Epicurean Utilitarianism & Jeremy Bentham’s Pauper-Panopticon + Quantifying Morality
Sebs Solomon—May 17, 2022
Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who believed in ideas that can be described as “materialistic metaphysics”—based solely on the pursuit of pleasure. He defined pleasure as the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. In this line of thinking, all phenomena can be explained in atomic terms; and according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Epicurus believed that:
On the basis of radical materialism, he could disprove the possibility of the soul’s survival after death, and hence the prospect of punishment in the afterlife. He regarded the unacknowledged fear of death and punishment as the primary cause of anxiety among human beings, and anxiety in turn as the source of extreme and irrational desires.
Since he rejected the existence of an immaterial soul, he did not regard human existence as particularly special, merely a random arrangement of atoms with no intrinsic purpose or value. The only intrinsic goal in life, according to Epicurus, is to seek pleasure, mentally and physically. He relied upon his conventional “senses” to gain knowledge about the world and anything that could not be quantified, materially, was not worth exploring. Epicurus was also convinced that people put too much importance on the gods and that was the source of their unhappiness or pain. He came to the conclusion that by limiting one’s desires and eliminating any fear of death or of the gods, one could obtain satisfaction.
My rendition of Epicurus and his beliefs based on (my understanding) of what was written in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
1.Epicurus imagined that “soul atoms” were especially delicate and dispersed throughout the physical body and it was through them that humans felt joy or suffering.
2.A body without “soul atoms” is comatose and static—when those atoms are disorganized and chaotic, they can no longer support life; thus, dissolve into the ether (no longer maintaining the capacity for sensation).
3.The part of the human soul concentrated in the chest is capable of higher cognitive functions. Epicurus says this is vital because it is in the “logical” that mistakes in perception can occur.
4.Epicurus firmly believed that no phenomenon is exclusively mental because the mental (thoughts/feelings) cannot occur without some sort of physical sensation—the inner mental state is merely a reaction to the outer stimuli.
5.Since the human mind is located in the soul (which is in the chest)—the mind doesn’t actually seek higher things because the mind is “rational” and only pursues to maximize happiness and minimize agony.
6.Happiness or eudaimonia is a state of general well-being (pleasure in its own right) because it is what Epicurus called katastematic or static pleasure (as opposed to kinetic pleasure—which is defined as the “unnecessary” kind). Katastematic is described as complete freedom from mental disturbances and worries.
Epicurus was an atomic materialist (he adopted the teachings of Democritus — who was a student of Leucippus). Although Leucippus, an ancient Greek philosopher from 5th century BCE, is credited with developing the theory of atomism; Acharya Kanada was an ancient Indian philosopher, estimated to have lived between the 6th century to 2nd century BCE, who also believed in a form of “atomism” accompanied with logic and reason. In Sanskrit, “Kan” means “the smallest particle” — and because he always stressed the importance of respecting every particle of every grain or being, he was called Kanada—he is reported to have been the one who wrote the basic text of Vaisheshika philosophy. The Vaisheshika is one of the six branches/schools that make up Indian (Vedic) philosophy.
In a post by MyIndiaMyGlory, Kanada is thought to have been the first to put forth the idea that the following six categories can describe everything in the universe: substance, quality, motion, universal, particular, and inherence. Leucippus espoused that the universe is made of two elements that he called the “full/solid” and the “empty/void” — both types were thought to be infinite. Not much is known about Leucippus, but his views that we do know of are accounts told and written by Democritus in his atomist doctrine. Democritus believed that the soul is composed of fire atoms — he associates life with heat and attributes the ability to move to the soul; thus, according to him, the soul was the cause of motion.
Jeremy Bentham, Utilitarianism, and the Panopticon
Although Epicurus believed in augmenting pleasure, he was interested in more than just short-term self interest because he believed that the consequences of a person’s actions do matter to the general collective (it just doesn’t matter to the afterlife because the soul cannot live without a body). The approach that Epicurus takes is an early form of Utilitarianism. Think, utility or usefulness of an action and does that action increase pleasure.
Jeremy Bentham is a philosopher and author who advocated for Utilitarianism: the idea that the best laws for society are those that benefit the largest number of people. Since Bentham firmly believed that any individual or group involved in activities that are harmful to the larger collective should be disciplined and incarcerated, he designed a type of prison called the Panopticon or “inspection house”. The Panopticon is an institutional building where people are kept under inspection—it ranges from hospitals, schools, factories, mental health institutions, prisons, and public housing. In the 17th century, the “Poor Laws” were enacted in England in order to isolate the poor or “paupers” by putting them in “workhouses”. In 1798, Jeremy Bentham published Pauper Management Improved where he drew up a method and a map that he believed would better regulate the poor—he called it Pauperland (also referred to as a Pauper-Panopticon).
