Ambiguity, precision and readability: Mill’s critique of Bentham

J.S. Mill criticised Bentham’s later writings for

perpetually aiming at impracticable precision. … He could not bear, for the sake of clearness and the reader’s ease, to say, as ordinary men are content to do, a little more than the truth in one sentence, and correct it in the next. The whole of the qualifying remarks which he intended to make, he insisted upon imbedding as parentheses in the very middle of the sentence itself. … [Eventually] he could stop nowhere short of utter unreadableness, and after all attained no more accuracy than is compatible with opinions as imperfect and one-sided as those of any poet (Mill, essay on ‘Bentham’).

Bentham coming in for a kiss

Bentham coming in for a kiss

Mill’s advice is very valuable. While we should strive for clarity, often we must accept ambiguity in order to stop our writing from becoming unreadably Benthamite, brimming with qualifications, clarifications and distinctions. Making our writing so complicated means that what should be an “aah!” for the reader becomes an “argh!”.

Here’s an example of the late Bentham’s ‘utter unreadableness’, from A Table of the Springs of Action:

Consequences and intentions, – intentions, considered in respect of the consequences, to the production of which they are directed, or at any rate in respect of the consequences which at the time of the intention, a man actually had, or at least ought (it is supposed) to have had in view, – these, together with the acts which the intentions in question are considered as having been directed to the production of, or as having a tendency to produce, – will (it is believed) be seen to be the only subjects to which, in the character of attributives, such adjuncts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can either with speculative propriety, or without danger of practical error, in so far as acts, and springs of action are concerned, be attached.

Yet the essence of this sentence is very simple:

Only acts and intentions can be said to be good or bad.

Bentham should have started with that, then added qualifications in the next sentence if needs be.

I’m not against complexity and precision. I’m against unnecessary complexity and pedantic precision which clouds the meaning of what is written. The late Bentham, alas, is very cloudy.

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