Jeremy Bentham’s *Not Paul, but Jesus, vol. III*

Bentham’s famous defense (or should I say advocacy?) of homosexuality and other non-traditional sexual and romantic relationships — he describes them as the “eccentric mode” — is now available in its entirety, for the first time I believe.  Here is a blog post about the new publication.  It is a fascinating work throughout and homosexuality is central to his answer to Malthus and the dangers of excess population.

The full text is freely available here (pdf), about two hundred pages.  Here is one typical excerpt:

Yet by such a multitude of those who would start with horror at the very mention of a gratification afforded to the sexual appetite in any eccentric mode, how compleatly dissolute and unlimited is the indulgence afforded to the appetites of which the organs of taste and smell are the instruments, and how enormous is the expence at and by which this indulgence is so constantly and regularly procured.

By those by whom, to the pleasures of the table, no limits are attempted to be set other than those set, as above, by the allied considerations [of] self-regarding prudence and benevolence, why to the pleasures of the bed should any narrower limits be assigned?  With what consistency can any difference be made in the extent given to the limits in the two cases? So much as to the question between the pleasures of the table taken in the aggregate on the one part, and the pleasures of the bed on the other.

Has Andrew Sullivan read this book?  Through jstor, here is a related David M. Levy piece.


I did not know Bentham was gay. And that MR is into LGBT issues. Well as historian Paul Johnson wrote in his book "The birth of the modern: world society, 1815-1830", by the 1800s, if not before, they were doing everything they are doing today. Even I think the internet (coffeehouses were the old internet).

Ray, are you suggesting that defending homosexuality implies being gay, or is there some other evidence that Bentham was gay?

Presumably there was no SWPL status-seeking back then, which is the primary reason for supporting gay rights now, so it's a reasonable inference.

Bentham was very *ahem* neuroatypical, especially for his time. Although, tbh, I'm not sure that helps one figure out if he was gay or simply- "status seeking."

If you learned that some random person from Bentham's time defended homosexuality, you'd probably have a point. But Bentham seems to have done rather a lot of defending unpopular things with no obvious motive of "SWPL status-seeking" type.

However disagreeable or incomprehensible you may find the idea, you should consider the possibility that Bentham said what he did simply because he thought it was right.

Can't tell if serious... That's hardly a reasonable inference.

Not obvious that Bentham was gay, but he was a pioneer in the defense of tolerance of such.

I guess a lot more tolerant than America in the 1950s.

Sullivan has built his advocacy around love and responsibility rather than sex, which seems sensible. I'd caution against too easily assuming that one stands for the other. The Bentham piece seems to be mainly about pleasure - is there a discussion of romantic relationships in it?

It's also anachronistic to project "homosexuality" back onto whatever Bentham is talking about. The hetero/homo divide is much more recent. Jonathan Ned Katz's _Invention of Heterosexuality_ is a good place to start.

Note the emphasis of Bentham on "prudence and benevolence," for one thing...Bentham was reductionist in important regards, incorrectly so I would say, but that shaped his views on everything, not just this issue.

Is there any evidence that Sidgwick, or John Addington Symonds, would have known of it or read it? It seems like it would have been of very great interest to both of them, but I've just finished reading Bart Schultz's massive biography of Sidgwick (where Symonds is a main character) and don't recall it being mentioned. (That book is really huge, though, and I read is very slowly, so perhaps I've just forgotten.)

Bentham was so far ahead of his time, as were all the famous utilitarians.

Bentham wrote an essay titled, "Offences Against One's Self: Paederasty", in which he defends paederasty.

Bentham never uses the terms "homosexuality" or "homosexual" in the essay, terms which didn't exist or weren't in common use at the time. He talks about "paederasty" and "paederasts".

"Paederasty" is defined as anal intercourse between a man and an adolescent boy. A "paederast" is defined as a man who engages in anal intercourse with an adolescent boy.

Luckily for us we have the Internet and your claim is easily checked. You're lying.
"The abominations that come under this heading have this property in common, in this respect, that they consist in procuring certain sensations by means of an improper object. The impropriety then may consist either in making use of an object
3. Of an object of the proper species but the wrong sex. This is distinguished from the rest by the name of paederasty."

