The Literary Encyclopedia, September 15, 2002
Utilitarian Philosopher, Political Economist, Lawyer and Legal Reformer
Active 1768-1832 in England, Britain, France, Russia, Europe
Jeremy Bentham is often introduced to students of English literature as the inspiration behind the awful Mr Gradgrind in Dickens' Hard Times (1854), the school teacher who believes in nothing but “facts and calculations” and who grinds all the “bumps” off his pupils' souls until they are perfectly flat. If, however, we set aside the conception of Bentham which had become popular by the mid-nineteenth century, he can be seen as radical philosopher who made a very significant contribution to Enlightenment thought. Indeed in 1838, John Stuart Mill, in an essay often very critical of Bentham, offered this praise: “until Bentham spoke out, those who found our institutions unsuited to them did not dare to say so, did not dare consciously to think so; they had never heard the excellence of those institutions questioned by cultivated men, by men of acknowledged intellect.”
Jeremy Bentham was born in Queens Square Place, London, on 15th February 1748, son and grandson of attorneys in the City of London, the eldest of six children, highly intelligent, scholarly and shy. His father was a lawyer, a man of property, and an ambitious social climber who destined his son for the highest legal office in the land, that of Lord Chancellor. Educated at Westminster, Jeremy Bentham was admitted to Oxford at the age of 12 and to Lincoln's Inn at the age of fifteen in 1763. His Oxford BA was awarded one year later and he was admitted to the bar at the age of 21 in 1769. By nature solitary, hard-working and studious, his training in the law was typical of his time, the mastery of precedent and unremitting observation of actual proceedings, but his reading tended to be at variance with the obsessive reliance on precedent which then characterised English law, and which still in many ways forms a contrast between English and Continental European law. In 1769 Bentham read the Italian philsopher Cesare Beccaria (1738-94) whose Dei delitti e delle pene [Of Crimes and Punishments] (1764) argued that the penal code should seek to reform individuals rather than terrify them with its cruelty, and Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715-71) whose De l'espirt [Of the Mind] (1758) developed Locke's perception that all consciousness is the product of experience and education rather than predetermined human nature. These continental influences were supported by a general enthusiasm for the method of natural sciences, and by reading Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), the Birmingham chemist whose Essay on Government (1768) he read on publication and in which he was struck by the phrase “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”
Inspired by the philosophical and scientific temper of such works, through the 1770s and 1780s Bentham took none of the lucrative briefs which could have so easily been his, preferring to live on a very modest allowance of £100 and give himself to a minute and systematic analysis of crimes and punishments, drafting his monumental Plan of a Penal Code, which remains unpublished to this day. Part of this work was, however, published in 1789 as his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, a work which begins by setting out a theory of humankind as motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, builds upon this a theory of human motivation and consciousness, then moves on to an understanding of crimes and how they should most appropriately be punished. The method displayed in this work is one of its most fascinating aspects, Bentham scrupulously taking to pieces each general assumption and displaying its philosophical inadequacy, then seeking to reground morality and law in terms of his theory of the human being and the utilitarian goal of achieving a society which offers the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Given that most English law at the time was riddled with arcane practices and unargued assumptions, the props and properties of long-established aristocratic regime, Bentham did not underestimate his need:
Such a rational approach to law, grounded in a philosophical theory of human nature, its motives and sensibility, and in a rational analysis of first principles, but each time defended by reasoned argument and specific examples, is a manifestly enlightenment project which, more than two hundred years later, remains an ideal in progressive realisation. When Bentham published his Introduction it was very much in the radical current of its times, but coming out on the eve of the French revolution, its progress was about to be blighted by the political reaction which would set back so many radical aspirations in Britain; it was to be further hampered by Bentham's painstaking and obsessional way of working: at the end of his life he was to leave mountainous drafts of books unpublished or published only in part which are now kept in University College, London, which he helped to found. During his life many of his ideas were brought before the public in editions prepared by his admirers — notably Etienne Dumont, James Mill, James Stuart Mill — or in essays his admirers would write under his inspiration.
