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Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham (; 15 February 1748 6 June 1832) was an English author, jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism. He is best known for his advocacy of utilitarianism and animal rights, and the idea of the panopticon.[1]

His position included arguments in favour of individual and economic freedom, usury, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalising of homosexual acts.[2] He argued for the abolition of slavery and the death penalty and for the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children.[3] Although strongly in favour of the extension of individual legal rights, he opposed the idea of natural law and natural rights, calling them "nonsense upon stilts."[4]

He has come to be considered the founding figure of modern utilitarianism, through his own work and that of his students. These included his secretary and collaborator on the utilitarian school of philosophy, James Mill; James Mill's son John Stuart Mill; John Austin, legal philosopher; and several political leaders, including Robert Owen, a founder of modern socialism. He has been described as the "spiritual founder" of University College London (UCL),[5] though he played little direct part in its foundation.



Portrait of Bentham by the studio of Thomas Frye, 1760 1762 Bentham was born in Houndsditch, London, into a wealthy family that supported the Tory party. He was reportedly a child prodigy: he was found as a toddler sitting at his father's desk reading a multi-volume history of England, and he began to study Latin at the age of three.[6] He had one surviving sibling, Samuel Bentham, with whom he shared a close bond.

He attended Westminster School and, in 1760, at age 12, was sent by his father to The Queen's College, Oxford, where he completed 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".

When the American colonies published their Declaration of Independence in July 1776, the British government did not issue any official response but instead secretly commissioned London lawyer and pamphleteer John Lind to publish a rebuttal.[7] His 130-page tract was distributed in the colonies and contained an essay titled "Short Review of the Declaration" authored by Bentham, a friend of Lind's, which attacked and mocked the Americans' political philosophy.[8]

Among his many proposals for legal and social reform was a design for a prison building he called the Panopticon. He spent some sixteen years of his life developing and refining his ideas for the building, and hoped that the government would adopt the plan for a National Penitentiary, and appoint him as contractor-governor. Although the prison was never built, the concept had an important influence on later generations of thinkers. Twentieth-century French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that the Panopticon was paradigmatic of several 19th-century 'disciplinary' institutions.

Bentham became convinced that his plans for the Panopticon had been thwarted by the King and an aristocratic elite acting in their own interests. It was largely because of his brooding sense of injustice that he developed his ideas of "sinister interest"that is, of the vested interests of the powerful conspiring against a wider public interestwhich underpinned many of his broader arguments for reform.

More successful was his cooperation with Patrick Colquhoun in tackling the corruption in the pool of London which led to the Thames Police Bill of 1798 which was eventually passed in 1800, leading to the formation of the Thames River Police, which was the first preventive police force in the country and was a precedent for Robert Peel's reforms 30 years later.[9]

Bentham was in correspondence with many influential people. Adam Smith, for example, opposed free interest rates before he was made aware of Bentham's arguments 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.[10] Bentham was an outspoken critic of the revolutionary discourse of natural rights and of the violence that arose after the Jacobins took power (1792). 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.[11] One such young writer was Edwin Chadwick, who wrote on hygiene, sanitation and policing and was a major contributor to the Poor Law Amendment Act.[12] Bentham employed him as a secretary and bequeathed him a large legacy.

An insight into his character is given in Michael St. John Packe's The Life of John Stuart Mill:

A psychobiographical study by Philip Lucas and Anne Sheeran, which takes into account Bentham's eccentricities, egocentricity, obsessive and narrow preoccupations, and apparently diminished imaginative and emotional capacity, concludes that he may have had Asperger's syndrome.[13]



Bentham's ambition in life was to create a "Pannomion", a complete utilitarian code of law. He not only proposed many legal and social reforms, but also expounded an underlying moral principle on which they should be based. This philosophy of utilitarianism took for its "fundamental axiom, it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong".[14] Bentham claimed to have borrowed this concept from the writings of Joseph Priestley,[15] although the closest that Priestley in fact came to expressing it was in the form "the good and happiness of the members, that is the majority of the members of any state, is the great standard by which every thing relating to that state must finally be determined".[16]

The "greatest happiness principle", or the principle of utility, forms the cornerstone of all Bentham's thought. By "happiness", he understood a predominance of "pleasure" over "pain". He wrote in The Principles of Morals and Legislation:

Another way to think about the principle of utility in the context in which Bentham explains it is, "usefulness." That is, Bentham talks about utility as a function of usefulness--how useful a product is determines how much we are willing to give up to obtain the product or service. The more useful the product is to us, the more value as a result we are willing to pay or exchange for the product (based on a money or barter economy, of course). The usefulness in exchange according to Bentham is the key incentive for purchase or exchange.

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.

In his exposition of the felicific calculus, Bentham proposed a classification of 12 pains and 14 pleasures, by which we might test the 'happiness factor' of any action.[17] Nonetheless, it should not be overlooked that Bentham's 'hedonistic' theory (a term from J.J.C. Smart), unlike Mill's, is often criticized for 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 ..."[18] Thus, some critics object, it would be acceptable to torture one person if this would produce an amount of happiness in other people outweighing the unhappiness of the tortured individual. 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."[19] It provides 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.

