. Bentham, of course, would have accepted that he might be mistaken. After all, the “Authority-worshipper’s argument” was another of the fallacies he rejected.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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