The Nachlass of A.N. Prior
a joint project between
Department of Information Studies - University of Copenhagen
and
Department of Communication and Psychology - Aalborg University

Bentham and Coleridge

By Arthur N. Prior on NA/NA/1952

This text has been transcribed by Simon Herbert and edited by Simon Herbert, Adriane Rini and Max Cresswell.

Download the PDF of this item
Please note that this text is extracted from the PDF, and is as such most likely not styled properly.
1


BENTHAM AND COLERIDGE
1

This series of lunch
-
a primarily historical framework. The people we are thinking about are held together by
having lived in a particular place, England, at a particular time, between 181
5 and 1851, and
by all [the] connexions that are consequent on this spatio
-
temporal one. But I must warn you
of something which you already know, namely that I am not myself a historian, or not
primarily that; and I would only make a fool of myself if I pr
etended to be one. I am a
philosopher, and that means that what
I

chiefly see in Bentham and Coleridge is not a pair of
people who adorned a scene twelve thousand miles away a hundred and forty years ago, but
people who
could

be right here with us now, and

as I introduce some of their opinions to you
I shall from to time pause to argue the toss with them just as if they
were

right here with us
now. And perhaps in this way I can indirectly serve the historian’s purposes too, for if I can
help you to see what

it would be like to have them here with us, that may indirectly help you
to see what it would be like to be back there with them, and participating in the controversies
which
they

stirred up.


I shall be summoning Bentham before us in person, that is quot
ing from him, rather
more often than Coleridge; one reason for this being that Bentham could write good English
while Coleridge could not. Well, I suppose that should be qualified a bit


I understand that
Coleridge has a considerable reputation as a write
r of verse; and he has the poet’s gift for
coining the odd st[r]i
c
king phrase, but what he can’t do is sustained, lively, readable
philosophic prose


and

it’s rather, with him, a case of gems shining through the ooze.


Jeremy Bentham was born in 1748 and

died in 1832, so that it is only the last part of
his long life that falls strictly speaking within our period. There is, however, a singular
continuity in Bentham’s history


it was simply a matter of this man steadily emerging as the
centre of an increa
singly influential school; and this extension of his influence continued, as
Professor Phillips told us last time, still more spectacularly after his death. I need therefore
make little excuse for concentrat
ed
[ing] on two works of his that appeared in the
1770’s and
the 1780’s; for these works already contain that essential Benthamism that was one of the
major intellectual influences in our period.


The first of these two works is his
Fragment on Government
, an attack on Sir William
Blackstone’s
Commentari
es on the Laws of England
. In the introduction he draws our
attention to an elementary distinction which he thinks Blackstone neglected. He says, ‘There
are two characters, one or other of which every man who finds any thing to say on the subject
of Law, m
ay be said to take upon him;


that of the
Expositor
, and that of the
Censor
. To the
province of the
Expositor

it belongs to us to explain to us what he supposes the Law
is
: to



1


Editors Note: This text has been transc
ribed by Simon Herbert and edit
ed by Simon Herbert, Adriane
Rini and Max Cresswell
. The text is kept in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Box 6. The page numbers in the
original text have been put in curly brackets. All underlinings are Prior’s. Prior’s handwritten editing of the text
is indicated in two ways. Prior’s deletions have been sh
own with strikethrough, and his additions in square
brackets. Editorial comments, mainly indicating Prior’s typographical errors, have been signalled with angle
brackets.

2


that of the
Censor
, to observe to us what he thinks it
ought to be
.’ Well, that

seems a simple
and obvious distinction, and it applies not only to the study of Law. Not only with respect to
laws, but with respect to any other human and social phenomenon, it is one thing to describe
the thing as it actually
is
, and a different thing t
o venture an opinion as to how it
ought to be.

