Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of the Hedgehog Review.
The Happiness Philosophers: The Lives and Works of the Great Utilitarians
by Bart Schultz
Princeton University Press, 456 pp., $39.95
The flaw that prevents Bart Schultz from succeeding in the central ambition of his book, to rehabilitate the reputation of the English utilitarians into something more warm and appealing, is his misapprehension of the cause of their low reputation now. He imagines the reason is that John Stuart Mill worked as a clerk for those racist imperialists at the East India Company, that Jeremy Bentham has gone down as the father of the surveillance state thanks to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, that Henry Sidgwick was known to be socially friendly with a race theorist—in other words, that they were insufficiently enlightened by modern liberal standards.
In fact, the English utilitarians were more modern in their opinions than any group of people between the Diggers and the SDS. Let other Victorians plead for leniency on grounds of being “men of their time.” The utilitarians took a 21st century line on nearly every issue, from divorce to gay rights to secularism. If compliance with modern sensitivities on race and gender determined reputations, the utilitarians would be the most popular philosophical school in the Anglo-American tradition. The reason the utilitarians are so unloved is not that they were socially unprogressive. It is that they were—in manners, in conduct, in personality—repulsive individuals.