Bentham's Principles of Legislation focuses on the principle of utility and how this view of morality ties into legislative practices. His principle of utility regards "good" as that which produces the greatest amount of pleasure and the minimum amount of pain and "evil" as that which produces the most pain without the pleasure. This concept of pleasure and pain is defined by Bentham as physical as well as spiritual. Bentham writes about this principle as it manifests itself within the legislation of a society. He lays down a set of criteria for measuring the extent of pain or pleasure that a certain decision will create.

The criteria are divided into the categories of intensity, duration, certainty, proximity, productiveness, purity, and extent. Using these measurements, he reviews the concept of punishment and when it should be used as far as whether a punishment will create more pleasure or more pain for a society. He calls for legislators to determine whether punishment creates an even more evil offence. Instead of suppressing the evil acts, Bentham is arguing that certain unnecessary laws and punishments could ultimately lead to new and more dangerous vices than those being punished to begin with. Bentham follows these statements with explanations on how antiquity, religion, reproach of innovation, metaphor, fiction, fancy, antipathy and sympathy, begging the question, and imaginary law are not justification for the creation of legislature. Instead, Bentham is calling upon legislators to measure the pleasures and pains associated with any legislation and to form laws in order to create the greatest good for the greatest number. He argues that the concept of the individual pursuing his or her own happiness cannot be necessarily declared "right", because often these individual pursuits can lead to greater pain and less pleasure for the society as a whole. Therefore, the legislation of a society is vital to maintaining a society with optimum pleasure and the minimum degree of pain for the greatest amount of people.


Bentham's opinions about monetary economics were completely different from those of David 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. His work is widely regarded to be at the forefront of modern welfare economics.

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 maximisation principle in the economics of the consumer, the firm and the search for an optimum in welfare economics.[20]

Animal rights

Bentham is widely regarded as one of the earliest proponents of animal rights, and has even been hailed as "the first patron saint of animal rights".[21] He argued that the ability to suffer, not the ability to reason, should be the benchmark, or what he called the "insuperable line." If reason alone were the criterion by which we judge who ought to have rights, human infants and adults with certain forms of disability might fall short, too.[22][23] In 1789, alluding to the limited degree of legal protection afforded to slaves in the French West Indies by the Code Noir, he wrote:

However, Bentham's position is a little more complex. Though he clearly objected to the causing of needless pain to animals (and, indeed, humans) and although the famous quotation above is frequently used as a slogan by animal rights activists, Bentham in fact approved of conducting medical experiments on animals, providing that said experiments had in mind particular objects which would be of benefit to humanity, and had a reasonable chance of success. In a letter to the Morning Chronicle on 9 March 1825, Bentham thus wrote:

Gender and sexuality

Bentham said that it was the placing of women in a legally inferior position that made him choose, at the age of eleven, the career of a reformist.[24] Bentham spoke for a complete equality between sexes.

The essay Against One's Self,'' argued for the liberalisation of laws prohibiting homosexual sex.[25] The essay remained unpublished during his lifetime for fear of offending public morality. It was published for the first time in 1931.[26] While Bentham clearly is not condoning homosexual activities, he does not believe them to be unnatural, describing them as "irregularities of the venereal appetite." The essay chastises the society of the time for making a disproportionate response to what Bentham appears to consider a largely private offence public displays or forced acts being dealt with rightly by other laws.


Bentham's Auto-icon
Bentham's Auto-icon
As requested in his will, Bentham's body was dissected as part of a public anatomy lecture. Afterward, the skeleton and head were preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet called the "Auto-icon", with the skeleton stuffed out with hay and dressed in Bentham's clothes. Originally kept by his disciple Thomas Southwood Smith,[27] it was acquired by University College London in 1850. It is normally kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the college, but for the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, it was brought to the meeting of the College Council, where it was listed as "present but not voting".[28]

Bentham had intended the Auto-icon to incorporate his actual head, mummified to resemble its appearance in life. However, Southwood Smith's experimental efforts at mummification, although technically successful, left the head looking distastefully macabre, with dried and darkened skin stretched tautly over the skull. The Auto-icon was therefore given a wax head, fitted with some of Bentham's own hair. The real head was displayed in the same case as the Auto-icon for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks. It is now locked away securely.[29]

A 360-degree rotatable, high-resolution 'Virtual Auto-Icon' is available at the UCL Bentham Project's website.

Bentham and UCL

Bentham is widely associated with the foundation in 1826 of the University of London (the institution which in 1836 became University College London), though he was 78 years old when the University opened and played only an indirect role in its establishment. His direct involvement was limited to his buying a single 100 share in the new University, making him just one of over a thousand shareholders.[30]

Bentham and his ideas can nonetheless be seen as having inspired several of the actual founders of the University. He 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 the University of London was the first in England to admit all, regardless of race, creed or political belief, it was largely consistent with Bentham's vision. There is some evidence that, from the sidelines, he played a "more than passive part" in the planning discussions for the new institution, although it is also apparent that "his interest was greater than his influence".[30] He failed in his efforts to see his disciple John Bowring appointed professor of English or History, but he did oversee the appointment of another pupil, John Austin, as the first professor of Jurisprudence in 1829.

