My dissertation, The Politics of Happiness and the Practice of Democracy, is concerned with different ways of conceptualizing happiness and the political implications of those concepts for the social structures around which society functions. The dissertation proceeds through a close examination of the work of William Thompson (responsible for bringing the term “social science” into print in English) and his mentor Jeremy Bentham. While both seek “the greatest happiness,” the conclusions they reach are radically different: Bentham’s theory is an important contribution to liberal capitalist ideology and mainstream democratic thought, while Thompson lays the foundations for cooperative socialism and radical democracy. I conclude that the differences between them arise because, in contrast to Bentham’s individualistic hedonism, Thompson understands happiness as a deeply social concept, the nature of which is strongly affected by the institutions that structure social interaction. Maximizing happiness, in Thompson’s view, requires that social institutions be based on principles of voluntarism, equality and democracy, with democratic practices embedded in the very structure of social institutions. I argue in the dissertation that Thompson’s work forms the ideological basis for the modern cooperative movement—which, with some 800 million members worldwide (including 130 million Americans), may be considered the world’s largest social movement.
Chapter 1: Introduction
I begin with a brief history of happiness in the Western world, which demonstrates its diversity and development, including a summary of the current literature and the distinction between subjective and objective approaches to the question of well-being. I also present a brief biography of Thompson that discusses his relationship to Bentham, Robert Owen, JS Mill and Karl Marx. I conclude with a short discussion of Bentham and some of the controversies that surround his work.
|Chapter 2: What is Happiness? I: Bentham
This chapter offers a close examination of Bentham’s conception of happiness, and its relationship to pleasure and well-being. In my research I was surprised to find these issues glossed over in the secondary literature, with happiness often equated with pleasure, or used as a stand-in for utility. Bentham himself doesn’t talk about happiness all that much, focusing instead on pleasure and pain as the means by which it can be achieved. While Bentham’s theory is certainly hedonistic, he makes a further distinction between happiness and well-being: Happiness is the experience of pleasure in the moment, while well-being is the balance of pleasure over pain over a stretch of time, and it is well-being that he considers to be the ultimate end of human action. He considers happiness rare, but well-being to be the normal state of things, given minimal conditions. Bentham scholars, including in the more recent revisionist literature, generally ignore and at times go so far as to deny this distinction. The distinction is important, however, in understanding the social dimensions of Bentham's work. Indeed, his emphasis on security and wealth, which involve the deferral of pleasure and the experience of pain, only make sense within a framework of well-being. Bentham’s conception of happiness, I argue, sits between pleasure and well-being, pointing toward one or the other depending on the context. I find that the reduction of well-being to happiness and the further reduction of happiness to pleasure clearly evident in neoclassical economics are deeply problematic, because the larger requirements of well-being are stripped away, leaving the hedonic calculus unbounded by the realities of human experience and economics barren of its social significance.
|Chapter 3: What is Happiness? II: Thompson
The examination of Thompson’s conception of happiness begins by exploring the ways in which Robert Owen’s philosophy of necessity, the idea that character is formed by circumstances, inserts an important social dimension to Thompson’s thought. From here, the similarities between his and Bentham’s views, which lie largely in Thompson’s recognition that pleasure is essential to happiness and that wealth (material goods produced by labor) is the primary source of pleasure, appear largely superficial. Unlike Bentham, Thompson equates happiness with well-being, which makes his view of happiness necessarily social. He also recognizes a hierarchy of pleasures with physical pleasure at the bottom and social and intellectual pleasures higher up. Emphasizing a fundamental equality based on the capacity to experience happiness on much stronger terms than does Bentham, Thompson argues that voluntarism is an essential principle for happiness, and that self-interest, which is unavoidable, must be distinguished from socially destructive selfishness. So, where Bentham seeks to suppress the pursuit of self-interest through coercive laws, Thompson seeks to unleash it through the establishment of social institutions that promote the alignment of self- and social interest. The chapter concludes with a discussion of ways that Thompson’s theory corresponds to the contemporary literature (mostly in economics) on happiness and well-being.
