Jeremy Bentham — was an exceptionally able and influential philosopher, but he was also, in some ways, a rather strange man. He died in , but he can still be seen, ensconced within a glass case, at University College, London. Bentham donated his cadaver for instructive dissection by T. Southwood Smith, a leading advocate for the legalization of such donations, but directed that his skeleton should be preserved.

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Jeremy Bentham, jurist and political reformer, is the philosopher whose name is most closely associated with the foundational era of the modern utilitarian tradition. In , he first announced himself to the world as a proponent of utility as the guiding principle of conduct and law in A Fragment on Government. In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation printed , published , as a preliminary to developing a theory of penal law he detailed the basic elements of classical utilitarian theory.

In all these areas he made major contributions that continue to feature in discussions of utilitarianism, notably its moral, legal, economic and political forms. Jeremy Bentham was born on 15 February and died on 6 June in London. He was the elder son of an attorney, Jeremiah Bentham —92 and his first wife, Alicia Whitehorn d. He viewed the Oxbridge colleges as seats of privilege, prejudice and idleness, and his Oxford experience left him with a deep distrust of oaths and sparked a general antipathy toward the Anglican establishment , 35— There he heard cases argued before Lord Mansfield, including the proceedings against the radical journalist and politician John Wilkes.

He returned briefly to Oxford in —64 to attend lectures given by William Blackstone, the first Vinerian Professor of English Law, which were published in four celebrated volumes as Commentaries on the Laws of England — Bentham was called to the Bar in , but his legal career lasted only one brief. Bentham launched his career as a legal theorist in with the anonymously published A Fragment on Government. This slim volume is an offshoot of a larger critique of Blackstone that was not published until the twentieth century, and is now known as A Comment on the Commentaries.

Bentham would give these basic postulates exposition, argumentative support, and further refinement in the decades following, but it was the operationalization of the utility principle that absorbed most of his energy and time during a long and highly productive working life.

The first two volumes on civil and penal law were later re-translated into English by the American utilitarian Richard Hildreth and published as The Theory of Legislation , a text that remained at the centre of utilitarian studies in the English-speaking world through to the middle of the twentieth century. The volume later received high praise from J.

It received its widest audience in America, where it was reprinted on many occasions and frequently cited in the debates over the usury laws. Upon his return from Russia, Bentham was encouraged by Shelburne to turn his attentions to foreign policy and international law.

He drafted short papers on several topics that were later published under the general title Principles of International Law. The political upheaval in France provided Bentham with an opportunity to put certain of his ideas into practice and also the context in which he first developed the utilitarian logic of democracy based on the identification of interests between the ruler and the ruled.

He nevertheless stopped short of publicly advocating parliamentary reform in Britain and at this stage was very far from the republicanism he adopted in later life Dinwiddy ; Crimmins ; Schofield Over the years he devoted considerable sums of his own money to the project, and published further material comparing the merits of the panopticon with the disadvantages of the system of transporting convicts to penal colonies —43, IV, — The essays on poor law reform from —98 , a were partly stimulated by rising food prices and the resultant debate about the treatment of the poor.

The writings on monetary matters, in particular, contain original and innovative solutions to practical financial and currency difficulties.

After ruminating on the subject for several years, Bentham took up the reform of judicial administration in Scotch Reform , while the voluminous manuscripts on evidence from this time were later edited and published by J. Mill as Rationale of Judicial Evidence In courts open to the public, judges were to be charged with following basic principles that would allow for the most complete and accurate testimony available Twining , 42, 70; Schofield , —31; Resnick The overriding consideration was the subordination of the judge to the lawmaker, though the judge may if empowered suspend the execution of the law where utility demanded, pending a final decision by the legislature Dinwiddy a.

This insight served to draw Bentham into an open engagement with parliamentary reform. A further catalyst came from his association with James Mill, whom he met in late , and who for many years thereafter acted as his philosophical and political aide-de-camp. The drafts he wrote in —10 provided the outlines for his first public statement in support of representative democracy in Plan of Parliamentary Reform in the Form of a Catechism with Reasons for Each Article These included: the elimination of royal patronage, a substantial extension of the franchise, annual elections by secret ballot, the election of intellectually qualified and independent members of parliament with a system of fines to ensure regular attendance, and the accurate and regular publication of parliamentary debates.

Without these reforms Bentham believed Britain risked revolution. From this point on he became widely recognised as the foremost philosophical voice of political radicalism. Other political writings from this time include Defence of Economy against the Right Honourable Edmund Burke and Defence of Economy against the Right Honourable George Rose , both written in but not published until , 39— These essays attacked waste and corruption in government and were later reissued, with other previously published essays, in Official Aptitude Maximized, Expense Minimized , the overall aim of which was to optimize the competence of public servants while reducing government expenditure.

