The Hedonistic Calculus: Do You Calculate Your Pleasure and Pain?

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) thought so. He’s the guy who formalized the calculus, also called the felicific calculus, but he wasn’t the first one to think along those lines. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) came up with the bones of the same idea much earlier and others followed, e.g. John Locke. It seems that the English were quite concerned with their hedonism and the notion that they should be individually in charge of it.

Now, the hedonistic calculus has far-reaching significance for capitalist social relations, our conception of the nature of society as consisting solely of market relations, liberalism and certainly for economics. It has also infected our moral sense in a big way.

The hedonistic calculus as conceived by Bentham looks like this:

A pleasure or pain varies in (1) intensity, (2) duration, (3) certainty, (4) propinquity; when we take wont oaccouzd the other pleasures or pains that might result from the act or event which produced it, it varies in (5) fecundity and (6) purity; and, when we take other persons into account, it varies in (7) extent. In directing our conduct, we seek that pleasure which is most intent, of longest duration, most certain, nearer, and so forth. These ‘dimensions of value’ as Bentham calls them, are significant only because they indicate Bentham’s conviction that we are able to fix these dimensions quantitatively, add up the quantities, balance the totals against each other with more or less mathematical precision, and select the greater. ‘Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side,’ Bentham advised, ‘and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it to be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole.1

So, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham and the other classical liberals start their argument with the notion of individual sovereignty, that is, that the individual is the focus of their analysis and has complete charge of his behaviour which is always determined by a calculation of the pleasure or pain involved in any given act or situation. (I use his in the last sentence because for most classical liberals her was irrelevant.) Of course in pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain we must not harm others. That’s why Hobbes argued that we need a permanent sovereign. The sovereign’s role is as arbiter of disputes between individuals became, when you get right down to it, we are all in a power struggle with everyone else and we’re driven by fear, so someone has to keep order. Individualism is critical to classical liberalism. Society starts and ends with the individual or rather, society is just a set of market relations. It’s handy that the individual is in charge of himself because, then he can sell things and acquire things. he can’t sell himself, obviously, that would be slavery, but he can sell his property and buy and sell land. For the landless, however, with no land, the only property they have is their labour-power, their ability to work. So, men are free as individuals.

Because society is a set of market relations, the price of land, labour, etc., is derived in the marketplace. Logically, then, the market should be left alone to determine the value of everything, including labour power. The role of the sovereign in this should then be to protect the market, to ensure its independence and logic.

Conveniently, Hobbes, who was instrumental in getting classical liberalism off the ground, rationalized his view of man as derived from what he considered man in a state of nature. Macpherson suggests that Hobbes must have been smoking some good weed because he didn’t recognize that his ‘man in nature’ was really a particular specimen of ‘civilized’ man. It’s clear that none of the classical liberals were about to identify class as a variable in their theoretical musings, either. Men are individuals and their lives are determined by them alone. They owe nothing to society, nor does society owe them anything, unless it’s protection from violent death and market stability. Every individual is responsible for his own life and failure or success. Station at birth was meaningless. If you detect the ideas of quietism and social darwinism in these ideas, you’re probably on to something.

This is how Thorstein Veblen sees the hedonistic calculus as it applies to economics (and liberalism).

In all the received formulations of economic theory, whether at the hands of English economists or those of the Continent, the human material with which the inquiry is concerned is conceived in Hedonistic terms; that is to say, in terms of a passive and substantially inert and im- mutably given human nature. The psychological and anthropological preconceptions of the economists have been those which were accepted by the psychological and social sciences some generations ago. The hedonistic conception of man is that of a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse of stimuli that shift him about the area, but leave him intact. He has neither antecedent nor consequent. He is an isolated, definitive human datum, in stable equilibrium except for the buffets of the impinging forces that displace him in one direction or another. Self imposed in elemental space, he spins symmetrically about his own spiritual axis until the parallelogram of forces bears down upon him, whereupon he follows the line of the resultant. When the force of the impact is spent, he comes to rest, a self- contained globule of desire as before. Spiritually, the hedonistic man is not a prime mover. He is not the seat of a process of living, except in the sense that he is subject to a series of permutations enforced upon him by circumstances external and alien to him. The later psychology, re-enforced by modern an- thropological research, gives a different conception of human nature. According to this conception, it is the characteristic of man to do something, not simply to suffer pleasures and pains through the impact of suitable forces. He is not simply a bundle of desires that are to be sat- urated by being placed in the path of the forces of the environment, but rather a coherent structure of propensities and habits which seeks realisation and expression in an unfolding activity. (page 74)

Classical economics and classical liberalism share the same psychological assumptions: people are responsible for themselves, they are basically lazy and must be ‘encouraged’ to work, they are fearful and basically want to kill each other all the time. Veblen was as strong critic of classical economics and liberalism as well as their psychological assumptions. In his The Instinct of Workmanship, Veblen makes the compelling case that we (humans) are born to act, we are not by nature quiet and still, needing to be prodded into action.

