Jeremy Bentham, detail of an oil painting by H.W. Pickersgill, 1829; in the National Portrait elipsis
(born Feb. 15, 1748, London, Eng.—died June 6, 1832, London) British moral philosopher and legal theorist, the earliest expounder of utilitarianism
. A precocious student, he graduated from Oxford at age 15. In his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation
, he argued that mankind was governed by two sovereign motives, pain and pleasure. The object of all legislation, therefore, must be the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”; and since all punishment involves pain and is therefore evil, it ought only to be used “so far as it promises to exclude some greater evil.” His work inspired much reform legislation, especially regarding prisons. He was also an exponent of the new laissez-faire economics of Adam Smith
and David Ricardo
. Though a vocal advocate of democracy, he rejected the notions of the social contract
, natural law
, and natural rights as fictional and counterproductive (“Rights is the child of law; from real law come real rights; but from imaginary laws, from ‘law of nature,' come imaginary rights”). He helped found the radical Westminster Review
(1823). In accordance with his will, his clothed skeleton is permanently exhibited at University College, London.
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Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.