G. L. Williams
Jeremy Bentham was born in 1748 in London; his prosperous father, a lawyer who became wealthy from property rather than the law, planned out for his son a brilliant legal career. After an early education at Westminster and Oxford he was called to the Bar in 1769. However, instead of mastering the complexities, technicalities, precedents and mysteries of the law in order to carve out a successful career, Bentham’s response to such chaos and absurdity was to challenge the whole structure of law and to attempt to replace it with a system as perfect and as rational as it could be. In many ways a typical philosophe of the eighteenth century, Bentham at this early stage seized on the possibility of improvement through knowledge, on the supremacy of reason over superstition and of order over chaos. Despite his living and writing into the new age of the nineteenth century—post-revolutionary, industrialized, democratic—this early inspiration that enlightenment would bring about a better world never left him. To help create a world as it might be—as it ought to be—rather than succeed in a world as it was—customary, prejudiced and corrupt—was his constant aim whatever the particular object he pursued within his encyclopaedic interests, and whether the study be abstract and philosophical or detailed and practical. His central concern was the study of legislation, a concern developed from his own disillusionment with the state of English law and his positive response to the works of those like Helvetius and Beccaria who had argued that there must be some general and rational test as to the adequacy of existing law in order to justify its reform. As we shall see, this task involved both expository and censorial elements and the principle of utility which Bentham formulated provided the basis of his life’s work.
During the eighteenth century his main approach assumed that