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Jeremy Bentham

[ben-thuhm, -tuhm]

Jeremy Bentham (IPA: ['benθəm] or ['bentəm]) (15 February 1748–6 June 1832) was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. He was the brother of Samuel Bentham. He was a political radical, and a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law. He is best known for his advocacy of utilitarianism, for the concept of animal rights, and his opposition to the idea of natural rights, with his oft-quoted statement that the idea of such rights is "nonsense upon stilts. He also influenced the development of welfarism.

He became known as one of the most influential of the utilitarians, through his own work and that of his students. These included his secretary and collaborator on the utilitarian school of philosophy, James Mill; James Mill's son John Stuart Mill; and several political leaders including Robert Owen, who later became a founder of socialism. He is also considered the godfather of University College London.

Bentham's position included arguments in favour of individual and economic freedom, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the end of slavery, the abolition of physical punishment (including that of children), the right to divorce, free trade, usury, and the decriminalization of homosexual acts.

Life

Bentham was born in Spitalfields, London, into a wealthy Tory family. He was a child prodigy and was found as a toddler sitting at his father's desk reading a multi-volume history of England. He began his study of Latin at the age of three.

He went to Westminster School, and in 1760 his father sent him to The Queen's College, Oxford, where he took his Bachelor's degree in 1763 and his Master's degree in 1766. He trained as a lawyer and (though he never practised) was called to the bar in 1769. He became deeply frustrated with the complexity of the English legal code, which he termed the "Demon of Chicane".

Among his many proposals for legal and social reform was a design for a prison building he called the Panopticon. Although it was never built, the idea had an important influence upon later generations of thinkers. Twentieth-century French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that the Panopticon was paradigmatic of a whole raft of nineteenth-century 'disciplinary' institutions. It is said that Mexican prison "Lecumberri" was designed on the basis of this idea.

Bentham was in correspondence with many influential people. Adam Smith, for example, opposed free interest rates before he was made aware of Bentham's arguments on the subject. As a result of his correspondence with Mirabeau and other leaders of the French Revolution, he was declared an honorary citizen of France, but Bentham was an outspoken critic of the revolutionary discourse of natural rights, and of the violence which arose after the Jacobins took power (1792). In between 1808 and 1810 he held a personal friendship with Latin American Independence Precursor Francisco de Miranda, and paid visits to Miranda's Grafton Way house in London.

In 1823, he co-founded the Westminster Review with James Mill as a journal for the "Philosophical Radicals" - a group of younger disciples through whom Bentham exerted considerable influence in British public life.

Bentham is frequently associated with the foundation of the University of London, specifically University College London (UCL), though in fact he was 78 years old when UCL opened in 1826, and played no active part in its establishment. However, it is likely that without his inspiration, UCL would not have been created when it was. Bentham strongly believed that education should be more widely available, particularly to those who were not wealthy or who did not belong to the established church, both of which were required of students by Oxford and Cambridge. As UCL was the first English university to admit all, regardless of race, creed, or political belief, it was largely consistent with Bentham's vision, and he oversaw the appointment of one of his pupils, John Austin, as the first Professor of Jurisprudence in 1829.

An insight into his character is given in Michael St. John Packe's, The Life of John Stuart Mill:

During his youthful visits to Bowood House, the country seat of his patron Lord Lansdowne, he had passed his time at falling unsuccessfully in love with all the ladies of the house, whom he courted with a clumsy jocularity, while playing chess with them or giving them lessons on the harpsichord. Hopeful to the last, at the age of eighty he wrote again to one of them, recalling to her memory the far-off days when she had 'presented him, in ceremony, with the flower in the green lane' [citing Bentham's memoirs]. To the end of his life he could not hear of Bowood without tears swimming in his eyes, and he was forced to exclaim, 'Take me forward, I entreat you, to the future

Auto-icon

As requested in his will, his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet, termed his "Auto-icon". Originally kept by his disciple Dr. Southwood Smith, it was acquired by University College London in 1850. The Auto-icon is kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the College. For the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, the Auto-icon was brought to the meeting of the College Council, where he was listed as "present but not voting". Tradition holds that if the council's vote on any motion is tied, the auto-icon always breaks the tie by voting in favour of the motion.

The Auto-icon has always had a wax head, as Bentham's head was badly damaged in the preservation process. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks including being stolen on more than one occasion. It is now locked away securely.

There is a plaque on Queen Anne's Gate, Westminster commemorating the house where Bentham lived, which at the time was called Queen's Square Place.

Work

Bentham has a complicated publishing history. Most of his writing was never published in his own lifetime; much of that which was published (see this list of published works) was prepared for publication by others.

