Jeremy Bentham


Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham
Full name Jeremy Bentham
Born 15 February 1748(1748-02-15)
London, England
Died 6 June 1832(1832-06-06) (aged 84)
London, England
Era 18th century
19th century
School Utilitarianism, legal positivism, liberalism
Main interests Political philosophy, philosophy of law, ethics, economics
Notable ideas Greatest happiness principle
Signature

Jeremy Bentham (play /ˈbɛnθəm/; 15 February 1748 – 6 June 1832) was an English 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 became the most influential of the utilitarians, through his own work and that of his students.[citation needed] 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), where he is still greatly revered.

Contents

Life

Portrait of Bentham by the studio of Thomas Frye, 1760–1762

Bentham was born in Houndsditch, London, into a wealthy family that supported the Tories. 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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 interest – which 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 Peel's reforms 30 years later.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] Bentham employed him as a secretary and bequeathed him a large legacy.

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 no active part in its establishment. It is likely, however, that without his inspiration the University would not have been created when it was. Bentham 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 UCL was the first English university to admit all, regardless of race, creed or political belief, it was largely consistent with Bentham's vision. He oversaw the appointment of one of his pupils, John Austin, as the first professor of Jurisprudence in 1829.

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

During his youthful visits to Bowood House, the country seat of his patron Lord Lansdowne, he had passed his time at falling unsuccessfully in love with all the ladies of the house, whom he courted with a clumsy jocularity, while playing chess with them or giving them lessons on the harpsichord. Hopeful to the last, at the age of eighty he wrote again to one of them, recalling to her memory the far-off days when she had "presented him, in ceremony, with the flower in the green lane" [citing Bentham's memoirs]. To the end of his life he could not hear of Bowood without tears swimming in his eyes, and he was forced to exclaim, "Take me forward, I entreat you, to the future – do not let me go back to the past."[12]

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 been a sufferer of Asperger's syndrome.[13]

Work

Utilitarianism

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:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think ...[17]

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.[18] 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 ..."[19] 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."[20] 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.

Economics