In fact the cl
ass
[ear] recognition of this distinction seems to me the hallmark of a civilised
and liberal moral and political philosophy. A distinction is not, of course, a necessary
opposition, and I wouldn’
t say, and Bentham didn’t say, that things never are as they ought to
be. But the question as to how things are, and the question as to how they ought to be, are two
different questions


that’s

the important point. And it’s not only an important point but

surely also a very simple one, so simple that you wouldn’t think anyone would ever be blind
to it. But writers on law and politics have in fact a set of words and phrases which you’d
almost think were expressly designed to gl
e
[o]ze

sic


over this distinc
tion. And not only
writers on Law and Politics


even our own nannies or whatever domestic mentors we have
are armed with a stock of such words and phrases. For example, that magic phrase “It isn’t
done.” You’re {2}contemplating some action and you’re told

‘it isn’t done’


what does this
mean? Does it mean that nice people don’t do it and therefore you shouldn’t do it, or that
nobody does it and therefore you won’t do it? This is something we’re never told, and that’s
part of the phrase’s efficacy


if our

moral sense isn’t very strong, sheer fatalism will
paralyse us


we’re just
not going

to do it, so it’s no use. I remember something that
happened to me in this College only a month or two ago, during the Easter break



the
Library door was open, so I wandered in to have a look at the periodicals until some harpy
came up to me and said ‘We’re not open.’ What an extraordinary thing to say


how did she
think I had got in? But of course the charm worked as it always does,
and I went out the way
I had come in, through the not
-
open door.


Well, Bentham, at least in 1776, had a distaste for this method of reconciling people
to the decisions and proceedings of the powers that be, and that was one of his prime quarrels
with Bla
ckstone. He selects, for example,
Use

[the] following passage:
-

‘A state’, says
Blackstone, ‘is a collective body, composed of a multitude of individuals united for their
safety and convenience, and intending to act together as one man
. If it

therefore is
to act as
one man, it ought to act by one uniform will. But in as much as political communities are
made up of many natural persons, each of whom has his particular will and inclination, these
several wills cannot by any
natural

union be joined together, o
r tempered and disposed into a
lasting harmony, so as to constitute and produce that one uniform will of the whole. It can
therefore be no otherwise produced than by a
political

union; by the consent of all persons to
submit their own private wills to the
will of one man, or of one or more assemblies of men, to
whom the supreme authority is entrusted: and this will of that one man or assemblage of men
is, in different states, according to their different constitutions, understood to be Law.’


Bentham commen
ts on this passage as follows:
-

‘Suppose,’ he says, that the people,
no matter on what occasion, begin to murmur, and concert measures of resistance.
H
[N]ow
then is the time for the latent virtues of this passage to be brought to light. The book is to be
o
pened to them, and in this passage they are to be shown. . . . . . . . a set of arguments
curiously strung together and wrapped up in proof of the universal expedience or rather
3


necessity
, of

submission. . . . . Armed, and full of indignation, our malconte
nts are making
their way to the royal palace. In vain. A certain
estoppel

being made to bolt out upon them in
the manner we have seen by the force of our Author’s legal engineering, their arms are to fall,
as it were by enchantment from their hands. To dis
agree, to clamour, to oppose, to take back,
in short, their wills again, is now, they are told, too late: it is what
cannot

be done: their wills
have been put in
hotchpot

along with the rest: they
have

“united”,


they
have

“consented”,


they
have

“submit
ted”.


Our Author having thus
put his
b
[h]ook by their nose
, they are to go
back as they came, and all is peace. An ingenious contrivance this enough: but popular
passion is not to be fooled, I doubt, so easily. Now and then, it is true, one error may be
driven out for a time by an opposite error: one piece of nonsense by another piece of
nonsense: but for barring the door effectually and for ever against all error and all nonsense,
there is nothing like the simple truth.’


That last bit is no doubt over o
ptimistic; in fact Bentham himself might be charged at
this point with conf
irm
[us]ing what is with what ought to be


men
ought to be

more
impressed by ‘the simple truth’ than by error and nonsense, but it is by no means certain that
they
are

so influenced
. And had he been less optimistic at this point, be

sic.


might have
found himself faced with a rather teasing problem. For Bentham was a Utilitarian; to use
the

[his own] language[,]
we have just quoted from him,

he believed that we ought always to do
wh
atever will result in the least mischief; and since men are in fact less rational creatures than
he took them for, it may well be that less mischief might be done by filling them with
uplifting Blackstonian nonsense than by publicising the simple Benthamit
e truth. For a
realistic Utilitarian it is a genuine and serious problem {3} whether Utilitarianism ought to be
widely propagated


you might spread more happiness, and prevent more pain, by letting the
majority of men go on erroneously thinking that they
have other duties beside the spreading
of happiness and the avoidance of pain, and even by letting them remain in the more
thoroughly muddled state in which they do not distinguish between what they ought to do and
what they can’t help doing. The fact is,
I think, that Bentham had a higher regard for truth,
and a keener concern for the propagation of truth and the exposure of what he considered
nonsense, than his own theory warranted; and this was characteristic of the Utilitarians
generally. For my own par
t, I think Bentham’s exposure of Blackstone’s particular kind of
nonsense was admirable; but then I’m not a Utilitarian.



