Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham

Born: 1748. Died: 1832.


- Human beings are motivated solely by the desire to gain pleasure and avoid pain.

- The morality of our actions is determined by their utility.

- Happiness is identical with pleasure, unhappiness with pain.

- Pleasure alone is intrinsically good (good in itself) and pain alone is intrinsically bad.

- We have a duty to promote the pleasure of every individual equally.

- Pleasures differ from one another only in quantity, never in quality.

- Human behavior is controlled by the imposition of sanctions.

- Justice requires equally but is subordinate to utility.


Jeremy Bentham, the son of a lawyer, was born in London in 1748.

A brilliant scholar, Bentham entered Queen's College, Oxford at twelve and was admitted to Lincoln's Inn at the age of fifteen. Bentham was a shy man who did not enjoy making public speeches. He therefore decided to leave Lincoln Inn and concentrate on writing. Provided with £90 a year by his father, Bentham produced a series of books on philosophy, economics and politics.

Bentham's family had been Tories and for the first period of his life he shared their conservative political views. This changed after Bentham read the work of Joseph Priestley. One statement in particular from The First Principles of Government and the Nature of Political, Civil and Religious Liberty (1768) had a major impact on Bentham: "The good and happiness of the members, that is the majority of the members of the state, is the great standard by which everything relating to that state must finally be determined."

Another important influence on Bentham was the philosopher David Hume. In books such as A Fragment on Government (1776) and Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Bentham argued that the proper objective of all conduct and legislation is "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". According to Bentham, "pain and pleasure are the sovereign masters governing man's conduct". As the motive of an act is always based on self-interest, it is the business of law and education to make the sanctions sufficiently painful in order to persuade the individual to subordinate his own happiness to that of the community.

In 1798 Bentham wrote Principles of International Law where he argued that universal peace could only be obtained by first achieving European Unity. He hoped that some form of European Parliament would be able to enforce the liberty of the press, free trade, the abandonment of all colonies and a reduction in the money being spent on armaments.

In Catechism of Reformers (1809) Bentham criticised the law of libel as he believed it was so ambiguous that judges were able to use it in the interests of the government. Bentham pointed out that the authorities could use the law to punish any Radical for "hurting the feelings" of the ruling class. Bentham also attacked other aspects of the legal system such as "jury packing".

Radical reformers such as Sir Francis Burdett, Leigh Hunt, William Cobbett, and Henry Brougham praised Bentham's work. Although written in a complex style, radical publishers attempted to communicate his ideas to the working class. Jonathan Wooler published extracts in his journal Black Dwarf and eventually published a cheap edition of Catechism of Reformers. When Burdett introduced a series of resolutions in the House of Commons in July 1818, demanding universal suffrage, annual parliaments and vote by ballot, he quoted the writings of Jeremy Bentham to support his case.

In 1824, Bentham joined with James Mill (1773-1836) to found the Westminster Review, the journal of the philosophical radicals. Contributors to the journal included Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle.

Bentham's most detailed account of his ideas on political democracy appeared in his book Constitutional Code (1830). In the book Bentham argued that political reform should be dictated by the principal that the new system will promote the happiness of the majority of the people affected by it. Bentham argued in favor of universal suffrage, annual parliaments and vote by ballot. According to Bentham there should be no king, no House of Lords, no established church. The book also included Bentham's view that women, as well as men, should be given the vote.

In Constitutional Code Bentham also addressed the problem of how government should be organised. For example, he suggested the introduction of rules that would ensure the regular attendance of members of the House of Commons. Government officials should be selected by competitive examination. The book also suggested the continual inspection of the work of politicians and government officials. Bentham pointed out they should be continually reminded that they are the "servants, not the masters, of the public".

Jeremy Bentham died in 1832.

Major Books of Jeremy Bentham

- A Table of the Springs of Action, 1815
- A Treatise on Judicial Evidence, 1825
- An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789
- Book of Fallacies, 1824
- Church-of-Englandism, 1818
- Defence of Usury, 1787
- Elements of the Art of Packing, 1821
- Emancipate your Colonies, 1793
- Fragment on Government, 1776
- The Influence of Natural Religion upon the Temporal Happiness of Mankind, with George Grote and published under the pseudonym Philip Beauchamp, 1822
- Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789
- Not Paul But Jesus, published under the pseudonym Gamaliel Smith, 1823
- Panopticon, 1787, 1791
- Plan of Parliamentary Reform, in the Form of a Catechism, 1817
- Punishments and Rewards, 1811
- Short Review of the Declaration, 1776
- The Theory of Legislation, 1802
- Traité de Législation Civile et Penale, Tomes 1, 2, 3, edited by Étienne Dumont, 1802

Quotes from Jeremy Bentham

- "The business of government is to promote the happiness of the society, by punishing and rewarding." (from "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation", 1789-1823)

- "The greatest happiness or greatest felicity principle: ... The greatest happiness of all those whose interest is in question [is] the right and proper, and only right and proper and universally desirable, end of human action." (from "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation", 1789-1823)

- "The infirmity of human nature renders all plans precarious in the execution in proportion as they are extensive in the design." (from "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation", 1789-1823)

- "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. ... They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think." (from "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation", 1789-1823)

- "The principle of asceticism never was, nor ever can be, consistently pursued by any living creature. Let but one tenth part of the inhabitants of this earth pursue it consistently, and in a day's time they will have turned it into a hell." (from "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation", 1789-1823)

- "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" (from "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation", 1789-1823)

- "Reputation is the road to power." (from "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation", 1789-1823)

- "The stronger and more numerous a man's connections in the way of sympathy are, the stronger is the hold which the law has upon him. A wife and children are so many pledges a man gives to the world for his good behavior." (from "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation", 1789-1823)

- "If you want to win mankind, you must make them think you love them, and the best way to make them think you love them, is to love them- in reality." (from "Notes on Politics and History: A university Address" by John Morley)


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