Jeremy Bentham

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Philosophers

Western Philosophers
19th-century philosophy
Jeremy Bentham
Birth February 15, 1748 London, England
Death June 6, 1832 London, England
School/tradition Utilitarianism, Legal Positivist
Main interests Political philosophy, Ethics, Economics
Notable ideas greatest happiness principle
Influenced by John Locke, David Hume, Baron de Montesquieu, Claude Adrien Helvétius, Thomas Hobbes
Influenced John Stuart Mill, Michel Foucault, Peter Singer, Iain King, John Austin

Jeremy Bentham (pronounced /ˈbenθəm/) ( 26 February [ O.S. 15 February 1748] 1749 – 6 June 1832) was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. He was a political radical and a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law. He is best known for his advocacy of utilitarianism and his opposition to the concept of natural rights , with oft quoted statements to the effect that such rights were nonsense . He influenced the development of welfarism , a concept espoused by modern American liberals.

Bentham was one of the most influential utilitarians, partially through his writings but particularly through his students all around the world. These included his secretary and collaborator on the utilitarian school of philosophy James Mill, James Mill's son John Stuart Mill, and several political leaders (and Robert Owen, who later became a founder of socialism).

He argued in favour of individual and economic freedom, including:

  • Separation of church and state;
  • Freedom of expression;
  • Equal rights for women;
  • Animal welfare;
  • Abolition of slavery;
  • Abolition of physical punishment (including that of children);
  • The legal right to divorce;
  • Free trade;
  • The defence of usury; and
  • The decriminalisation of homosexuality

He was in support of:

  • Inheritance tax;
  • Restrictions on monopoly power;
  • Pensions; and
  • Health insurance


Bentham was born in Spitalfields, London, into a wealthy Tory family. He was a child prodigy and was found as a toddler sitting at his father's desk reading a multi-volume history of England. He began his study of Latin at the age of three.

He went to Westminster School, and in 1760 his father sent him to The 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 and (though he never practised) was called to the bar in 1769. He became deeply frustrated with the complexity of the English legal code, which he termed the "Demon of Chicane".

Among his many proposals for legal and social reform was a design for a prison building he called the Panopticon. Although it was never built, the idea had an important influence upon later generations of thinkers. Twentieth-century French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that the Panopticon was paradigmatic of a whole raft of nineteenth-century 'disciplinary' institutions.

Bentham was in correspondence with many influential people. Adam Smith, for example, had opposed free interest rates before Bentham's arguments convinced him on the subject. As a result of his correspondence with Mirabeau and other leaders of the French Revolution, he was declared an honorary citizen of France, but Bentham was an outspoken critic of the revolutionary discourse of natural rights, and of the violence which arose after the Jacobins took power (1792). In between 1808 and 1810 he held a personal friendship with Latin American Independence Precursor Francisco de Miranda, and paid visits to Miranda's Grafton Way house in London.

In 1823, he co-founded the Westminster Review with James Mill as a journal for the " Philosophical Radicals" - a group of younger disciples through whom Bentham exerted considerable influence in British public life.

Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon in University College London
Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon in University College London

Bentham is frequently associated with the foundation of the University of London, specifically University College London (UCL), though in fact he was 78 years old when UCL opened in 1826, and played no active part in its establishment. However, it is likely that without his inspiration, UCL would not have been created when it was. Bentham strongly believed that education should be more widely available, particularly to those who were not wealthy or who did not belong to the established church, both of which were required of students by Oxford and Cambridge. As UCL was the first English university to admit all, regardless of race, creed, or political belief, it was largely consistent with Bentham's vision, and he oversaw the appointment of one of his pupils, John Austin, as the first Professor of Jurisprudence in 1829.

As requested in his will, his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet, termed his "Auto-icon". Originally kept by his disciple Dr. Southwood Smith, it was acquired by University College London in 1850. The Auto-Icon is kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the College. For the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, the Auto-Icon was brought to the meeting of the College Council, where he was listed as "present but not voting". Tradition holds that if the council's vote on any motion is tied, the auto-icon always breaks the tie by voting in favour of the motion.

