Bentham, Jeremy

views updated May 29 2018

Bentham, Jeremy



As a social scientist, Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was a visionary born 150 years too soon. A passionate advocate of quantitative method in social observation, he lived in an England where even an elementary census was unknown until 1801. Convinced that a fixed neutral vocabulary is a necessary condition of scientific advance, he spent his life in a gallant but futile effort to redefine the highly emotional and ambiguous language of morals and politics. He hoped in vain to create a science of human behavior, the objective study and measurement of passions and feelings, pleasures and pains, will and action. The Principles of Utility were the sum of these new definitions and working hypotheses.

But if utilitarianism was intended as a coolly detached science, its source was angry passion. Bentham was first and last a reformer, not merely a scientist, and he never spoke of “science” but always of “art-and-science.” “Knowing without doing,” he often said, “is worthless.” He studied what is—the social facts—in order to create what ought to be. And the facts as he observed them in late-eighteenth-century England horrified him.

Bentham was a precocious child, who read history at the age of three, and whose pushing middle-class father intended him to become first a barrister, then lord chancellor and a member of the peerage. He was therefore sent to Westminster School, London, and Queen’s College, Oxford, the two most fashionable schools in England and centers of Establishment orthodoxy. Everything he found there repelled him: the gloomy religion, the forced subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles, the arid classical curriculum, the brutality and snobbery of students and masters alike. But it was not until he began to read law at Lincoln’s Inn, in 1766, that his disgust became rebellion, and he dedicated his life “to cleansing the Augean stable.” Born of his hatred of English law, this passion for radical reform ultimately spread to all of man’s ideas and acts: psychology, ethics, semantics, education, economics, sociology, and political theory.

English common law and equity seemed to Bentham archaic, uncodified, incomprehensible, arbitrary, irrational, cruelly vindictive, tortuously dilatory, and so ruinously expensive that nine out of ten men were literally outlawed. It seemed to him a labyrinth without a clue until he discovered the Principle of Utility. This he saw as an ethical commandment for rulers: act always to ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

He then needed an effective definition of happiness and, reading avidly among the philosophes, found it in Helvétius. Happiness is a compound sum of pleasures and pains, the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain. But what is pleasure, and what is pain? Bentham was completely latitudinarian: Whatever a man chooses to consider so; the variety of motives is infinite. These principles of psychology and ethics he developed in his two earliest books, the only ones by which he is remembered today, A Fragment on Government (1776) and An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1780).

An enthusiastic amateur chemist, Bentham hoped to apply the verbal precision and quantitative methods so successful in the physical sciences to the social sciences. His notorious psychological “calculus” was an attempt to measure the varieties and dimensions of pleasure and pain, and he offered it humbly, not as an exact scale, but as a useful, if crude, working hypothesis for the legislator. He appealed to judges and legislators who inevitably do weigh and strike a balance between crimes and punishments to open their imaginations to the endless range and consequences of human action. Therefore, according to the Greatest Happiness Principle, the evil of a crime is proportionate to the number of people hurt by it. The less the social pain, the less the punishment. It follows that motives are largely irrelevant in criminal law, and that sexual “offenses” like homosexuality are not crimes and should not be punished.

But what Bentham gained in psychological breadth and tolerance, by the application of his principle, he lost in verbal precision and philosophical rigor; and critics have often scorned his hedonism as superficial, a laughable attempt “to plus and minus people to heaven and hell.”

Bentham himself hurled a charge of superficiality at English judges and legislators. The psychology implicit in English law was, he thought, crudely reductionist. The only motive of human behavior it recognized was love of money. It totally ignored sex, for example, which he considered among the most powerful of all motives. He offered his own psychology, based on years of observation in the courts and the infinite variety of human drama enacted there, as a far more subtle and empirical improvement. In his monumentalRationale of Judicial Evidence, edited in 1827 by the young John Stuart Mill, Bentham applied the results of his psychological studies to the judge’s problem of gathering valid evidence. None of his works more fully reveals his genius for exhaustive analysis, and this may well be his masterpiece.