I want to turn now to the other book of Bentham’s that I want to discuss, his
Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislatio
n.

This came out privately in 1780 and
publicly in 1789, and it is a work in which Bentham develops his Utilitarian creed in a direct
and positive way, not just in the course of criticising someone else. I’ll read you the first
paragraph


its rather famou
s. ‘Nature’, he says, ‘has placed mankind under the governance
of two sovereign masters,
pain

and
pleasure
. It is for them alone to point out what we ought
to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and
wrong, on

the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern
us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our
subjection, will but serve to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pr
etend to
abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The
principle of
4


utility

recognises this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object
of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which
attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of senses, in caprice inste
ad of reason, in
darkness instead of light.’


Well
! What’s happened to the distinction between is and ought now? For Bentham
now says, almost in as many words, that what we ought to do and what we cannot but do are
one and the same thing or pair of things


seek pleasure and avoid pain. I ought to say that
after the paragraph I’ve just read you he adds the rather shamefaced sentence: ‘But enough of
metaphor and declamation: it is not by such means that moral science is to be improved’. But
of course you
can
’t

just commit a purple patch and disown it like that. ‘Can’t’ in the sense of
‘oughtn’t to’, anyway. However, Bentham’s inconsistency at this point doesn’t go very deep.
For the pleasure and pain which he considers the standard of right and wrong are the
pleasure
and pain, as he puts it, of everyone whose interest is in question, whereas the pleasure and
pain which determined what we will in fact do is
our own

pleasure and pain. And the
legislator’s primary duty is so to arrange things that publicly useful

actions will pay the
individual who does them, and publicly mischievous ones will not.


There’s one other point, though, at which Bentham does seem cut the ground from
under his own feet. The point I’m going to mention has been commented on by many recent

writers, but it seems to have only just noticed by Professor Rees of Swansea, that it was also
made by Macaulay. Bentham, as we have seen, is pretty emphatic on the
duty

of so acting as
to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. Of this principle of utility,

as he calls it


the
principle of doing that thing which will be most useful all round


of this principle he says
‘Other principles in abundance, that is, other motives, may be the reasons why such and such
an act
has

been done: that is, the reasons or c
ourses of its being done: but it is this alone (that
is utility) that can be the reason why it
ought

to have been done’. But then he says, and says
more than once, that words like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have no
meaning

except in terms of
utility


‘right’
mea
ns

‘conducive to the general happiness’, or it means nothing at all. But if
that is what ‘right’ means, then it
does

mean nothing at all, or at all events nothing of any
moral significance, to say that it is right to do what is {4} conducive to the general

happiness.
For if ‘right’
means

‘conducive to the general happiness’ then ‘It is right to do what conduces
to the general hapiness’
means

‘It is conducive to the general happiness to do what is
conducive to the general happiness’, and while that’s true en
ough, it’s hardly worth writing
home about.


Something seems to have got gummed up here, and I think the way it happened was
this: Bentham was in fact a person of very strong moral convictions. He was aware of legal
anomalies and abuses which were causing
unnecessary unhappiness, and he was out to
remove the unhappiness by various schemes of reform. He naturally encountered opposition,
but the most vocal of his opponents were not men who exhibited a cynical indifference to
moral considerations, but men who
at least
professed

to be opposing Utilitarianism on moral
grounds. That is
[
,
]

Bentham found himself involved in one of the most tricky kinds of
conflict, a conflict of opposing moralities. And he did exactly what one might have expected
5


an impatient man to

do


he took what seemed an easy way out of this conflict by denying
that the opposing morality
was

a morality at all. And
that

trick was a fatal one. For a realistic
morality is bound to recognise not only, as Bentham saw, that what is and what ought to
be
may be different, but also that there may be genuine differences of opinion as to what ought
to be. And any linguistic trick which makes such differences of moral opinion impossible


such as the trick of defining ‘right action’ as the thing that your o
wn moral code enjoins


will automatically also have the effect of emptying your own morality of all its content. You
take all the kick out of your own morality if you try and make it appear that it cannot have
any real opponent to kick against.


