Bentham, Jeremy

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Bentham, Jeremy

Jeremy Bentham, 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).

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