The Flaxman Gallery at University College London, showing Henry Tonks's painting of Bentham approving the plans of the University buildings. The more direct associations between Bentham and UCLthe College's custody of his Auto-icon and of the majority of his surviving paperspostdate his death by some years: the papers were donated in 1849, and the Auto-icon in 1850. A large painting by Henry Tonks hanging in UCL's Flaxman Gallery depicts Bentham approving the plans of the new University, but it was executed in 1922 and the scene is entirely imaginary. Since 1959 (when the Bentham Committee was first established) UCL has hosted the Bentham Project, which is progressively publishing a definitive edition of Bentham's writings.

UCL now endeavours to acknowledge Bentham's influence on its foundation, while avoiding any suggestion of direct involvement, by describing him as its "spiritual founder".[5]


Bentham was an obsessive writer and reviser, but was constitutionally incapable, except on rare occasions, of bringing his work to completion and publication.[31] Most of what appeared in print in his lifetime (see this list of published works) was prepared for publication by others. Several of his works first appeared in French translation, prepared for the press by tienne 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.

Works published in Bentham's lifetime include:

  • "Short Review of the Declaration" (1776). An attack on America's Declaration of Independence.
  • ''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). Jeremy Bentham wrote a series of thirteen Letters addressed to Adam Smith, published in 1787 as Defence of Usury. Bentham s main argument against the restriction is that projectors generate positive externalities. G.K. Chesterton identified Bentham's essay on usury as the very beginning of the 'modern world.' Bentham s arguments were very influential. Writers of eminence moved to abolish the restriction, and repeal was achieved in stages and fully achieved in England in 1854. There is little evidence as to Smith s reaction. He did not revise the offending passages in The Wealth of Nations, but Smith made little or no substantial revisions after the third edition of 1784.[32]
  • Panopticon (1787, 1791).
  • Emancipate your Colonies (1793)
  • Trait de L gislation Civile et Penale (1802, edited by tienne 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)

On his death, Bentham left manuscripts amounting to an estimated 30,000,000 words, which are now largely held by UCL's Special Collections (c.60,000 manuscript folios), and the British Library (c.15,000 folios). 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 he did not reprint Bentham's works on religion at all. Bowring's work has been criticised, although it includes such interesting writings on international relations as Bentham's A Plan for an Universal and Perpetual Peace written 1786 89, which forms part IV of the Principles of International Law.

In 1952 54, Werner 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. Although a significant achievement, the work is considered by scholars to be flawed in many points of detail,[33] and a new edition of the economic writings is currently in preparation by the Bentham Project.

In 1959, the Bentham Committee was established under the auspices of University College London with the aim of producing a definitive edition of Bentham's collected works. It set up the Bentham Project to undertake the task, and the first volume was published in 1968. To date, 29 volumes have appeared; the complete edition is projected to run to well over seventy. The Project is currently attempting to digitise the Bentham papers and crowdsource their transcription: see Transcribe Bentham below.

Transcribe Bentham

Transcribe Bentham is an award-winning crowdsourced manuscript transcription project, run by University College London's Bentham Project[34], in partnership with UCL's UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, UCL Library Services, UCL Learning and Media Services, the University of London Computer Centre, and the online community. The project was launched in September 2010 and is making freely-available, via a specially-designed transcription interface, digital images of UCL's vast Bentham Papers collection which runs to some 60,000 manuscript folios in order to engage the public and recruit volunteers to assist in transcribing the material. Volunteer-produced transcripts will contribute to the Bentham Project's production of the new edition of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, and will be uploaded to UCL's digital Bentham Papers repository,[35] widening access to the collection for all and ensuring its long-term preservation. Manuscripts can be viewed and transcribed by signing-up for a transcriber account at the Transcription Desk[36], via the Transcribe Bentham website.[37]

Transcribe Bentham has garnered international attention - such as in a feature article in The New York Times[38], and a radio broadcast on Deutsche Welle World radio.[39] The project was shortlisted for the 2011 Digital Heritage Award[40], and received an Award of Distinction in the Digital Communities category of the 2011 Prix Ars Electronica.[41]. The open-source code for the Transcribe Bentham transcription tool is available for reuse and customisation.[42]

See also



  • Gunn, J.A.W. (1989). "Jeremy Bentham and the Public Interest", in J. Lively & A. Reeve (eds.) Modern Political Theory from Hobbes to Marx: Key Debates, London, pp. 199 219
  • Available online
  • Rosen, Frederick (1990). "The Origins of Liberal Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham and Liberty". In R. Bellamy, ed., Victorian Liberalism: Nineteenth-century Political Thought and Practice, London, pp. 5870

External links


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