That is
not a criticism of Utilitarianism as such, but only of Bentham’s form of it, and
it would be quite easy to be a Utilitarian without digging this particular pit for oneself. For
you could hold that our duty is to maximise pleasure and minimise pain, and say

frankly that
this is
not

a theory about what the word ‘duty’
means

but a theory about what our duty
is
, so
that another person who
means

by ‘duty’ exactly what we mean by it could honestly differ
from us as to what
is

our duty. That was the form which Uti
litarianism took much later in the
century in Henry Sidgwick’s
Methods of Ethics,

which I am inclined to think the best book
on Ethics that has ever been written. I am also inclined to think, though, that there is another
objection which is fatal even to S
idgwick’s version of Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the
theory that that action is the right one which, out of all the acts open to us, will produce the
greatest
total

balance of pleasure over pain. Now either we have free will or we have not. If
we hav
e no free will, then no act is ever open to us except the one we actually perform, so
that there can be no comparing of the total results of one possible act with those of another
possible act, and the Utilitarian test of rightness simply doesn’t apply. If

we
have

free will,
we may presume that other people have free will also, so that the chain of consequences
flowing from any possible act that we might do sooner or later gets fuzzy because of
interaction with the as yet unfixed choices of other people, so

that when it comes to compaing
the
total

consequences of different causes of action, there just aren’t any definite totals to
compare. Or to put it another way, no total course of events can be described as
the

result of
[our] acting in such and such a wa
y, since however
we

choose to act, the total course of
events can still be varied by the way
others

choose to act. So either way our duty
cannot

consist in that act which has the pleasantest total consequences out of a group of acts open to
us. For either
there’s no group but only one act open to us, or no possible act has anything
that can be called
its

total consequences. And this argument disposes not only of
Utilitarianism but of
any
account of our duty which makes it depend on a comparison of total
con
sequences.


Now thats a criticism that was made last year by a philosopher still living, and so far
as I know none of Bentham’s own contemporaries hit upon anything so devastating. But to
those contemporaries, all the same, we had better now turn, and I ha
ve been asked to speak,
in particular, about Samuel Taylor Coleridge. {5}


The first and most important fact about the relation between Coleridge and Bentham
is that Coleridge hardly ever mentions Bentham. When he has occasion to discuss
6


Utilitarianism, o
r moral scepticism, he refers far more frequently to a different person
altogether, the theologian
William Paley
. Paley believed that the whole universe was
governed by a beneficent divine legislator of the Bent[h]amite persuasion, and that because of
this

we must each promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number
or else



Paley’s
main positions are worth hearing in his own words. “We can be obliged to nothing,” he says,
“but what we ourselves are to gain or lose something by.” And if you ask
us

why we are
obliged to keep our word, he answers that it is because we are ‘urged to do so by . . . the
expectation of being after this life rewarded, if I do, or punished for it, if I do not.’ “This
solution”, he says, “goes to the bottom of the subject,
as no further question can reasonably
be asked.” Paley admits that “there is always understood to be a difference between an act of
prudence

and an act of
duty
’, and we might well wonder in what this difference consists.
Well, he says, “the difference, and

the only difference, is this, that in the one case, we
consider what we shall gain or lose in the present world, in the other case, we consider what
we shall gain or lose in the world to come.”


This
pious

Utilitarianism, as we might call it, worried Coleridge far more than
Bentham’s impious Utilitarianism, precisely because Coleridge was a profoundly religious
man, and that’s really the main thing about him. There are a number of passages in which he
devel
ops an interesting view of the relation of religion to philosophy and of both to public
welfare. If you begin, he says in one p
h
[l]a
s
[c]e, “with the attempt to
popularise

science . . .
you will only effect its
plebification
”. And it’s the same with philoso
phy. “From a popular
philosophy and a philosophic populace, good sense deliver us . . . It is folly to think of
making all, or

the many, philosophers, or even

men of science and systematic knowledge. But
it is duty and wisdom to aim at making as many as po
ssible soberly and steadily religious;
-

