# David Runciman

Until recently, everything I knew about Bentham was based on secondary sources. OK, except one thing.

David Runciman’s lecture on Bentham made me go and read The Principles of Morals and Legislation first hand.

Runciman thinks that Bentham’s reputation as a maybe-autistic philistine is based on a misreading. According to Runciman, Bentham never thought of the Principle of Utility as a True And Comprehensive Theory of Value. Instead, he saw it as a foundation for political order. That is to say: a practical principle that enough people can plausibly agree on.

This way of reading Bentham makes him seem reasonable—from “crazy genius”, to just, perhaps, genius. And it reminds me of a move I’ve personally made, which 80,000 Hours has made, which Tyler Cowen has made, which perhaps most non-crazy secular moral thinkers make, in light of moral uncertainty. Namely: you stop thinking that ambitious reformist action can only be justified after you’ve developed a robust and complete moral theory. You recognise that such a theory will elude us for the foreseeable future, and that we must act now. And so: one way forward is to look for principles that plausibly capture at least part of whatever the True And Comprehensive Theory of Value turns out to be (if there even is one). If a large number of people can agree on part of the story, that’s already enough to make things much, much better [1].

Towards the end of an interview with Dan Snow, David gave a pessimistic monologue about oppression and ressentiment in contemporary Britain. But he then spoke movingly about Bentham:

I prefer Bentham to Mill, partly because he gets a worse press. He’s supposed to be this automaton, pleasure machine guy but actually he had a heart of gold. The whole project was just about: there’s too much suffering in the damn world. He was partly responding to a society in which people were still being executed for what was called sodomy, I mean you could be executed for being gay. And Bentham says the great advantage of utilitarianism, whatever else you might think about it, is that there is no way, on the utilitarian calculus, that you can do that. So who cares what else is wrong with it, my god we could save people. So there is that, the ability to identify the obvious injustices. I don’t think Bentham has solutions, I think what Bentham has is a means of saying: this cannot go on any longer, you can’t not let people vote, you can’t execute people for these crimes, you can’t run a state on the basis of cruelty, and what you should do in place of cruelty well who cares, just don’t be cruel.

I’ve uploaded the 4 minute segment that includes this moment here.

This is one of many things I’ve learnt from Runciman’s brilliant History of Ideas series. His other show, Talking Politics is also great. Some favourite episodes:

Maybe I should read some of his books.

[1] A worry: what if people mistake the partial story for the full story? Clearly, this can be bad news—especially if those people create powerful systems that optimise for the partial story. The general issue of “optimising too hard for the partial story” seems widespread, and very damaging. Is the Principle of Utility underrated or overrated at this point? I hope to write on this anon.

Last updated: April 2021