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Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Thumbnail Sketch of Jeremy Bentham

Alice C. Linsley

Jeremy Bentham, the "father" of utilitarian ethics, was a lawyer who distrusted lawyers. He was a man of his time in that he believed that many social problems could be solved by the exercise of reason on the part of law makers.
Bentham's Auto-icon

Bentham was born in London and educated at Oxford. He studied law, following in the steps of his lawyer father. His attitude toward the law was paradoxical. He said, "Lawyers are the only persons in whom ignorance of the law is not punished." At the same time, Bentham appreciated the skill of a good attorney to clarify the intention of a law and to question its utility. He said, "The power of the lawyer is in the uncertainty of the law."

A similar cynicism about lawyers was expressed by the 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus who wrote, "Some lawyers preserve an austere silence to hide their ignorance of the law; others charge their clients every time they yawn; others, if the name of a famous writer is mentioned, think that it is a foreign word for a type of fish or some other sort of food (Ammianus Marcellinus 30.4.8ff.).

In Bentham's thinking, a good lawyer regards the interests of the individual to be one with society. He believed this kind of lawyer serving in Parliament provided the best form of governance.

Bentham's key works are A Fragment on Government (1776), Defence of Usury (1787), and An Introduction to the Principles and Morals of Legislation. In Defence of Usury, Bentham shows himself to be a disciple of the economist Adam Smith who argued that the individual's interest is often also the best interest of the community and the society. Bentham held that each individual was the best judge of his own advantage, that it was desirable from the public point of view that he should seek it without hindrance, and that there was no reason to limit the application of this doctrine in the matter of lending money at interest.

In his book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) Bentham defined the principle of utility as “that property in any object whereby it tends to produce pleasure, good or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.” Mankind, he said, is governed by two sovereign motives, pain and pleasure; and the principle of utility recognized this state of affairs. The object of all legislation must be the “greatest happiness of the greatest number.” He deduced from the principle of utility that, since all punishment involves pain and is therefore evil, it ought only to be used “so far as it promises to exclude some greater evil.”

Bentham founded the Westminster Review in 1823 along with James Mill (father of John Stuart Mill). He also founded University College London where his auto-icon may be seen on special occasions.

Related reading:  Jeremy Bentham; My Argument With Bentham's View of Incarceration

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