inasmuch as the morality which the state requires in its citizens for its own well
-
being . . . can
only exist for the people in the form of religion.” However, philosophy has a part to play in
this programme the phi
losopher, for Coleridge, being a kind of religious back
-
room boy.
“The existence of a true philosophy,” he says, “in the rulers and teachers of a nation, is
indispensable to a sound state of religion in all classes.” And it was his belief that theologies
l
ike Paley’s were the by
-
product of a false philosophy


a false philosophy recognizing no
source of knowledge but sensation, and thereby denying the power of conscience to reveal to
us obligations which go beyond self
-
interest. In this connexion there is a
nother passage from
Paley which I must read you. It occurs in a chapter dealing with the theory that we perceive
right and wrong by means of a special moral sense. After questioning the very existence of
“such instincts as compose what is called the moral
sense,” he says, “But further, suppose we
admit the existence of these instincts; what, it may be asked, is their authority? No man, you
say, can act in deliberate opposition to them, without a secret remorse of conscience. But this
remorse may be borne wi
th: and if the sinner choose to bear with it, for the sake of the
pleasure or the profit which he expects from his wickedness; or finds the pleasure of the sin
to exceed the remorse of conscience, of which he alone is the judge, and concerning which,
when
he feels them both together, he can hardly be mistaken, the moral
-
instinct man, so far
as I can understand, has nothing more to offer.”


7


This was the sort of thing which Coleridge found shocking, and especially shocking in
a clergyman


the deadening of ou
r reverence for the very voice to which above all he ought
to be appealing. {6} “Consisten[t] truth and goodness”, we find him saying in his
Table Talk
,
“will assuredly in the end overcome everything, but inconsistent good can never be a match
for consiste
nt evil. Alas! I look in vain for some wise and vigorous man to sound the word
Duty in the ears of this generation.” This emphasis on duty, which is highly characteristic of
Coleridge and which he learnt in part at least from the German philosopher Kant, h
as two
aspects. Firstly, there is the side we have already noticed


the insistence that, in the language
of Bishop Butler, duty is what it is and not another thing, and in particular is not just long
-
term self
-
interest. But Coleridge also emphasises the d
emands of duty against a class of
people who were by no means moral sceptics, the people whom he calls, in the language of
his time, “Jacobins”.


It is not at all easy to disentangle the various things that Coleridge has to say on this
subject, but let’s t
ry. The aim of Jacobinism, he says in one key passage, is to ‘build up
government and the frame of society on natural rights instead of social privileges. . . . Right,
in its most proper sense, is the creature of law and statute . . . In morals, right is a

word
without meaning except as the correlative of duty’. And again he says, “Whoever builds a
government on personal and natural rights is so far a Jacobin. Whoever builds on social
rights, that is, hereditary rank, property, and long prescription, is an
Anti
-
Jacobin”. And
again: “We have repeatedly pressed upon the attention of our readers the impracticability of
all theories founded on
personal rights
; we have contended zealously that the security and
circulation of property, with political power proport
ioned to property, constitute a good
government, and bring with them all other blessings which our imperfect nature can or ought
to expect” Again, he contrasts what he calls “the acknowledged truth that in all countries both
governments and subjects have d
uties


duties both to themselves and to each other”


he
contrasts this with “the Jacobinal doctrine of the universal inalienable right of all the
inhabitants of every country to the exercise of their inherent sovereignty”. “Rights!” he
exclaims in anothe
r place; “there are no rights without corresponding duties”. And he applied
this not only to the admirers of the French revolution but also to their opponents when
they

took to emphasising
their

rights and forgetting about duties. “It was evident to thinki
ng men”,
he says about a certain stage in this conflict, “that both parties were playing the same game
with different counters. If the Jacobins ran wild with the rights of man, their antagonists flew
off as extravagantly from the sober good sense of our fo
refathers, and idolised as were an
abstraction in the rights of sovereigns. Nor was this confined to sovereigns. They defended
the exemptions and privileges of all privileged orders on the assumption of their inalienable
right to them, however inexpedient
they might have been found, as universally and abstractly
as if these privileged has been decreed by the Supreme Wisdom.”


