‘The Feelings of the Living and the Rights of the Dead’: Ethics and Emotions; Bodies and Burial; Godwin and Bentham

  • David McAllister


A revolutionary desire to overthrow unaccountable power shaped both attitudes to the dead and their literary representation in the 1790s; this chapter argues that a belief in the progressive potential of legislative change would do much the same a generation later, during the reformist decades of the early nineteenth century. Such a shift—moving away from a drive to remove the dead from society altogether, and towards a desire to reform and thereby ameliorate their relationship to the living—reflects the changed cultural and political dynamics in the era of social, sanitary, and political reform that emerged in the early nineteenth century. Many of these reformist measures were linked to the emergence of utilitarianism, and this chapter considers its impact on ways of imagining the dead by considering how two utilitarian thinkers—William Godwin and Jeremy Bentham—sought to apply the doctrines of utility to the disposal of the dead human body, in an attempt to undermine the ethical basis upon which the dead had traditionally been granted cultural authority by the living. Should the dead be buried, dissected, or, like Bentham, stuffed and mounted and made into ‘auto-icons’? Should their graves be marked with a simple wooden cross, along with the fictional graves of characters from novels, or should their heads be preserved in glass and used to build houses? This chapter examines these attempts to apply a consequentialist ethics to the dead, and argues that the more extreme schemes to reform their imagined presence foundered on the problem of emotion, which proved too difficult for Bentham to quantify in his utilitarian calculations: a problem that is exemplified here by paying careful attention to Bentham’s own deathbed scene and his subsequent dissection.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • David McAllister
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of English and HumanitiesBirkbeck College - University of LondonLondonUK

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