I would not be so bold as to suggest that Hobbes and Locke in the 16th Century were looking for a philosophical justification for capitalism. Macpherson writes in his book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism that by the mid 17th Century in England, more than fifty percent of the population were servants, that is, wage workers. Their living conditions as well as those of the upper classes begged for theoretical justification.

It’s really quite astonishing to me that since the seventeenth century (and before to some extent) the kinds of ideas produced by the classical liberals still hold in most of the world. Of course, they have been modified according to historical circumstance and place. They have also taken into account (with Bentham certainly) social obligation and have evolved into the liberalism of the welfare state among others. However, there seems to now be a move back to classical liberal ideas. Libertarians are pretty much classical liberals although you’d never want to call them that to their faces. They would explode right there in front of you. ‘Liberalism’ is again a bad word but there is so much muddle out there right now, it’s almost impossible to use words in any meaningful way when describing politics and sovereignty. Members of the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative party in Canada would quiver and shake at being described as liberals, but liberals they are if we define liberals as focussed on (at least the semblance of) individual freedom, etc. They bear all the marks of classical liberals. They eschew taxes, want small government, release the market from any constraints, dismantle all social programs or at least privatize them, and hate ‘socialism.’ You might find it strange for me to even entertain the idea that Russian or Chinese societies are basically liberal, but they are in a real sense. They’re never been communist, but that’s an argument for another day.

Frankly, I don’t hold out much hope that humanity will turn itself around, realize how stupid the assumptions of classical liberalism are and act accordingly. The values of classical liberalism are the dominant moral ideals today: work hard, don’t be lazy, no matter how shitty your job is go to it every day, be responsible for your actions, buy things, lots of things, don’t ask questions. So sad, it’s not even funny.

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  1. From Harry K. Girvetz, 1950/1963. The Evolution of Liberalism. New York: Collier Books

My brain is on fire!

Since I started doing research for my blog posts on democracy and capitalism I’ve done a ton of reading and I could do a ton more. I’m scouring my own bookshelves. I’ve got a fair bit of material on the topic but I’m also mining the Gutenberg Project and the Internet Archives online. At the moment I’m reading C.B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to LockeĀ but I’m also glancing at many other books as I concentrate on Macpherson including another of his books, The Real World of Democracy (1965) based on the Massey Lectures. His work is superlative. What a critical mind! I have Hobbes’ The Leviathan and John Locke’s two political treatises, but I don’t have the time or inclination to wade through their work in the original, not when I’ve got Macpherson who’s done it for me already.

Macpherson’s notion of possessive individualism aims to tie together capitalism, democracy and liberalism during the 17th Century when Hobbes and Locke were active English philosophers. Capitalist industrialist production really took off in the middle of the 18th Century, but the slow breakdown of feudal social relations around reciprocity between feudal lords and their serfs started much earlier. As Macpherson notes, the possessive market society that was gaining power in the 17th Century was a model from which philosophers could derive theories and explanations of various sorts. The reality is that capitalist social relations are based on wage labour. A capitalist buys the labour power of the propertyless classes and uses it to create more capital. In order for the capitalist to be able to buy the labour power of anyone, all the anyones had to have control over themselves in order to be in a position to sell a part of themselves on the labour market. They could not sell all of themselves otherwise they would be slaves and they would not be free to enter into other relations as free individuals. Individualism is a necessary condition for participation in the capitalist market. Individual liberty is the crux of the liberal society. A worker in a capitalist society has only one thing to sell: labour power, the ability to work. That said, the freedom to enter a market must extend to everyone, capitalist and worker as well as others not necessarily bound directly by that relationship. So we’re all equal as individuals. Cool, right? Sure.

For capitalist social relations to gain ascendency in England in the 17th Century, equality was also a basic ingredient of capitalist relations because everyone had to enter the market as the owner and controller of what they had to sell. In an aristocratic or monarchical society, equality is patently unacceptable so something had to give. Seventeenth Century England saw the violent upheaval of the monarchy which was replaced by republican rule. Was Cromwell the catalyst for British democracy? Maybe. Whatever the answer to that question, it’s clear that at its most abstract, democracy is rule by the people. ‘The people’ is a highly difficult concept to pin down and the definition of who might qualify for being included in ‘The People’ has changed frequently over the centuries. In any case, democracy is not essential to capitalist society. Liberty is, however. Liberty meaning individuals free to sell themselves on the labour market is what’s important here. Once people are ‘free’ individuals, there is still the need for a sovereign to adjudicate disputes related to market behaviour and to pass laws and create mores that are required to keep society (which for Hobbes is just a collection of individuals bent on securing more power for themselves at the expense of others in the market) moving. The sovereign, in the case of liberal societies, is ‘The People’. The will of the people can be expressed representationally or directly. Note, however, that capitalist relations sit outside any definition of ‘The People’ (although business corporations have been considered legal individuals for some few decades now). So, where do contemporary countries or nation-states fit into the world of capitalist social relations? What are libertarians all about? Would they be upset if you referred to them as classical liberals? Those are questions for another blog post to answer.

For now, I need to let my brain deal with the fog that sometimes invades it making it hard for me to concentrate. Today, the symptoms of the pernicious anemia I have are a challenge. I hope tomorrow will be better.