Well, it’s at least clear that Coleridge wants us to pipe down rights and pipe up duties.
But this statement of his that “there are n
o rights without corresponding duties”, is a little
ambiguous. Does he mean that only those who have duties have rights, and that their rights
are dependent on the satisfactory performance of their duties? If so, this view seems over
-
harsh; for surely babi
es and animals have rights, for example the right not to be tortured,
8


without having duties. But he may mean simply that there cannot
be

a right without
somebody

having a duty, and if this is what he means there is good deal to be said for it. A
child cann
ot be said, for example, to have a right to food and clothing if nobody at all has any
duty to see {7} that he gets it. It seems, further, to be Coleridge’s view that rights are a kind
of accidental by
-
product of the duties people have, in some sense in wh
ich duties are
not

an
accidental by
-
product of the rights people have. I’m not quite sure what this means, but I
suppose it would support Coleridge’s view if there were some duties
not

giving rise to rights
in anyone. Now are there such duties? Coleridge r
ather suggests that there are duties towards
institutions and social arrangements about which he seems half inclined to say that they give
rise to rights in the institutions and half inclined to say that they don’t give rise to any rights
at all, but in an
y case they don’t on his view give rise to rights in
individuals
.


Let us consider some examples that might be regarded as supporting this theory.
Persons in the armed services have a
duty

to salute their officers. But does this mean that the
officers hav
e a
right

to be saluted? This could certainly be questioned; for the usual theory of
saluting
or

salutology

is that you’re not saluting the man but the rank, so that it’s really the
rank, if anything, that has the right to the salute. But while I think it
makes sense to say that
babies and animals have rights, it hardly makes sense to say that abstract entities like ranks
and positions have rights. So it does look as if in this case we have a duty without a
corresponding right. But it might be argued all th
e same that there
is

a right, and a right of
individuals, out of which this duty ultimately springs. For we might say that saluting officers,
or saluting their rank, is part of good order and discipline in the fighting services, and that
such order and dis
cipline is essential to their efficiency, and the individuals who make up our
citizenry have the
right

to the protection of efficient fighting services. So far as I can see,
Coleridge would not have agreed with this explanation of this duty, for he says in

one place
that ‘the true patriot. . . . will reverence not only whatever tends to make the component
individuals more happy and more worthy of happiness, but likewise whatever tends to bind
them more closely together as a people.’ And again he says, ‘It i
s high time that the subjects
of Christian Governments should be taught that . . . the flux of individuals in any one moment
of existence is there for the sake of the State, far more than the State for them, though both
positions are true proportionally.’


It is just at this point that you can see the difference between Coleridge and Bentham.
Bentham had no time for natural rights either, and he speaks rather scornfully of the
preambles to the constitutions of the various American states, preambles asse
n
[r]
ting that all
men were created equal and with certain ‘inalienable rights.’ ‘Who can help lamenting’, he
says, ‘that so rational a cause should be rested upon reasons, so much fitter to beget
objections, than to remove them

? But with men who are unanimous

and hearty about
measures
, nothing so weak but may pass in the character of a
reason
; nor is this the first
instance in the world where the conclusion has supported the premises, instead of
no
[the]
premises the conclusion’. But one cannot imagine Bentham
saying, as Coleridge did, that
individuals exist for the sake of the State rather than
vice versa
. For in his initial state
ment of
his utilitarian principles, he says that ‘the community is a fictitious
body
, composed of the
individual persons who are cons
idered as constituting as it were its
members
. The interest of
9


the community then is, what ?


the sum of the interests of the several members who
compose it.’ And there is a kind of ‘inalienable right’ which Bentham’s system
does

give to
in every individual, despite his criticism of American ballyhoo on this subject


there’s the
right to be counted in when the sum of happiness produced by a given possible action is
being computed. For Bentham to insist
too

strongly on the nonsens
ical character of natural
-
rights talk would be sawing off the branch he’s sitting on; but we have already seen that he
was rather good at that. {8}


While we are on this subject of duties to fictitious bodies, I ought perhaps in fairness
to consider anothe
r one nearer home. I have sometimes said, and I certainly firmly believe,
that my first duty as head of the department of Philosophy in this College is not to my
students but to my subject. And I don’t mean that Philosophy is specially privileged at this
p
oint


