Jeremy Bentham, 1748-1832
The English Utilitarian and leader of the Philosophical Radicals, Jeremy Bentham, was born in Houndsditch, in London. He entered in Queen's College, Oxford, at the age of twelve, graduate in 1763, and immediately entered Lincoln's Inn to study law, his father's profession. He was called to the bar in 1767 but never practiced law. Instead, he decided to work out a system of jurisprudence, and to codify and reform both civil and penal law. His motive was a profound dissatisfaction both with what he witnessed in the courts as a student, and with its theoretical justification by such expositors as Blackstone. The theory did not seem to Bentham either coherent in itself or in accordance with the practice; the practice was cruel, costly, and wrapped in unnecessary obscurity. Bentham's life work was the advocacy of a clear, coherent, humane, and simplified legal system.
With his life's work before him, Bentham wrote many thousands of pages. Before finishing one work, he would start another one; and many were left unfinished, and those he did finish he often did not bother to publish; some were made known to the world only through the French translations of his Swiss follower, Etienne Dumont.
More interested in the theory of law, Bentham published A Fragment on Government (1776), an acute critical examination of a passage in Blackstone's Commentaries, which contains the germ of most of his later writings. Bentham held that laws should be socially useful and not merely reflect the status quo: that men inevitably pursue pleasure and avoid pain; that desires may be broadly classified into self- and other-regarding and that the function of law is to award punishment and rewards to maintain a just balance between them. That all actions are right and good when they promote "the happiness of the greatest number" is the principal of utility, a phrase coined by Hutcheson or Priestley, but popularized by Bentham. As an ethical theory, utilitarianism was crude and full of inconsistencies, basing itself on purely quantitative considerations. But as a principal of legal reform Bentham's "calculus" met with greater success, as in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) and his other legal works.
Bentham early attracted the friendship of Lord Shelbourne, traveled on the continent including Russia (1785-1788), met James Mill in 1808 and founded the politically and philosophically radical sect of the Benthamites. He was a founder of University College, London, where his skeleton, dressed up in his clothes, is preserved. Bentham also founded the Westminster Review in 1824.
For more about Bentham, see The Bentham Project, which includes a biography. Another solid biography can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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copyright ę 2000 Steven Kreis