Video Gaming, Digital Panopticons, and EA Games
I stumbled across an article titled The Panopticon in My Bedroom: The Role of Prison Discipline in Video Gaming in the 21st Century about how the video game Battlefield 4 is similar to the Bentham inspired pauper-panopticon because the disciplinary and technological structure of the game uses a “panoptic paradigm” to monitor players, as well as keep them playing. According to the author, this implementation is the most comprehensive fulfillment of all of Bentham’s ‘Panoptical’ iterations.
At the end of the article, the author mentioned a 2011 Supreme Court case (Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association) about how the sale of violent or obscene video games to kids or minors cannot be prohibited because that would go against the the First Amendment—and video games are “constitutionally protected forms of expression”. This relates to the “gamification of education” for workforce development—if there is a move toward incorporating video gaming into the “traditional” education structure, it makes sense that there would be a desire to have as little oversight as possible in what games can and cannot be sold to minors. Alison McDowell shared this video with me and it is relevant to this topic—it’s from the 2016 DNC in Philadelphia. In the video, Craig Hagen of EA (same video game company that produced Battlefield) spoke about how:
- The number one problem in the tech industry is talent availability and preparedness.
- School dropout rates are high in the U.S. and not enough people are pursuing STEM.
- By 2022, there will be 1.2 million jobs created that require a STEM degree and not enough of those degrees are generated every year in order to fill those jobs.
- Workforce development needs to be gamified in order to incentivize kids to complete the work necessary for them to get a job in the fields that require a STEM educated population.
- EA games are about data collection and immediate feedback to the players, so they can continue to progress in the game. *This echoes the sentiment about Battlefield 4 operating in a “panoptic paradigm” to monitor players and keep them playing.*
- The traditional means of education will not solve this problem and education needs to be reformed (also announced they would be partnering with the Gates and MacArthur Foundations to accomplish this goal).
The penitentiary panopticon was designed in such a way that the guards would be able to surveil the prisoners without the prisoner’s knowing—a mixture of omnipresence and absence. Basically, it made it possible for all prisoners of an institution to be observed by one security guard; with the inmates unable to tell if they are being monitored. Bentham’s design was based on the theory that if inmates felt like they were under constant surveillance, they were more likely to comply with the rules and, in turn, become model prisoners out of fear of punishment.
Lewis Bush, who is researching automation’s impact on visual journalism at the London School of Economics, asserts that since the Panopticon needed a guard or observer to be present at all times (to detect transgressions and punish them)—anything that goes unpunished weakened the prisoner’s belief “that they are subject to a near omnipotent gaze…[which] meant that Panopticon’s name was a misnomer. Bentham’s conception of Panopticon was not ‘all seeing’ at all, it merely hinged on the idea that at any moment one might be observed.” Bush argues that this is a weakness in that type of system because it allows prisoners to think they can get away with certain actions on the off chance that they are not being watched. According to a paper titled Jeremy and Samuel Bentham–The Private and the Public published by the University College London in 2002, Samuel Bentham (Jeremy’s brother) was the one who initially had the idea for the Panopticon. Samuel devised the scheme while:
Supervising the workmen on [Grigory] Potemkin’s estate in Russia. Jeremy then wrote his series of letters on the subject, and, as is also well known, spent many years fruitlessly trying to have the scheme adopted by the British government. While Jeremy’s attempts to have a Panopticon built in London eventually came to nothing, Samuel on the other hand did succeed in having a Panopticon built, during his second trip to Russia, between 1805 and 1807. So both the conception and the execution of the Panopticon were Samuel’s achievements.
In 1780, Samuel Bentham went to Russia looking for work as a naval engineer — in 1784, Bentham entered the service of Prince Grigory Potemkin. It was there that the Potemkin gave Samuel Bentham a house, servants, a labor force, unlimited funds to improve the estate, and freedom to conduct experiments and innovate. One of those innovations was The Inspection House or Panopticon. Furthermore, it was where Samuel realized that if he arranged the workspace in a circle, with the supervisor at the center, the manager could, more effectively, monitor the workers. In turn, this made workers and supervisors easier to train and manage.
