Thanks to critics from Charles Dickens to Michel Foucault, pre-20th century utilitarian philosophers have gained a reputation as amoral libertines or cold rationalists, impervious to what people today might call "social justice." But William Godwin, Jeremy Bentham, and other classical utilitarians were dedicated humanists, deeply concerned with social reform, and often radically progressive on women's rights, sexual relations, and other cultural issues.
In The Happiness Philosophers (Princeton), the University of Chicago philosophy professor Bart Schultz explores how these liberal values were not in tension with utilitarianism but a natural outgrowth of the philosophy's emphasis on maximizing happiness. As a reading experience, the book suffers from a dry academic tone and disjointed format, but it is peppered with interesting information.
"Bentham, more than any other figure discussed in this book, needs to be made a renewed figure of wonder," argues Schultz. By the end of his career, the thinker had advocated women's suffrage, opposed the spread of colonial empire, and argued that we should be free to choose partners of the "opposite sex or of the same sex" and that the "portions and parts of the body employed" should be entirely up to the two "or more than two" parties involved.
John Stuart Mill, for his part, co-authored with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill treatises against domestic violence and male domination and tracts in favor of women's education. He also argued against slavery and the supposed biological inferiority of blacks, even while supporting some aspects of British colonialism.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Happiness Philosophers".