In any case, his psychology and ethics were offered merely as incomplete introductory chapters to an exhaustive code of law, and ultimately to a complete encyclopedia of all human thought and action, science and art. This grand vision he borrowed from Sir Francis Bacon, whom he considered the greatest of all geniuses. Like him, Bentham wanted to create a Novum Organum. This new science of human behavior, eudaemonics (or the art-and-science of well-being), was analogous to the science of medicine. His codes of civil and penal law, procedure and evidence, constitutional and international law, were anatomies. The Greatest Happiness Principle was an ethical commitment, like the doctors’ Hippocratic oath. His social and political reforms were prescriptive remedies to cure the ills and cancers of the body politic, and he foresaw a future golden age when crime and punishment will have disappeared, conquered by a science of social therapeutics or preventive legislation, analogous to preventive medicine.

This was a superhuman ambition, and of course Bentham failed to achieve it completely. Nevertheless he pursued it wherever possible, with varying success, and even his fragments are imaginative and tantalizing. As an ardent reforming social scientist the two insuperable obstacles that he faced were a deaf public, content with the status quo, and a complete lack of the empirical data necessary for valid social generalizations. The success of his enterprises was directly proportionate to his success in overcoming these obstacles. As far afield as he often ranged from his legal studies, he inevitably returned to them, through all sixty years of his working life, for there as nowhere else he found the data, the case records, he needed.

All of Bentham’s reforms were governed by the Greatest Happiness Principle and its four subordinate ends of good government: subsistence, abundance, security, and equality. Subsistence is a necessary condition of all government, even the most tyrannical. Its absence means starvation and anarchy. The test of good government is the measure of abundance, security, and equality it provides. By this standard, eighteenth-century English mixed monarchy was bad government, unable to provide abundance and violently insecure and unequal. Bentham therefore sought to provide these good ends in a series of radical reforms.

In his social and economic reforms he added these principles of abundance, security, and equality to the doctrines of Adam Smith, and the sum was a welfare state with free education, guaranteed employment, minimum wages, sickness benefits, and old-age insurance. Perhaps his most imaginative flight into social policy, certainly his most visionary as a social scientist, was his scheme for “Panopticon Hills.” By the 1790s the problem of poor relief had become critical. In the turmoil of the early Industrial Revolution, the number of paupers had vastly increased, and with them so had the tax rates and administrative chaos. Bentham proposed a national network of self-supporting “houses of industry,” small manufacturing centers surrounded by farms, where all of society’s victims —orphans, cripples, the impoverished, the aged, unemployed workingmen, pensioned sailors and soldiers, unwed mothers—would be welcomed and could flourish. In these earthly paradises everyone would be educated and trained to the top of his talent.

Here Bentham hoped to see the first social laboratory where experiments under controlled conditions could be undertaken. He suggested work and leisure studies and wanted to ask such questions as: How much better does a man produce whose work is varied and interesting than one whose work is tedious and repetitive? What is the best ratio between hours of work and hours of leisure? What are the best incentives to efficient production? How can full employment be guaranteed? He also suggested education studies and wanted to test his assumption that children learn best by seeing and touching and therefore should first be taught botany and zoology. Of course, nothing came of this visionary scheme, although he wrote thousands of pages on it. Indeed, he abandoned economics and social planning altogether around 1804, humbly admitting that in the absence of reliable economic and social data his hypotheses were guesswork.

But in administrative, legal, and parliamentary reform he was far more successful; indeed, seldom if ever in the history of ideas has a man’s thought been so directly and widely translated into action. An enthusiastic disciple once credited Bentham with nearly all the great reforms of the first half of the nineteenth century, and many more sober judges, such as Sir Henry Maine, A. V. Dicey, and Leslie Stephen, later agreed. The secret of his immense influence was this: he gave a small scattered army of reformers not only an ideal, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but also an exact plan to gain it. He gave his disciples a set of working hypotheses and rules to apply to any given social problem. Among the most important was the principle of single-seated responsibility and the priority of procedure and evidence in law. The legislator or administrator must have full central authority to gather every shred of relevant evidence, to conduct completely free inquiries, and to enforce his decisions.

Armed with these principles of central control and inspection, such ardent Benthamite civil servants as Edwin Chadwick and James Kay-Shuttleworth introduced them into British administration. Among the laws they shaped in Bentham’s image were the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act, the 1833 Education Act, the 1833 Factory Act, the Poor Law Act of 1834, the 1840 Railway Regulation Act, and the 1848 Public Health Act.