In , his Book of Fallacies appeared, in which he employed a humorous vein of barbs to lay bare the fallacious reasoning frequently used to bolster sinister interests and stymie proposals for reform In these works he brought to bear with telling scepticism his reasoning on logic, language and ontology from the same period —43, VIII, —; Crimmins At about the same time, he also wrote at length on private ethics in Deontology , published posthumously in two volumes in In Church—of—Englandism he was highly critical of the education offered in the schools run by the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church.

In the years following, Bentham produced draft upon draft of elements of the Constitutional Code , only the first of three volumes of which was published during his lifetime. In these writings he unequivocally pinned his colors to the republican cause, but also demonstrated an acute sense of the growing importance of the administrative functions of the modern state Rosenblum ; Hume ; Rosen In December he provided funds to start the Westminster Review , a periodical dedicated to radical views.

He also assumed a leadership role in the movement for law reform and political reform, maintained regular contact with similarly inclined reformers, publishers and intellectuals at home and abroad, and was surrounded by disciples who acted as secretaries, collaborators, and editorial assistants. Bentham never married, and died in the company of friends on the eve of the signing of the Great Reform Act.

In preparation for this final act, in an unpublished pamphlet written in the year before his death, Auto-Icon; or Farther Uses of the Dead to the Living printed , but not then published , he proposed the display of auto-iconized bodies and heads as a means to public instruction.

He requested that his own mummified head and skeleton, dressed in his habitual garments, be displayed, and it can still be viewed today at University College London.

In these and other early writings we see Bentham striving to emulate in the moral world the great advances made in physical science. In the process he consciously allied himself with the more progressive elements of the Enlightenment and made plain the intellectual influences that shaped his thought, notably Bacon, Locke, Hume, and the French philosophes.

Influenced by the empiricism of Bacon and Locke, Bentham held that all knowledge is derived from sensation: the intellect has no material to work with apart from that obtained by the senses. In the second half of the 17 th century, the Royal Society had emphasized the role of experiment and generally empiricist epistemology in the development of the natural sciences.

Suitably impressed by the progress made in this department of knowledge, Bentham carried over into moral science the basic principle that people can only know, in any certain or scientific sense of that term, that which can be observed and verified. He rejected all forms of idealism in philosophy and insisted that in principle all matter is quantifiable in mathematical terms, and this extends to the pains and pleasures that we experience—the ultimate phenomena to which all human activity and social concepts, such as rights, obligation, and duty could be reduced and explained.

Some fictitious entities are necessary for human discourse, but their meaning can only be revealed through their connection to real entities , n; b, —88, —18 ; if a fictitious entity proves impervious to this paraphrastic technique it is shown to be a meaningless abstraction unrelated to demonstrable reality.

All are dismissed on the grounds that they are merely empty phrases that express nothing beyond the sentiment of the person who advocates them. Not representing verifiable reality, such phrases could not be considered useful. At the beginning of IPML Bentham offered the famous declamation that underscores the primacy of pains and pleasures in utilitarian theory:.

There are two forms of hedonism expressed in this seminal passage: 1 psychological hedonism, which states that all motives of action are grounded in the apprehension of pain or the desire for pleasure; and 2 ethical hedonism, which holds that pleasure is the only good and actions are right in so far as they tend to produce pleasure or avoid pain.

As such, pain and pleasure are the final cause of individual action and the efficient cause and means to individual happiness. Nor, can they talk?

But, can they suffer? But how is the legislator to influence individual actions and gain conformity to his decisions? In effect, there is no such thing as a good or bad motive. When deciding whether to act or which act to undertake, a person must calculate as best as he can the pains and pleasures that may reasonably be expected to accrue to the persons including himself affected by the acts under consideration.

A similar calculation should guide the legislator in formulating laws. However, Bentham recognised that it was not normally feasible for an individual to engage in such a calculation as a preliminary to undertaking every act. For this reason he spoke of the general tendencies of actions to enhance happiness suggested by past experience as a sufficient guide in most situations.

To this end he developed rules to guide the lawmaker in the construction of a penal code, including the elements involved in the calculation of the mischief caused by offences and the appropriate punishments. In general he followed Adam Smith in believing the individual to be the best judge of his or her own interests, but the simplicity of this proposition is deceptive see Engelmann This involves the individual in imagining what will occur if she were to act in a certain manner.

For Bentham, the most important elements of the external environment in which a person imagines outcomes are the penalties and rewards laid down by law and those deriving from other educative and moral institutional arrangements and practices, including the sanction exercised by public opinion. In this sense, law and other agencies may be used to construct interests by providing individuals with the motives to pursue courses of action beneficial to the community.

It is the individual who then must correctly perceive where her interests lie; she must imagine the expected outcomes the legislator has determined. Second, Bentham recognised that explaining action in terms of interest is potentially circular.

