La concepción del “interés” para el utilitarismo clásico a la luz de su representación de la condición colonial : un análisis de la obra de Jeremy Bentham y de las contribuciones de su discípulo James Mill


D’Odorico, Gabriela
Martyniuck, Claudio




361 p.


Atribución-NoComercial-SinDerivadas 2.0 Genérica (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)




How can Jeremy Bentham’s doctrine (Classical Utilitarianism) make compatible its universal conception of human nature and moral-cum-political-doctrine, based on the objective character of the “utility principle”, with his understanding -and that of his disciple James Mill- that the Indian natives’ behaviour is akin to the imposition of a system of management known as the “British Patronage”?

We should be reminded that Classical Utilitarianism promotes the “radical reform” of the institutions and forms of government based on custom of any society: it claims to offer the “tools” that can liberate any society from the weight of its own past. To achieve this goal, it bases its doctrine on a universal conception of human nature (human hedonism) and holds that the “principle of utility” -being compatible with human nature- is the only objective criterion that could serve anyone as the adequate critical tool to evaluate both private and public conduct.

Our dissertation explores the limits of this doctrine in the context of Bentham and Mill’s “writings on the future of colonies”. In the first chapters (Chapters 1 and 2), we analyse their “colonial writings” and contrast their arguments that justify the emancipation of “colonies” of “European settlements” and those that justify the authoritarian imposition of a British Patronage in the East on the basis that it is akin to the “natives’ behaviour”. In the remaining chapters (Chapters 3, 4 and 5) we analyse the utilitarian doctrine, and argue that these “colonialist attitudes” are not merely “epochal prejudices”, rather, they are grounded on their theories on human motivation and their moral and political philosophies. We also emphasize that the authoritarian model of “British Patronage” cannot be justified on “the tension” between state intervention or control and individual autonomy identified by some critics of the “doctrine” when they point out the “divergence of results” that stem from the legislator’s application of the “utility principle” to the public sphere, and the individual’s application of the “utility principle” to the private sphere.

To prove this point, we analyse their works on “human motivation” and on “private ethics” and evaluate the relevance that the notion of “human interest” attains in their doctrines. Their descriptions of “human interest” reveal:
a. that the “tension” recently mentioned gets resolved by the dynamic interaction between individuals in society: the individual tends to “rationalize his/her self-interest” making it compatible with the public criterion of utility, thus implying that “private interests” and the “public interest” tend to converge; their descriptions of “human interest” also reveal:
b. that their representations of the “colonized” as incapable of self-government reflected in their “colonial writings” are not unrelated to that theoretical conception of “human interest”.

We thus conclude that the individual’s “conception of his/her self-interest” describes a process of rationalizacion based on utility divested of the scientific nature initially postulated: the utility criterion loses “universal validity” in both Bentham and Mill’s works because their theories on human motivation lose their original hedonistic anchorage. Their moral and political engineering plans end up being based on a theory of human motivation that is not neutral nor natural: since it describes a specific form of “association of ideas” with what is understood as the individual’s “real interest” that assumes the “european historical experience”, thus reinstating its primacy and delineating forms of exclusion and subjection of vast sectors of the world population.

Our analysis of the limits and consistency of Classical Utilitarianism -seen under the light of their “colonial writings”- contributes to the ongoing debate over the “internal consistency” of the utilitarian doctrine. Differently from E. Halévy and R. Harrison, who understand that the “utilitarian individual” is merely an “egoistic agent” concerned with “private interests” (Halévy: 1955, 17-8; Harrison: 1983, 4, 109, 115), our reading -which relates to H. L. A. Hart’s thesis- shows how, according to the doctrine, the individual is “capable” of becoming a citizen -of becoming a subject with “moral and political autonomy”. However, the utilitarians’ account of the “individual process of configuration of self-interests” reveals that the theory of human motivation is not strictly based on human hedonism. Bentham and Mill describe how individuals tend to “expand” what they understand as their “self-interests”, how in the search (and expectation) of “lasting happiness” they develop a rational choice of their own preferences prioritizing “broad interests” that contemplate “extra-regarding interests” which might imply sacrificing “narrower egoistic interests”. This individual tendency to “expand” his/her “self-interest” reveals that the individual is capable to accept “autonomously” -beyond the threat of legal punishments- the rationality of laws, and to evaluate his/her “self-interests” taking into account the public criterion of utility -“the greatest happiness of the community”- as a regulative guidance. (Hart: IPML, xciv-xcv)

By highlighting the mutual regulation between “private interests” and the “public interest” within the utilitarian society, our reading distances itself from the interpretations that emphasize the distance between the utilitarian “model of society” and that -traditionally heldby British Classical Liberalism which, in broad terms, postulated the “moral and political autonomy of individuals”. In this sense, it questions Halévy’s and Harrison’s interpretations which present the “utilitarian society” as the product of a “burocratic and authoritarian state” that manipulates and harmonizes “artificially” “egoistic interests” in the way in which the British Patronage would have it, and which therefore, are incapable of linking their “colonialist policies” with their theories on “human interest”.

Finally, our reading can also contribute to the “critical studies” of “modern epistemologies” which describe the euro-centric bias in modern epistemology, since it reveals that the “dynamics of the individual configuration of self-interests” involves a subjectivation process that is not universally valid, one that delineates specific forms of marginalizing non-european populations from moral and political autonomy, locating them beyond pre-history or as Europe’s infancy.

Moreso, the relevance of the analysis of Classical Utilitarianism and colonialism relies on the fact that since Utilitarianism promotes a “radical reform” of any society based on “utility”, it cannot revert openly to the thesis of the gradual historical development of societies held by the 18th century tradition of British Classical Liberalism. Therefore, this analysis of Utilitarianism and colonialism reveals how the legitimation of a euro-centric form of knowledge and consequent invalidation of other knowledges and subjects of knowledge is included in the concept of “human interest”, it discloses how “human interest” becomes an acritic notion linked to autonomy, an operation that -we might argue- is still in force by the way we naturalize reason and the conception of “human interest” with the idea of “calculation”.

Título obtenido

Doctora de la Universidad de Buenos Aires en Ciencias Sociales

Institución otorgante

Universidad de Buenos Aires. Facultad de Ciencias Sociales

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