Bentham is defining his terms: good for him. He was, however, using the word in an uncommon way (or, at least, it would be uncommon later): the common use of the word is as Brian says (and as one would guess from its origins).

So what if he was using it in an uncommon way?

"Paederasty" has always meant anal intercourse between a man and an adolescent boy.

Bentham would have used the terms "sodomy" and "sodomite" or some other terms or would have devised his own instead of specifically and repeatedly using the terms "paederasty" and "paederast" if he didn't mean anal intercourse between a man and an adolescent boy. And Bentham's phrase "Of an object of the proper species but the wrong sex" would have implied anal intercourse between a man and an adolescent boy because in his time homosexual activity was generally believed to be synonymous with paederasty.

For what it's worth, there are few people in modern America that are opposed to the legal practice of "eccentric" sex between consenting adults. But there are many people opposed to changing the definition of marriage. I doubt Bentham commented on changing marriage to accomodate "the eccentric mode", because it would have been too radical for him to conceive of.

This is a pretty uncontroversial consequence of Bentham's utilitarian philosophy (that the *only* determination of actions as good/bad is the pleasurable/painful consequences they produce). The key is that Bentham makes no distinctions between types of pleasure (unlike Mill with his 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures). This means for Bentham sex (hetero or homo), reading Shakespeare and giving to charity are all on an equal footing (the only distinction between them being the amount of pleasure each give).

You get the same effect when you apply it to animal rights. Can animals feel pleasure/pain? If yes then they have equal status as all other pleasure/pain feeling organisms (i.e. humans) and have to be factored in equally to all considerations about the consequences of actions (see Peter Singer for more on this). Bentham's failure/refusal to differentiate between types of pleasure is usually used as a stick to beat him with although the burden then lies upon the one doing so to prove that such distinctions do in fact exist and don't all stem from their own prejudice.

I wonder how sympathetic readers would once they note one could substitute paedophilia for homosexuality in the same piece .. And conclusion unchanged. I suspect readers will scramble to introduce other unmentioned conditions to make a distinction but we can do the same with homosexuality too.

More astute readers would not "note" that, since it is not true.

Bentham's single guiding moral principle, you will recall, was that what counts is the overall excess of pleasure over pain (or vice versa) arising from an action and its consequences.

Is it your opinion that sex with children has no more harmful consequences than sex between two consenting adults of the same sex?

(I am not scrambling to introduce an unmentioned condition, here; not only because Bentham's single-mindedness about the principle of utility was and is famous, but also because he explicitly appeals to it in, e.g., the following paragraph on page 30: "In this case, where reasoning or any thing that so much as assumes or affects the colour of it—where, in a word, any argument that is capable of ranking under the principle of utility is attempted, it will be found referable principally, if not exclusively, to two heads of charge: viz. 1. Alledged mischief to population. 2. Injury to the influence—the proper, and, with a view to the aggregate interest of the whole species, the useful and desirable, influence of the female
sex." You will remark that the claim he makes here is pretty plausible in the case of same-sex sex, and very implausible in the case of sex with children.)

I'm coming naive to this issue, but is it possible that the harmful effects on children and adolescents of sexual abuse by adults would not have been understood at the time, as well as we understand them now?

Yup, eminently possible. But if we're talking about the sort of thing that's generally meant by "paedophilia" -- sex with substantially underage children -- it seems to me that even in Bentham's time there would have been obvious utilitarian-ish arguments against that Bentham would have been able to think of. Maybe less so for, say, sex with consenting 15-year-olds. (Which Bentham does, as it happens, seem to have thought was OK.)

But let's suppose for the sake of argument that (1) all Bentham's arguments would have gone through, in his day, as arguments for allowing adults to have sex with children, and that (2) allowing that would actually be very harmful. (I think #2 is true and am undecided about #1.) I don't see that that discredits the arguments he actually did make, or that it discredits him for making them; it just means that back in the early 19th century they didn't know as much as we do, and could therefore have been led by decent arguments to bad conclusions.

