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Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham (February 15, 1748 - June 6, 1832), the founder of Utilitarianism, was an English gentleman, jurist, philosopher, eccentric and legal and social reformer.

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The life of Jeremy Bentham

Born in Spitalfields, London into a wealthy Tory family, Bentham was recognised as a child prodigy when discovered as a toddler sitting at his father's desk reading a multi-volume history of England. He studied Latin from 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 1776. Bentham trained as a lawyer and was called to the bar in 1769. A prosperous attorney, his father had decided that Bentham would follow him into the law, and felt quite sure that his brilliant son would one day be Lord Chancellor of England.

Soon, however, Bentham became disillusioned with the law, especially after hearing the lectures of the leading authority of the day, Sir William Blackstone. Deeply frustrated with the complexity of the English legal code, which he termed the "Demon of Chicane", he decided, instead of practising the law, to write about it, and he spent his life criticising the existing law and suggesting ways for its improvement. His father's death in 1792 left him financially independent, allowing him to set himself up as a writer in Westminster. For nearly forty years he lived there quietly, producing between ten and twenty sheets of manuscript a day, even when he was in his eighties. Among his many proposals for legal and social reform was a design for a prison building he called the Panopticon, an idea that had limited influence on the prisons of his day but was later seen by Foucault and others as an important development.


Bentham not only proposed many legal and social reforms, but also devised moral principles on which they should be based. This philosophy, utilitarianism, argued that the greatest good was whatever policy would cause the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Utilitarianism was revised and expanded by Bentham's more famous disciple, 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. "Thus", we read in the article on felicific calculus, "according to this theory, it would be moral to e.g. torture one person if this would produce an amount of happiness in other people outwheighing the unhappiness of the tortured individual." However, as P. J. Kelly forcibly argued in his book Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice: Jeremy Bentham and the Civil Law [ISBN 0-19-825418-0], Bentham had a theory of justice that prevented such undesirable 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." (op. cit., p. 81) They provide security, a precondition for the formation of expectations. As the felicific 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.


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