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Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher and reformer, was born in London, entered Oxford University in 1760, and was admitted to the bar in 1769. Rather than practicing law, he devoted himself to its reform. His first major publication, A Fragment on Government (1776), attacked the jurist William Blackstone’s (1723–1780) Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769) for failing to distinguish between description and criticism of the law and for adopting a nonexistent moral standard, the natural law.
Bentham argued that the only proper moral standard was the principle of utility, of which he gave his bestknown exposition in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (printed 1780, published 1789). An action was morally right to the extent that it promoted the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Happiness consisted in a balance of pleasure over pain. The utilitarian legislator, by means of punishments and rewards, would encourage those actions that promoted happiness and discourage those that led to suffering.
The task of the legislator was to promote the “subends” of utility, namely subsistence, abundance, security, and equality. Security for person, property, reputation, and condition in life was essential for civilized existence, and, therefore, took priority. To promote equality at the expense of security of property would, for instance, prove counterproductive, since the disappointment of fixed expectations would produce pain in the individuals concerned, and ultimately threaten social stability. Nevertheless, Bentham recognized that inequality was in itself an evil, and he understood and applied the principle of diminishing marginal utility, advocating an equal distribution of resources insofar as this could be achieved without infringing security. Furthermore, in determining the utility of an action, the interests of each individual (irrespective of gender, religious beliefs, or social status) had to be given equal weight. From here, it was a short step to democracy, which Bentham first advocated in writings composed in 1788 and 1789 on the subject of the French Revolution (1789–1799). As the revolution became more extreme, Bentham, like most of his countrymen, became worried by the threat to social order and for many years put aside any consideration of political reform.
In the 1790s Bentham’s life was dominated by his attempt to build a panopticon prison in London. The panopticon consisted of a circular building, with the cells arranged around the circumference. The cells were thereby made visible at all times from a central inspection tower. The rejection of the scheme by the government in 1803 propelled Bentham into political radicalism. In writings on judicial evidence and procedure, he concluded that lawyers pursued their own selfish goals rather than the happiness of the community. In 1809 he began to extend this analysis to the political establishment, eventually calling for democratic reform in Plan of Parliamentary Reform (1817). He thereafter committed himself to republicanism, and concentrated on writing the Constitutional Code (1830), a blueprint for representative democracy.
Bentham’s most sustained period of writing on economic questions took place from 1787 to 1804. The promotion of abundance, or the creation of wealth, which was both a security for subsistence and a source of pleasure in itself, was the subject of economic policy. In general, Bentham adhered to the free market principles associated with Adam Smith (1723–1790), on the grounds that individuals were the best judges of how to deploy their own resources. He also accepted Smith’s principle that trade was limited by capital, arguing that there should be no prohibitions, bounties, or monopolies on foreign trade. There were, moreover, no economic advantages to the mother country in colony-holding, and those colonies able to govern themselves should be emancipated. Bentham advocated state interference in certain well-defined areas, including the provision of grain stores, encouragement of research, and dissemination of information. He was totally opposed to slavery and the slave trade, though he recognized that the abolition of the former would, in practice, require careful planning and execution.
Bentham’s political thought, with its emphasis on the individual and democratic sovereignty, has contributed significantly to the development of liberalism. In economics, his notion of a calculation of utilities inspired the economist W. S. Jevons (1835–1882), and through him Alfred Marshall (1842–1924), in their development of the modern technique of cost-benefit analysis. Bentham’s influence on the doctrines of classical economics is, however, less clear. His conception of economics was opposed both to the strand of political economy associated with Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), in that he rejected theology as an appropriate basis for legislation of any kind, and to the scientific strand associated with David Ricardo (1772–1823), in that he rejected the attempt to divorce economics from ethics. A proper assessment of Bentham’s place in the history of economics will need to await the production of an authoritative collection of his writings on the subject.
When Bentham died, his body, following his instructions, was dissected for the benefit of anatomical research. His remains were then used to create the “auto-icon,” the combination of skeleton, clothes, and wax head that is today displayed at University College London. The story that Bentham generally attends meetings of the College Council, and that the minutes record “Mr. Bentham present but not voting,” is unfounded.
- Dinwiddy, John R. 2004. Bentham: Selected Writings of John Dinwiddy. Ed. William Twining. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Schofield, Philip. 2006. Utility and Democracy: The Political Thought of Jeremy Bentham. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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