I’d take the same view of the duty of
any

head of a department


his first duty is not
to his students, not even to the ones who are just taking his subject as a fill
-
up, but to his
subject. Of course I don’t mean that we haven’t a duty to our stude
nts as well; but that is a
duty to persons, giving rise to rights, in those persons, and not giving rise to any special
theoretical problems, as this prior duty to one’s subject does. For what rights can
this

duty be
equivalent to ? It would be altogether
too medieval[ ]and allegorical to say that the subject of
Philosophy has the right to be advanced in my department. What
can

be said is that students
with the capacity to advance the subject of Philosophy have the right to the assistance of the
Philosophy
staff in developing this capacity, and we have the correlative
duty

to assist such
students; but this duty seems to me a
consequence

of our duty to advance the subject rather
than the very same duty put in other words. So on the whole I’m inclined to agree

with
Coleridge that there
are

duties without rights corresponding to them, though I doubt I’d agree
with him very strongly as to
what

these duties are.



this paragraph crossed out by Prior


I have concentrated, as you would surely expect me to do, on Ben
tham and Coleridge
as philosophers, and on views which have seemed to me to lie pretty near the centre of their
thinking. But you don’t see the full greatness of either of these men until you look at some of
the details,
-

until you watch them
particularis
ing
. There is only time now for me to mention
one small example from each. From Bentham, I take this small wise remark, that although
every law is either a command or a revocation of a command, in the actual statement of the
thing what may be called the
ex
pository matter

usuall
y takes up much more space than

the
command or revocation itself. And this, Bentham says, goes not only for public law but for
private orders. ‘Take for instance one from a bookseller to his foreman.
Remove from this
shop to my new on
e my whole stock, according to this printed catalogue
.


Remove from this
shop to my new one, my whole stock
, is the imperative matter of this order; the catalogue
referred to contains the expository appendage.’ Now I call that slight but illuminating, and

Bentham is just full of such things. And from Coleridge I would mention his circular in
support of Peel’s 1818 bill for shortening the hours of children in cotton factories, answering
such objections as that ‘legislative interference with free labour is u
nproper.’ ‘
Free

Labour!’
he exclaims; ‘It is our duty to declare aloud, that if the labour were indeed free, the employer
would purchase, and the labourer sell, what the former had no right to buy, and the latter no
10


right to dispose of : namely the laboure
r’s health, life and well
-
being. These belong not to
himself
alone
, but to his friends, to his parents, to his King, to his Country, and to God.’ The
writer of that, one feels, is somewhat given to declamation, but it’s not
empty

declamation.


And with tha
t I think I must end this contribution to the current series of
plebifications
.


end of the section which Prior crossed out



{9}

There’s one other thing to be said at this point. It was Bentham, not Coleridge, who
insisted that all good and evil must boil

down to the pleasure and pain of individuals. But in
another way Bentham forgot the individual. For with him the decisive factor was the
sum
-
total

of pleasures and pains produced, and as has been often pointed out by his critics, a sum
of pleasures enjoye
d by different people is not itself a single pleasure enjoyed by anyone, and
it could be that in order to obtain the greatest abstract sum of pleasures certain
individuals

would have to suffer more than any individuals ought to, and pure Utilitarianism cou
ld say
nothing against this. The stock case used by moralists nowadays is the exemplary punishment
of an innocent man for the sake of public security; but there’s another case more pertinent to
our period. I don’t know what were the exact historical connex
ions between Benthamism and
laissez
-
faire

economics, and hope to learn something about
this from later speakers, but the

two are often thought of together, and there
is

one logical connexion between them. A person
could

defend
laissez
-
faire

economics in the face of such evils as child labour by saying that
whatever suffering the system caused to particular individuals it produced the greatest
prosperity and therefore the greatest happiness on the whole; and I think some people
did

defend
lai
ssez
-
faire

economics in this way. And at this point a man like Coleridge, however
inhuman[e] his duties
-
without
-
rights theory might sound, could be more human[e] than those
who
were

tied to pure Utilitarianism. What Coleridge in fact thought about child la
bour
comes out in his defence of Peel’s 1818 bill for shortening the hours of children in cotton
factories, answering such objections as that ‘legislative interference with free labour is
improper’. “
Free

labour!” he exclaims; “It is our duty to declare al
oud, that if the labour were
indeed free, the employer would purchase, and the labourer sell, what the former had no right
to buy and the latter no right to dispose of: namely the labourer’s health, life and well
-
being.
These belong not to himself
alone
, b
ut to his friends, to his parents, to his King, to his
Country, and to God.” The writer of that, one feels, is somewhat given to declamation, but
it’s not
empty

declaration.



And with that I think I must end this contribution to the current series of
pleb
ifications
.

  www.priorstudies.org •  University of Copenhagen •  Aalborg University •