Whilst working on his Introduction and Penal Code Bentham drafted a critique of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-9), the most authoritative legal work of his day, which he entitled Comment on the Commentaries, most of which would not be published until the twentieth century. What did appear was but a part of the whole, the Fragment on Government (1776), a critique of Blackstone's reiteration of Locke's theory of the social compact and reliance on such ideas as “the state of nature” which, when looked at analytically, resolve into selective fantasies (or indeed ideologies) designed to prove whatever the proposer wants to see in the opposite, “civil society”. Through this immediate and technical critique resonated Bentham's hostility to the general assumption for which Blackstone's was but the loudest trumpet — that English common law was the product and guarantor of the best of all possible worlds.
It was in the opening sentence of this work that Bentham first propounded the principle which was to guide his life's work and become the cornerstone of doctrine of “utilitarianism”, one of the most forceful currents of thought in nineteenth-century Britain: “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Bentham propounded this doctrine somewhat naively as a self-evident truth and expected all men of wisdom would agree with him. He did not realise in 1776 the degree to which the self-interest of those in power would resist such a principle. In 1822 he added a footnote to Chapter One of his Introduction, observing that this doctrine was considered by some to be dangerous, but only because “dangerous [. . . ] to every government that has for its actual end or object the greatest happiness of a certain one, with or without the addition of some comparatively small company of others”.
Bentham's critique of Blackstone was typically rational and forensic: he argued that customary law relied on uninvestigated presumptions which “we inherited . . . from our fathers, and, maugre all its inconveniencies, are likely to pass on to our children” (Chap IV, Art. 34). Such presumptions derived from no particular legislator's will or command, and were therefore couched in a language which lacked clarity in its understanding of human nature, its own intentions and the best means of realising them.
The publication of the Fragment on Government brought Bentham to the attention of the Earl of Shelburne (a prominent Whig, patron of Joseph Priestley, friend of both the Pitts, Prime Minister in 1782-3 and from 1784 Marquis of Lansdowne) who invited him into a circle of Whig intellectuals gathered around Bowood House in Wiltshire and Lansdowne House in London, and gave him the hope of greater social and political influence. However, given his habit of going always to the root of everything, and always seeeking to offer a fully worked-out practical solution where others would have been content with mere criticism, such esteem was to be long in coming. In 1785, hoping that he might find an enthusiast for his rational penal code in the enlightened despot Catherine II of Russia, he joined his younger brother Samuel, a naval architect, who was at Krichev in the Ukraine helping Prince Potemkin to establish modern industrial and agricultural methods. It was in Russia that Bentham drafted in French the manuscripts for his Projet d'un corps complet du droit; his Panopticon; or The Inspection-House (London, Dublin and Paris, 1791; q.v.) and Defence of Usury (London and Paris, 1787), an argument against the usury laws that set the maximum interest rate at 5%, thus preventing a free trade in money. Bentham argued that market-need should be allowed to determine the most appropriate interest rate on loans. It is a measure of Bentham's farsightedness that his work was to be taken up in debates around the usury Bill during the banking crisis of 1825-6, rejected in 1833, and finally accepted in 1854.
Bentham was initially enthusiastic about the French revolution and even offered the new regime suggestions on juridical and legislative procedures by way of his Draught of a new plan for the organisation of the Judicial Establishment in France (1790) and Essay on Political Tactics (1791). He hoped for a while to become a paid manager for his Panopticon and corresponded at first with French and Irish officials, then with the British government. His proposal was presented to the Assemblée Nationale in Paris, and to the British Parliament, and his hope of seeing the Panopticon built flickered bright then dull for the next ten years. In 1794 an Act was passed giving powers for the establishment of a panopticon penitentiary in London, but powerful landed interests obstructed the choice of a site: it was 1799 before one was found and further backroom opposition killed the idea by 1803. Bentham and his brother had invested twelve years of their lives and the enormous sum of £10,000 in the project; in 1813 they were at last able to obtain an apology and £23,000 in compensation, but what Bentham mainly received for his pains was an object lesson in power. Until the failure of the panopticon scheme he had believed that it was only necessary to show good to power to have it adopted. Afterwards he realised that power is chiefly concerned to perpetuate its grip.
