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“Nature 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.”

Sylvie Delacroix, Reader in Legal Theory and Ethics, says there’s more to our decision-making process than simple human impulses.


Illustration Hanna Melin

Why should sensations as subjective as pain and pleasure ever be relied upon to determine what we ought to do? What about our capacity to ignore pain or to restrict pleasure instead? The human ability to surmount natural impulses and desires in the name of some moral or political aspirations has long been hailed as the source of both our freedom and our capacity to make laws for ourselves, whether as an individual or as a society.

To take a naturalist stand against this long intellectual tradition is a brave move: it is much easier to talk in lofty terms about abstract ideals that human nature is supposed to live up to than to articulate what it is about us that calls for doing things in a particular way. Details will be needed. We’ll also want some sort of narrative that takes us from human beings with certain needs and desires to a variety of societies governed by a variety of norms, some more conscious of their fallibility than others.

Today one could argue that we’ve made progress on the details front. Behavioural psychologists highlight the myriad factors shaping our ethical sensitivity. Social neuroscientists peek at colourful brain images in a bid to functionally decompose the processes leading to moral judgment. Overall, the story that emerges isn’t revolutionary: intuitions and automated responses play a significant part in shaping our moral judgments. What is novel is our insistence on scientifically proving the incidence of emotions on our judgments about what we ought to do.

This scientific impulse brings a methodological hazard in its stead, for it becomes tempting to reduce morality to what science can tell us about it. And while it might tell us riveting tales (helped in no small measure by mesmerising pictures of our brains), there are things it can’t capture. Understanding what conditions our capacity to challenge widely accepted societal norms and adopt the kind of reforming spirit for which Bentham is deservedly famous is, I believe, one such thing.

To find out more about Jeremy Bentham, visit www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project/who

  • Contents 2015/16Contents 2015/16
  • DeconstructedDeconstructed
  • InboxInbox
  • A UCL beginner’s guide to…A UCL beginner’s guide to…
  • Free RadicalFree Radical
  • Alumni Network launchAlumni Network launch
  • Jeremy Bentham SpeaksJeremy Bentham Speaks
  • The Strong RoomThe Strong Room
  • Extra CurricularExtra Curricular
  • CloisteredCloistered
  • Life, the Universe and EverythingLife, the Universe and Everything
  • This Radical LifeThis Radical Life
  • Paper ChasePaper Chase
  • Beautiful BacteriaBeautiful Bacteria
  • CitiesCities
  • Hello London!Hello London!
  • Lessons for lifeLessons for life
  • In Bentham’s footstepsIn Bentham’s footsteps
  • This idea must dieThis idea must die
  • London  vs  WorldLondon vs World
Portico Issue 2. 2015/16