In the reform of civil and criminal law Bentham again found an army of disciples, for by the end of the Napoleonic Warṡ, in 1815, the archaisms and anomalies of the law had become intolerable to many others besides him. Among them were younger contemporaries like Sir Samuel Romilly and Lord Chancellor Brougham and late-nineteenth-century legal scholars and judges like Sir Henry Maine and Fitzjames Stephen. In so vast a field of tradition and precedent the work was slow and piecemeal, but at last, by the great consolidating Judicature Act of 1873, the separate courts of law and equity were brought together under Bentham’s principle of single-seated responsibility. Meanwhile, in a long series of acts between 1833 and 1898, the law of procedure and evidence was completely transformed, so that his ideal of efficient informed justice was no longer a vision but a commonplace.

Bentham came slowly to parliamentary reform. Preoccupied with his civil and penal codes through the 1780s, he had been indifferent to politics. But gradually he began to see the bitter inequality between rich and poor in England. He saw a government of, for, and by rich aristocrats and concluded that the common man’s only hope was to fight for a share in it.By 1790 he had become a democrat, but during the Napoleonic Wars these were treasonable thoughts and he was silent. With peace the movement for parliamentary reform grew strong, and he then joined the old-time democrat Major Cartwright, the moderate Whig Earl Grey, and the radical Francis Place in calling for it. The Reform Bill of 1832 was the first installment of democracy.

Bentham died that same year, still hard at work at the age of 84, “codifying like any dragon.” For over 40 years he had lived secluded in a charming little flower-encircled house only a few hundred yards from the Houses of Parliament. There he kept close watch on every event, wrote 15 folio pages every day, poured out reform proposals in an inexhaustible stream, welcomed dozens of informants and disciples, dined them well, amused them with gay and whimsical sallies, and spread the gospel of utilitarianism. He once said his ambition was to be “the most effectively benevolent man who ever lived.” He may well have been so.

Mary Peter Mack

[For the historical context of Bentham’s work, seeUtilitarianismand the biographies ofBacon; Blackstone; Smith, adam. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeLegal systems; Parliamentary government; Welfare state; and the biography ofMill.]


(1776) 1891 A Fragment on Government. Edited by F. C. Montague. Oxford: Clarendon. → The 1891 edition was reprinted in 1951.

(1780) 1823 An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. New ed., corrected by the author. London: Pickering. → The 1823 edition has been reprinted frequently by Oxford University Press; also reprinted in 1948 by Hafner, New York.

1827 Rationale of Judicial Evidence. 5 vols. Edited by J.S. Mill. London: Hunt & Clarke.

1838–1843 The Works of Jeremy Bentham. 11 vols. Edited by John Bowring. Edinburgh: William Tait. → Reprinted in 1962 by Russell & Russell in a limited edition.


Dicey, Albert V. (1905)1962 Lectures on the Relation Between Law and Public Opinion in England During the Nineteenth Century. 2d ed. London and New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Macmillan.

HalÉvy, Élie (1901–1904) 1952 The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. New ed. London: Faber. → First published in French. Indispensable for the economic, political, educational, and other ramifications of philosophic radicalism.

Mack, Mary P. 1962 Jeremy Bentham. London: Heinemann.

Stephen, Leslie (1900)1950 The English Utilitarians. London School of Economics and Political Science Series of Reprints of Scarce Works on Political Economy, Nos. 9–11, 3 vols. London School of Economics and Political Science; Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → A sequel to the author’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. A detailed study of Bentham and the two Mills.

Bentham, Jeremy

views updated May 23 2018

Bentham, Jeremy 1748-1832


Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher and reformer, was born in London, entered Oxford University in 1760, and was admitted to the bar in 1769. Rather than practicing law, he devoted himself to its reform. His first major publication, A Fragment on Government (1776), attacked the jurist William Blackstones (17231780) Commentaries on the Laws of England (17651769) for failing to distinguish between description and criticism of the law and for adopting a nonexistent moral standard, the natural law.

Bentham argued that the only proper moral standard was the principle of utility, of which he gave his best-known exposition in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (printed 1780, published 1789). An action was morally right to the extent that it promoted the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Happiness consisted in a balance of pleasure over pain. The utilitarian legislator, by means of punishments and rewards, would encourage those actions that promoted happiness and discourage those that led to suffering.

