Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832)


Jeremy Bentham was born in London, the son of a prosperous lawyer. At first it seemed that Jeremy would follow the same profession. He was a precocious child who went to Oxford to study law at the age of 12. However, although he completed his degree and was called to the Bar in 1769, he never practised. He had little respect for the complexities of English law, or for the people who had written on the subject. Reform of the law on more rational lines became one of his main ambitions. Thanks to the family wealth, he could devote himself full time to intellectual pursuits. He certainly was not idle, although relatively little of his work was published in his lifetime. His manuscripts run to about five million words, and are still being published by the Bentham Project based at University College London.

Although Bentham’s family was strongly Tory in its political sympathies, his nearest approach to public life came through an association with a leading Whig politician, the Earl of Shelburne (1737–1805). Over the years his increasing radicalism took him far outside the ideological confines of the existing party system. In 1792, indeed, he was made an honorary citizen of Revolutionary France—an accolade that might have brought a less well-connected person under suspicion at home. Yet Citizen Bentham had no sympathy for irrational revolutionary violence. The most energetic incident in his largely sedentary life was a prolonged visit to Russia, undertaken in the hope of persuading Catherine the Great to adopt his idea of a “Panopticon”—a prison that would allow all the inmates to be under constant surveillance by unseen guards. Despite Bentham’s enthusiasm (and much expenditure), his hopes were never realized. The Panopticon later featured in Discipline and Punish (1975) by the French philosopher Michel Foucault.

Despite his obscure writing style, Bentham’s work won him many admirers, including James Mill whose son John Stuart Mill was educated in accordance with Bentham’s advice. In 1823 Mill co-founded the Westminster Review as a platform for Bentham’s ideas. A key Benthamite goal was the radical reform of the British electoral system. Ironically, Bentham’s long life came to an end on the day before King William IV gave his (reluctant) assent to the Great Reform Act, which fell far short of Bentham’s own preferences. In line with his instructions, his body was embalmed and placed inside a wooden cabinet; it is still on public display in University College, London, which was established by Bentham’s admirers.


Bentham’s main contribution to political thought is the theory of utilitarianism, which he developed from the work of others including the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76). The theory stated that human beings are driven by the desire to find pleasure, and to avoid pain. According to Bentham, pleasure and pain could be measured according to what he called the “felicific calculus.” This had obvious implications for legal reform: criminal activity could be deterred by the imposition of penalties that would outweigh any benefits arising from a crime, so long as the punishment did not injure society as a whole. More positively, the goal of any government should be to work for “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” of people, and in Bentham’s view every individual should count equally when trying to calculate the overall effect of any policy. By logical extension, governments should be elected by universal franchise rather than the limited voting rights which existed in Britain even after the passage of the Reform Act (for discussion, see page 65, Chapter 3).

The major problem with Bentham’s theory is the implied threat to minorities. In a utilitarian society, it could be argued that, if so minded, the majority could legitimately order the imprisonment or torture of the rest of the population. Indeed, such an outcome would be even more justified in a society where the majority were sadists who took pleasure in the sufferings of others, and their victims were passive people who accepted their fate without angry resistance. This scenario seems to follow from Bentham’s work because he rejected the idea of natural rights, which he dismissed as “nonsense” (for discussion, see pages 38–39, Chapter 1), and his insistence that it was the quantity rather than the quality of pleasure that matters (see pages 80–81, Chapter 4). In reality, Bentham assumed that his work would only be implemented in civilized countries where the majority would recoil from mindless brutality. However, after his death Bentham’s work helped to inspire the notorious New Poor Law (1834), under which people who were unable to support themselves were confined in workhouses, where families were separated. The rationale for this measure was that if conditions within the workhouse were made sufficiently unpleasant, poor people would take any employment rather than suffer the shame and misery of incarceration.

Despite the inherent difficulties with Bentham’s utilitarianism, it has been one of the most influential theories in world history. Its relevance to democratic systems is obvious, although, as John Stuart Mill recognized, it required further elaboration to make it readily compatible with liberal democracy. In other respects Bentham’s thought was far-sighted; for example, he believed that women and men should be treated equally, and he was one of the first major thinkers to write in support of animal rights (on the characteristic grounds that animals were capable of suffering pain).

Further Reading

John Dinwiddy, Bentham, Oxford University Press, 1989.