by Alexander B. Joy
[A stone plateau, wreathed in flame. At its center, the celebrated English philosopher JEREMY BENTHAM is stretched over a rack. RIMMON, a talkative and affable demon, operates the controls at his side.]
RIMMON: Well, Mr. Bentham, I’m afraid I’m not allowed to apologize for the accommodations. Any discomfort you feel is rather more a feature than a bug, you see. Comes with the territory and all. But, with any luck, perhaps you’ll not be down here long.
BENTHAM: That’s something of a relief to hear, Mr.—
[Nearby, human bodies soar upward and out of view like marionettes yanked offstage, taking Bentham’s attention with them.]
RIMMON: Be seeing you!
[A few moments pass before Bentham collects himself.]
BENTHAM: You know, I had previously believed the colonies’ violent rebellion over tea taxes would prove the most bizarre sight my eyes would ever witness, but that airborne train of humanity eclipses it completely. Please do pardon my distraction. Nonetheless, I apologize for the rudeness of abandoning you mid-sentence, Mr… Ah…
RIMMON: Rimmon, sir. But I’ve gone by many other names, none of which have managed to offend me. You may call me what you please.
BENTHAM: Thank you. Yes, Mr. Rimmon, it is indeed a relief to imagine that your, ah, most attentive ministrations may not continue in perpetuity. Not solely because I wish an end to your astonishingly painful hospitality (though I confess its cessation would bring me inestimable pleasure), but because it would show me God’s boundless capacity for forgiveness firsthand, and confirm my understanding of His infinite mercy. I could not deny the fundamental goodness of creation if His absolution extends even to the pits of Hell to grant mercy to old sinners like me.
RIMMON: Oho, my dear Mr. Bentham! There is no such God. And I say this not to compound your despair, but to relate a matter of fact. Consider it knowledge extended as a professional courtesy to one who loved wisdom in life. Truly, how could you believe that the God of Deuteronomy – who threatens damnation over something as trifling as mixing fabrics! – could ever be a god of mercy? Ah, look over there! A new shipment is arriving. I’d bet you good money my old friend Gloria is included.
BENTHAM: A new what now?
[In the distance, shrieking bodies drop from unseen heights like irregular hailstones. Bentham regards them with bewilderment.]
BENTHAM: But I don’t understand, my good Mr. Rimmon. If an all-forgiving God is not part of the equation, how else might I be delivered of this agonizing place?
RIMMON: Why, Mr. Bentham, because of the rules. For mortals like yourself, Heaven and Hell are contingent states.
BENTHAM: Sir, you leave me still more confused.
RIMMON: Then further professional courtesy is in order! I suppose I should begin with what may constitute good news from your perspective.
BENTHAM: I would welcome the momentary reprieve from my current anguish, Mr. Rimmon.
RIMMON: Ha ha! That’s the spirit, Mr. Bentham. In that case, it is my honor and privilege to inform you that your vision of ethics was, in fact, correct. How did you put it again? “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong?” Such a lovely turn of phrase! You truly hit the nail on the head with that one – recognizing that the fallout of an action is what matters, intention be damned. (Do pardon the choice of terminology. I haven’t your gift of diction.) Well, what do you say to that? Surely it pleases a philosopher like yourself to learn that he’s managed to carve reality at the joints!
BENTHAM: It does bring me some measure of satisfaction to be told I’ve articulated a fundamental moral law, though I hope I’ll be pardoned the accompanying twinge of pride. But surely I am not being punished for revealing that truth?
RIMMON: Not at all, Mr. Bentham! If anything, your efforts to communicate it to humanity are a mark in your favor. But you see, we must now apply and extend that moral law of yours. If an action’s goodness depends on how much benefit it has delivered unto the world – and likewise, its wickedness judged in proportion to the mischief it has wrought – then it implies two core facets to every action.
BENTHAM: The first being that the goodness or badness of an action is not inherent in the action itself, but contingent upon its consequences?
RIMMON: Correct, Mr. Bentham, absolutely correct. While the second – and perhaps more important for your purposes – is that this contingency is tied to a particular moment in time.
BENTHAM: How so?
RIMMON: Oho, look at me! Talking shop with such a renowned philosopher! Do forgive my enthusiasm if you find it unbecoming. It’s simply that I’m an ardent fan of your Panopticon; or The Inspection-House. Can’t praise it enough, really. Nor am I alone in my appreciation. Management thinks so highly of it that they named it required reading.
BENTHAM: I assure you, Mr. Rimmon, of all that has transpired throughout our at once too brief and too lengthy acquaintance, this is not what I will hold against you.
RIMMON: You have my thanks. Now then, let us think of an action not as a thing, like a fly-bottle or a stick bent in water, but as an event – a succession of intervals comprising a beginning, middle, and end. For instance, let’s consider… What action shall we consider, Mr. Bentham?
BENTHAM: Freeing me from this exceedingly uncomfortable rack?
RIMMON: An excellent example!
BENTHAM: Or removing the, what did you call them, “urethral centipedes?” In fact, I suggest we strongly consider that one…
[Bentham trails off upon realizing Rimmon is too lost in thought to heed his remarks.]
