Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The life of Jeremy Bentham
Born in Spitalfields, London into a wealthy Tory family, Bentham was recognised as a child prodigy when discovered as a toddler sitting at his father's desk reading a multi-volume history of England. He studied Latin from the age of three.
He went to Westminster School, and in 1760 his father sent him to Queen's College, Oxford, where he took his Bachelor's degree in 1763 and his Master's degree in 1766. Bentham trained as a lawyer and was called to the bar in 1769. A prosperous attorney, his father had decided that Bentham would follow him into the law, and felt quite sure that his brilliant son would one day be Lord Chancellor of England.
Soon, however, Bentham became disillusioned with the law, especially after hearing the lectures of the leading authority of the day, Sir William Blackstone. Deeply frustrated with the complexity of the English legal code, which he termed the "Demon of Chicane", he decided, instead of practising the law, to write about it, and he spent his life criticising the existing law and suggesting ways for its improvement. His father's death in 1792 left him financially independent, allowing him to set himself up as a writer in Westminster. For nearly forty years he lived there quietly, producing between ten and twenty sheets of manuscript a day, even when he was in his eighties. Among his many proposals for legal and social reform was a design for a prison building he called the Panopticon. Although it was never built, the idea had an important influence in later generations of thinkers and influenced the radial design of Pentonville Prison as well as several other prisons.
Bentham is frequently associated with the foundation of the University of London, which was later to become University College London, though this is misguided: Bentham was eighty years old when the University opened in 1828, and had no part in its establishment. However, Bentham strongly believed that education should be more widely available, particularly to those who were not wealthy or who did not belong to the established church, both qualities being required of students by the traditional universities at Oxford and Cambridge. As University College London was the first English university to admit all, regardless of race, creed or political belief, it was largely consistent with Bentham's vision, and he oversaw the appointment of one of his pupils, John Austin, as the first Professor of Jurisprudence in 1829.
After death, Bentham's body was (as requested in his will) preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet, termed his "Auto-Icon", at University College London. It has occasionally been brought out of storage at official functions so that the eccentric presence of Bentham would live on. The Auto-Icon has always had a wax head, as Bentham's head was badly damaged in the preservation process. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks, being stolen on more than one occasion, and is now locked away securely.
Bentham not only proposed many legal and social reforms, but also devised moral principles on which they should be based. This philosophy, utilitarianism, argued that the right act or policy was that which would cause the greatest happiness for the greatest number — though he later dropped the second qualification and embraced what he called "the greatest happiness principle". Bentham also suggested a procedure to mechanically estimate the moral status of any action, which he called the felicific calculus. Utilitarianism was revised and expanded by Bentham's more famous disciple, John Stuart Mill. In Mill's hands, "Benthamism" became a major element in the liberal conception of state policy objectives.
It is often said that Bentham's theory, unlike Mill's, faces the problem of lacking a principle of fairness embodied in a conception of justice. Thus, some critics object, it would be moral to e.g. torture one person if this would produce an amount of happiness in other people outweighing the unhappiness of the tortured individual. However, as P. J. Kelly forcibly argued in his book Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice: Jeremy Bentham and the Civil Law [ISBN 0-19-825418-0], Bentham had a theory of justice that prevented such undesirable consequences. According to Kelly, for Bentham the law "provides the basic framework of social interaction by delimiting spheres of personal inviolability within which individuals can form and pursue their own conceptions of well-being". (op. cit., p. 81) They provide security, a precondition for the formation of expectations. As the felicific calculus shows "expectation utilities" to be much higher than "natural" ones, it follows that Bentham does not favour the sacrifice of a few to the benefit of the many.
- "Every law is an infraction of liberty."
- "The greatest happiness of the greatest numbers is the foundation of morals and legislation."
- "Lawyers are the only persons in whom ignorance of the law is not punished."
- The Bentham Project
- Jeremy Bentham. Extensive collection of links to writings by and about Bentham.
- Jeremy Bentham's Life and Impact
- The history of the Auto-Icon including details of Bentham's will.
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