Utilitarianism made for ‘Hard Times’ in Dickens’ England

by Anya VerKamp,

Charles Dickens, an author witnessing firsthand the harsh impacts of the industrial revolution, wrote a novel that contains in it some of the themes still present in degrowth discourse today. His novel Hard Times demonstrates the invasion of utilitarianism and its economic implications into human relationships and education. Art is Dickens preferred form of dépense to replace the hegemony of utilitarianism.

Dickens was a staunch anti-utilitarianist. While Dickens was writing Hard Times, Utilitarianism was the prominent philosophy in industrial England, founded by Jeremy Bentham.[1] Utilitarians believed that human actions should be judged based on how much pleasure (sometimes referred to as happiness) or pain they produced for the greatest number of people. Anti-utilitarians, as described in the anthology Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, believe there is more behind human action than selfish desires for pleasure or aversion to pain. Humans are also driven by social bonds and concerns that go beyond themselves and their immediate communities.

Among other things, Bentham claimed that people would always choose to do what was pleasant and therefore the poor would always claim public assistance rather than work.[2] Bentham’s secretary and disciple, Edwin Chadwick, thus designed England’s Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 to discourage the poor from seeking relief by making it only available in unpleasant workhouses with painful working and housing conditions where there was little food. Dickens was already criticizing the conditions in workhouses in his journalism and fiction. Dickens’ most famous character, Oliver Twist, is born and lives in meager conditions in a workhouse during his childhood.

Hard Times is Dickens’ most biting fictional critique of these moral principles and their consequences. The central utilitarian character in Hard Times is Thomas Gradgrind, a school board superintendent and father who forces the children under his mandate to memorize facts and statistics. The children are encouraged to maximize utility through their actions by basing their decisions on selfish, cold calculation. In turn, the children are punished for enjoying artistic entertainment such as storybooks about fairies and watching circus performers. With lives dominated by facts and void of art, the children are frustrated and discontented. Gradgrind’s children ultimately grow to find that the utilitarian system of ethics fails them when they are confronted with the complexity of justice and emotions.

Gradgrind first finds his antithesis in Sissy, a girl at his school who is adopted by the Gradgrinds when her circus-performer father abandons her. Sissy is of another world, that of the circus that is governed by art and emotion, which contrasts with Gradgrind’s school and upper-class home, governed by facts, logic and selfishness. Sissy fails, both at school and at home, to comply with the mathematical rationalizations of utilitarianism because she is empathetic and imaginative.

Like Bentham, the school teaches that nations are thriving when they are maximizing utility by achieving pleasure for the majority. When Sissy is told by a teacher about a city where only 25 of one million inhabitants were starving, she comments, “it must be just as hard upon those who were starved.” She is asked by the teacher if a nation with “fifty millions of money” is a prosperous nation. In a response that reflects the concerns of degrowthers with income inequality, she says she couldn’t know whether it is a prosperous or thriving nation, “unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine… but that was not in the figures at all.”

Dickens’ ultimate message is to show the value of imagination, art, and human connection in a place dominated by fact and rationality. When Tom Gradgrind’s children, Louisa and Tom face hardship because they followed their father’s utilitarian thinking, it is ultimately Sissy who will be the one who pilots change in the imaginary of the Gradgrinds. Sissy is a magnetic storyteller, someone who can light the spark in the minds of others that illuminates a new vision of the world. That vision might be a fantastic one of fairies and other forest spirits, or of a different, more compassionate future. We see this in Sissy’s undying hope that her father might still come back home to her one day. She has faith in a better tomorrow that is based on love, not material improvement.

But the jewel that any environmentalist would surely appreciate is the passage in which Dickens describes the fictional town of Coketown, the setting of Hard Times, for its air, water and noise pollution from its industrial activities. The description resembles that of modern China’s ‘cancer villages.’

Dickens would probably have agreed with the passage in Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era stating that “a more solid path towards anti-utilitarianism and degrowth might be built, on the one hand, by integrating the theoretical stream opened by Bataille with his notion of dépense, and by a wider look on the numerous and unnoticed anti-utilitarianist experiences in society.” Dickens was in fact outlining these anti-utilitarianist experiences in his humanistic stories, and honoring art as the form of dépense that can lift humanity out of the dregs of productivism.

[1] Rosen, Frederick (2003) Classical Utilitarianism from Hume to Mill. Routledge, p. 132

[2] Spicker, Paul, British social policy 1601–1948, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen: Centre for Public Policy and Management, retrieved 2008-12-13

Photo Source: US National Archives


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