Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher, political radical and legal and social reformer of the early Modern period.
He is best known as the founder of Utilitarianism, which he saw as the underlying moral principle on which his legal and social reforms should be based. Although his influence during his life was perhaps minor, his impact was greater in later years as his ideas were carried on by followers such as John Stuart Mill, Robert Owen and John Austin.
Bentham was born in Spitalfields, London on 15 February 1748, the son of a wealthy Tory attorney. He was a child prodigy and was supposedly found as a toddler sitting at his father’s desk reading a multi-volume history of England, and began his study of Latin at the age of three. He went to Westminster School, and in 1760 his father sent him to Queen’s College, Oxford, where he took his Bachelor’s degree in 1763 and his Master’s degree in 1766. He trained as a lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, London, and was called to the bar in 1769.
He soon became disillusioned with the law, however, and he threw off his early Conservative political views after reading the work of the 18th Century British theologian and natural philosopher Joseph Priestley. He gained much attention when his first major work, ‘A Fragment on Government’ of 1776, criticized the leading legal theorist in 18th Century England, Sir William Blackstone, and, in the wake of this publication, he became friends with the powerful Lord Shelburne, which allowed him to take time to travel and to write. Among his early followers were the economist David Ricardo, and Robert Owen, the Welsh social reformer and one of the founders of Socialism and the cooperative movement.
Bentham was a regular correspondent with the French Comte de Mirabeau, a moderate during the French Revolution of 1789 – 1799, although he was an outspoken critic of the revolutionary discourse of natural rights (the concept of a universal right inherent in the nature of living beings, that is not contingent upon laws or beliefs), and of the violence which arose after the Jacobins took power in 1792. He also had a personal friendship with the Latin American independence precursor Francisco de Miranda, and carried on a mutually beneficial correspondence with the pioneering political economist Adam Smith.
In about 1808, he met James Mill, who was to become his secretary and main collaborator, and together they co-founded the ‘Westminster Review’ in 1823 as a journal for a group of younger disciples who became known as the “philosophical radicals”. Mill, and his son, John Stuart Mill, became Bentham’s most committed students, and were largely responsible for popularizing Bentham’s vision and in particular his theory of Utilitarianism. Bentham tended to write in a rather complex style himself, and other radical reformers such as Sir Francis Burdett, Leigh Hunt, William Cobbett and Henry Brougham attempted to communicate his ideas to the working class.
Jeremy Bentham died on 6 June 1832 in his native London and, as requested in his will, his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet, which he called his ‘Auto-Icon’, and which is still kept on display at University College, London.
Most of Bentham’s writing was never published in his own lifetime, and several of his works appeared first in French translations by Étienne Dumont (some only becoming available in English in the 1820s as a result of back-translation from the French). His most important work was ‘The Principles of Morals and Legislation’ of 1780, in which his formulation of Utilitarianism was first expounded.
Bentham proposed an underlying moral principle on which his legal and social reforms should be based, which he called Utilitarianism. This philosophy (essentially a modification of Hedonism) evaluates actions based upon their consequences (a type of Consequentialism), and holds that the right act or policy is that which would cause ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, a phrase which he attributed to Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804). He also suggested a ‘felicific calculus’ for estimating the moral status (or ‘happiness factor’) of any action, using a classification of 12 pains and 14 pleasures. His initial theory (often referred to as the principle of utility or the greatest happiness principle) was further developed by his students, particularly by John Stuart Mill, to incorporate more of a principle of fairness and justice, the lack of which was criticized in Bentham’s original formulation.
His opinions on monetary economics (as opposed to those of his contemporaries Adam Smith and David Ricardo) focused on monetary expansion as a means of helping to create full employment. He can be considered as both a classical, and a market, Liberal, and tried to convince Smith that his ‘Wealth of Nations’ called for too much regulation.
Bentham’s political position included arguments in favor of individual and economic freedom, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the abolition of slavery and of physical punishment (including that of children), the recognition of animal rights, the right to divorce, the promotion of free trade and usury and the decriminalization of homosexuality.
Among his many proposals for legal and social reform was a design for a prison building he called the Panopticon, which had an important influence upon later generations of thinkers. As early as 1798, he wrote that universal peace could only be obtained by first achieving European unity. He was also instrumental in the foundation of the University of London in 1826, as the first English university to admit all, regardless of race, creed or political belief.