What should we make of all this? Perhaps we should think of two quite different senses of the idea of happiness — one corresponding to the twentieth-century's notion and the other to the eighteenth's. In the twentieth-century version the pursuit of happiness oftentimes expresses a radically secular and hedonistic value. It suggests not a moral but an experiential basis for action. Indeed, pronouncements for happiness may even suggest the inaccessibility of any other bases of value. Hence, happiness denies transcendence and implies a more general nihilism.
The eighteenth century view was much different. To understand it we must have a feel for the richly theological atmosphere of the time. For example, though for us Newton's laws seem to require no particular involvement on the part of God — save perhaps setting up the system and starting it running — nevertheless to Newton and his contemporaries the Newtonian world system required God's constant attention (see Heimann, 1978). God was thought to provide the medium in which the laws of nature operated and only His constant attention kept things going.
So eighteenth-century thinkers saw happiness as a moral loadstone, something God had placed in man so that man would know God was good and know what God expected of man. This loadstone, then, did not imply hedonism or nihilism but a special and direct theism. If Bentham was not entirely forthright about his happiness concept's theological implications, we have nevertheless seen how thoroughly — even when he was attacking religion — a benevolent Deity was involved in his system.
Bentham avoided positive assertions about this God, but he shared in a utilitarian tradition in which this God played prominently. Moreover, he can be expected to have shared in other intellectual furniture of his time. Because Bentham did not make positive assertions of the sort the theological utilitarians did, he left a blank canvas where expressions of theism might have been made. On that blank canvas modern interpreters have imagined a meaning for "happiness" that is much closer to a twentieth than to an eighteenth-century conception. The lesson of this history may be that that utilitarianism in particular and social theory more generally were secularized in the eighteenth century not so much because Bentham and his school rejected God but rather because the theological tradition they were rooted in had produced a God who had become superfluous to social thought. A God fully committed to men's happiness might, after all, be safely disregarded for practical purposes. With the happiness loadstone in men's hearts — telling them always which road was right — man could henceforth study man himself to know God's will. There can be little doubt that Bentham bore no love for organized religion. One wonders, though, how Bentham might have viewed the prospect of his own Radically Benevolent God fading into oblivion.
Last modified 14 June 2007