Described as a philosopher, jurist, and reformer, Jeremy Bentham is possibly best known as one of the leading proponents of UTILITARIANISM. Although he was a devoted scholar who spent much of his life writing about legal reform, he published little. Regardless, Bentham had a profound effect on the politics of his day, influenced many of his contemporaries (including eminent British philosopher JOHN STUART MILL), and introduced a number of terms and definitions, which are still used today in the study of philosophy, economics, and politics.
Bentham was born February 15, 1748, in Houndsditch, near London, into a family of attorneys. He was educated at Oxford and admitted to the bar, but decided not to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Instead of practicing law, Bentham chose to pursue a career in legal, political, and social reform, applying principles of ethical philosophy to these endeavors.
He was greatly influenced by the work of Claude-Adrien Helvétius, a French philosopher who believed that all persons are intellectually equal and that differences arise solely from educational opportunities. Helvetius also formulated a theory that good is measured by the degree of self-contentment experienced by a person, and that self-interest is the compelling force for all action. This latter belief had a profound effect on Bentham, who incorporated the idea in the formulation of the basic principles of utilitarianism.
In 1789, Bentham gained public attention with the publication of his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, which set forth his fundamental principles. He believed that the greatest happiness for the greatest number is the basis of morality. Happiness and pleasure were the same, and included social, intellectual, and moral as well as physical pleasures. According to Bentham, each pleasure has certain characteristics, including intensity and duration, and he established a scale of measurement to judge the worth of a pleasure or a pain.
Bentham further opined that each person strives to do what makes him or her happiest. The happiness of an individual and the GENERAL WELFARE are complementary; the achievement of the greatest amount of happiness is the goal of morality.
Bentham applied his views to reform legislation, feeling that the purpose of the law was to maximize total happiness within the limitations of government. As a result, he achieved great advances in prison reform, CRIMINAL LAW, civil service, and insurance and was active in the compilation of laws into comprehensible text.
Bentham is particularly noted for his theories of punishment. He claimed that all punishment required justification, because he believed that all punishment is inherently evil. Bentham also believed that to a utilitarian such as himself, real justice is less important than apparent justice. In other words, Bentham believed that seeing justice done is more important than justice actually being done.
Influenced by the work of Italian philosopher CESARE BECCARIA, Bentham formed some harsh notions of punishment, such as his belief that in certain cases torture could be justified. He wrote that punishment was a relatively weak disincentive against RECIDIVISM, and that there is always a risk that an offender will commit another offense. He suggested that torture removes this risk because torture ceases immediately when a subject complies with the demands of authority. Of course, this idea discounts the question of whether the subject can in fact comply.
As a theorist of punishment, Bentham was naturally interested in the English penal system. His studies led him to develop a model of an English prison that applied his theories of punishment to incarceration. He called his model the "Panopticon." The Panopticon was a prison building—and a whole system of incarceration—that allowed guards total surveillance and physical control over prison inmates. Writing of the Panopticon, Bentham claimed that hard labor, constant surveillance and monitoring, and solitary confinement (for purposes of reflection and repentance) were fundamental requirements needed to reform and rehabilitate criminal offenders. This theory builds upon the notion that punishment can be the means to make an offender lead a life of moral and civil rectitude.
Bentham attempted to persuade President JAMES MADISON to adopt a code of laws that he himself had devised. The philosopher was careful to cite existing rules and previous cases to illustrate that his legal theories were sound. Madison rejected Bentham's idea in 1811, but in the 1830s, a group of U.S. reformers adopted several of his policies with the objective of formulating a simplified code of law.
When Bentham died June 6, 1832, he left behind a vast number of manuscript pages, as well as a large estate. Funds from the estate were used to help launch University College, London, an institution which was established to educate students excluded from universities of the day. In accordance with Bentham's instructions, upon his death his body was dissected, embalmed, dressed, and seated in a chair. The seated Bentham is housed in a cabinet in the main building of University College.