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Bentham, Jeremy (1748–1832)

Bentham, Jeremy (1748–1832)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052475-0048

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Jeremy Bentham was born in London on 15 February 1748 and died there on 6 June 1832. He was the elder son of a London attorney, Jeremiah Bentham (1712–92) and his first wife, Alicia Whitehorn (née Grove, d. 1759), and brother to Samuel (1757–1831), a naval architect and later diplomat. When his father married for a second time in 1766 (to Sarah Abbot, née Farr, d. 1809), he acquired two half-brothers, one of whom was Charles Abbot (1757–1829), the future Baron Colchester and Speaker of the House of Commons. From 1755 to 1760 Bentham attended Westminster School, which he later called ‘a wretched place for instruction’ (Works, 1838–43, vol. 10, p. 30). At the age of twelve he was sent to Queen’s College, Oxford, from which he obtained his BA in 1763 (MA 1766). His three years there were no more stimulating than his time at Westminster and, as a consequence of being forced to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles, he departed with an abiding distrust of oaths, an antipathy he later detailed in Swear Not at All (1817). In November 1763 Bentham entered Lincoln’s Inn and listened to cases heard before Lord Mansfield in the Court of King’s Bench, including the proceedings against John Wilkes. He returned briefly to Oxford to hear William Blackstone lecture, detected certain fallacies in his natural law reasoning, and later pronounced the jurist’s style ‘cold and formal’ (Works, 1838–43, vol. 10, p. 45). Although Bentham was admitted to the Bar in 1769, he chose to devote his life to applying scientific principles to the reform of English law. In later life he remembered the year 1769 chiefly for his first reading of works by Montesquieu, Barrington, Hume, Beccaria and Helvétius, writers who ‘set me on the principle of utility’ (ibid., p. 54). Unaware that Francis Hutcheson had earlier voiced a version of the dictum ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, he recalled that it was either in Beccaria or Priestley that he first saw the principle (it was almost certainly the former). Beccaria’s enlightened views on the principles of law and punishment, together with Helvétius’s suggestions for defining and analysing moral terms, were important influences shaping Bentham’s approach to moral and legal philosophy. In Hume’s secular moral philosophy he found an impressive systematic approach to the rules of justice founded in general utility, but Hume’s explanation of the psychology of moral conduct in terms of ‘moral sentiments’ was a disappointment.

The first product of Bentham’s project to analyse critically English law and to set it on the new foundation of the principle of utility was A Fragment on Government (1776), a criticism of Blackstone’s Lockeian statement of the contractual basis of government in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–9). In A Fragment, Bentham first stated the ‘fundamental axiom’ that ‘it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong’, and that ‘the obligation to minister to general happiness, was an obligation paramount to and inclusive of every other’ (Collected Works, vol. 1, pp. 393, 441n.). This slim volume was a small part of a more substantial but unfinished work intended as a general critique of Blackstone, but the larger work did not appear in print until the twentieth century, when it was published as A Comment on the Commentaries. Employing the principle of utility as the proper test of the desirability of a law, in the first part of A Comment Bentham examined general types of laws, and in the second focused on specific aspects of English law. Over the next decade he continued working on manuscript drafts of works on general legal theory, civil and penal law.

In 1780 Bentham printed but did not publish An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, intended as an Introduction to his planned ‘Pannomiom’ or complete legal code based upon the utility principle. The ‘Pannomiom’ was designed to include works on civil and penal law, judicial procedure, legislative reward, constitutional law, legislative procedure, international law, finance, political economy, and ‘universal jurisprudence’ (Principles of Morals and Legislation, pp. 5–6). The general purpose of this comprehensive ‘science’ of morals and legislation was ‘to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law’ (ibid., p. 11).

While Bentham was in Russia (1786–8) visiting his brother Samuel and hoping to gain an audience with Catherine II, a friend drew his attention to William Paley ’s recently published Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), fearing that Bentham would be accused of plagiarism when he published his own treatise on the utilitarian foundations of ethics and law. At that time he was busy with Defence of Usury (1787) and the Panopticon project. Defence of Usury was his first essay in political economy and shows him as a disciple of Adam Smith, albeit one who was critical of the restrictive lending laws supported by Smith. In subsequent writings on economics Bentham continued to adhere to the laissez-faire principle, at times with modifications dictated by general utility. On his return to England from Russia he hurried to publish Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789); a second, corrected edition appeared in 1823.