Utilitarianism and Quantifying Compassion
Like Epicurus, Jeremy Bentham believed that humans were ruled by two masters: pleasure and pain. In the book, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, J. B. Schneewind remarked that Bentham focused on act-evaluation and moved away from character evaluation (more concerned with the outcome of an action than the overall character of the individual doing said action). Moreover, Schneewind wrote:
There was an increasing sense that focus on character would actually be disruptive, socially, particularly if one’s view was that a person who didn’t agree with one on a moral issues was defective in terms of his or her character, as opposed to simply making a mistake reflected in action.
Jeremy Bentham did not want to discuss all of the moral implications of every action because that would be inefficient and costly. He only defended an “objective” form of morality that could be quantified (represented with ones and zeros) in an empirical or scientific way. He found a way to “measure” pleasures and pains (which he based the outcome of each action on)—called the Utility or Hedonic Calculus.
The hedonic calculator considers the proximity of where the consequence of the action will be, the intensity, duration, and the probability of all of the consequences being considered. And since “utility” is quantified, the action must be examined using a set of seven criteria that make up the hedonic calculator: duration, intensity, purity, certainty, proximity, richness, and extent—this is known as Act Utilitarianism. In this school of thought, the result in the maximum net increase in total good of the affected parties is what made an action “morally right”. I found the chart below in an article about the difference between act utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism, virtue theory, kantianism, and social contract theory.
This article correctly states that Bentham’s theory “relies on accurately predicting outcomes, and as such holds the moral agent accountable for moral luck. One might intend to do a good deed, but if an unpredictable result occurs, leading to a negative outcome, then they are still to be held morally responsible.” This is flawed because it is illogical to hold someone accountable for something they did not intend to do. It gets into the Machiavellian concept of “the end justifying the means”—and that line of thinking can lead to justifying horrific acts toward people or groups for the sake of the “greater good” and that is a slippery slope (to say the least). Jeremy Bentham’s obsession with measuring outcomes and quantifying good deeds is reminiscent of social impact investing and the “moral capitalism” being peddled by venture capital firms, NGO’s, and various foundations. It comes from a belief that human beings need to be incentivized to do good by socially engineering or nudging them to make the “right” decisions—cybernetics or steering.
Jeremy Bentham’s Hedonic Calculator made me think of Ancient Egypt mythology, and in particular, the goddess, Ma’at and her scales of justice. She decides the fate of mortals in the underworld (called Duat) where she weighs the heart of the dead against her feather of truth. If the scale is balanced, then the soul can go to Aaru (heaven) but if the balance is tipped then the soul is eaten by Ammit—the “soul-eater” goddess. There is currently a TV series on Disney+ called Moon Knight—it incorporates the stories of Ammit and Ma’at. The show’s first episode features the “scales of justice” tattooed on the character playing Ammit in the opening scene.
Ma’at uses her scale and feather to measure how “good” someone’s heart is, just like Bentham uses his seven criteria (hedonic calculator) to quantify the moral implications of every action. If your heart doesn’t pass the scale test, you are banished to Duat—the realm of the dead for eternal restlessness. This is similar to Bentham’s penitentiary panopticon (where those who go against the good of the collective are sent to be punished). In Ancient Egypt, Isfet was the counterpart to Ma’at—he was the embodiment of chaos and lies (his name means injustice, chaos, and violence). ISFET is also the acronym for Ion-Sensitive Field-Effect Transistor—which measures ion concentration in solutions. It was invented by a Dutch electrical engineer named Piet Bergveld (who belongs to the Knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion—a Dutch order of chivalry founded by William of Orange).
The ISFET is said to be one of the most promising devices in nanofluidic systems for biochemical sensing application. ISFET is used in genetics technology for detection of DNA hybridization, biomarker detection from blood, antibody detection, glucose measurement, and in biosensors. Nanofluidic circuitry is about controlling fluids at the nanometer scale because at those dimensions, different physical phenomena start to happen and this can lead to new scientific insights and applications.
The other meaning of Isfet (the opposite of Ma’at, who represents truth and justice) stood out to me because the ISFET (transistor) is a technology being used in biosensors and antibody detection tests that are laying the groundwork for a never ending, track-and-trace, bio-surveillance apparatus rapidly forming in front of our very eyes.
Peace and blessings,
—Here is a three-part series (in three videos) that covers some of the material in this essay—