Shiny Happy People

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.

Take William Godwin. It was quite an achievement, in an age before celebrity journalism, to gain such a national reputation for being a total prat. In a way, his repulsiveness saved his life. William Pitt did not deal lightly with atheist anarchists in the days of the French Revolution, and Godwin might well have been sent to Botany Bay on a treason charge like the Scottish Martyrs of 1794 if the authorities had not decided that he was too absurd and off-putting to be a threat. His Political Justice was incendiary, but also long and difficult. Godwin condemned kings, but he also condemned family affection, written laws, and most absurdly, the theatre, which he considered inauthentic because actors did not write their own lines. Other radicals were denounced in the patriotic press; Godwin was more often lampooned.

Godwin’s fame added a darker dimension with the publication in 1798 of Memoirs of the Author of ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, for even his friends condemned him for writing so indiscreetly about Mary Wollstonecraft. Ordinary decency would have drawn a veil over his late wife’s pathetic pursuit of Henry Fuseli, a married man, her even more pathetic pursuit of the cad Gilbert Imlay, and her multiple suicide attempts. Tactlessness aside, his portrait of their relationship made him look like a monster. He and Mary lived separately, and he was rarely seen in her home before dinnertime. They communicated by letter. (These notes survive. One of Mary’s asks, “Did I not see you, friend Godwin, at the theatre last night? I thought I met a smile, but you went out without looking round.”) This does not sound like a man in love. It barely sounds human.

Godwin, a vain man, was wounded by being made an object of derision. One particularly vicious attack singled out for mockery Godwin’s precept that it is irrational and unjustifiable for mothers to show any partiality to their own children. In his response, Godwin refused to retract his principle but referred readers to his own conduct:

Am I a man likely to be inattentive to the feelings, the pleasures, or the interests of those about me? Do I dwell in that sublime and impassive sphere of philosophy, that should teach me to look down with contempt on the little individual concerns of the meanest creature I behold? To come immediately to the point in question, am I, or am I not, a lover of children? My own domestic scene is planned and conducted solely with a view to the improvement and gratification of children. Does my character, as a father, merit reprehensions?

Schultz lets this stand with no comment, but, Mr. Godwin, since you asked—the answer is yes.

Feminist scholars can recite Godwin’s paternal failings chapter and verse, thanks to his daughter’s fame. Upon his remarriage in 1801, he abandoned little Fanny and Mary to the care of a proverbially wicked stepmother. When Mary’s desperate longing for affection found its inevitable outlet in an ill-considered romance with the married Percy Shelley, Godwin forgot all his radical views and made a stand on the sanctity of Shelley’s marriage vow. He cut off all contact with Mary and berated Fanny as her accomplice. After two years of continual abuse, Fanny committed suicide. When Shelley’s first wife drowned herself, the lovers regularized their bond and Godwin renewed contact—and straightaway began a decades-long habit of hounding Shelley for money.

It is Godwin’s misfortune that his daughter’s friends led such well-documented lives. If the Romantics had been less keen on preserving their relics, we might not possess the letter Shelley wrote Godwin from Italy telling him that Mary was depressed about their three-year-old son’s death and urging Godwin “to try to soothe her in his next letter.” Nor would we possess Godwin’s next letter to Mary, which is the opposite of soothing. “Though at first your nearest connections may pity you in this state, yet that when they see you fixed in selfishness and ill humour, and regardless of the happiness of everyone else, they will finally cease to love you, and scarcely learn to endure you.” He then calls Shelley “a disgraceful and flagrant person” and asks for more money.

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At least Godwin had one great love affair, which gives Schultz something to work with. Jeremy Bentham and Henry Sidgwick give him nothing at all. Bentham was married to his work, and apart from a couple of mild flirtations that Schultz unearths he showed no inclination to romance, or even friendship. He had acolytes, not friends, and his affection for them fluctuated in proportion to their belief in his infallible genius. He has come down to us as a benign crackpot, but closer examination reveals a dark streak of bitterness and resentment. He was savage with his enemies (Burke was a “madman” and a “caster of verbal filth”), and any government official who did not leap to enact his plans he excoriated as self-seeking and corrupt. What other reason could they have not to yield to his arguments?

