Two months ago, I started trying to wring a correction out of the Guardian, after one of their occasional columnists, Ronald Dworkin, claimed that Jeremy Bentham had viewed the 'whole idea of human rights' as "nonsense upon stilts". (Dworkin is the Bentham professor of jurisprudence at UCL.) For weeks, the Corrections office blanked me. Last week I tried again, this time threatening Ian Mayes that, if I still got no reply, I'd write to the editor, the external ombudsman, the Scott trustees and UCL.
Two days later, Mayes' assistant wrote back to me with Dworkin's reply. Dworkin wrote thus:
I said that Bentham condemned human rights as nonsense on stilts because I was criticizing Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times who said, "Bentham was correct. There are no fundamental human rights. The concept, said the great utilitarian, is 'nonsense on stilts'." Your reader objects, to me and therefore to Jenkins, that Bentham spoke of natural rights not human rights. But your reader is making the mistake of conflating words and ideas. Both phrases refer to the same idea. He is guilty of another confusion in saying that human rights did not exist when Bentham wrote. He must mean that the term "human rights" was not in general use then, which is a different matter. If human rights exist now, they have existed for as long as there have been human beings, or at least human beings in political society. He makes a different claim about utilitarianism. Whether human rights exist or not is a matter of the ontology of value not value-free ontology. If Bentham's utilitarianism is correct then there cannot be rights and, as he said, particularly not natural or human rights. If Bentham's utilitarianism is wrong, his "nonsense" claim must be wrong, for reasons Kant pointed out.
Under the fold, I've included the full text of my reply to Dworkin. It was a poor reply, which missed the mark. I tried to answer each of the points he raised, but It was the wrong strategy, and the Guardian found in his favour. But this was my response to his last sentence, in which he had cited Kant.
If Bentham's utilitarianism is wrong, his "nonsense" claim must be wrong, for reasons Kant pointed out.
Would Professor Dworkin please provide a citation for this? When I first read this sentence, it seemed decisively impressive. But then I remembered that Bentham's Anarchical Fallacies, wherein he wrote of inalienable rights as 'nonsense upon stilts', was not, to my limited knowledge, published until around the year of his death, 1832. And Immanuel Kant died in 1804. So, how could Kant have pointed out the falsity of Bentham's 'nonsense' claim? This would therefore appear to be another of RD's anachronistic attributions, but I'd appreciate a citation if one exists. (And if RD is in touch with a medium who's in contact with dead philosophers who will share their thoughts on things post their mortem, could you ask him to ask the medium to ask Thomas Hobbes what he thinks of the United States, especially from its civil war to the present day - thanks.)
I doubt I'll hear back from Dworkin, so if anyone reading this knows their Kant or Bentham, could you please tell me where Kant addressed Bentham's utilitarianism and natural rights? Is Dworkin right, or is he making it up as he goes along, trying to sound impressive but, like the rest of us, full of **it?
Mayes' assistant wrote back the next day.
Your questions and comments deal with matters of opinion and interpretation which are outside the remit of the Readers' editor. We have passed Professor Dworkin's reply to you, and although we cannot speak for him, he is unlikely to want to continue the debate. May I suggest you send a short, and as succinct as possible (300 words), letter for publication for consideration by the Letters editor (email@example.com). Otherwise, there is nothing to stop you writing to Professor Dworkin at University College London. I'm sorry we cannot help further
best wishes Helen
That reply left me livid, partly because it signalled my failure. I've lost much confidence in the Guardian reader's editor as a neutral arbiter. I might try emailing Dworkin to see if I can get the Kant citation off him. Whatever, this episode has left me unsatisfied.