The Pursuit of Pleasure: A Nietzschean Trope on Benthamist Ideals (Part the First)

As the nineteenth century dawned, a small number of influential British thinkers drew up some basic principles with which to address social problems of the time. Their work was based on the views of the epistemologist David Hume, who had argued that humans had a natural interest in utility. Notable at the outset of this new movement was the reformer Jeremy Bentham, who proposed an ethical doctrine that was a straightforward quantification of morality by referencing purely utilitarian outcomes. 

This radical moral theory was founded on the assumption that in order to evaluate the merit of human actions their consequences must first be examined. For Bentham, human happiness is simply the achievement of pleasure and avoidance of pain. He maintained that the hedonistic value of any such action is easy to calculate by evaluating three parameters: first, how intense might be the pleasure felt, secondly, how quickly it follows the said action as that is carried out, and thirdly, how likely it is to produce individual benefit as measured against collateral harm.

Now, Friedrich Nietzsche was not well disposed toward the English. His vision of life was strongly Dionysian, and one in which the singular spiritual aristocrat strives for supremacy in a world which has been gripped my mediocrity and the banausic. Nietzsche’s system of thought was needs be diametrically opposed to any other philosophical edifice that would extol the virtues of utilitarianism and egalitarianism. The dictum proffered by Bentham that society should seek to achieve the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” he saw as patently sentimental, nay plebeian and in the end manifestly unreal. His judgements were often harsh. Hence, those pragmatic, utilitarian views shared by so many English thinkers in the nineteenth century are dismissed by Nietzsche as ignoble and base, a kind of perverted worldview. His comment that “one has to be English to be capable of believing that human beings always seek their own advantage” reveals how he looks down on the indefatigable, inevitable English utilitarians with some derision because they evince neither any creative powers nor artistic conscience. 

It would be naïve to posit that Nietzsche was wrong and Bentham was right, or vice versa. The former thinker saw as his duty the stoical bearing of pain; the latter supposed we should consider the extent of pleasure.What we can safely say is that both maintained that the happiness of the community as a whole is merely the sum of individual human interests; the difference lies in whether this state of communal bliss is to be brought about by subjection to individual pain or the pursuit of pleasure per se. 

It took just a single generation before utilitarianism found another effective exponent in John Stuart Mill. Raised under strictly Benthamite principles, Mill devoted his entire life to defending and promoting the general welfare of society and became a powerful champion of quite lofty moral and social ideals. 

For Mill, utilitarianism was capable of being systemically bettered, and he offered several significant improvements to its structure, meaning, and application. Like Bentham, Mill contended general agreement could easily be reached as to how the consequences of human actions contribute to their moral value. He stated that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” Nietzsche, for his part, called him a “typischer Flachkopf” (a typical blockhead, lit. ‘flathead’).

. . . more anon