Bentham’s friend and disciple, the Swiss scholar Étienne Dumont, used six chapters of the Principles in his French edition of Bentham’s writings and manuscripts on civil and penal law, Traités de législation civile et pénale (1802). The Traités brought Bentham’s ideas to the attention of a much wider reading public in Continental Europe, and was later translated into English as Theory of Legislation (1840) by the American utilitarian Richard Hildreth. Hildreth’s edition has been reprinted many times since. The previously unpublished civil law sections of the Traités contain an important statement of the ‘liberal’ elements of Bentham’s utilitarianism and should be read in conjunction with the writings on penal law from the same period.

Another incomplete work of the period, intended as a part of the never completed magnum opus on the law, was Of Laws in General, first published in 1945. It was written in 1782 as a continuation of the final chapter of Principles of Morals and Legislation, but by 1789 Bentham had decided that it should be a separate work, and made extensive revisions and added marginal notes. It begins by defining the nature of law, and then methodically examines the sources, theory and application of laws. In this way, Bentham proposed a ‘common standard’ by which comparisons of different legal systems could be made according to the principle of utility.

Panopticon; or the Inspection-House (1791), based on an architectural idea by Samuel Bentham, followed the publication of Principles of Morals and Legislation. In this work Bentham detailed plans for the construction of a prison (and other controlled institutions, such as factories, schools, hospitals or asylums) based on a circular design and centrally located watchtower. In Discipline and Punish (1974) Michel Foucault depicted the Panopticon as heralding the birth of the sinister surveillance society. However, the idea for an easily controlled circular prison was really a humanitarian advance on the pitiful hellholes found in eighteenth-century England. Bentham spent many fruitless years attempting to persuade the English government to support the Panopticon plan, until it was finally given up in 1812 when he was paid £23,000 in compensation for the expenses he had incurred.

Bentham’s political convictions during this period have been widely discussed. It is generally acknowledged that he developed utilitarian arguments for democratic institutions at the time of the French Revolution (including female suffrage), but turned away from Parliamentary reform in the aftermath of the ‘Terror’. Much of the remaining years of the century and the opening years of the new century were devoted to issues related to economic and finance policy, poor law reform, the rules of evidence and other judicial practices, as well as the continued prosecution of the doomed Panopticon scheme. Bentham’s meeting with James Mill in late 1808 seems to have been the catalyst that returned him to the democratic cause, and the remainder of his life was dedicated to educational, political and constitutional reform at home and abroad.

Chrestomathia (1815) described a new system of education for the children of the middling and higher ranks in life. The curriculum was utilitarian in intent (‘Chrestomathia’ meant useful learning) and stressed science and technology rather than the classics and religion. A second part was added in 1817. In the same year Bentham published his important treatise on motivation, A Table of the Springs of Action, in which he provided an exhaustive classification of the types of pleasure and pain. His major tract on politics of this time was Plan of Parliamentary Reform, in the Form of a Catechism (1817), much of which he had written in 1809–10 after his meeting with Mill. Bentham was now thoroughly convinced of the need for universal male suffrage (female suffrage was dropped from the reform agenda for tactical purposes), annual elections by secret ballot, the election of intellectually qualified independent members of Parliament, a system of fines to ensure the regular attendance of members, accurate publication of Parliamentary debates, and the elimination of royal patronage. By the time he published Plan of Parliamentary Reform, he was convinced that without reform England risked a revolution, and this lent all the more urgency to the need for political change. Thereafter, Bentham was widely recognized as the foremost philosophical voice of political radicalism in Britain. Closely related to his critique of the political establishment at this time were his little-known but substantial criticisms of religious institutions, practices and beliefs in Church-of-Englandism and its Catechism Examined (1818), An Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind (1822) and Not Paul, but Jesus (1823). In these works he brought his reasoning on logic, language and ontology to bear with telling scepticism.

Bentham dedicated the last ten years of his life to the Constitutional Code, a complete code of fundamental laws, including the best administrative arrangements for a liberal state based on efficiency and accountability. He began work on the Code in 1822 after the Portuguese Cortes expressed interest in receiving drafts of constitutional and legal codes. Its 1830 title, however, directed it to ‘all nations and all governments professing liberal opinions’. Stimulated by the pace of political change in the Iberian peninsula and Greece, Bentham completed much of the design by 1824. Further sections were added during the next two years, as his attention was captured by the emergence of new nations in South America, and the first of three volumes was completed in 1827. Versions of the Code were offered or distributed in the newly liberated regions of Central and South America, as well as older societies in political transition in the Mediterranean basin and parts of Europe. However, the planned second and third volumes were never brought to publication.

