Renowned legal theorist Ronald Dworkin (© Dan Brown) writes an occasional column for the Guardian. His renown in my household (ie with me and the cat) comes from his irrational hostility to Jeremy Bentham's body of work. That this man is now the Bentham professor of jurisprudence at University College, London, is an affront to British intellectual history. Bentham would be a-spinning in his grave, were it not that his corpse was preserved, and is mounted, in a glass case in the self-same college, UCL, where Dworkin now professes to teach.
The issue here is Bentham's critique of natural rights as 'nonsense on stilts'. Bentham was spot on, of course, but such an insight can be existentially threatening to American minds, such as Dworkin's, whose republic was founded on the belief that human beings possess innate rights; it's a central tenet of the Americanist civil religion.
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Self-evidently, Jefferson was delusional - all humans are created unequally and they possess no rights other than those their society gives them. But Americans are indoctrinated from birth to believe otherwise, and Americanist missionaries, such as Dworkin, are determined that the rest of us believe as they do.
Dworkin's most recent missive was, predictably, a defence of the UK's human rights legislation. He ended with a dig at Simon Jenkins, who'd written a piece on human rights that had started promisingly but had ended in a confused heap. Dworkin wrote:
Simon Jenkins, in the Sunday Times, recently declared his enthusiasm for the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham who said that all that matters is the greatest happiness of the greatest number, and that the whole idea of human rights is therefore "nonsense upon stilts". But Europe, led by Britain, rejected Bentham's utilitarianism after the second world war when it established the European human rights convention.
This is dishonest, deceptive nonsense, especially the word 'therefore'. Jenkins was not, as Dworkin implies, extolling the 'greatest happiness' principle. Further, the 18th-century concept of natural rights, and the mid-20th-century notion of human rights, are different, so Bentham had no opinion on 'human rights', as they had not yet been formulated. (The two are linked, historically and conceptually, but they are distinct.) Also, Bentham's Critique of the Doctrine of Inalienable, Natural Rights is not dependent at all on his 'greatest happiness principle' - that Bentham was wrong about utilitarianism is irrelevant to the validity or otherwise of his polemic against the ideology of inalienable rights. A Bentham professor of jurisprudence who misrepresents Bentham for political purposes - what was UCL thinking?
It's been three days since the Guardian published Dworkin's column, and each day I've read the Corrections and Clarifications column waiting for the correction to appear. If it doesn't appear tomorrow, I'll email them. But whom are they more likely to believe on Bentham, me or the eponymous professor?