The task of the legislator was to promote the subends of utility, namely subsistence, abundance, security, and equality. Security for person, property, reputation, and condition in life was essential for civilized existence, and, therefore, took priority. To promote equality at the expense of security of property would, for instance, prove counterproductive, since the disappointment of fixed expectations would produce pain in the individuals concerned, and ultimately threaten social stability. Nevertheless, Bentham recognized that inequality was in itself an evil, and he understood and applied the principle of diminishing marginal utility, advocating an equal distribution of resources insofar as this could be achieved without infringing security. Furthermore, in determining the utility of an action, the interests of each individual (irrespective of gender, religious beliefs, or social status) had to be given equal weight. From here, it was a short step to democracy, which Bentham first advocated in writings composed in 1788 and 1789 on the subject of the French Revolution (17891799). As the revolution became more extreme, Bentham, like most of his countrymen, became worried by the threat to social order and for many years put aside any consideration of political reform.

In the 1790s Benthams life was dominated by his attempt to build a panopticon prison in London. The panopticon consisted of a circular building, with the cells arranged around the circumference. The cells were thereby made visible at all times from a central inspection tower. The rejection of the scheme by the government in 1803 propelled Bentham into political radicalism. In writings on judicial evidence and procedure, he concluded that lawyers pursued their own selfish goals rather than the happiness of the community. In 1809 he began to extend this analysis to the political establishment, eventually calling for democratic reform in Plan of Parliamentary Reform (1817). He thereafter committed himself to republicanism, and concentrated on writing the Constitutional Code (1830), a blueprint for representative democracy.

Benthams most sustained period of writing on economic questions took place from 1787 to 1804. The promotion of abundance, or the creation of wealth, which was both a security for subsistence and a source of pleasure in itself, was the subject of economic policy. In general, Bentham adhered to the free market principles associated with Adam Smith (17231790), on the grounds that individuals were the best judges of how to deploy their own resources. He also accepted Smiths principle that trade was limited by capital, arguing that there should be no prohibitions, bounties, or monopolies on foreign trade. There were, moreover, no economic advantages to the mother country in colony-holding, and those colonies able to govern themselves should be emancipated. Bentham advocated state interference in certain well-defined areas, including the provision of grain stores, encouragement of research, and dissemination of information. He was totally opposed to slavery and the slave trade, though he recognized that the abolition of the former would, in practice, require careful planning and execution.

Benthams political thought, with its emphasis on the individual and democratic sovereignty, has contributed significantly to the development of liberalism. In economics, his notion of a calculation of utilities inspired the economist W. S. Jevons (18351882), and through him Alfred Marshall (18421924), in their development of the modern technique of cost-benefit analysis. Benthams influence on the doctrines of classical economics is, however, less clear. His conception of economics was opposed both to the strand of political economy associated with Thomas Malthus (17661834), in that he rejected theology as an appropriate basis for legislation of any kind, and to the scientific strand associated with David Ricardo (17721823), in that he rejected the attempt to divorce economics from ethics. A proper assessment of Benthams place in the history of economics will need to await the production of an authoritative collection of his writings on the subject.

When Bentham died, his body, following his instructions, was dissected for the benefit of anatomical research. His remains were then used to create the auto-icon, the combination of skeleton, clothes, and wax head that is today displayed at University College London. The story that Bentham generally attends meetings of the College Council, and that the minutes record Mr. Bentham present but not voting, is unfounded.

SEE ALSO Ethics; Gaze, Panoptic; Malthus, Thomas Robert; Marginalism; Marshall, Alfred; Ricardo, David; Utilitarianism


Dinwiddy, John R. 2004. Bentham: Selected Writings of John Dinwiddy. Ed. William Twining. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Schofield, Philip. 2006. Utility and Democracy: The Political Thought of Jeremy Bentham. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Philip Schofield

Bentham, Jeremy

views updated May 23 2018


BENTHAM, JEREMY (1748–1832), English philosopher and political theorist, founder of utilitarianism.

The son of a wealthy lawyer and Tory, Jeremy Bentham was born in London on 15 February 1748. A child prodigy—studying historical tomes at age three and Latin at age six—he entered Oxford at twelve and at fifteen was admitted to Lincoln's Inn, one of the four English Inns of the Court where undergraduates studied law in preparation for being called to the Bar as barristers. Awkward in public, he did not practice the law he had studied under the legal scholar William Blackstone (1723–1780), who wrote the first definitive compilation of English law, Commentaries on the Laws of England (volumes published between 1765–1769). In 1776 Bentham gained notoriety for printing Fragment on Government, a critique of Blackstone and the legal system's reliance on fictions, common law, obscure language, and convoluted reasoning, among other things. Thereafter, his writing provided groundwork for continuing analysis of English jurisprudence. Establishing the school of utilitarianism (otherwise known as Benthamism or philosophical radicalism), he worked to codify regulations for every societal institution to produce the best citizenry and form of government for the greatest number of people. He had avid disciples in Britain and Continental Europe. Indeed, later in life, he provided utilitarian blueprints of constitutional principles (which featured the legislature as dominant over the executive) for Greece and Portugal.

