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Reactionary Politics and the Remaking of the Economic Subject: Bentham and Godwin in the Shadow of Revolution

Date and Time: 
Thursday, February 8, 2018. 04:45 PM - 06:15 PM
Meeting Location: 
Humanities Center, Watt Dining Room
History of Political Thought
Meeting Description: 

Matthew Wormer's paper focuses on the evolution of the concept of utility during the crucial decade of the 1790s. Focusing on the parallel lives of Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin, the two most influential of the early utilitarian writers, Matthew traces the fate of their competing notions of utility during the years of political reaction which followed the outbreak of the French Revolution. Specifically, he demonstrates the close relationship between Godwin’s concept of utility and that developed by Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, both of which placed utility in a relational theory of human psychology, emphasizing the imaginative faculties of the human mind. By contrast, he demonstrates that Bentham radically diverges from both Smith and Godwin in proposing a “felicific calculus” which would allow for the mathematical calculation of human pleasure and pain. Utility under Bentham’s definition is a calculable function derivable from the predictable actions of self-interested, atomized individuals; it is here, rather than in Smith, that the outlines of an identifiable homo economicus come into view.

Matthew Wormer is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Stanford University.