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

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.

“One cannot,” says Bentham, “reason with fanatics armed with a natural right each one understands as he sees fit, and applies as it suits him.” But by his own admission, the utility principle is quite as susceptible to multiple interpretations and contradictory applications. Utility, he says, has often been misapplied. Taken in a narrow sense, it has lent its name to crimes. “But we must not cast back on the principle faults which are contrary to it and which it alone can put right.” Why should this apologia be relevant to utility and not to natural right?

The principle of utility has this further danger natural right does not, that it awakens in the human heart the hope of advantage rather than the feeling of duty. Now, the evaluation of an advantage is arbitrary: it is the imagination which settles it. But neither its errors nor its whims can change the idea of duty.

Actions cannot be more or less just; but they can be more or less useful. In hurting my fellow men, I violate their rights. This is an incontestable truth. But if I judge this violation only by its utility, I can get the calculation wrong, and find utility in the violation. The principle of utility is thus much vaguer than the principle of natural rights.

Far from adopting Bentham’s terminology, I should like as far as is possible to separate the idea of right from the notion of utility. This may be only a difference of wording; but it is more important than one might think.

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.

It is no doubt useful for the general transactions of men between themselves that numbers involve unalterable relationships. If we claimed, however, that these relationships exist only because it is useful that this should be so, there would be lots of opportunities for proving that it would be infinitely more useful if these relationships were manipulable. We would forget that their constant utility comes from their invariant character, and ceasing to be unalterable, they would cease to be useful. Thus utility, by having been too favorably treated on superficial grounds, and turned into a cause, rather than being left properly as an effect, would soon vanish totally. Morality and right are like that too. You destroy utility simply by placing it in the first rank. It is only when the rule has been demonstrated that it is good to bring out its utility.

About this Quotation:

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?

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