Bentham based his utilitarian ideas on the writings of David Hume (1711–1776), Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771), David Hartley (1705–1757), and Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), from whom he took the phrase most associated with utilitarian thought: "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." Laying out the foundations and taxonomies of utilitarianism in his major work, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Bentham asserted that humans are motivated by self-interest and that they will always seek pleasure and avoid pain. The term utilitarianism referred to the notion that everything has an effect that can be measured and that one could decide what laws to invoke based on their usefulness in fulfilling the greatest happiness. Grounded in Enlightenment reason, Bentham created the "felicific calculus," a mathematical method of discovering the greatest quantity of happiness by numerically calculating the intensity, purity, and degree of pleasure and pain caused by specific actions.

To Bentham the group ("the greatest number") was as important as "the greatest pleasure" as he attempted to solve the problem of how to make self-interested governmental and individual entities choose actions that are responsive to the needs of the whole community. Intensely aware of the ideals and failures of the French Revolution, he believed that with the guidance of utilitarian philosophers and the extension of citizenship to the masses, the more responsible British government could be about seeking the happiness of the greatest number. Likewise, citizens could be trained through utilitarian principles and punishments to achieve self-interest precisely by seeking the happiness of the majority. Not surprisingly, contemporary and current critics charge that utilitarianism's assumptions are questionable and unquantifiable, and that they discount quality of pleasure, human altruism, and the needs of the minority. Nevertheless, John Troyer notes that Bentham's greatest happiness model "dominates" modern economics by seeing "rational action as an attempt to maximize net utility" (p. vii).

A prolific, often disorganized and idiosyncratic writer, Bentham relied on his followers—including James Mill (1773–1836) and his son John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)—to edit and collate his massive stockpile of manuscripts. Though some current scholars question the degree of Bentham's influence, it has been traditional to view his ideas as helping to spawn political reforms that transformed British government, founding it on the science of governing. During the Victorian period (1830s–1901), utilitarians are commonly seen as an important force in bringing about the New Poor Laws, the 1832 Reform Bill, the civil service, the secret ballot, Catholic Emancipation, universal suffrage, the end of aristocratic sinecures, and the abolition of slavery, as well as laws establishing education reforms.

Particularly interested in prison reform, for twenty years Bentham worked on a blueprint for a "Panopticon," a prison that featured a semi-circular penitentiary with a central observation tower that constantly had a view into the surrounding cells. He argued that making prisoners perpetually subject to the guard's observation would cause them to internalize self-discipline and thus learn behavior that was in the self-interest of society. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977), the philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984) famously uses the Panopticon as a metaphor for what he sees as the oppressive, omniscient modern state that engenders and depends on self-monitoring individuals. Many critics have incorporated this influential concept into their work, while others argue that Foucault's use of Bentham's complex ideas is simplistic, monolithic, and lacking in appreciation for Bentham's democratic impulses.

See alsoMill, James; Mill, John Stuart; Utilitarianism.


Cosgrove, Richard A. Scholars of the Law: English Jurisprudence from Blackstone to Hart. New York, 1996.

Harrison, Ross. Bentham. London, 1983.

Kelly, Paul J. Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice: Jeremy Bentham and the Civil Law. Oxford, U.K., 1990.

Mack, Mary Peter. Jeremy Bentham: An Odyssey of Ideas. New York, 1963.

Troyer, John. "Introduction." In Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill, edited by John Troyer, vii–xxviii. Indianapolis, Ind., 2003.

Gail Turley Houston

Jeremy Bentham

views updated May 14 2018

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

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 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. □

Bentham, Jeremy

views updated May 23 2018


"Every law is an infraction of liberty."
Jeremy Bentham

Described as a philosopher, jurist, and reformer, Jeremy Bentham is possibly best known as one of the leading proponents of utilitarianism. Although he was a devoted scholar who spent much of his life writing about legal reform, he published little. Regardless, Bentham had a profound effect on the politics of his day, influenced many of his contemporaries (including eminent British philosopher john stuart mill), and introduced a number of terms and definitions, which are still used today in the study of philosophy, economics, and politics.

