The flaw that prevents Bart Schultz, a professor of the humanities at the University of Chicago, from succeeding in the central ambition of his book, to rehabilitate the reputation of the English utilitarians into something more warm and appealing, is his misapprehension of the cause of their present low reputation. He imagines that the reason is that John Stuart Mill worked as a clerk for those racist imperialists at the East India Company, that Jeremy Bentham has gone down as the father of the surveillance state thanks to Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and that Henry Sidgwick was known to be socially friendly with a race theorist—in other words, that they were insufficiently enlightened by modern liberal standards.
In actuality, the English utilitarians were more modern in their opinions than any group of reformers from the Diggers to the SDS. Let other Victorians plead for leniency on grounds of being “men of their time.” The utilitarians took a twenty-first-century line on nearly every issue, from divorce to gay rights to secularism. If compliance with modern sensitivities on race and gender determined reputations, the utilitarians would be the most popular philosophical school in the Anglo-American tradition. The reason the utilitarians are so unloved today is not that they were socially unprogressive. It is that they were—in manners, in conduct, in personality—repulsive individuals.
Take William Godwin. It was quite an achievement, in an age before celebrity journalism, to gain a national reputation for being such a total prat. In a way, his repulsiveness saved his life. The prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, did not deal lightly with atheist anarchists in the days of the French Revolution, and Godwin might well have been sent to Botany Bay on a treason charge as had the Scottish Martyrs of 1794, if the authorities had not decided that he was too ridiculous. His 1793 book An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was incendiary, but also long and difficult. Godwin may have condemned kings, but he also condemned family affection, written laws, and, most absurdly, the theater, which he considered inauthentic because actors did not write their own lines. Other radicals were denounced in the patriotic press; Godwin was more often lampooned.