Richard Tuck Sheds New Light on Bentham

Richard Tuck, chair of the committee on degrees in social studies, offered an unusually humane portrayal of Jeremy Bentham, an eighteenth-century British philosopher who is often perceived as a cold utilitarian.

Tuck, an expert in social theory, delivered his interpretation as part of the Master Class lecture series at the Humanities Center.

“Jeremy Bentham,” Tuck said, “is often held up as a straw man for an often despised tradition of moral philosophy. What I want to show you tonight is more or less the opposite case.”

Tuck turned to an excerpt from an obscure early work of fantasy by Bentham called “The White Bull.” An English language adaptation of a similar fantasy novel by Voltaire, the book is part a tale of witches and exotic lands and part social commentary.

When Tuck asked if anyone in the audience had heard of the text before the event, no one raised their hands.

Unfazed, he suggested that the work provides valuable insights into Bentham’s larger ideas.

“The White Bull,” he said, is “an interesting warning about taking Bentham at face value.”

Tuck then analyzed the novel to interpret Bentham—often associated with a cold utilitarian calculus—as a thinker skeptical of judging the sources of people’s pleasure, sexual or otherwise.

“In a number of Bentham’s early writings,” he added, “the principle argument is an argument in favor of pleasure and against moralizing.” He substantiated that idea with a careful scrutiny of Bentham’s treatment of ostensible “crimes” such as sodomy and pedophilia.

“He gave a more sophisticated interpretation than I was familiar with,” said Joanne Baldine, a philosophy lecturer in the extension school. “It was a surprising and interesting understanding of Bentham’s egalitarianism with respect to pederasty and homosexuality.”

Of the approximately 40 people in the audience, some—including Professor Michael J. Sandel—took good-spirited issue with Tuck’s claims, most of which centered on the perceived speculative aspects of Tuck’s claims.

According to Homi K. Bhabha, director of the Humanities Center, the Master Classes afford opportunities to “allow for the pleasure of a slow and serious working away at the details of textual construction.”

“We often do very large themes,” Bhaba said. “But one of the great things about the humanities is that they teach you to read slowly, carefully, and meticulously.”

“In Professor Tuck’s lecture, the unit of analysis was often the sentence and occasionally the word—the nitty gritty. That’s absolutely crucial, central to the importance of the humanities,” he added.

—Staff writer James K. Mcauley can be reached at mcauley@fas.harvard.edu.

Tags