Bentham, Jeremy

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Bentham, Jeremy

Jeremy Bentham.

"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.

References in periodicals archive ?
The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, supra note 92, at xxxix.
Most of this article focuses on Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, two European thinkers whose work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries established their place as standard bearers of liberal penal reform.
Caro y el utilitarismo puede verse en el trabajo de grado Ayala (1993) titulado La polemica entre Jose Eusebio Caro y Jeremy Bentham.
El libro refleja como, cuando Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) acuno en 1776 la palabra "internacional" como "rama de la jurisprudencia que se ocupa de las transacciones mutuas entre soberanos como tales", lo hizo precisamente para plantear una alternativa a la tradicional "ley de naciones" (p.
It is this idea of constantly being on display that led Jeremy Bentham to develop a new model for prisons.
These are followed by chapters entitled, "The Contractarians: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John-Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx," "Kant: Duty and the Moral Law," "Utilitarianism and Liberalism: Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill," and "Contemporary Moral Theory.
Bentham describes attending Blackstone's lectures in Timothy Sprigge, The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham vol 1 1752-76 (Anthlone Press, 1968) 84-85, 9 Dec 1764 in a letter to his brother.
19) Jeremy Bentham, whose Book of Fallacies (1824) was partly conceived to refute Hamilton, was scandalized by Parliamentary Logic, charging, "that which Machiavel has been supposed sometimes to aim at, Gerard Hamilton, as often as it occurs to him, does not only aim at, but aims at without disguise.
The landscape may be devoid of a Jeremy Bentham, Henry Hunt or Keir Hardie figure - and Cole would seem an unlikely candidate to fill that gap, but he has again spoken up on behalf of the suppressed and oppressed.
If great thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham disagree about what we ought to do, can there really be an objectively true answer to that question?
If one hears the name of John Stuart Mill today, and one seldom does, it probably is in connection with one or two of several topics: philosophy, social or political theory, the concept of liberty, or, most likely, utilitarianism, the major idea of which was, according to its founder Jeremy Bentham, "The greatest happiness [or good] for the greatest number.