If we mean, acting to pursue our interest in the widest sense, then the statement is tautological b, 93n. Bentham recognised the possibility of altruistic actions, and frequently alluded to his own philanthropy when recommending schemes to further the public good. However, if not all action is motivated by self-interest in the narrow or strict meaning of the term, then how far can the self-preference principle be considered a reliable guide for the legislator in constructing motives?

While it is not true that everyone always acts in his or her self-interest, it is best that the legislator design institutions and law as if this were in fact true. Self-interested acts are the norm; altruism is the exception. Third, although individuals may in general be the best judges of their own interests, they may not always judge wisely.

But if people incorrectly perceive their interests, then the legislator may be misled in constructing the appropriate motivation. This means that assessing the value of the constituent elements of interest pains and pleasures is a tricky business for the legislator; he must accurately observe the ways people behave, deduce the motives behind their actions, and encompass this knowledge in the sanctions of law.

The aim is to tell individuals what they should not do, but also to provide them with motives pains and pleasures in prospect sufficient to divert their desires into channels best designed to serve the public interest.

In this way government could educate its citizens to make more effective choices, or at least guide them into more appropriate paths to achieve their real interests —43, I, Bentham recognised that neither the individual nor the legislator could strictly follow the process he described. As is well known, while adhering to the basic Benthamic analysis of motives, in Utilitarianism J.

This tended to undermine the aggregative dimension of the theory laid down by Bentham. Bentham occasionally suggested that pains and pleasures might be evaluated in relation to income or wealth, but he was aware of the limitations of this approach. It is in the nature of the case that the amount of increase in happiness will not be as great as the increase in wealth; the addition of equal increments of money will eventually bring successively less of an increase in happiness.

One of its practical consequences for a utilitarian such as Bentham is that, where choices present themselves between giving an additional increment to a rich man or to a poor man, more happiness will result from giving it to the poorer of the two. Also, the analysis underscores why money cannot be a direct measure of utility, since the utility represented by a particular sum of money will vary depending on the relative wealth of the person who receives it.

Moreover, it is evident that diminishing marginal utility is also a feature of the additional increments of pleasure a person may experience beyond a certain point; equal increments of pleasure will not necessarily add to the stockpile of happiness if a person has reached a saturation point.

For Bentham, the unhappiness created by the loss of something will usually have a greater impact on a person than the happiness brought about by its gain to someone else —43, I, —7.

Of course, if the loser is a wealthy person and the gainer a poor man, this will not hold. But in the normal run of things, this is why Bentham gave a higher priority to the protection of property by law and why he held that the alleviation of suffering demands more immediate attention than plans to produce wealth —54, III, , Raising public funds through taxation for vital services would be justified by the principle, as would emergency expropriation of property in times of war or famine, usually with compensation paid to the property owner.

For Bentham, the significance of this principle as a practical guide could hardly be overstated. He came to see that such a principle could justify inordinate sacrifices by a minority, however that minority might be composed, in the interest of enhancing the happiness of a majority.

He considered this a false conclusion, but one that needed to be addressed. The less the numerical difference between the minority and majority, the more obvious the deficiency in aggregate happiness will be a,


The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill

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Act and Rule Utilitarianism

This volume includes the complete texts of two of John Stuart Mill's most important works, Utilitarianism and On Liberty, and selections from his other writings, including the complete text of his Remarks on Bentham's Philosophy. The selection from Mill's A System of Logic is of special relevance to the debate between those who read Mill as an Act-Utilitarian and those who interpret him as a Rule-Utilitarian. Also included are selections from the writings of Jeremy Bentham, founder of modern Utilitarianism and mentor together with James Mill of John Stuart Mill. Bentham's Principles of Morals and Legislation had important effects on political and legal reform in his own time and continues to provide insights for political theorists and philosophers of law. Seven chapters of Bentham's Principles are here in their entirety, together with a number of shorter selections, including one in which Bentham repudiates the slogan often used to characterize his philosophy: The Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number. John Troyer's Introduction presents the central themes and arguments of Bentham and Mill and assesses their relevance to current discussions of Utilitarianism.



Utilitarianism is one of the most powerful and persuasive approaches to normative ethics in the history of philosophy. Though not fully articulated until the 19 th century, proto-utilitarian positions can be discerned throughout the history of ethical theory. Though there are many varieties of the view discussed, utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good. There are many ways to spell out this general claim. One thing to note is that the theory is a form of consequentialism: the right action is understood entirely in terms of consequences produced.


The Classical Utilitarians, Bentham and Mill

SparkNotes is here for you with everything you need to ace or teach! Find out more. John Stuart Mill was an English philosopher and economist. He wrote one of his most famous essays, Utilitarianism, in

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