Benjamin Constant on the difference between rights and utility (1815)

Benjamin Constant

The French-Swiss political theorist Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) thought Jeremy Bentham confused cause and effect when he rejected the idea of natural rights:

Right is a principle; utility is only a result. Right is a cause; utility is only an effect. To wish to make right subject to utility is like making the eternal laws of arithmetic subject to our everyday interests.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the leading theorist of the philosophy of utilitarianism, was notorious for denouncing the idea of natural rights as expressed in the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” (1791) as so many fallacies that would inevitably lead to “anarchy” (hence the title of his book “Anarchical Fallacies” written in 1796) and was thus a kind of “terrorist language” which had to be refuted before too much harm could be done to society. His famous sentence was that “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense,—nonsense upon stilts.“ [As an amusing aside, the original title of his manuscript was Pestulence Unmasked, which has certain similarities to Edmund Burke’s denunciation of the French Revolution as a kind of disease or “cannibal terror” which was threatening Europe. When he submitted it for publication in 1801 Bentham had changed the name to the very amusing one of “No French Nonsense: Or A Cross Buttock for the First Declaration of Rights together with a kick of the A— for the Second … by a practitioner of the old English Art of Self Defence.“] However, as the more sedate Constant calmly argued in this chapter, rights were not some arbitrary demand plucked at random out of the air but were grounded in reason and rational argument; and furthermore, that Bentham’s own preferred standard of judgement, i.e. utility, was itself subject to the same criticism, that different people valued a thing’s “utility” differently and subjectively. Thus the real political problem then becomes, whose assessment of utility is the one that counts?