The only other major work published in this last phase of Bentham’s life was Rationale of Judicial Evidence, specially applied to English Practice (1827), a five-volume treatise edited by the young John Stuart Mill . Bentham had been considering the subject for many years, making three different attempts to write on it between 1802 and 1812, and Dumont had already published his Traités des Preuves Judiciaires (1823) based on a selection of Bentham’s speculations. The younger Mill was asked to merge and collate these disparate beginnings. On the usual basis that law should be based on utilitarian principles, in this work Bentham carefully considered the problems inherent in the rules of evidence operating in the English courts and proposed remedies for them.

Auto-Icon; or Farther Uses of the Dead to the Living (printed 1842, not published), written shortly before his death, is often described as Bentham’s ‘final’ work. In this tract he proposed the display of mummified bodies for public instruction. In accordance with his long-held commitment to the benefits of anatomical research, he requested in his will that his body should be dissected and his preserved head and skeleton dressed in habitual garments, and this ‘auto-icon’ placed on display at University College London, where it can still be viewed today.

Bentham coined the term ‘utilitarian’ in 1781 to describe his general analytic and practical approach to moral and legal philosophy. At that time, he considered Principles of Morals and Legislation as the foundational text of his philosophy. At the base of the theory enunciated in that work was the assumption of ‘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’ (Principles of Morals and Legislation, p. 11). As a first principle used to establish everything else, the utility principle was not itself subject to proof, but Bentham claimed there was sufficient testimony to the fact that it had always been generally accepted as the standard of right and wrong. Utility also meant public utility, and the utility of the individual was a part of the public utility in which the individual shared. Thus a person approved of an act or law to the degree to which the happiness of all the individuals affected by it was advanced. For Bentham, the relationship between happiness and pleasure and pain was straightforward and did not require further elaboration: pleasure contributes to happiness, while pain detracts from it. In these terms the public interest is constituted of the aggregate of individual interests, construed in terms of the balance of pleasures and pains experienced by each person. This constituted the moral standard for the testing of existing law and for the measurement of new law.

All motives have their source in the anticipation of pleasure or pain. Bentham delineated four ‘sanctions’ or sources of pain and pleasure, which he may have learnt from the Anglican moralist John Gay: physical, political, moral and religious. These sanctions are available to the moralist and to the legislator in guiding and determining an individual’s moral conduct, and explain how an essentially self-interested individual can be directed or encouraged to perform actions which enhance general happiness. In Bentham’s theory of motives the dictates of utility were neither more nor less than the dictates of the most extensive and enlightened benevolence. Other motives were categorized either as ‘semi-social’ motives (such as love of reputation, desire of amity and religion), which may or may not coincide with the principle of utility, and purely ‘self-regarding’ motives (such as physical desire, pecuniary interest, love of power and self-preservation), which were the least likely to coincide with utility. All motives, including the most extensive benevolence, are rooted in self-interest in one form or another.

While the consequences of an act are partly dependent on the motives which give birth to the act (and partly on the empirical circumstances in which the act is performed), in Bentham’s theory the utility of an act is not dependent on its originating motive(s). The relative utility of an act is determined solely by its consequences, the advantages and/or disadvantages that result. When deciding whether to act or which act to perform individuals must calculate as best they can the pleasures and pains which may reasonably be expected to accrue to the persons (including themselves) affected by the acts under consideration. Bentham’s hedonistic or felicific calculus, by which the value of pleasure and pain may be measured, was constituted of the following elements: intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, propinquity or remoteness, fecundity, purity, and extent. A similar calculation should guide the legislator in formulating laws. However, Bentham recognized that it was not normally feasible for an individual to engage in such calculations prior to acting. Hence he spoke of the general tendencies of actions to enhance or diminish happiness as a sufficient guide. The consequences of acts were central to Bentham’s theory of punishment, in which the utilitarian objective was to ensure that the punishment was in proportion to the mischief produced by a crime and sufficient to deter others from committing the same offence. To this end Bentham laid down in Principles of Morals and Legislation a series of rules to guide the law-maker in the construction of a utilitarian penal code, including the elements involved in the calculation of the mischief caused by an offence and the appropriate punishment.