Works published in Bentham's lifetime included:

  • Fragment on Government (1776). This was an unsparing criticism of some introductory passages relating to political theory in William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. The book, published anonymously, was well-received and credited to some of the greatest minds of the time. Bentham disagreed with Blackstone's defence of judge-made law, his defence of legal fictions, his theological formulation of the doctrine of mixed government, his appeal to a social contract and his use of the vocabulary of natural law. Bentham's "Fragment" was only a small part of a "Commentary on the Commentaries", which remained unpublished until the twentieth century.
  • Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation (printed for publication 1780, published 1789)
  • Defence of Usury (1787)
  • Panopticon (1787, 1791).
  • Emancipate your Colonies (1793)
  • Traité de Législation Civile et Penale (1802, edited by Étienne Dumont. 3 vols)
  • Punishments and Rewards (1811)
  • A Table of the Springs of Action (1815)
  • Parliamentary Reform Catechism (1817)
  • Church-of-Englandism (printed 1817, published 1818)
  • Elements of the Art of Packing (1821)
  • The Influence of Natural Religion upon the Temporal Happiness of Mankind (1822, written with George Grote and published under the pseudonym Philip Beauchamp)
  • Not Paul But Jesus (1823, published under the pseudonym Gamaliel Smith)
  • Book of Fallacies (1824)
  • A Treatise on Judicial Evidence (1825)

Several of Bentham's works appeared first in French translation, prepared for the press by Étienne Dumont. Some made their first appearance in English in the 1820s as a result of back-translation from Dumont's 1802 collection (and redaction) of Bentham's writing on civil and penal legislation.

John Bowring, a British politician who had been Bentham's trusted friend, was appointed his literary executor and charged with the task of preparing a collected edition of his works. This appeared in 11 volumes in 1838-1843: Bowring based his edition on previously published editions (including those of Dumont) rather than Bentham's own manuscripts, and did not reprint Bentham's works on religion at all. Bowring's work has been criticized, although it includes such interesting writings on international relations as Bentham's A Plan for an Universal and Perpetual Peace written 1786-89, which forms part IV of the Principles of International Law.

In 1952-54 Wilhelm Stark published a three-volume set, "Jeremy Bentham's Economic Writings," in which he attempted to bring together all of Bentham's writings on economic matters, including both published and unpublished material. Not trusting Bowring's edition, he painstakingly reviewed thousands of Bentham's original manuscripts and notes, a task made monumentally more difficult due to the manner in which they had been left by Bentham and organized by Bowring.

Bentham left manuscripts amounting to some 5,000,000 words. Since 1968, the Bentham Project at University College London have been busy working on an edition of his collected work. So far, 25 volumes have appeared; there may be as many still to come before the project is completed.

Utilitarianism

Bentham's ambition in life was to create a "Pannomion", a complete Utilitarian code of law. Bentham not only proposed many legal and social reforms, but also expounded an underlying moral principle on which they should be based. This philosophy, utilitarianism, argued that the right act or policy was that which would cause "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" a phrase of which he is generally, though erroneously, regarded as the author though he later dropped the second qualification and embraced what he called "the greatest happiness principle," often referred to as the principle of utility. He wrote in The Principles of Morals and Legislation:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think...

He attributed his theory to Joseph Priestley: "Priestley was the first (unless it was Beccaria) who taught my lips to pronounce this sacred truth:- That the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.

He also suggested a procedure for estimating the moral status of any action, which he called the Hedonistic or felicific calculus. Utilitarianism was revised and expanded by Bentham's student, John Stuart Mill. In Mill's hands, "Benthamism" became a major element in the liberal conception of state policy objectives.

People are often impressed by Bentham's classification of 12 pains and 14 pleasures and 'felicific calculus' by which we might test the 'happiness factor' of any action. Nonetheless, it is should not be overlooked that Bentham's 'hedonistic' theory (a term from J.J.C. Smart), unlike Mill's, is often said to lack a principle of fairness embodied in a conception of justice. In "Bentham and the Common Law Tradition", Gerald J. Postema states, "No moral concept suffers more at Bentham's hand than the concept of justice. There is no sustained, mature analysis of the notion ... Thus, some critics object, it would be acceptable to torture one person if this would produce an amount of happiness in other people outweighing the unhappiness of the tortured individual - cf. However, as P. J. Kelly argued in his book, Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice: Jeremy Bentham and the Civil Law, Bentham had a theory of justice that prevented such consequences. According to Kelly, for Bentham the law "provides the basic framework of social interaction by delimiting spheres of personal inviolability within which individuals can form and pursue their own conceptions of well-being. They provide security, a precondition for the formation of expectations. As the hedonic calculus shows "expectation utilities" to be much higher than natural ones, it follows that Bentham does not favour the sacrifice of a few to the benefit of the many.