As for Sidgwick, his biography is even thinner. He had a marriage that he failed to consummate, homosexual longings that he failed to act on, and a mild interest in the paranormal that never quite led him to make a fool of himself. His life’s work was an ethics textbook. Even his one great heroic moment was a damp squib. After a very Victorian struggle with his conscience, Sidgwick concluded in 1869 that he no longer believed in the Thirty-Nine Articles and so had to resign his university fellowship. Cambridge promptly appointed him to a lectureship with no religious qualification. Parliament abolished the religious test for fellowships two years later. Hardly the stuff of martyrdom.

If any chapter of Schultz’s book were going to succeed, it would be the one on John Stuart Mill. Thanks to his Autobiography, Mill is already the most human and three-dimensional of the utilitarians, so it should have been short work for Schultz to make him the most likeable. Alas, he founders on the problem that faces anyone who considers Mill the man: his wife, Harriet Taylor.

Mill and Harriet had a grand amour, grander even than Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s. They fell in love at first sight in 1830, when Harriet was married to another man, and carried on a passionate affair for 21 years until her husband’s death allowed them to wed. Tragically their marriage ended after only seven years with Harriet’s death in 1858. Mill’s grief was extreme. “I do not speak from feeling but from long standing and sober conviction,” he assured the French socialist Louis Blanc, “in saying that when she died this country lost the greatest mind it contained.” Even before her death, he had insisted to all of his admirers that she was the genius of the pair, and he merely her amanuensis.

There are only two possibilities here. Either Harriet was truly a remarkable woman, or Mill was a fool. His obsession with her exceeded all normal limits, even by the standards of Victorian sentimentality, and even allowing for the fact that Mill hardly knew affection, or met a woman, before the age of twenty. He cut all ties with anyone Harriet disliked, including his own family. (The shock of being cut off for such slight cause drove his youngest brother George to suicide.) He gave up socializing and lived as a recluse while Harriet was alive, apparently needing no other human contact in his life. If Harriet was as perfect as Mill said, then this was a great love story. If not, it was pathological.

Schultz fails to give the reader any idea of what Harriet was like and so leaves the reader stranded in this puzzle. To be fair, we do not have very many sources that describe Harriet’s qualities, since so few of Mill’s friends ever met her. Thomas and Jane Carlyle did. They did not like her. Jane called her

a peculiarly affected and empty body. She was not easy unless she startled you with unexpected sayings. If she was going to utter something kind and affectionate, she spoke in a hard, stern voice. If she wanted to be alarming or uncivil, she employed the most honeyed and affectionate tones. ‘Come down to see us,’ she said one day, ‘you will be charmed with our house, it is so full of rats.’ ‘Rats!’ cried Carlyle, ‘Do you regard them as an attraction?’ ‘Yes,’ (piano), ‘they are such dear, innocent creatures.’

In company she seems to have been pretentious, conceited, and flippant. She was quick to form grudges and assiduous in nursing them. What really makes her poor casting for a grand romance is that she was no better behaved with Mill. He is constantly telling her what a genius she is; she never tells him the same. She threw tantrums at the slightest provocation, knowing that Mill would indulge her. Mill insisted that Harriet had the better intellect, but philosophical topics are virtually absent from her letters. Instead they are full of spiteful remarks about her relatives and long, self-pitying catalogues of her physical ailments.

Schultz’s introduction defines utilitarianism as the philosophy of “the global maximization of positive well-being,” but he writes as if it were mostly about the maximization of sex. John and Harriet were noble because they had more sex than society wanted them to. Naturally Harriet’s first husband John Taylor hardly gets a mention in Schultz’s version of the story, and when he does it is buried in a footnote praising the fact that “he did, despite some stock prejudices, somehow work his way around to largely accommodating Harriet’s unusual requests.” They were more demands than requests, and they included things like buying Harriet and Mill their own private love nest. By denigrating Taylor’s reluctance to underwrite his own cuckolding as “stock prejudices,” Schultz endorses the adulterous lovers’ blithe indifference to the suffering their affair caused other people. A fair enough position to take, if you believe passion trumps all, but not, by the humanitarian-sounding definition Schultz professes to believe in, very utilitarian.