Constantly seeking ways of implementing his rational schemes of social improvement, Bentham drafted proposals for improvement in the poor laws: Preliminary sketches relative to the poor and Pauper Management Improved which were published in George Young's Annals of Agriculture in 1797-98. Responding to the agricultural crisis and food riots of 1795-6, these papers attacked the irrationalities of current poor relief and proposed paying all parish poor rates to one National Charity Company which would then run a network of workhouses constructed on the panopticon principles and generating a revenue by putting the poor to work. Whilst evidently to a degree sympathetic to the plight of the poor, these papers were hard-headed in their application of utilitarian principles, analysing the poor into a hierarchical tree of categories by cause of poverty and willingness to work, and seeking to motivate the workless by placing them in coercive environments. (Quite where work for the workless was to come from was not much explored.) The harsh side of Bentham's scheme was to become only too apparent after the reform of the poor laws in 1834 when the wholesale shift from outdoor poor relief to incarcerating the poor in prison-like institutions became generalised. The more positive side of his proposals was its realisation of the need to distribute relief nationally, to those who had most need, since one parish might be wealthy and have few poor whilst a neighbouring parish was destitute – in other words, a modern form of national social welfare. Bentham's work on the Panopticon scheme diverted his energies from progressing his general theory of law and thus set back the philosophical reputation his talents deserved. However his fortunes began to change when an old friend from the Lansdowne House set, the Genevan Pierre Étienne Dumont, edited and clarified Bentham's manuscript drafts for a comprehensive analytic philosophy of law, Of Laws in General, some of which had been written in 1785-8 when he was in Russia. This came out in Paris in 1802 as Traité de Législation Civile et Pénale . The work began to achieve notice and Bentham found himself particularly appreciated in Scotland (where the Enlightenment had found much more fertile soil than in England), and especially after the publication of Scotch Reform (1807), a contribution to the reform of Scottish judicial procedures.
In 1809 Bentham made the acquaintance of the Scottish historian and political economist James Mill who became one of the most prominent spokesmen for Benthamite Utilitarianism. (James Mill's son, John Stuart Mill, would become in turn an influential protagonist for utilitarianism, editing Bentham's five-volume Rationale of Judicial Evidence in 1827 and writing an important modification of the ideology in his Utilitarianism of 1861). James Mill encouraged Bentham to resume the democratic sentiments he had initially expressed in manuscripts about French reform in 1788-89, but then repressed during the years of the Terror. In the meantime, Bentham had come to appreciate that it was not just the infernal conspiracy of lawyers who were deliberately maintaining an unjust and irrational legal, economic and political system, it was also the Parliament that was wilfully incompetent in implementing manifestly necessary reforms. His conversations with Mill and others led to his proposing many crucial modernisations of the British constitution, some of which have been achieved -- a broader franchise, including votes for women -- and others which remain on the radical agenda -- the abolition of the House of Lords and the monarchy, the disestablishment of the Church. (See Plan for Parliamentary Reform, 1817; Bentham's Radical Reform Bill, 1819; Of the Liberty of the Press and Public Instruction, 1821; Houses of Peers and Senates, 1830.)