In contrast, J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams's Utilitarianism: For and Against provides a more complete picture with both sides of the argument in relation to the theory.

Jeremy Bentham's Principles of Legislation focuses on the principle of utility and how this view of morality ties into legislative practices. His principle of utility regards "good" as that which produces the greatest amount of pleasure, and the minimum amount of pain; and "evil" as that which produces the most pain without the pleasure. This concept of pleasure and pain is defined by Bentham as physical as well as spiritual. Bentham writes about this principle as it manifests itself within the legislation of a society. Bentham lays down a set of criteria for measuring the extent of pain or pleasure that a certain decision will create. The criteria are divided into the categories of intensity, duration, certainty, proximity, productiveness, purity, and extent. Using these measurements, he reviews the concept of punishment and when it should be used as far as whether a punishment will create more pleasure or more pain for a society. He calls for legislators to determine whether punishment creates an even more evil offense. Instead of suppressing the evil acts, Bentham is arguing that certain unnecessary laws and punishments could ultimately lead to new and more dangerous vices than those being punished to begin with. Bentham follows these statements with explanations on how antiquity, religion, reproach of innovation, metaphor, fiction, fancy, antipathy and sympathy, begging the question, and imaginary law are not justification for the creation of legislature. Instead, Bentham is calling upon legislators to measure the pleasures and pains associated with any legislature and to form laws in order to create the greatest good for the greatest number. He argues that the concept of the individual pursuing his or her own happiness cannot be necessarily declared "right," because often these individual pursuits can lead to greater pain and less pleasure for the society as a whole. Therefore, the legislation of a society is vital to maintaining a society with optimum pleasure and the minimum degree of pain for the greatest amount of people.

Economics

His opinions about monetary economics were completely different from those of David Ricardo; however, they had some similarities to those of Thornton. He focused on monetary expansion as a means of helping to create full employment. He was also aware of the relevance of forced saving, propensity to consume, the saving-investment relationship and other matters that form the content of modern income and employment analysis. His monetary view was close to the fundamental concepts employed in his model of utilitarian decision making. Bentham stated that pleasures and pains can be ranked according to their value or “dimension” such as intensity, duration, certainty of a pleasure or a pain. He was concerned with maxima and minima of pleasures and pains, and they set a precedent for the future employment of the maximization principle in the economics of the consumer, the firm and the search for an optimum in welfare economics.

Animal rights

Bentham is widely recognized as one of the earliest proponents of animal rights. He argued that animal pain is very similar to human pain, and that "[t]he day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny." Bentham argued that the ability to suffer, not the ability to reason, must be the benchmark of how we treat other beings. If the ability to reason were the criterion, many human beings, including babies and disabled people, would also have to be treated as though they were things. He wrote:

It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.

What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Feminism

Bentham said that it was the placing of women in a legally inferior position that made him choose the career of a reformist, at the age of eleven. Bentham spoke for a complete equality between sexes.

See also

References

Further reading

  • Lea Campos Boralevi (1980). 'Bentham and the Oppressed'. Walter De Gruyter Inc, 1984 ISBN 3110099748
  • J. H. Burns (1989). 'Bentham and Blackstone: A Lifetime's Dialectic'. Utilitas 1, 22-40
  • John Dinwiddy (1989), Bentham, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0 19 287622 8.
  • J. A. W. Gunn (1989). 'Jeremy Bentham and the Public Interest'. In J. Lively & A. Reeve (eds.) 'Modern Political Theory from Hobbes to Marx: Key Debates, London, pp. 199-219
  • Jonathan Harris (1998),'Bernardino Rivadavia and Benthamite "discipleship"', Latin American Research Review 33, pp. 129-49
  • R. Harrison (1983) Bentham. London.
  • P. J. Kelly (1990). Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice: Jeremy Bentham and the Civil Law. Oxford.
  • F. Rosen (1983). Jeremy Bentham and Representative Democracy: A Study of the "Constitutional Code". Oxford.
  • F. Rosen (1990) 'The Origins of Liberal Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham and Liberty'. In R. Bellamy, ed., Victorian Liberalism: Nineteenth-century Political Thought and Practice, London, pp. 5870
  • Robinson, Dave & Groves, Judy (2003). Introducing Political Philosophy. Icon Books. ISBN 1-84046-450-X.

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