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Bentham’s Fallacies, Then and Now

MELBOURNE – In 1809, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, set to work on The Book of Fallacies. His goal was to expose the fallacious arguments used to block reforms like the abolition of “rotten boroughs” – electorates with so few electors that a powerful lord or landowner could effectively select the member of parliament, while newer cities like Manchester remained unrepresented.

Bentham collected examples of fallacies, often from parliamentary debates. By 1811, he had sorted them into nearly 50 different types, with titles like “Attack us, you attack Government,” the “No precedent argument,” and the “Good in theory, bad in practice” fallacy. (One thing on which both Immanuel Kant and Bentham agree is that this last example is a fallacy: If something is bad in practice, there must be a flaw in the theory.)

Bentham was thus a pioneer of an area of science that has made considerable progress in recent years. He would have relished the work of psychologists showing that we have a confirmation bias (we favor and remember information that supports, rather than contradicts, our beliefs); that we systematically overestimate the accuracy of our beliefs (the overconfidence effect); and that we have a propensity to respond to the plight of a single identifiable individual rather than a large number of people about whom we have only statistical information.

Bentham did not rush to publish his work. An abridged version appeared in French in 1816, and in English in 1824, but the complete work remained in manuscript form until its publication this year as part of an ongoing project, under the editorship of Philip Schofield of University College, London, to publish Bentham’s collected works.