Jeremy Bentham, the English moral philosopher, jurist, social reformer, political economist and founding father of modern utilitarianism was born in London on 15 February 1748. His ambitious father, also a lawyer, had plans for young Jeremy to become Lord Chancellor of England, not only making his name but also his fortune in the process. Despite showing early promise of fulfilling his father’s dream by going up to Oxford at the age of twelve, and seeking admission to Lincoln’s Inn only three years later, Bentham was soon drawn from the path of professional ambition by grander intellectual pursuits shaped by his wide reading of Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Adam Smith, Helvetius, d’Alembert and Beccaria. Though called to the bar in 1769, he never practised law but instead turned his attention to cultivating his true genius, one he had acquired through his familiarity with thinkers of the European Enlightenment, namely, rearing the fabric of felicity by the hand of reason and law.
Although Bentham remained in England almost all his life, with the exception of a short trip to Russia in the mid 1780s, his intellectual and political influence was international. He corresponded with most of the notable figures of his day in Europe, the fledgling United States of America and many of the emerging Latin American states, and supported movements for national liberation in Greece and for liberalisation and constitutional reform in Spain and Portugal. From his home at Queen’s Square Place in Westminster, Bentham provided philosophical arguments, political pamphlets, reform projects, constitutions, and model prisons, along with a host of other schemes for rational improvement, for an international audience – a word he is credited with introducing to the language. He was also the intellectual force behind a group of early nineteenth-century reformers – the Philosophic Radicals – and inspired the likes of Edwin Chadwick (a one-time secretary) in his work on Poor Law amendment and public health policies.
Through the influence of Chadwick and others, Bentham has often been credited with initiating the Victorian revolution in government. By the end of the nineteenth century, it had become common for writers such as Dicey, Maine, Spencer and Leslie Stephen to characterise the period as an age of Benthamism. This association of Bentham and utilitarianism with a more activist conception of the state has led many to challenge his liberal credentials. Bentham, for many later nineteenth-century liberals, was an advocate of collectivism, rather than the classical liberalism associated with Scottish political economy and laissez-faire. Yet, for reform-minded New Liberals inspired by T. H. Green, Bentham was still wedded to an outdated individualism.
Distinguishing Bentham’s thought from his legacy is a more complex matter. Bentham was first and foremost a utilitarian. He believed that the goal of government and legislation should be the greatest happiness of the greatest number. He began his career as a legislative reformer concerned to turn law into a science of human felicity and to dispense with the obscurities of English common law. In the early part of his career, Bentham was unconcerned about what form of government was best suited to realising such legal reforms. Indeed, in true enlightenment style, he was happy to trust in a benevolent monarch or despot. For Bentham, there was no necessary connection between utilitarianism and traditional liberal commitments to constitutionalism, separation of powers, consent theory or natural rights.
Bentham’s conversion to a more liberal policy of radical constitutional reform began in earnest in the years after 1809, following his association with James Mill and as a result of his own experiences of trying to persuade government to adopt utilitarian social reforms. During the last decades of the eighteenth century, Bentham had turned his attention from legal reform to social policy, in particular political economy, penal policy and how to deal with paupers. In 1791, he began a plan to have his model prison, the panopticon, adopted as a response to the growing crisis in penal policy. The government was originally interested, but the implementation of the 1794 Act was frustrated by the Spencer and Grosvenor families, who objected to a prison near their London estates. After more than twelve years and considerable expense Bentham saw the interest of powerful families frustrating both rational reform and the will of Parliament. He experienced a similar frustration with his policy for reform of the Scottish judicial system.
This deliberate frustration of reform by vested interests led Bentham to abandon trust in government and turn his attention to constitutional reform as a way of controlling government, taking it out of the hands of narrow family, group or professional interests and making it accountable to the public. The last decades of Bentham’s life were devoted to constitutional reform as part of the construction of a codified legal system for a modern state. Central to this complete code of law was representative democracy and the widest possible franchise as a means of holding government accountable to the public interest. Alongside representative democracy, Bentham also advocated the maximum publicity and transparency of government so that the electorate could serve its essential checking function on government.
Bentham’s enduring legacy is a complex one. On the one hand, he is associated with utilitarian projects for social reform which suggested an activist conception of the state and which attracted charges of collectivism. On the other, his constitutional theory, with its suspicion of big government and its democratic commitment to accountability and openness, suggests a liberal. Bentham died in 1832, immediately following the passing of the Great Reform Act. Though modest compared to his radical proposals, this began the process of the slow and painful democratisation of the British polity that Bentham had come to regard as essential in order to govern in the interest of the public.
Bentham has been heavily written about, both in biographies and in studies of his political thought; he has the distinction of attracting numerous works in languages other than English. Two good relatively recent biographies are R. Harrison, Bentham (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983) and J. Dinwiddy, Bentham (OUP, 1989). A perspective from outside Britain is provided by S. Mukherjee and S. Ramaswamy (eds.), Jeremy Bentham 1748-1832, (Deep and Deep, New Delhi, 1995).
Dr Paul Kelly is a Lecturer in Politics at the LSE. He is author of Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice: Jeremy Bentham and the Civil Law (1990) and co-editor, with D. Boucher of The Social Contract: From Hobbes to Rawls (1995).