Bentham, Jeremy

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Bentham, Jeremy (1748-1832): English Philosopher.

Jeremy Bentham was born on February 15, 1748 in London. Said to be a child prodigy, Bentham began reading while still a toddler and studied Latin at the age of three. His father and grandfather were both respected attorneys and it was expected that Jeremy would follow in their footsteps and study the law. He entered Queens College, Oxford at the age of twelve and, after graduating four years later, he began to study law at Lincoln’s Inn. Despite earning his degree, Bentham never practiced law. Instead, he spent most of his adult life writing about a wide range of issues, from reform of the existing laws and government, to his moral philosophy, as well as animal welfare, universal suffrage, reform of the penal system, the design of prisons as well as the decriminalization of homosexuality. He was also fond of creating new words. To him we owe “international,” “maximize,” “minimize” and “codify,” among others.

His most important work was the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), where he laid out his utilitarian philosophy. Bentham introduces his philosophy, saying “…nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure…the principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system.” According to Bentham, the consequences of our actions serve both as motivations for our behavior (we seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain) and as the definition of right (or good) and wrong (or bad) behavior. Actions are good or bad only in that they bring about either a pleasurable or a painful consequence. He disagreed with the idea of natural rights (God-given or innate rights that exist without government or society) and the theory of the social contract, which said individuals choose a government and agree to give up some of their natural rights so that society can function. Bentham called the idea of natural rights “nonsense upon stilts” and said that rights are created by the government through the laws that it writes. Those legal rights that increase the happiness of the society should be in place, and those that do not contribute to the happiness of the group should be dissolved.

Bentham also saw the individual as the most important element in society, describing society itself as nothing but the sum of the interests of the individuals that made it up. So, good government should enact laws that create the most happiness for the largest number of members of society. Individual members of society should be motivated to seek happiness for the whole of society because all members of society share common interests. The job of legislators is to make the connection between goals of individuals and the goals of the group as obvious as possible. “The highest morality is the pursuit of the happiness of the greatest number” (OED, Vol. 1, A-O).

Bentham was influenced by the moral philosophy of Hume, David, who was attempting to describe the structure of the human mind. Hume proposed that simple ideas can be linked together through associations. Bentham proposed that both pleasure and pain could also be objectively measured in terms of their intensity, duration, certainty (how likely they were to occur), propinquity (how soon they would occur), fecundity (the probability of being followed by more of the same) and purity (the probability of being followed by the opposite experience). The value of an action can be calculated by summing up the pain and the pleasure the action caused, what Bentham called “hedonic calculus.” Bentham’s “mnemonic doggerel” sums up his philosophy.

Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure – Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure. Such pleasures seek if private be thy end: If it be public, wide let them extend. Such pains avoid, whichever be thy view: If pains must come, let them extend to few.

Bentham also spent a great deal of his inheritance and his time on his vision for prison reform, called the Panopticon, designed to allow guards an unobstructed view of the prisoners but preventing the prisoners from seeing the guards. Despite working diligently on his plans for the panopticon for 20 years, none were ever built in his lifetime, although several prisons use this circular design today.

Bentham died in London on June 6, 1832. In accordance with a request made in his will, his cadaver, called the “auto-icon,” was preserved, seated in a chair, in a cabinet at the University College of London. Apparently the head was severely damaged during the preservation process, and the body is now topped with a wax head. Bentham’s own head spent years on the floor of the cabinet, between the feet of the auto-icon, but due to a series of student pranks that featured stealing the head, it is now in safe storage.


Further Reading:

Bowring, J. (Ed.), The Works of Jeremy Bentham, London: 1838-1843 [Reprinted New York, 1962].

Mack, M.P., Jeremy Bentham: An Odyssey of Ideas, 1748-1792, London, 1962.

The Bentham Project at University College, University of London. www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project/info/jb.htm.


Barbara Blatchley

Agnes Scott College

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