In any case, we should decide now what to think about same-sex sex (or anything else) on the basis of the best evidence and arguments we have now; Bentham's arguments, as such, are of historical interest only.

Well as the excellent 1-vol. treatise The Columbia history of the world. Editors: John A. Garraty [and] Peter Gay (sic) points out, in the chapter on homosexuality in Ancient Greece, the Greeks thought man-boy sex to be acceptable but sex between two older men to be ridiculous, the exact opposite of today. Further, the same genotype of people practiced homosexuality in one city-state but not in the other, proving it was not "genetic" but rather the result of social custom, again, the opposite of today's prevailing wisdom.

Right. Plato's "Symposium," which contains much praise of man-boy sex, was hardly unknown 200 years ago.

P.S. Here's Bentham's earlier essay "Offences Against One's Self: Paederasty."

In the Greek and (to a lesser extent) Roman ancient world, marriage was more functional and less emotion-laden, while romance was culturally constructed to be mostly pederastic homosexuality. This is not to say that husbands and wives weren't often deeply in love in the Ancient World, just that the the most prestigious high culture tended to endorse homosexual pederasty over heterosexuality as the most favored medium of romance.

See Plato's Symposium for some jaw-dropping stuff on what erotic love meant to the Dead White European Males in classical Athens: basically, bedding boys. Their view: A strong, aristocratic man should not waste his deepest feelings on some mere woman when he could be mentoring a beardless youth in exchange for sex.

We are constantly told that homosexuality has always been oppressed and forced into a life in the shadows (as Sen. Graham might say on a different topic). Except, that's not true. In the institutional memories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which go back to Persian and Greco-Roman times, homosexuality was what stronger men did to weaker males with the full approval of society.

....which makes the rabid religious antagonism to homosexuality a bit inexplicable? OTOH, two thousand years can cause more than trivial changes in theological doctrine.

No, it makes it more explicable. A recent example was that the rise of the anti-pedophilic Taliban was fueled in the 1990s by the scandal of two warlords in Afghanistan fighting a war over possession of a pretty boy.

Is pedophilia consensual? Can a minor give informed consent?

PS. If you are arguing that, say, a 16 year old can indeed give consent; that's a different argument.

To be clear, I am not making a point about homosexuality just noting that on its own, this passage is unconvincing given easy substitution of gross behaviour for the one intended with no internal logical problem, ie its a weak piece.

When Levy first mentioned these works in class, he gave us the pseudonym they were written under: "Gamaliel Smith".
I've seldom had a better laugh, to the bewilderment of my classmates, before or since.

Just in time for this blog...wasn't Ferguson on the losing end of a debate with Krugman a while ago? Or maybe just early with his apocalyptic predictions?

4 May 2013 Last updated at 22:02 GMT - Niall Ferguson apologises for Keynes remarks - Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson has apologised for saying the economist John Maynard Keynes did not care about society's future because he was gay and had no children. He was asked to comment on Mr Keynes's famous observation of "in the long run we are all dead".

The English upper class educational system was more or less built around pederasty, whether sublimated or acted upon. We have an enormous number of memoirs by graduates of English "public" schools, and sexual relationships (of one form or another, often less abusive than sodomy) between masters and boys or between older and younger boys were mentioned by countless writers: see the memoirs of C.S. Lewis, David Niven, Evelyn Waugh, and many others.

Isn't "built around" a bit of hyperbole?

English and German boarding schools idolized the ancient Athenians, while the French and Italians looked to the somewhat less pederastic Romans. Thus, an Italian character in Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" points out that "romantic friendships" seem to be much more common among the English and Germans than among the Italians.

From the London tabloid Sun:

Tory Deputy Speaker in gay rape arrest
Cops swoop on Nigel Evans MP

By DAVID WOODING, Associate Political Editor
Last Updated: 05th May 2013

GAY Deputy Commons Speaker Nigel Evans was arrested yesterday on suspicion of sex attacks on two men aged in their 20s.