In his civil law writings from the same period Bentham developed his utilitarian theory in a different direction. He argued that ‘the care of his enjoyments ought to be left almost entirely to the individual’, and that ‘the principal function of government is to guard against pains’. From this perspective, the best way for governments to protect individuals was to create and confer rights, such as the ‘rights of personal security, rights of protection for honour, rights of property, rights of receiving aid in case of need’, and infringements of these rights should be regarded as offences punishable by law (Theory of Legislation, 1871, p. 95). This structure of equal rights was intended to operate as a set of minimum guarantees, enabling individuals to go about their business and pursue their happiness in ways they determine for themselves, secure in the knowledge that their legally sanctioned rights would be upheld. The operational principles of the civil law were rendered by Bentham in the form of four ‘subordinate ends’ of the utility principle – security, subsistence, abundance and equality – which were meant to guide the legislator in the application of policy and law. The priority he gave to security in this analysis encompassed the liberty of the individual. ‘Personal liberty,’ he wrote, ‘is security against a certain kind of injuries which affect the person. As to what is called political liberty, it is another branch of security, – security against injuries from the ministers of government’ (Theory of Legislation, 1871, p. 97). In later life Bentham advocated democratic institutions and practices to hold political representatives accountable to the people, and thereby to check the misuse and abuse of power by government.

Commentators who emphasize the importance of the subordinate ends of Bentham’s theory tend to view him as a ‘liberal’ utilitarian, who intended that laws should be modelled to facilitate individuals in the pursuit of happiness in ways that they, rather than the legislator, thought appropriate. This interpretation contrasts with the traditional view of Bentham as an aggregative legislative utilitarian. Critics of utilitarian theory frequently note the implications of an aggregate utilitarian calculation for societies in which unpalatable sacrifices appear to be determined by simple calculations of optimal utility. In an indiscriminate calculation, where only total quantity of pleasures count, minorities are especially vulnerable to risk. Although Bentham was aware of the problems associated with the potential exclusion of minority interests under the phrase ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, the literature on utilitarianism abounds with discussions of the negative consequences of employing a rigid act utilitarian calculation to determine an individual’s appropriate course of action or the legislator’s policy choice. Nevertheless, it is now generally acknowledged that Bentham held that properly constituted rules, based on calculations of general utility, ought to be the guides for human action.

Bentham’s utilitarian ideas had a substantial influence on later developments in the areas of political thought, legal theory and moral philosophy. In political and constitutional thought his ideas were advanced in nineteenth-century Britain by the philosophic radicals, including the Mills, Francis Place, George Grote , Edwin Chadwick, Arthur Roebuck, Joseph Parkes, Albany Fonblanque and Charles Buller . Outside Britain, the various editions and translations of Bentham’s writings introduced his ideas into the political discourse of North and South America, France, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Russia and elsewhere, occasionally incurring the ire of national governments and being banned by local censors. Historians of law and legal philosophy cite John Austin as the most influential early disciple of Bentham’s jurisprudence. Although Austin followed Bentham in developing a rational and utilitarian approach to law, his stress on the theological elements of his philosophy in The Province of Jurisprudence Determined (1832) owed more to his reading of Paley’s ‘religious’ utilitarianism than to Bentham’s secular version of the theory. It was largely through the sympathetic criticism of J.S. Mill that Victorian moralists became acquainted with Bentham’s philosophy. Partly in response to T.B. Macaulay ’s criticism of his father’s explanation of the political ramifications of utilitarianism in an Essay on Government (1819), and partly as a result of his own reflections on his intellectual inheritance, Mill developed an amended version of utilitarian theory. His revisionism took concrete form in the essay ‘Bentham’ (1838), and received definitive expression in Utilitarianism (1861). In the latter, Mill sought to defend the basic Benthamic hedonism of utilitarian theory, while offering refinements designed as responses to critics of the doctrine. The most problematic of these is the distinction between the ‘qualitative’ differences of types of pleasure, which tended to undermine the aggregative dimension of the theory.

Bentham has had an influence on a wide range of contemporary fields of study, including linguistics, psychology, penology, administrative theory, economics and education, as well as ethics, jurisprudence and legal philosophy. His critical analyses of capital punishment and laws prohibiting homosexuality, his defence of animal rights and the rights of women, and his general theory of punishment, are among aspects of his writings still read with interest. Bentham’s published and unpublished writings are extensive, including large holdings of manuscripts at University College London and the British Library. The companion of his later years and literary executor, John Bowring, published the first, albeit incomplete, collection of Bentham’s writings in 1838–43. A collection of his economic writings appeared 1952–4. More recently, the Bentham Committee based at University College London has overseen the production of the still to be completed Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham.


