Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham

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 every thing 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 favour 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.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Jeremy Bentham, The Constitutional Code (1830)

The all-comprehensive object, or end in view, is, from first to last, the greatest happiness of the greatest number; namely, of the individuals, of whom the political community, or state, of which it is the constitution.

The greatest happiness of the greatest number of the members of the community: of all without exception, in so far as possible: of the greatest number, on every occasion on which the nature of the case renders it impossible by rendering it matter of necessity, to make sacrifice of a portion of the happiness of a few, to the greater happiness of the rest.

(2) Jeremy Bentham, The Constitutional Code (1830)

The greater a man's power, the stronger his propensity in all possible ways to abuse it. Of this fact, all history is one continued proof.

Whatsoever evil it is possible for man to do for the advancement of his own private and personal interest at the expense of the public interest, that evil, sooner or later, he will do, unless by some means or other, intentional or otherwise, prevented from doing it.

(3) Jeremy Bentham, The Constitutional Code (1830)

The supposition of a new constitution coming to be established, with the greatest happiness of the greatest number for its end in view, sufficient reason would have place for taking the matter of wealth from the richest and transferring it to the less rich, till the fortunes of all were reduced to an equality, or a system of inequality, so little different from perfect equality that the difference would not be worth calculating.