Jeremy Bentham


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Bentham, Jeremy (1748-1832), British philosopher, economist, and jurist, who founded the doctrine of utilitarianism. He was born in London on February 15, 1748. A prodigy, he was reading serious treatises at the age of three, playing the violin at age five, and studying Latin and French at age six. He entered the University of Oxford at 12, studied law, and was admitted to the bar; however, he did not practice. Instead he worked on a thorough reform of the legal system and on a general theory of law and morality, publishing short works on aspects of his thought. In 1789 he became well known for his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

Bentham was the leader of the Philosophical Radicals, whose members included James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill. They founded and edited the Westminster Review, which served as an outlet for their reformist ideas. Bentham died in London on June 6, 1832. In accordance with his wishes, his body was dissected before friends. His skeleton, fully clothed and provided with a wax head (the original was mummified), is kept in a glass case at University College, London, which he helped to found.

In the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham advanced utilitarianism as the basis for reform. He claimed that one could scientifically ascertain what was morally justifiable by applying the principle of utility. Actions were right if they tended to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Happiness was equivalent to pleasure. Through a kind of moral-mathematical calculation of pleasures and pains, one could tell what was a right or a wrong action. If all pleasures and pains were of the same order, then a utilitarian evaluation of moral, political, and legal activities would be possible. Also, Bentham argued, if values were based on pleasures and pains, then theories of natural rights and natural law were invalid. John Stuart Mill, severely modifying some of Bentham's principles, discounted Bentham's method for calculating quantities of happiness.

Bentham's ideas had great influence on the reforms of the latter part of the 19th century in the administrative machinery of the British government, on criminal law, and on procedure in both criminal and civil law. His other works include the Rationale of Judicial Evidence (1827) and the Constitutional Code (1830).

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