|Chapter 4: Security and Equality in the Theory of Utility
As we see in this chapter, Bentham’s and Thompson’s different conceptions of happiness lead to different theories of utility. The chapter begins with a brief consideration of particular elements of Bentham’s theory, particularly with regard to the tension between its individualistic and social aspects. Of special interest here is his argument that equality, while important, often conflicts with and is subsidiary to security. Most of the chapter is focused on Thompson, who does not directly articulate a theory of utility, so this must be constructed out of his writings. This begins with his reconciliation of security and equality and his critique of institutional structures based on competition and subordination. I also explore his political economics with particular attention to his arguments regarding private property. The chapter concludes with a summary statement of his theory of utilitarianism.
|Chapter 5: Democracy and the Politics of Happiness
With the last substantive chapter, Chapter Five, the material of the prior chapters is brought to bear in an examination of Bentham’s and Thompson’s respective theories of democracy. Here again, where Bentham wrote voluminously on the subject, Thompson says little directly. Further, over the course of a long career, Bentham’s views went through several changes, all of which are important in understanding his final position in favor of republicanism and “radical reform.” Thompson, on the other hand, was a consistent democrat. Again, there is much correspondence between their theories—-for example, both stress the importance of public opinion—-but as we might expect their differences are substantial. Where Bentham may be considered a “mainstream” democratic theorist, whose vision of democratic practices extend only so far as the governance of the state, Thompson is what we might call today a “radical” democrat, one who believed that democratic practices must be extended deeply into social institutions. Self-government, in Thompson’s theory, applies both to the cooperative community—-the specific context of his theory-—as well as to the individuals within the community. One implication of Thompson’s emphasis on equality is that democracy becomes, in effect, a principle of social interaction, and not just a mode of governance.
|Chapter 6: From Theory to Practice: Cooperatives, Happiness and Democratic Social Change
The essence of Thompson's work is that the greatest happiness of the greatest number requires the establishment of social institutions founded on principles of equality, democratic self-governance, voluntarism and communal ownership of property. It is no accident that these principles form the foundation of the modern cooperative movement. There’s no way around the fact that the cooperative communities Thompson advocated failed: None were ever established according to his plans, and the communities developed in his time all failed. However, some years after his death the modern cooperative movement was born with the establishment of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. I argue that the Cooperative Principles as articulated today by the International Cooperative Alliance (formerly known as the Rochdale Principles), clearly show Thompson’s influence. Ultimately, cooperatives today can be recognized as embodying Thompson’s idea that the happiness of each is inseparable from the happiness of all. With 800 million members around the world including all the advanced democracies, considers itself the world's largest NGO, and makes reference to a cooperative “movement”. However, many cooperatives, especially in the advanced capitalist countries, find themselves under pressure to give up their democratic, egalitarian character in the face of intense competitive pressures from traditional capitalist firms and the twin challenges of apathy on the part of members, and the increasing professionalization of management, that finds democratic practices inconvenient or even threatening. In order to retain its distinctive character as the world's most extensive existing alternative to traditional capitalism -- at a time when we are in need of alternative models -- cooperatives need to retain a political sense of themselves as part of a movement for social change.
|Chapter 7: Conclusion
Happiness is a simple thing, or so we like to think. But conceptions of happiness are quite another matter. In the conclusion I argue that happiness can be understood as among the set of “essentially contested concepts,” and that understanding the differences between different conceptions of happiness can explain the differences between Bentham’s and Thompson’s theories—and the ideological systems, such as liberal capitalism and socialism, that are related to them. I also discuss some ways in which an understanding of Thompson’s theory has important implications for understanding the political character of the cooperative movement, and what this means for cooperatives today. I also consider further directions for research, including historical research on Thompson’s contribution to political economics in the 19th century. With regard to using Thompson as a basis for further development of a political theory of cooperatives, I suggest further research on radical democracy and community theory.
|Table of contents and bibliography (pdf)
Sample chapters (Ch. 2 and 4) (pdf)
Return to home page