RIMMON: Now, we could say that the beginning of the action is when I conceive of releasing you from the rack, the middle is when I endeavor to do it, and the end is when I succeed or fail. The point is that all of these do not happen at once. There is a time when the action begins, a time when it executes, and a time when it concludes. Are we agreed?
BENTHAM: I should like to test this particular example first, lest I answer you erroneously.
RIMMON: Ha ha! Why, Mr. Bentham, we both know philosophers are masters of the hypothetical, and have seldom needed to see a thing work in practice in order to declare that it works in theory. Therefore, in that spirit, I shall proceed as though you agree with me. In any case, the takeaway from our example is that timing is everything when it comes to actions, because the state of affairs varies at any given moment. The action is either done, or it isn’t; its consequences either have or have not occurred. And, of course, the consequences of an action function the same way – they are best framed as events. As are their consequences, and those that follow them, and so on.
BENTHAM: I begin to grasp your meaning. We might say that the consequences of an action are always ongoing. Their full extent is never completely realized, because we can only determine the ethical content of their consequences at a given moment in time.
BENTHAM: And in turn, this would mean that the goodness or badness of an action is not determined solely at the time of its commission, but during each successive moment thereafter. For example, we might imagine a city planner who orders the construction of a dam, thereby flooding a small village and displacing its inhabitants. These displaced persons suffer from their forced evacuation, making the city planner’s actions wicked in that moment, before his intended outcomes have been realized. But perhaps the rerouted river provides potable water for thousands more people once the dam and city are completed. At that point, because the increase in happiness has finally taken effect, the city planner’s actions would be considered virtuous. And perhaps his actions would revert to wickedness once more if the residents of his city prove bellicose, and subject blameless neighboring populations to harm.
RIMMON: Indeed so, Mr. Bentham. And thus you arrive at the reason why Heaven and Hell are contingent states. Goodness and badness are matters of unceasing recalculation. As long as time marches on, the moral implications of one’s deeds are never fully settled – and neither is the question of whether a person has proven virtuous or vicious. Therefore, we cannot ever say that someone belongs in Heaven or Hell permanently. The fairest course is to shuttle them between the two in accordance with their present moral state, as computed via the ramifications of their actions at any given moment. Souls are regularly whisked from one to the other and back as their deeds reverberate throughout the ages.
[A lone figure vaults overhead, graceful in flight, as if carried by her volition alone.]
RIMMON: Ah, there goes one now. Why, it’s Gloria again! Look at her graceful ascent heavenward! She’s been down and back several times this past year already. You know, during her first transfer, she was taken by such surprise that she found herself stuck in an undignified posture, and crossed the threshold of Heaven rump first. Ha ha! But by this point, she’s an old hand at the business, and rises through the air like a ballerina leaping across the stage. Awesome move! Or, I had better say, “Sick transit, Gloria!” Onward and upward. Be seeing you.
BENTHAM: But Mr. Rimmon, I’m still unclear on some key matters. What I have I done to wind up here? And how long do you suppose I’ll remain?
RIMMON: The future’s not ours to see, Mr. Bentham. But if I were to venture a prediction… You could remain with me some while yet. After all, the current reason you’re assigned to me is that your magnificent tract on the Panopticon has begotten some rather nasty business.
BENTHAM: Given all we’ve discussed – and my own sorry state at this moment – I am afraid to ask what mischief my work has wrought. And yet I must.
RIMMON: Oh, Mr. Bentham, your Panopticon has done some serious damage indeed. Where to begin? For starters, it has encouraged corporations to intrude upon the private lives of their employees as they claim the need to monitor a steadily more invasive stream of biometrics – from the amount of time their workers spend exercising, to the number of hours they sleep, to the frequency and extent of their lavatory breaks. It has turned remote schooling and standardized testing into a series of increasingly arcane rules that have little to do with actual education, such as demanding students keep their eyes affixed to certain parts of their computer screens in the name of preventing dishonesty. And most heinous of all, Panopticism has armed totalitarian governments with an excuse to claim powers of global surveillance, thereby enabling and expediting the murders of dissidents and journalists and other species of truth-tellers…
BENTHAM: My word!
RIMMON: Yes, my dear Mr. Bentham. It’s a grim situation – for you and the world alike. Take heart, however. The future is vast, and full of possibility. Maybe your departure from this place is imminent. But between you and me, I would suggest you settle in for the long haul.
Alexander B. Joy lives and works in his native New Hampshire, where he spends the long winters reading the world’s classics and composing haiku. In the nonfiction realm, he typically writes about literature, film, and philosophy. At long last, his Twitter feed (@aeneas_nin) features dog pictures.
This story came to me after a friend and I discussed what the “statute of limitations” on an action should be within a utilitarian framework. How long can action be held against you, for example, and how many subsequent causes would be calculated in an action’s overall utility? I wondered what it would look like if the answers to both were “forever” and “all of them.” What you read here is the result.
The most delightful discourse I’ve read that also includes the term ‘urethral centipedes’.