Two hundred years ago, Jeremy Bentham advocated: equal rights for women, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of the death penalty, and animal rights.
He was a radical political reformer.
He was the founder of utilitarianism and defined the purpose of a civilised society as "the greatest happiness for the greatest number".
At the time it was a revolutionary thought.
Nowadays we think it’s obvious and we take it for granted.
But like everything we take for granted, it isn’t quite that simple.
John Stuart Mill accepted the value of Bentham’s position, but questioned it.
What if hanging an innocent man made 1,000 people smile?
Would that be "the greatest happiness for the greatest number"?
And, even if it was, would it be right?
So JS Mill felt Bentham’s definition needed modification.
Mill saw it as "the greatest good, on balance, for the greatest number".
It must be the greatest "good", not just the greatest happiness.
And it must be "on balance" so it’s in the public’s best interest.
Clearly Mill’s modification is an improvement on Bentham’s principle.
But more than that, it’s an example of a dialectic.
That sounds complicated but it’s simple common sense.
Dialectic just means to critique and build upon each other’s position.
So: every discussion starts with a thesis.
(Something one person believes to be right.)
This is countered with an antithesis.
(The opposite view, exposing possible problems.)
This results, after discussion, into a synthesis.
(The best of both sides are combined.)
This becomes the new thesis.
This is obviously a sensible and civilised way to carry on a discussion.
1) Raise it. 2) Question it. 3) Improve it.
But that isn’t the way we have discussions anymore.
Sides are chosen and then there is no discussion, no compromise.
The object is merely to vilify and destroy the other side.
One of the main contributing factors is online and social media.
Data collection and algorithms drive what arrives on our screen in front of us every day.
Data collection detects what we think.
Algorithms then provide us with more and more of that.
So technology creates a bubble around us – we are never exposed to contrasting views.
This has two effects.
First, we think there aren’t any sensible differing views, because we never see them sensibly expressed.
Second, all we ever see is people ridiculing the other side.
Which means, if we don’t want to be ridiculed we’d better not express any views that differ from the majority.
So there is no possibility of a dialectic.
No possibility of a sensible discussion and compromise.
There is simply ridicule and abuse.
Data gathering and algorithms create a bubble then reinforce the bubble.
I recently saw this quote: "Your mind is increasingly exploitable if you’re accustomed to a flow of news and information increasingly curated to your tastes."
We have retreated to what debate was like in the dark days before the Enlightenment.
Far from enlightening us, technology is taking us backwards.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.