Bentham was born February 15, 1748, in Houndsditch, near London, into a family of attorneys. He was educated at Oxford and admitted to the bar, but decided not to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Instead of practicing law, Bentham chose to pursue a career in legal, political, and social reform, applying principles of ethical philosophy to these endeavors.

He was greatly influenced by the work of Claude-Adrien Helvétius, a French philosopher who believed that all persons are intellectually equal and that differences arise solely from educational opportunities. Helvetius also formulated a theory that good is measured by the degree of self-contentment experienced by a person, and that self-interest is the compelling force for all action. This latter belief had a profound effect on Bentham, who incorporated the idea in the formulation of the basic principles of utilitarianism.

In 1789, Bentham gained public attention with the publication of his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, which set forth his fundamental principles. He believed that the greatest happiness for the greatest number is the basis of morality. Happiness and pleasure were the same, and included social, intellectual, and moral as well as physical pleasures. According to Bentham, each pleasure has certain characteristics, including intensity and duration, and he established a scale of measurement to judge the worth of a pleasure or a pain.

Bentham further opined that each person strives to do what makes him or her happiest. The happiness of an individual and the general welfare are complementary; the achievement of the greatest amount of happiness is the goal of morality.

Bentham applied his views to reform legislation, feeling that the purpose of the law was to maximize total happiness within the limitations of government. As a result, he achieved great advances in prison reform, criminal law, civil service, and insurance and was active in the compilation of laws into comprehensible text.

Bentham is particularly noted for his theories of punishment. He claimed that all punishment required justification, because he believed that all punishment is inherently evil. Bentham also believed that to a utilitarian such as himself, real justice is less important than apparent justice. In other words, Bentham believed that seeing justice done is more important than justice actually being done.

Influenced by the work of Italian philosopher cesare beccaria, Bentham formed some harsh notions of punishment, such as his belief that in certain cases torture could be justified. He wrote that punishment was a relatively weak disincentive against recidivism, and that there is always a risk that an offender will commit another offense. He suggested that torture removes this risk because torture ceases immediately when a subject complies with the demands of authority. Of course, this idea discounts the question of whether the subject can in fact comply.

As a theorist of punishment, Bentham was naturally interested in the English penal system. His studies led him to develop a model of an English prison that applied his theories of punishment to incarceration. He called his model the "Panopticon." The Panopticon was a prison building—and a whole system of incarceration—that allowed guards total surveillance and physical control over prison inmates. Writing of the Panopticon, Bentham claimed that hard labor, constant surveillance and monitoring, and solitary confinement (for purposes of reflection and repentance) were fundamental requirements needed to reform and rehabilitate criminal offenders. This theory builds upon the notion that punishment can be the means to make an offender lead a life of moral and civil rectitude.

Bentham attempted to persuade President james madison to adopt a code of laws that he himself had devised. The philosopher was careful to cite existing rules and previous cases to illustrate that his legal theories were sound. Madison rejected Bentham's idea in 1811, but in the 1830s, a group of U.S. reformers adopted several of his policies with the objective of formulating a simplified code of law.

When Bentham died June 6, 1832, he left behind a vast number of manuscript pages, as well as a large estate. Funds from the estate were used to help launch University College, London, an institution which was established to educate students excluded from universities of the day. In accordance with Bentham's instructions, upon his death his body was dissected, embalmed, dressed, and seated in a chair. The seated Bentham is housed in a cabinet in the main building of University College.

further readings

Ben-Dor, Oren. 2000. Constitutional Limits and the Public Sphere: A Critical Study of Bentham's Constitutionalism. Oxford; Portland, Ore.: Hart.

"Bentham, Jeremy." The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available online at <> (accessed May 7, 2003).

Burns, J. H., and H. L. A. Hart, eds. 1970. "Jeremy Bentham." In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. London, England: Athlone.

Engelmann, Stephen G. 2003. Imagining Interest in Political Thought: Origins of Economic Rationality. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

Kelly, Paul Joseph. 1997. Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice: Jeremy Bentham and the Civil Law. Oxford: Clarendon.

