Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Jeremy Bentham on Open Government and Privacy

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Jeremy Bentham on Open Government and Privacy

Article excerpt

"Tyranny would be banished from the earth, could it but once be sufficiently known"- Bentham 1983b, 386 (IX.20.A12)1


Jeremy Bentham wears many faces. He wears one face as the founder of Philosophic Radicalism and the intellectual inspiration behind the early career of John Stuart Mill (Mill ¡838). In this guise, Bentham was one of the most important social and political figures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For some people, he was the advocate of a crude and unrealistic form of hedonistic utilitarianism, while yet others see him as the guiding force behind some of the most significant improvements in British public infrastructure, such as prison reform and city sanitation programs. Yet, the ridicule that Bentham heaped on the doctrine of natural rights is one of the most famous aspects of his thought and for many readers of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish, he is known as a defender of the contemporary surveillance state. Yet, he is also known among a smaller group of scholars as a radical democrat and a fervent defender of open government, even if his views on privacy and personal freedom are much less widely known.

Two of Bentham's faces appear on his two heads. One head is a waxwork model which sits on top of his "auto-icon." This commemoration of himself and his thought was the effigy that he ordered to be constructed from his preserved skin and skeleton. He ordered it to be posed in a seated position in his favorite clothes and with his favorite walking stick, which can be found now in the South Cloister of University College London (UCL). The other head is his real head, also preserved, which usually sits in a UCL vault following its theft several years ago by students of the King's College London, but which on special occasions sits between his feet behind the glass of the cabinet in which his auto-icon resides.

The auto-icon is not simply a strange joke by a strange man, although it is that too. Rather, the auto-icon is Bentham's attempt to debunk the sociallyharmful prejudices that surrounded corpses in the early nineteenth century, and in particular to debunk the then-Christian notion of the literal resurrection of the body on the Day of Judgment. The attempt was characteristic of the man because Bentham was an enlightenment figure. That is, he strove to replace obscurity, prejudice, and myth with reason and evidence-based knowledge. Bentham argued throughout his literary career that only by doing so could one begin to counter the vested interests which the rich sought to promote through their exercise of their inordinate power. Even his infamous panopticon was part of this project. It was a prison at whose heart stood a central observation tower encircled by layers of cells, which enabled the guards to see every corner of the prisoner's accommodation without themselves being observed. As Bhikhu Parekh has noted: "It was not a metaphor for Bentham's society, which was really quite liberal in several respects. And it was a cheap and centralized way of constructing large prisons, whose internal regime was not particularly harsh" (Parekh et al. 2011, 57; see Semple 1993). In Bentham's terms, it was part of his grand attempt to achieve two key aims of a good state: "Official aptitude maximized, expense minimized" (Bentham 1993, 6).

This article sketches the key political dimensions of Bentham's utilitarianism, focusing particularly on the central importance that he placed on freedom of information as a necessary condition of the effective monitoring of public officials by civil society groups and individual citizens. Section two outlines the critical dimensions of Bentham's political theory, particularly the need to debunk metaphorical and obscure language so as to enable citizens to understand the real forces and interests at work in their world. Section three turns to his later constitutional theory, emphasizing its radically democratic elements. …

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