The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham , ed. J.H. Burns, J.R. Dinwiddy, F. Rosen, T.P. Schofield: vol. 1, Writings on the Poor Laws , ed. M. Quinn (London and Oxford, 2001–).

The Works of Jeremy Bentham , 11 vols (Edinburgh, 1838–43).

Traités de législation civile et pénale … Par M. Jérémie Bentham, … Publiés en françois par Ét. Dumont , 3 vols (Paris, 1802).

Theory of Legislation by Jeremy Bentham , trans. Richard Hildreth] (Boston, 1840; 2nd edn 1864; repr 1871). English trans. of Traités , vols 1–2.

Jeremy Bentham’s Economic Writings , ed. Werner Stark, 3 vols (1952–4).

An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation , ed. J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart (1970).

Of Laws in General , ed. H.L.A. Hart (1970).

A Comment on the Commentaries and A Fragment on Government , ed. J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart (1977).

Chrestomathia , ed. M.J. Smith and W.H. Burston (1983).

Constitutional Code , vol. 1, ed. F. Rosen and J.H. Burns (1983).

Deontology Together with A Table of the Springs of Action and the Article on Utilitarianism , ed. A. Goldworth (1983).

First Principles Preparatory to Constitutional Code , ed. T.P. Schofield (1989).

Securities Against Misrule and other Constitutional Writings for Tripoli and Greece , ed. T.P. Schofield (1990).

Official Aptitude Maximized; Expense Minimized , ed. P. Schofield (1993).

Colonies, Commerce, and Constitutional Law: Rid Yourselves of Ultramaria and Other Writings on Spain and Spanish America , ed. P. Schofield (1995).

Legislator of the World’: Writings on Codification, Law, and Education , eds. P. Schofield and J. Harris (1998).

Political Tactics , eds. M. James, C. Blamires and C. Pease-Watkin (1999).

The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham , various editors (1968–, in progress).

Further Reading

Baumgardt, David, Bentham and the Ethics of Today (Princeton, 1952).

Bedau, Adam, ‘Bentham’s Utilitarian Critique of the Death Penalty’, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology , vol. 74, no.3 (1983), pp. 1033–65.

Boralevi, Campos, Bentham and the Oppressed (Berlin and New York, 1984).

Crimmins, E., Secular Utilitarianism: Social Science and the Critique of Religion in the Thought of Jeremy Bentham (Oxford, 1990).

Crimmins, E., Journal of Political Science , vol. 29, no. 4 (1996), pp. 751–77.

Dinwiddy, R., Bentham (Oxford, 1989).

Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison , trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1977).

Halévy,, Elie, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism [ La Formation du radicalisme philosophique ] (1901–4; trans. M. Morris, 1928; Clifton, New Jersey, 1972).

Harrison, Ross, Bentham (1983).

Hart, H L.A., Essays on Bentham: Studies on Jurisprudence and Political Theory (Oxford, 1982).

Hume, L. J., Bentham and Bureaucracy (Cambridge, 1981).

Itzkin, E.S., ‘Bentham’s Chrestomathia: Utilitarian Legacy to English Education’, Journal of the History of Ideas , vol. 39, no. 2 (1978), pp. 303–16.

Kelly, P.J., Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice: Jeremy Bentham and the Civil Law (Oxford, 1990).

Long, G., Bentham on Liberty: Jeremy Bentham’s Idea of Liberty in Relation to his Utilitarianism (Toronto, 1977).

Lyons, David, In the Interest of the Governed: A Study in Bentham’s Philosophy of Utility and Law (Oxford, 1973).

Parekh, Bhikhu (ed.), Jeremy Bentham: Critical Assessments , 4 vols (1993).

Postema, Gerald, Bentham and the Common Law Tradition (Oxford, 1986; rev edn, 1989).

Rosen, Fred, Jeremy Bentham and Representative Democracy: A Study of ‘The Constitutional Code ’ (Oxford, 1983).

Rosen, Fred, Bentham, Byron and Greece: Constitutionalism, Nationalism, and Early Political Thought (Oxford, 1992).

Rosenblum, Nancy, Bentham’s Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge, Mass, 1978).

Semple, Janet, Bentham’s Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (Oxford, 1993).

Thomas, William, The Philosophic Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice, 1817–1841 (Oxford, 1979).

Twining, L., Theories of Evidence: Bentham and Wigmore (1985).

Williford, Mary, Bentham on Spanish America: An Account of his Letters and Proposals to the New World (Baton Rouge and London, 1980).