Jeremy Bentham

The English philosopher, political theorist, and jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) expounded the ethical doctrine known as utilitarianism. Partly through his work many political, legal, and penal reforms were enacted by Parliament.

Jeremy Bentham, the son of a lawyer, was born on Feb. 15, 1748, in Houndsditch, near London. A precocious child, he learned Latin, Greek, and French before he was 10. The "philosopher," as he was known to his family, was an avid reader. After attending the famous Westminster school (1755-1760), he went to Queen's College, Oxford, and took his degree in 1763 at the age of 15. He studied at Lincoln's Inn, receiving a master of arts degree in 1766. The following year he was called to the bar.

Bentham cared little for his formal education, insisting that "mendacity and insincerity … are the only sure effects of an English university education," and he cared even less about succeeding as a practicing lawyer. He preferred to read and write papers on legal reform and to study physical science, especially chemistry. His father, who had amassed a considerable fortune in real estate speculations, died in 1792, and from that time on Bentham retired from public life and devoted himself to writing. In 1814 he purchased a mansion, and his home became a center of English intellectual life.


Bentham's Utilitarianism

In 1776 Bentham published Fragment on Government, which criticized the interpretations of English common law by Sir William Blackstone. Bentham attacked the notion that a social contract or compact had a legal basis. He continued to write on jurisprudence throughout his career: Introductory View of the Rationale of Evidence (1812), edited by James Mill, and the five-volume Rationale of Juridical Evidence (1827), edited by John Stuart Mill. In these criticisms of law, evidence, and even language (anticipating the "definition in use" theory of linguistic philosophy), Bentham was a consistent nominalist and instinctive utilitarian. Words and laws, men and institutions must be judged solely in terms of their actual usage and consequences.

Utilitarianism may be defined as the thesis that an act is right or good if it produces pleasure, and evil if it leads to pain. Although this doctrine is almost as old as philosophy itself, the principle of utility received its classic expression in Bentham's Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). Bentham had a talent for simplification; he reduced all ethical considerations to an immediate source. "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure." Utilitarianism aims to make morals and politics an exact science based on these objective criteria and to offer a quantitative method for evaluating both individual and institutional actions.

Men are often unhappy or are deprived of happiness by governments because they fail to perceive that the terms value, ought, good, and right are meaningless unless identical with utility, which is understood as pleasure or happiness. Bentham avoided the subjectivism of most hedonistic theories by acknowledging altruistic as well as egoistic pleasures and recognizing that pleasure often consists primarily in avoiding pain. He defined the community as "the sum of the interests of its members" and stated that utilitarianism aims at the "greatest happiness of the greatest number."

To determine the specific utility of actions, Bentham proposed a "felicific calculus" by which one can balance the pleasures and pains consequent upon one's acts. The value of an action will be greater or less in terms of the intensity and duration of pleasure and its certainty and possibility. One should also consider how an act will affect other people. In addition, the circumstances should be taken into account but not the motives, which do not matter.


Bentham's Personality

Bentham was a man of considerable irony and personal eccentricity. Given honorary citizenship by the new Republic of France in 1792, he scorned the French Revolution's "Declaration of the Rights of Man," commenting that all talk of rights was "nonsense" and talk of absolute rights was "nonsense on stilts." Although he spent 7 or 8 hours daily on his writing for more than 50 years, virtually all his published books are the product of editors. He habitually worked on several projects simultaneously without finishing them, and often there were several incomplete versions of the same topic. Bentham was fortunate in having editors of dedication and genius such as Étienne Dumont, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill. Bentham gave the editors total freedom; consequently some of the works bearing his name were thoroughly rewritten by others from conflicting versions or even scraps and notes.

Bentham's eccentricity took the form of obsession with certain ideas. Prison reform was a central concern of his for several years, and he solicited and received charters and money from the King for a model prison, the "Panopticon." Bentham attributed the failure of this project to royal envy and added to his thousands of written pages on the subject a treatise on the conflict between Jeremy Bentham and George III "by one of the disputants." Throughout his life Bentham conducted a lengthy, and largely unsolicited, correspondence with various heads of state suggesting methods of legal and constitutional reform. Late in life he became concerned with how the dead could be of use to the living; in the work Auto Icon he suggested that, with proper embalming, every man could become his own monument and that notables might be interspersed with trees in public parks. In his will, which contributed to establishing University College, London, he stipulated that his clothed skeleton and wax head be preserved. He died on June 6, 1832.


Further Reading on Jeremy Bentham

The standard edition of Bentham's writings is The Works of Jeremy Bentham, edited by John Bowring (11 vols., 1838-1843). Studies of Bentham include Charles Milner Atkinson, Jeremy Bentham: His Life and Work (1905); Elie Halévy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism (trans. 1928); David Baumgardt, Bentham and the Ethics of Today (1952); Mary Peter Mack, Jeremy Bentham: An Odyssey of Ideas (1963).

Additional Biography Sources

Dinwiddy, J. R. (John Rowland), Bentham, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Henry Thorton (1760-1815), Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), James Lauderdale (1759-1839), Simonde de Sismondi (1773-1842), Aldershot, Hants, England; Brookfield, Vt., USA: E. Elgar, 1991.