I have encountered the philosopher and ethicist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in a variety of contexts in my studies. Most basically, Bentham is remembered as the founder of utilitarianism–the teleological ethical system that holds that right and wrong are measurable based on whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Later on, in grad school, Bentham was the theorist who imagined the Panopticon, a prison in which disciplinary requirements were alleviated or eliminated because all prisoners knew that they were or could be watched at all times. Twentieth century philosophers have rightly seen this as an intellectual precursor to the modern surveillance state.
What I had never done was consider Bentham’s philosophy in connection with kinky sex play. Yet it was precisely this context that was inadvertently evoked while reading through John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism. There, Gray devotes his energies to critiquing various atheist philosophies and their continued dependence on Christianity (or Gnosticism or Platonism, etc.). Within this project, Bentham comes off surprisingly well, largely because of his willingness to “[revert] to the pre-Christian values of the Greco-Roman world.” Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than in Bentham’s approach to sadism.
Any system which measures good by the happiness it brings people must account for the fact that some people derive happiness (or, in the case of S&M, sexual pleasure) from the infliction of pain. Bentham disciple and fellow utilitarian John Stewart Mill solved the problem by creating a hierarchy of higher and lower pleasures, with the former having the privilege of a higher moral good. Misotheist William Empson considered the joy of cruelty to be a corruption of a good human nature by an evil (and invented) Christian God. It was evidence of brainwashing for Empson. Yet Bentham trusted the simple rationality of the ethical system he pioneered. According to Gray, Bentham:
believed the satisfaction derived from causing pain was in principle no less valuable than any other. The impulse to cruelty was not a ‘metaphysical evil’. If it had to be curbed–as Bentham recognized it did–it was not because it was bad in itself but because it tended to reduce the total sum of satisfaction in the world. If some means could be found to gratify the impulse while removing this risk, there would be nothing wrong with cruelty. The satisfaction derived from inflicting pain was an elementary good just like any other.
It seems to me that this is exactly what is achieved with sexual fetishes like those mainstreamed by 50 Shades of Gray. (Or at least I assume, without actually having read it.) Unlike the Marquis de Sade, from whom sadism gets its name, modern purveyors of cruelty kink don’t practice violence for the joy of doing evil. For them, pleasure is derived from performative violence in which the human desire to cause pain is actualized without any of the “risk” of depriving others of their satisfaction. If anything, it produces a mutually satisfactory result.
This has been the mantra of sexual liberation since the mid-twentieth century: consent is sole measure of morality. By ensuring consent, the sadistic individual can find the satisfaction–which Bentham equated with the good–without any risk of moral harm. This is diametrically opposed to the philosophy of Sade. He believed that Nature was cruel and that to commit acts of cruelty was to submit (virtuously) to that Nature. Consent undermined the value of cruelty. At least philosophically; the actual Sade often worked to secure some measure of consent from his partners, if only to give him an equal measure of legal protection. (It rarely worked out.)
But making cruelty into a consensual sexual experiment has solved the Benthamite quandary of what to do with our universal impulse toward cruelty. Moreover, it solves this quandary without appeals to the post-Christian moralism that frustrates Gray. In this particular variant of utilitarianism, S&M is not only morally permissible but potentially a moral good, one that should be promoted if not mandated as a means to loose the urges that society has justly restrained elsewhere. Perhaps it is even precisely the restraint of those urges in modern, industrialized society that provokes a contemporary fascination with S&M.
It’s an intriguing possibility, if you’re a utilitarian.