Bentham, Jeremy

views updated May 29 2018


Philosopher, legal theorist whose writings stimulated the rise of utilitarianism in England; b. London, Feb. 15, 1748; d. London, June 6, 1832. Bentham, the son of a wealthy attorney, studied, but never practiced, law and devoted his life to legal reform. Faced with a prevailing interpretation of English common law so closely related to natural law that "law as it is" was almost indistinguishable from "law as it ought to be," he sought a way to put legal and social criticism on a scientific basis. In certain views of T. Hobbes, J. Locke, D. Hume, J. Priestley, W. Paley, C. A. Helvetius, and C. B. Beccaria, he found hints of a solution, and these he developed into a form of hedonism known as utilitarianism.

Adam smith argued that the wealth and prosperity of a nation could be best promoted by permitting maximum individual freedom of action, limited only by government as a referee. Bentham agreed but believed that the referee often followed rules that could be justified only as ancient practice or as what was "natural," with the result that the wrong people were rewarded or punished. We judge machines only on the basis of their utility, why not laws? The effect of Bentham's critique was to show howin the spheres of civil, penal, and constitutional lawgovernment could so lay down rules that the prospect of painful consequences would lead individuals (acting freely out of self-interest) to act for the public good, equivalent for Bentham with the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

Bentham's ethical theory, found in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) and his Deontology (1834), was developed for the purpose of finding the springs of human conduct that could be tapped by the legislator. It is open to objection on a number of grounds: as a form of egoism, as a form of psychological and ethical hedonism, and also on the ground that Bentham failed to show why one morally ought to seek the happiness of everybody. Further, Bentham vastly over-rated the practicality of his balance-of-pleasure-over-pain criterion for judging individual acts and laws. Again, although Bentham's influence on modern legal reform in

England is perhaps second to none, the lack of a notion of good more ultimate than quantity of "pleasure," together with an inadequate notion of justice, permits his philosophy to justify any of a broad range of socioeconomic systems from laissez-faire liberalism to egalitarian socialism.

Bibliography: Works, ed. j. bowring, 11 v. (Edinburgh 1843). c. m. atkinson, Jeremy Bentham: His Life and Work (London 1905). g. keeton and g. schwarzenberger, eds., Jeremy Bentham and the Law: A Symposium (London 1948). d. baumgardt, Bentham and the Ethics of Today (Princeton 1952).

[r. l. cunningham]

Bentham, Jeremy

views updated May 09 2018

Bentham, Jeremy (1748–1832). English utilitarian and philosophical radical. Educated at Oxford University, Bentham qualified as a barrister before he was 20, though he never practised law. He was highly critical of English law for its obscurantism, and devoted his life to systematizing it on the basis of utility. In his first substantial publication A Fragment on Government (1776), Bentham launched a broadside against Blackstone's defence of England's constitution. He dismissed the concept of inalienable natural rights as contemptuously as he dismissed precedent; the only rights that existed were legal rights, and they could never be unqualified. His most important contribution to moral philosophy was contained in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), where he elaborated his theory of utility in terms of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, and thereby established utilitarianism as a systematic theory of moral and political decision-making. In his ‘felicific calculus’, he demonstrated how alternative courses of action could be evaluated by estimating the total quantity of pleasure they would generate; the action that promised the most pleasure was rationally the one to be chosen. Bentham became famous with Dumont's exposition of his views in Traités de législation civile et pénale (1802) and was honoured in various countries, including France, Russia, and the USA. His most lasting achievement, however, was to inspire the radical forces in England calling for reform. His intellectual leadership of the philosophical radicals was a critical factor in achieving many of the legal, social, industrial, economic, and political reforms that took place in England during the 19th cent. Towards the end of his life Bentham had become a legendary figure in the reform movement. He had established its literary organ in the Westminster Review, and he was instrumental in creating University College, London, to disseminate rational ideas to future leaders of society.

Tim S. Gray

Bentham, Jeremy

views updated Jun 08 2018

Bentham, Jeremy (1748–1832) English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer. Bentham developed the theory of utilitarianism based on the premise that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” should be the object of individual and government action. This philosophy was defined in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). His theories influenced much of England's early reform legislation.

Bentham, Jeremy

views updated May 23 2018

Bentham, Jeremy (1748–1832) Often regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism, Bentham is best known for his texts on legal philosophy, and his programmes of social (especially penal) reform. He was a leading figure of classical criminology, which attempted to make the legal system more rational, and devised the panopticon—a design for the organization and architecture of prisons which facilitated maximum surveillance and control of inmates.