BENTHAM Jeremy—philosopher, theoretician and reformer of the legal, penitentiary, and political system, leading representative of British utilitarianism, b. February 15, 1748 in London, d. June 6, 1832 in London.
He came from a family that had a tradition in law. He was educated in Westminster School and Oxford. Against his father’s plans, instead of pursuing a career as a lawyer, he worked with the theory of law and political systems, as well as ethics, economics, and philosophy.
Bentham’s most important works are as follows: Fragment on Government (Lo 1776, published anonymously)—a critique of W. Blackstone as holding a wrong conception of the social contract and the natural law as the source and foundation of all laws; Defence of Usury (Db 1788); An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789; Wprowadzenie do zasad moralności i prawodawstwa, Wwa 1958); Manual of Political Economy (1798). In 1802 E. Dumont, a zealous follower of Bentham, published Traités de législation de M. Jérémie B. where along with Bentham’s legal treatises he included an outline of his philosophy, which contributed greatly to the popularity of his doctrine. In 1812 J. Mill, already as a student of Bentham, published the work Introductory View of Rationale of Evidence, which was a version of Bentham’s works and in 1825 was translated in French and published by E. Dumont. Dumont called the work Traité des preuves judiciaires (Traktat o dowodach sądowych [Treatise on judicial proofs], Gniezno [no year of publication indicated]). Next appeared Essay on Political Tactics (1816); Anarchical Fallacies (1816); Chrestomathia (1817); and Papers upon Codification and Public Instruction (1816). Bentham discusses questions of the reform of the legal and political system in the following works: Catechism of Parliamentary Reform (1817); Radical Reform Bill with Explanations (1819); Leading Principles of Constitutional Code (1823). While Bentham was still alive, J. S. Mill published a revised version of Rationale of Judicial Evidence (I–V, 1827) which contained Bentham’s works on law, the judiciary, and politics. Due to the work of J. Bowring Bentham’s basic ethical work has been published—Deontology or Science of Morality (1834), which contains his moral philosophy. Bowring also published The Works of Jeremy Bentham (I–XI, E 1838–1843, NY 19622). The more important editions of Bentham’s works are as follows: Benthamiana. Select Extracts from the Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. J. H. Burton (E 1843); Oeuvres de Jérémie Bentham (I–III, Bru 1829–1830); Colección de obras del célébre Jeremias Bentham, selected by E. Dumont, with commentary by B.Anduagi y Espinosa (I–XIV, Ma 1841–1843); Jeremy Bentham’s Economic Writings, ed. W. Stark (I–III, Lo 1952–1954). A. T. Milne published a list of Bentham’s manuscripts: Catalogue of Manuscripts of Jeremy Benthamin the Library of University College (Lo 1937).
A basic influence on Bentham’s views came from the writings of the philosophers and ideologues of the Enlightenment (. L. d’Alembert, A. C. Helvétius, C. Beccaria, D. Hume, J. Priestley, F. Hutcheson, T. Hobbes, Voltaire), who combined philosophical reflection with a program for constructing a new order of the world, a “free and human” order that was basically skeptical and inimical to Christianity and its tradition. Plans have been preserved for “perfect” prisons, legal and penitentiary systems, banks, and states, which would be realized with the cooperation of the government, among others, of Empress Catharine II of Russia and the government of England. Bentham was regarded as the leading specialist in the conception of the legal order in the state (constitutionalism), which came to fruition in his collaboration with the governments of France, Russia, Portugal, Spain, Venezuela, the United States, and Greece in reforms of law and the state.
Bentham’s thought on politics, the state, and the law arose in the context of a discussion with the theories of the theoreticians of law and the system of government who were contemporary with him (including W. Blackstone).
The basic lines of Bentham’s thought were concentrated on anthropological, ethical, political, and legal questions, inspired by a desire to perfect man’s collective life. In anthropology Bentham was regarded as the author of a naturalistic and hedonistic conception of man, and in ethics he was regarded as the leading representative and author of utilitarianism. In political and legal questions he adhered to conventionalism and utilitarianism. His philosophical thought did not have as its basic aim to explain facts in politics, law, or human actions, but concentrated on making plans for perfecting the world.
ANTHROPOLOGY AND ETHICS. For Bentham, man is primarily a biological and material being directed by two powers (inclinations): pleasure and pain, which rule man in all his actions. Man’s natural mode of action is thus selfishness, conceived as a desire to attain his own personal goal. The goal at which the inclinations aim is the attainment of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Pain and pleasure, according to Bentham, are self-evident, evident to each person, and as such they do not require explanation. By participating in the striving for pleasure, all humans are equal. The human reason is therefore something precious, since it allows man to calculate and attain the greatest amount of pleasure, and on the other hand it enables man to avoid pain.
