Bentham

Bentham

[ben-thuhm, -tuhm]
Bentham, George, 1800-1884, one of the greatest of English systematic botanists; nephew of Jeremy Bentham. He wrote Handbook of British Flora (1858) and, with W. J. Hooker, Genera Plantarum (1862-83), as well as handbooks on the flora of several British possessions including a seven volume flora of Australia. He also produced global studies of several major plant families in the latter part of the 19th cent.
Bentham, Jeremy, 1748-1832, English philosopher, jurist, political theorist, and founder of utilitarianism. Educated at Oxford, he was trained as a lawyer and was admitted to the bar, but he never practiced; he devoted himself to the scientific analysis of morals and legislation. His greatest work was his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), which shows the influence of Helvétius and won Bentham recognition throughout the Western world. His utilitarianism held that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the fundamental and self-evident principle of morality. This principle should govern our judgment of every institution and action. He identified happiness with pleasure and devised a moral arithmetic for judging the value of a pleasure or a pain. He argued that self-interests, properly understood, are harmonious and that the general welfare is bound up with personal happiness. Bentham's contribution to theoretical ethics has had less lasting effect than his thorough application of utilitarian principles to economics, jurisprudence, and politics. Devoting himself to the reform of English legislation and law, he demanded prison reform, codification of the laws, and extension of political franchise. The 19th-century reforms of criminal law, of judicial organization, and of the parliamentary electorate owe much to the influence of Bentham and his disciples.

See his Correspondence, ed. by T. L. Sprigge et al. (9 vol., 1968-89); biographies by R. Harrison (1985) and J. Dinwiddy (1989); study by G. J. Posthema (1989).

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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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.

Learn more about Bentham, Jeremy with a free trial on Britannica.com.

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