Tory MP Mr Evans, 55, a gay rights campaigner, was questioned for 12 hours after officers swooped on his rural constituency home in Pendleton, Lancs.

Officers are focusing on allegations that he raped one man and sexually assaulted another between July 2009 and this March.
Mr Evans was detained yesterday morning at the cottage where he spends most weekends.

Read more:

Mr Evans was detained yesterday morning at the cottage where he spends most weekends.

I wonder if the writers of that article are having some fun:

Cottaging is a British gay slang term referring to anonymous sex between men in a public lavatory (a "cottage",[1] "tea-room"[2] or "beat"[3]), or cruising for sexual partners with the intention of having sex elsewhere.[4][5] The term has its roots in self-contained English toilet blocks resembling small cottages in their appearance; in the English cant language of Polari this became a double entendre by gay men referring to sexual encounters.[6]

"Cottage" is documented as having been in use during the Victorian era to refer to a public toilet and by the 1960s had become an exclusively homosexual slang term.[7][8] The word used in this sense is predominantly British (a cottage more commonly being a small, cosy, countryside home), though the term is occasionally used with the same meaning in other parts of the world.[9] Among gay men in America, lavatories used for this purpose are called tea rooms.[10][11]

Cottages were and are located in places heavily used by many people such as bus stations, railway stations, airports and university campuses.[12] Often glory holes are drilled in the walls between bathroom stalls in popular cottages.[13] Foot signals are used to signify that one wishes to connect with the person in the next stall. In some heavily used cottages, an etiquette develops and one person may function as a lookout to warn if non-cottagers are coming.[11]

Since about 1980 more of those in authority have become more aware of the existence of cottages in places under their jurisdiction and have reduced the height of or even removed doors from the stalls of popular cottages, or extended the walls between the stalls to the floor to prevent foot signalling.[14][15]

A nerd like Bentham certainly would have known that the term "paederasty" referred to homosexual activity between an adult male and a boy. And Bentham was very well educated in a time when being educated meant being highly knowledgeable in Latin and Greek. Education in Bentham's time was largely about studying and reading the Classics. Wikipedia notes that Bentham started studying Latin at age 3. He probably started Greek not too long after. "Paederasty" is a Greek derived word - "paed-"/"ped" means "child". There's no way that Bentham would have missed this or that he would have used the term differently from its common understanding.

Right! And he would of course also have known that "utility" means "usefulness" and would never, ever have used it with a loosely related but important different meaning like, say, "excess of pleasure over pain". Right? ... Oh.

From a quick perusal of the document linked here and the "Essay on Paederasty", it looks to me as if Bentham's position changed a bit between the earlier and the later document but was something like this. (1) He was in any case only concerned to defend cases in which both partners were (as he put it) "willing". (2) In the EoP he defined the term broadly and, I think, meant what he wrote. In NPBJ3 he didn't use it; perhaps he'd reconsidered its implications. (3) He thought, on the basis of historical evidence, that generally only quite young men would be sexually appealing to any other men. (This is one reason why he rejected the argument that same-sex relationships would be a threat to opposite-sex marriages.) (4) Some of the specific historical examples he gave appear to have been between men of about the same age.

So it looks to me as if he wasn't talking about sex with children; he was generally talking about sex with *young* rather than *old* men because he thought that old and young men alike would (if interested in same-sex sex at all) find only young men attractive; he didn't envisage anything much like the enduring same-sex partnerships that have become more common (or at least more visible) in recent years; he was only interested in instances where both partners were willing participants.

Well you clearly didn't start studying Latin at age 3.

The word "utility" derives from the Latin verb "uti", which also means to enjoy.

I don't deny that etymologically "utility" could have meant "enjoyment", but as it happens it didn't and doesn't. (As for the etymology, the OED claims its Latin derivation is actually not from the verb but from the noun utilitas and adjective utilis, both of which have meanings to do with utility and expedience and profit and benefit, but not pleasure or enjoyment, in the modern sense, as such.) Nor is that quite the meaning Bentham gives it.

But, indeed, I didn't start studying Latin until age 10 or thereabouts. How about you?