Pleasure is man’s only good: pain is the only evil. Only man’s desire determines what is the pleasure or good. Pleasure and the avoidance of pain are man’s basic goods to which all other goods may be reduced. For this reason a human act is right and good insofar as it actually leads to the multiplication of pleasure. It is bad when it causes pain or does not lead to an increase of pleasure but contributes to pain. It is in man’s interest to act in accordance with his nature, i.e., to attain the greatest degree of pleasure and to avoid pain, and to guide himself by utility in the realization of pleasure. Utility, or the efficacy of acts in the attainment of pleasure (as the most intense, enduring, certain, proximate, and fertile in future pleasure, pure, that is, free from contraries, and reaching the greatest number of people), is the foundation (criterion or norm) for appraising man’s individual and public action. Bentham also called it “the principle that established the greatest happiness of all those whose interest we have in view, as right and proper, and even the only right, proper, and universally desired end of human action” (Wprowadzenie do zasad moralności [Introduction to the principles of morality], Wwa 1958, 17). The final end of man’s life is the experience of pleasure, and in this human happiness consists. Interest, good, utility, advantage, pleasure, happiness, the avoidance of pain and injury—this all may be reduced to a common denominator. According to Bentham, these terms designate one thing in view of which man acts and should act. The content, varieties, and mode of experiencing pleasure are subject to change. They are not stable, just as man’s nature is not stable.
POLITICAL AND LEGAL THEORY. The problem Bentham faced in his reflections on law, politics, and political authority was concentrated around the answer to this question: What is the actual end of the public institutions and laws that exist in social life, and is this end beneficial, i.e., does it effectively help multiply the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of individuals who compose the state? In other words, do the institutions of collective life realize this (universal happiness) effectively, and if they do not, how can they be reformed so as to be able to do this effectively? In this perspective the only end of the state and its instrument, which is the law, is the attainment by the greatest number of individuals the most intense and enduring state of pleasure. This end is inseparably connected with desires to avoid and minimize pain for the greatest number of people. The effective realization of this task means that the political authority fulfils the leading principle of politics and law—the principle of utilitarianismm which is also the actual principle of man’s individual actions. For Bentham (as for D. Hume) law has its source in the strong will of the political authority who knows how to calculate how to achieve the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain for the greatest number of individuals who form the state. The task of the political authority, institution, and the law promulgated by the authority is to harmonize the antagonisms that appear in the area of interests, namely in the attainment by individuals of satisfaction or pleasure. Without the state, individuals would be faced with anarchy that would make it impossible for them to attain satisfaction. Therefore the state in its actions must be strict, but at the same liberal in the field in which happiness for the greatest number of individuals is not at risk.
The way the political authority or state actually acts upon individuals is by evoking pleasures or pains. The state itself is expressed and functions by meting out punishments and giving rewards, and by creating and applying laws that have utilitarian foundations. The whole legal order (constitution) stands on guard for such a state.
The reason for the existence of positive law in the state is not at all some nature set of human right (the natural law), since these do not exist. Natural law (natural rights), like eternal law, which W. Blackstone invokes in his Commentaries on the Law of England, was for Bentham dangerous nonsense, which arose in the context of a wrong understanding of the foundations of man’s collective life. The recognition of natural law leads, according to Bentham, to an increase of anarchy in life, and to the collapse of the state. Therefore every law has its source and foundations in the will of the authority, and as such it is not immutable in character, since the end at which it aims (i.e., the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain for the greatest number of individuals living in the state) is also unstable.
Man acquires all his rights, according to Bentham, by law promulgated by the political authority who, being the true sovereign in his political and legal actions, aims to establish peace, which is conceived as the harmony of non-antagonistic interests that favor the self-satisfaction of individuals. Peace and the well-being that accompanies it enables man to accomplish his end in life, i.e. the enjoyment of pleasure. For Bentham this state of affairs is justified by the nature of man himself, who acts to achieve pleasure and avoid pain.
According to Bentham, the best political system is representative democracy, which allows changes in leadership and guarantees thereby the realization of the greatest principle of all—the utilitarian principle.
Bentham’s utilitarian thought had an enormous influence on philosophical, political, economic, and legal research, and on the practice of public life in western Europe and in North America. Utilitarianism, with its vision of man and human society, law at the foundations of the constitution of the organs of state, economic systems, and legal systems in many states. This influence became possible not only because of the strong efforts of J. Mill, and later J. S. Mill, but primarily because of the efforts of his followers: economists—D. Ricardo and J. R. McCullach, the theoretician of questions of population—T. R. Malthus, and the author of legal positivism—J. Austin.
S. Leslie, The English Utilitarians, I–III, Lo1900, repr. 1968; J. MacCunn, Six Radical Thinkers, Lo 1910, NY 1964; J. Plamenatz, The English Utilitarians, Ox 1950, 19582; T. Fuller, Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, in: L. Strauss, J. Cropsey, History of Political Philosophy, Ch 1963, 19873, 710–731; P. Mack, Jeremy Bentham, An Odyssey of Ideas 1748–1792, Lo 1963; D. J. Manning, The Mind of Jeremy Bentham, Lo 1968; D. Lyons, Rights, Claimants and Beneficiaries, American Philosophical Quarterly 6 (1969), 173–185; H. L. A. Hart, Bentham on Legal Rights, in: Oxford Essays in Jurisprudence (second series), Ox 1973, 171–201; D. Lyons, In the Interest of the Governed. A Study in Bentham’s Philosophy of Utility and Law, Ox 1973; D. Long, Bentham on Liberty, Tor 1977; H. L. A. Hart, Essays on Bentham, Ox 1982; R. Harrison, Bentham, Lo 1983; Copleston HF VIII 7–54; G. Postema, Bentham and the Common Law Tradition, Ox 1986; P. J. Kelly, Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice, Ox 1990.