Would Bentham have applauded modern surveillance? Not likely. | READER COMMENTARY

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A Cessna loaded with an array of cameras takes off from Martin State Airport as part of a pilot program assisting the Baltimore Police Department investigate certain crimes. The aerial surveillance program officially ended in early 2021. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun).

While authors Martin Cohen and Keith Tidman nicely convey familiar insights on the state of modern surveillance in their recent commentary, they are misleading when it comes to the British thinker Jeremy Bentham (”For better or worse, we’re living in a surveillance state,” Nov. 29). As far as I can tell, Bentham’s proposal for a Panopticon was limited to prisons. It was the remarkable French philosopher Michel Foucault who investigated Panopticism in various institutions of modern life, such as asylums, hospitals and schools.

Bentham is primarily a libertarian and suspicious of a “well-managed society” that Messrs. Cohen and Tidman attributed to his efforts. The authors rightly note the danger of contemporary electronic intrusion in everyday life, yet they overlook that in Bentham’s famous “Hedonic Calculus” (also known as the pleasure measure), he presents seven criteria to weigh the likely pleasures or pains resulting from a particular decision. How does he begin? “To a person considered by himself, the value of a pleasure or pain considered by itself.”


The first six criteria are weighed by and for individuals. Only in the seventh criterion, extent, does Mr. Bentham request that we consider how our actions or rules enhance or harm the pleasures and pains of others. Clearly, a “well-managed society” was not his priority.

The authors’ example of police officers being unnecessarily aggressive against Black Americans is typical pandering. Any of us, police officers, onlookers with cellphones, even philosophy professors, are, in Bentham’s more cynical views, pretending to be concerned about the common good while pursuing our own personal happiness. We are suspicious of other peoples’ freedoms while confident in our own.


The authors do paint a dystopian Panopticon society which readers should appreciate and dread. But let’s not place this on the shoulders of Jeremy Bentham.

Alexander E. Hooke, Baltimore

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