Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the greatest of the classical utilitarians and one of the strangest men who ever lived. This champion of the greatest happiness of the greatest number insisted that after his death he be dissected, preserved and displayed, to serve the cause of reason both by supporting medical dissection and by leaving his “Auto-Icon” as an inspirational relic. He can still be viewed today, at University College London.
A precocious boy, Bentham entered Queen’s College, Oxford, at age twelve, and it was on a return visit there in 1768 that he discovered the key utilitarian notion of promoting the greatest happiness, in Priestly’s “Essay on the First Principles of Government”. He would claim, in his article on “Utilitariansm”, that it was by this pamphlet that his “principles on the subject of morality, public and private together, were determined.” His readings of Helvetius and Beccaria, as well as Hume and the philosophes, were also crucial in making utilitarian legal reform the centre of his life.
Bentham’s most famous work remains An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). Against theological utilitarianism and lunatic asceticism, he held that maximising happiness involves summing up pleasures and pains to determine which action yields the greatest net pleasure in this world.
Obsessed with working out every detail of effective utilitarian legal and penal institutions, his writings ranged widely, from his “Panopticon” prison scheme, to his “Chrestomathic” schools, to his rules of judicial evidence, to his proposed constitutions for countries across the globe. When various monarchs resisted his efforts to enlighten them, he converted to democracy, and the Reform Act of 1832 owed much to the Benthamite influence.
The practical work of Benthamism was mostly carried out by Bentham’s disciples, James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill, and other so-called philosophical radicals, who pushed his ideas in such organs as the Westminister Review . Still, as his heir apparent J S Mill put it: “The father of English innovation, both in doctrines and in institutions, is Bentham: he is the great subversive or, in the language of continental philosophers, the great critical thinker of his age and country.” No one could match Bentham’s scorn for the unscientific and the unfelicific: “natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, nonsense upon stilts.” Despite this aversion to “the pestilential breath of fiction” in law and morals, Bentham was made an honorary citizen of France, where he enjoyed a great reputation.
The Rev. Sydney Smith twitted “that Bentham thought people ought to make soup of their dead grandmothers,” and analogous slanders can be found in everyone from Dickens and Marx to Michel Foucault and the faculty of most university English departments. Even Mill complained that Bentham was “one-eyed,” seeing only the unpoetic, business side of life, and not much of a philosopher.
Yet Bentham has an eerie way of embarrassing his critics as well as his followers. The great gay critic Foucault, who mistook the Panopticon scheme for a larger vision of social control, failed to recognise not only Bentham’s actual social vision but also his role in the history of sexuality: it was Bentham who penned the very first call for the de-criminalization of male love in the English language. It also turns out that Bentham can be largely exonerated of charges that he represented the ideology of British imperialism. The more imperialistic Mills misrepresented Bentham on this and other topics, as when the younger Mill charged him with finding the pleasure of “pushpin as good as poetry” (Bentham only meant from the standpoint of the state).
As for philosophy, Bentham made it into Quine’s “five milestones” of empiricism for his formulation of the method – crucial to analytical philosophy – of “paraphrasis,” such that “to explain a term we do not need to specify an object for it to refer to, nor even specify a synonymous word or phrase; we need only show … how to translate all the whole sentences in which the term is to be used.”
Lastly, it was Bentham who urged that: “the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. 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.”