I started studying Latin in high school, which in the US starts at around age 13.

This source indicates that the English and Latin terms derive from the Latin verb "uti", which can also mean to enjoy:

He wasn't talking about sex with children because paederasty means sex with boys.

Also, paederasty has never implied full mutual consent. And Bentham suggests in his essay "Offences Against One's Self: Paederasty" that mutual consent was not involved in paederastic relationships:

No male therefore who was passed this short period of life could expect to find in this way any reciprocity of affection; he must be as odious to the boy from the beginning as in a short time the boy would be to him.

dune, now:

> He wasn't talking about sex with children because paederasty means sex with boys.

dune, earlier:

> “Paederasty” is a Greek derived word – “paed-”/”ped” means “child”.

You might consider making up your mind just what you want to insinuate Bentham was in favour of.

> Also, paederasty has never implied full mutual consent.

All the more reason to think that Bentham's use of the term is not exactly the same as the usual modern meaning of that term. As if his explicit definition of his terms weren't enough.

I agree that in "Offences against One's Self" Bentham's position is ambiguous. It seems less so in NPBJ. Perhaps he changed his mind. Or (more likely, I think) in OAOS he wasn't approving of relations without consent, but rather thought that typically one partner consented for reasons other than sexual appetite. (He said in so many words that if "paederasty", in whatever sense he intended it, were permitted then its role would be parallel to that of "common prostitution".)

I'm not sure Bentham was necessarily "in favour of" pederasty. Much of his essay is about critiquing traditional arguments against it rather than arguing for it as such. He does after all use words like "corrupted" "taste", "preposterous" to describe paederasty.

He doesn't explicitly define paederasty differently from what it has always meant. I think the rest of his essay makes it clear that by "paederasty" he means what it means. He even seems to suggest that he doesn't believe non-paederastic homosexuality is possible or a real phenomenon:

All the documents we have from the antients relative to this matter, and we have a great abundance, agree in this, that it is only for a very few years of his life that a male continues an object of desire even to those in whom the infection of this taste is at the strongest.

I think we can lay to rest this dispute over what Bentham exactly meant by his use of the word "paederasty". He makes explicitly clear in his essay "Offences Against One's Self: Paederasty" what exactly he means. As would be expected of a Classics scholar, Bentham is aware of the etymological roots of the term "paederasty", and he uses the term to mean what it has always meant and still means today.

A connection with a woman may by accident be followed with disgust, but a connection of the other kind, a man must know, will for certain come in time to be followed by disgust. All the documents we have from the antients relative to this matter, and we have a great abundance, agree in this, that it is only for a very few years of his life that a male continues an object of desire even to those in whom the infection of this taste is at the strongest. The very name it went by among the Greeks may stand instead of all other proofs, of which the works of Lucian and Martial alone will furnish any abundance that can be required. Among the Greeks it was called Paederastia, the love of boys, not Andrerastia, the love of men. Among the Romans the act was called Paedicare because the object of it was a boy. There was a particular name for those who had past the short period beyond which no man hoped to be an object of desire to his own sex. They were called exoleti. No male therefore who was passed this short period of life could expect to find in this way any reciprocity of affection; he must be as odious to the boy from the beginning as in a short time the boy would be to him.

> He makes explicitly clear [...] what exactly he means.

Indeed he does, but not in the particular passage you quote. He makes clear what exactly he means when he explicitly and clearly defines his terms at the outset.

What he is doing in the passage you quote, on the other hand, is saying what sort of relationships he expects to arise in practice if "paederasty" in his (broad) sense is permitted.

So, for the avoidance of doubt, I agree that in that essay (not so clearly in NPBJ3) Bentham was endorsing some relationships with young males. What is unclear (I think) is the scope of "boys" here. You've disclaimed elsewhere in the discussion (after claiming before, but no matter) the idea that he was talking about children; it seems to me that he has in mind people past puberty but still definitely young.

Which is still pretty icky to many people (including, for the avoidance of doubt, me) but isn't at all what people nowadays tend to think of when one brings up the topic of sexual relations involving the prefix "paed-". Which is why I think it's worth being clear rather than merely slinging mud.

