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 ?
A Benthamite might respond to these considerations by noting that we could just bring any doubts to the fact finder's attention to maintain a high standards context.
Derbyshire also reminds me of something that I'd forgotten, namely that Polanyi also identified Benthamite utilitarianism as an integral part of the paradoxical, small-yet-big liberal state.
Organised emigration of an excess population had become a cherished project for social reformers of different kinds, from Gilbert Wakefield to the Benthamites.
In its attempt to imitate Newtonian mechanics, its adoption of Benthamite utility, its focus on an abstract "economic rational man" (homo economicus), disembodied from the social, ethical and political dimensions of things, modern economics has, in its very striving for scientific sophistication and empirical vigor, perversely become increasingly impervious to the very elements of human nature that constitute its subject matter as a social science.
2) The inaugural edition focused on the Benthamite notion that it is better for ten guilty persons to be acquitted than for one innocent person to be convicted--is at the printer as this is being written.
An editorial in the Newcastle Chronicle in 1869, in an optimistic extension of the Benthamite doctrine of the greatest good of the greatest number, endorsed the search for happiness, morality, and egalitarianism.
There was a continuous tension between a strident, Fabian, Benthamite tendency to regulate and manage and the ideology of the market, with its pressure for market access to areas of public life from which it had hitherto been excluded.
In any event, few would argue with the Benthamite Popperian vision of a utilitarian society that seeks to provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.
Barry Sheerman and his Jeremy Benthamite radicals need to set the error of their ways, whilst the Kirklees Liberal-Labour led council with Clr Smithson and Clr Paul Kane should see the error of their ways, so that Clr Robert Light and Clr Andrew Palfreeman et al, can restore the council and a more sure footing and re-establish sensible Tory values again.
A Benthamite perspective sees all these characters and their textual layers of interlocution as collectively constituting a dialogue in which the reader, the outermost layer of storytelling, also participates.
For if our rational powers are more limited than optimistic rationalists might wish to think, as well as liable to be clouded and working from distorted data (including emotional data); and if this error applies even to the most rationally capable of us, let alone the 'simpler' creatures, from children to animals; then both the Platonic and the Benthamite approaches to the pursuit of happiness are in trouble for overestimating our grasp on the very nature of happiness.
Almost always, the bias of this economic imperialism has been quantitative and implicitly Benthamite, in which poetry and pushpin are reduced to a single-level, and which amply justifies the gibe of Oscar Wilde about cynics, that they [economists] know the price of everything and the value of nothing.