The Auto-Icon has always had a wax head, as Bentham's head was badly damaged in the preservation process. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks including being stolen on more than one occasion. It is now locked away securely.

There is a plaque on Queen Anne's Gate, Westminster commemorating the house where Bentham lived, which at the time was called Queen's Square Place.

An insight into his character is given in Michael St. John Packe's, The Life of John Stuart Mill (1952), p. 16:

During his youthful visits to Bowood, the country seat of his patron Lord Lansdowne, he had passed his time at falling unsuccessfully in love with all the ladies of the house, whom he courted with a clumsy jocularity, while playing chess with them or giving them lessons on the harpsichord. Hopeful to the last, at the age of eighty he wrote again to one of them, recalling to her memory the far-off days when she had 'presented him, in ceremony, with the flower in the green lane' [citing Bentham's memoirs]. To the end of his life he could not hear of Bowood without tears swimming in his eyes, and he was forced to exclaim, 'Take me forward, I entreat you, to the future -- do not let me go back to the past.'


Bentham has a complicated publishing history. Most of his writing was never published in his own lifetime; much of that which was published (see this list of published works) was prepared for publication by others.

Works published in Bentham's lifetime included:

  • Fragment on Government (1776). This was an unsparing criticism of some introductory passages relating to political theory in William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. The book, published anonymously, was well-received and credited to some of the greatest minds of the time. Bentham disagreed with Blackstone's defence of judge-made law, his defence of legal fictions, his theological formulation of the doctrine of mixed government, his appeal to a social contract and his use of the vocabulary of natural law. Bentham's "Fragment" was only a small part of a "Commentary on the Commentaries", which remained unpublished until the twentieth century.
  • Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation (printed for publication 1780, published 1789)
  • Defence of Usury (1787)
  • Panopticon ( 1787, 1791). The proposed Panopticon was a prison-house, the architectural principles of which incorporated novel principles of prison discipline and administration.
  • Emancipate your Colonies (1793)
  • Traité de Législation Civile et Penale (1802, edited by Étienne Dumont. 3 vols)
  • Punishments and Rewards (1811)
  • A Table of the Springs of Action (1815)
  • Parliamentary Reform Catechism (1817)
  • Church-of-Englandism (printed 1817, published 1818)
  • Elements of the Art of Packing (1821)
  • The Influence of Natural Religion upon the Temporal Happiness of Mankind (1822, written with George Grote and published under the pseudonym Philip Beauchamp)
  • Not Paul But Jesus (1823, published under the pseudonym Gamaliel Smith)
  • Book of Fallacies (1824)
  • A Treatise on Judicial Evidence (1825)

The essay Offences Against One's Self, argued for the liberalisation of laws prohibiting homosexuality. The essay remained unpublished during his lifetime for fear of offending public morality. It was finally published for the first time in 1931.

Several of Bentham's works appeared first in French translation, prepared for the press by Étienne Dumont. Some made their first appearance in English in the 1820s as a result of back-translation from Dumont's 1802 collection (and redaction) of Bentham's writing on civil and penal legislation.

John Bowring, a British politician who had been Bentham's trusted friend, was appointed his literary executor and charged with the task of preparing a collected edition of his works. This appeared in 11 volumes in 1838-1843: Bowring based his edition on previously published editions (including those of Dumont) rather than Bentham's own manuscripts, and did not reprint Bentham's works on religion at all.

In 1952-54 Wilhelm Stark published a three-volume set, "Jeremy Bentham's Economic Writings," in which he attempted to bring together all of Bentham's writings on economic matters, including both published and unpublished material. Not trusting Bowring's edition, he painstakingly reviewed thousands of Bentham's original manuscripts and notes, a task made monumentally more difficult due to the manner in which they had been left by Bentham and organized by Bowring.

Bentham left manuscripts amounting to some 5,000,000 words. Since 1968, the Bentham Project at University College London have been busy working on an edition of his collected work. So far, 25 volumes have appeared; there may be as many still to come before the project is completed.