At the outset, he doesn't explicitly indicate that he doesn't mean what the term actually means. The rest of his essay reveals that he uses the term to mean what it means i.e. homosexual activity between an adult male and a boy.

(This is a reply to dune's comment beginning "At the outset", but the commenting system doesn't allow very deeply nested comments.)

At the outset -- I mean less than a page in -- he says this: "The impropriety then may consist either in making use of an object [...] 3. Of an object of the proper species but the wrong sex. This is distinguished from the rest by the name of paederasty." How much clearer and more explicit could it be? (I remark that his #1 is "... but at an improper time", which would surely cover at least some instances of what's now commonly termed paedophilia.)

You've already said that the rest of the essay indicates that he really took it to mean sex "between an adult male and a boy", but this simply isn't true. Clearly he thought that was a common case (though, to judge from his examples, "boy" here generally means "young adult" or something close); equally clearly he didn't regard this as part of the definition of the phenomenon he's writing about, else it would have made no sense for him to ask, as he does, "Between persons of the same age [...] would not the parts they took in the business be convertible?"

At the outset, he describes various acts.

One of the acts he describes as follows: "Of an object of the proper species but the wrong sex." At this point it's not clear what exactly he means. It's vague enough that it could mean a man simulating breast-feeding a child or something. He then says, "This is distinguished from the rest by the name of paederasty." I think he's telling us here that the act he's referring to is not just any act or acts involving "the wrong sex", but that it is paederasty i.e. homosexual activity between an adult male and a boy.

I disagree that he thought that paederasty was merely a "common case". He seems to suggest that he doesn’t believe non-paederastic homosexuality is possible or a real phenomenon:

All the documents we have from the antients relative to this matter, and we have a great abundance, agree in this, that it is only for a very few years of his life that a male continues an object of desire even to those in whom the infection of this taste is at the strongest.

It's an interesting question: What comes next after gay marriage?

I suspect we'll start seeing recommendations that it's time for a reconsideration of the merits of the Athenian system.

It won't happen fast, but the triumph of gay marriage suggests that a revival of an institution with such a prestigious pedigree but such unfortunate connotations will prove a challenge that some of our most gifted propagandists won't be able to resist taking on, just to see if they can get away with it.

I think you're right, though polygamy will probably come first. The propagandists are already out on that one now that gay marriage is in the bag:

"Lesbian Activist’s Surprisingly Candid Speech: Gay Marriage Fight Is a ‘Lie’ to Destroy Marriage"

A 2012 speech by Masha Gessen, an author and outspoken activist for the LGBT community, is just now going viral and it includes a theory that many supporters of traditional marriage have speculated about for years: The push for gay marriage has less to do with the right to marry – it is about diminishing and eventually destroying the institution of marriage and redefining the “traditional family.”

The subject of gay marriage stirs powerful reactions on both sides of the argument. There are those who argue that legalizing it would diminish traditional marriage. And those advocating for gay marriage have long stated that the issue will not harm traditional marriage. Ms. Gessen’s comments on the subject seem to contradict the pro-gay-marriage party lines.

Gessen shared her views on the subject and very specifically stated;

“Gay marriage is a lie.”
“Fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we’re going to do with marriage when we get there.”
“It’s a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist.” (This statement is met with very loud applause.)

As mentioned above, Gessen also talked about redefining the traditional family. This may have something to do with the fact that she has “three children with five parents”:

“I don’t see why they (her children) shouldn’t have five parents legally. I don’t see why we should choose two of those parents and make them a sanctioned couple.”

why to the pleasures of the bed should any narrower limits be assigned?

Because people get jealous and hurt and spread disease. Obesity isn't good for people either. Over-induglence and sensual excess are universally and historically regarded as vices and symptoms of a decadent society reaching its decline.

Tyler is just signalling his status by pushing "tolerance" of lifestyle choices that he wouldn't dream of making in his personal life. As several of his commenters have pointed out, high g libertarians can't conceive that the rules of social conservatism weren't written with them in mind.

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