Running through these works is a recognition and critique of the close bond between the Church of England and the British political elite in what we now call “the Establishment”, and a very modern understanding of the insider-dealing between agencies of the power elite that prevents democracies from actually being governments by their people and for their people. Bentham was probably the first to see this characteristic feature of the modern state as a form of “corruption”, and to name it as such. (See Elements of the Art of Packing 1810; Church of Englandism; 1817, Not Paul but Jesus, 1823; Book of Fallacies¸ 1824)
In 1811 Bentham's reputation received another considerable boost courtesy of his friend Etienne Dumont, when Bentham's drafts of the 1770s for “The Rationale of Punishment” were published in Paris as the Théorie des Pênes et des Récompenses par Jeremy Bentham, rédigé par Etienne Dumont. This was reviewed in the Edinburgh Review 22 (October 1813-January 1814), pp. 1-31 and brought Bentham's thinking to much wider public notice. Buoyed up by his growing reputation in Francophone and Hispanophone countries, Bentham's major work in the 1810s was devoted to developing the legal framework for a constitutional code (see his Codification Proposal, addressed by Jeremy Bentham to all Nations professing Liberal Opinions 1822 and his Leading Principles of a Constitutional Code for Any State, 1823; and the Constitutional Code; for the Use of All Nations, and all governments professing liberal Opinions, printed 1827, published 1830.) and for arguing the case for representative democracy in England. His arguments were to feed powerfully into the Chartist agitation of the 1830s, but their greatest effect was in the new democratic governments being established in Portugal, Spain, Greece, Colombia, Guatemala and Argentina.
He was also at work on a philosophical study on procedures for establishing and validating evidence in the judicial system. This work appeared in A Treatise on Judicial Evidence, 1825, and Rationale of Judicial Evidence, edited by John Stuart Mill, (5 vols), 1827.
In 1823 Bentham and others founded the Westminster Review to propound Benthamite principles and to rival the influence of the then dominant Edinburgh and Quarterly.
Bentham remained true throughout his philosophical life to the idea that every man's pleasure was a right as important as any other's, and that each person was the best judge of his own interests. He shared Adam Smith's views of laissez-faire and economic individualism; and was firmly against the traditional class hierarchies of Britain in his day. Given his enthusiasm for governmental efficiency, for rational justice, for proper democratic mechanisms, and his vision of society as a collection of individuals whose self-interests somehow can work to produce the best of all possible worlds (note he has no theory of the family, or of relations not calculated on a basis of self-seeking hedonism), one would have thought that the nineteenth-century would have liked him more than it did. But whilst his ideas were deeply influential, his work suffered from an extreme logicality which took it beyond acceptable political bounds (especially in disrespecting such British pieties as aristocracy and monarchy), and which led it to reduce everything to hierarchies of categories and an almost mechanical sense of calculation and force. The latter aspect is exemplified in the Introduction when he sets out to produce an exhaustive schema of human motives and dispositions, and relates this schema to criminal acts and proportionate punishments. As an analytic activity, the process is fascinating and indeed helpful, but it would become dangerous to humanity if taken as a picture of the real world. Similarly, in his writings on the Poor Laws he produced a “Table of Cases Calling for Relief” which attempts to insert each case of destitution into one of 137 kinds, sorted into 22 groups, and 8 general categories. The document compels admiration for its anticipation of modern social science and departmentalising bureaucracies, as well as recoil at its obsessive desire to reduce a multifarious reality into a categorical grid. This aspect of his work was termed by later critics his “moral arithmetic” it offended many Victorian sensibilities, just as it established a blueprint for the type of social engineering which has become characteristic of both conservative and progressive governments in modern capitalist states.
Another aspect of this “moral arithmetic” which remains deeply problematic is his fundamental idea that individuals habitually and reliably make decisions based upon calculating their own best interests. Evidently such an idea presumes a degree of innate rationality not vindicated in most observation of the human species, and a disregard for traditional authority. When asked why human beings do not display the rationality they are credited with, the utilitarian answer tended to be that they needed reform: it is only necessary to administer just the correct portion of punishment or unpleasure to steer them into the path of optimum contentment. But who judges, and on what basis? Bentham's work sets out so many ways of achieving this end, but the more he specifies the more mechanical it becomes, until finally one begins to see his schemata, like the Panopticon itself, as portending the many rational and regular systems of incarceration that haunted the twentieth century, from the car factory to the concentration camp. Dickens's image of Gradgrind grinding all the bumps off his boys until they were perfectly flat is a one-sided view of Bentham, but not an unfair use of the satirical imagination.