Bentham's ambition in life was to create a "Pannomion", a complete Utilitarian code of law. Bentham not only proposed many legal and social reforms, but also expounded an underlying moral principle on which they should be based. This philosophy, utilitarianism, argued that the right act or policy was that which would cause "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" — a phrase of which he is generally, though erroneously, regarded as the author — though he later dropped the second qualification and embraced what he called "the greatest happiness principle," often referred to as the principle of utility.

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think...

— Jeremy Bentham , The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) Ch I, p 1

He attributed his theory to Joseph Priestley: "Priestley was the first (unless it was Beccaria) who taught my lips to pronounce this sacred truth:- That the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation."

He also suggested a procedure for estimating the moral status of any action, which he called the Hedonistic or felicific calculus. Utilitarianism was revised and expanded by Bentham's student, John Stuart Mill. In Mill's hands, "Benthamism" became a major element in the liberal conception of state policy objectives.

It is often said that Bentham's theory, unlike Mill's, faces the problem of lacking a principle of fairness embodied in a conception of justice. In "Bentham and the Common Law Tradition", Gerald J. Postema states, "No moral concept suffers more at Bentham's hand than the concept of justice. There is no sustained, mature analysis of the notion ..." (ibid, p. 148). Thus, some critics object, it would be moral, for example, to torture one person if this would produce an amount of happiness in other people outweighing the unhappiness of the tortured individual - cf. " The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas". However, as P. J. Kelly argued in his book, Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice: Jeremy Bentham and the Civil Law, Bentham had a theory of justice that prevented such consequences. According to Kelly, for Bentham the law "provides the basic framework of social interaction by delimiting spheres of personal inviolability within which individuals can form and pursue their own conceptions of well-being." (ibid, p. 81). They provide security, a precondition for the formation of expectations. As the hedonic calculus shows " expectation utilities" to be much higher than natural ones, it follows that Bentham does not favour the sacrifice of a few to the benefit of the many.


His opinions about monetary economics were totally different from those of Ricardo; however, they had some similarities to those of Thornton. He focused on monetary expansion as a means of helping to create full employment. He was also aware of the relevance of forced saving, propensity to consume, the saving-investment relationship and other matters that form the content of modern income and employment analysis. His monetary view was close to the fundamental concepts employed in his model of utilitarian decision making. Bentham stated that pleasures and pains can be ranked according to their value or “dimension” such as intensity, duration, certainty of a pleasure or a pain. He was concerned with maxima and minima of pleasures and pains, and they set a precedent for the future employment of the maximization principle in the economics of the consumer, the firm and the search for an optimum in welfare economics (Spiegel, p. 341-343).

Animal welfare

Bentham is widely recognised as one of the earliest proponents of animal welfare, although his scepticism about moral rights in general would technically lead him to reject the notion of animal rights. He argued that animal pain is very similar to human pain, and that "[t]he day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny." Bentham argued that the ability to suffer, not the ability to reason, must be the benchmark of how we treat other beings. If the ability to reason were the criterion, many human beings, including babies and disabled people, would also have to be treated as though they were things. He wrote:

It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.

What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes ...


Bentham's ideas were severely criticised by, among others, free market economist Murray Rothbard in his essay, Jeremy Bentham: The Utilitarian as Big Brother published in his work, Classical Economics. The Canadian author Brebner wrote in 1948 that "British laissez faire was a political and economic myth...Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who have been commonly represented as typical, almost fundamental, formulators of laissez faire, were in fact the opposite, that is, the formulator of state intervention for collectivist ends and his devout apostle." The liberal economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek claimed that Bentham's utilitarianism was superficially individualist but led to collectivism:

Bentham and his Utilitarians did much to destroy the beliefs which England had in part preserved from the Middle Ages, by their scornful treatment of most of what until then had been the most admired features of the British constitution. And they introduced into Britain what had so far been entirely absent—the desire to remake the whole of the law and institutions on rational principles.

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