Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher and legal reformer, was born on the 15th of February 1748, in Houndsdith, London. Bentham began to demonstrate his intellect at a very early stage in his life. At the age of 4 he began studying Latin, and soon after acquired the nickname of “the philosopher.”[1] As the son of a lawyer, Bentham gravitated towards law.

Despite obtaining a law degree from Oxford, Bentham refrained from the practice of law. [2] Instead, he pursued the scholarly analysis of law, legislation and society within a broader philosophical context. Many aspects of Bentham’s work contributed to the development of enlightenment thought. Bentham’s contemporaries recognized his contributions in England and abroad – culminating in an honorary citizenship from France in 1792.

Jeremy Benthamn his 1789 work, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham founded the political philosophy of utilitarianism – the belief that the aim of every action in the conduct of society, whether originating from the “private individual” or a “measure of government,” should be to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number.[3] In practice, this framework amounts to a “utilitarian moral calculation,” whereby the process of decision-making is predicated on the projected cost and benefit of an ensuing action or inaction.[4] In Bentham’s own words,

“An action…may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility…(meaning with respect to the community at large) when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.”[5]

This philosophy would permeate the thinking of later enlightenment thinkers, and impact the development of political, social and economic thinking.

     Bentham was an ardent critic of many aspects of 18th century English law, and proposed a number of reforms in this vein. For instance, he was opposed to the frequent use of capital punishment in England, where, in 1780, well over 160 different offences were punishable by the death penalty[6] Building on the works of Baccaria, Bentham called for capital punishment to be used in only “extraordinary cases.”[7] He went on to introduce a number of reforms to the penal system, ranging from sentencing to prison conditions.

     Bentham’s criticisms were not only reserved for the administrative and judiciary bodies, but also questioned the prevailing philosophies of his contemporaries. Bentham was critical of certain aspects of the concept of natural law, which had been popularized in the enlightenment period as a counterpoint to divine monarchical rule. Bentham’s rejection of natural law was a result of his utilitarian philosophy, whereby the good of the individual is predicated on the good of the majority. He therefore believed rights were contingent upon the interests of the collective, as opposed to a detached, universal code of values designed to serve the individual.[8]

     Bentham also argued that a natural right is an evasive concept, lacking a clear definition. This criticism was rooted in Bentham’s preference for precise legal language.[9] Although Bentham was a supporter of the French Revolution, he criticized the invocation of natural rights in the The Rights of Man and the Citizen by remarking, “Natural rights is simply nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense – nonsense upon stilts.”[10] Although contentious, Bentham’s views had a strong impact on enlightenment thinking. His insistence on precise language - particularly in regard to legal doctrine, codification and legislation - contributed to the evolution of judicial clarity. As a result, he has been described as “the man who found jurisprudence a gibberish and left it a science.”[11]

     Bentham’s philosophical and jurisprudential contributions continue to maintain political, social, and economic significance well into the twenty-first century. Aside from his metaphysical legacy, Bentham bequeathed something of a much more tangible nature. Pursuant to his Last Will and Testament, after his death Bentham’s head was cut off and his body embalmed, affixed with a wax replica, and dressed. It is still preserved in that condition at University College in London. See, also, the The Strange (1832) Last Will and Testament of Jeremy Bentham.

REFERERENCES

[1] Coleman Phillipson, Three Criminal Law Reformers: Beccaria, Bentham, Romilly (Patterson Smith Publishing Corporation 1970) 109-110

[2] Charles Everett, Jeremy Bentham Dell Publishing 1966) 13

[3] Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

  (eds by H. J. Burns & L. H Heart University of London, 1970) 12

 

[4] Jeremy Waldron Jeremy Bentham: Introduction in Steven Cahn (eds), Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy (Oxford Press 2002) 709

[5] Jeremy Bentham, eds J. H. Burns & L. A. Heart, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation 1970 (?) 12-13

[6] Coleman Phillipson, Three Criminal Law Reformers: Beccaria, Bentham, Romilly 170

[7]  Jeremy Bentham, eds Burns & Heart, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation 182

[8] Jeremy Waldron, Jeremy Bentham: Introduction in Steven Cahn (eds), Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy 709

[9] Ibid 709-710

[10] Jeremy Bentham, Anarchical Fallacies, quoted by Jeremy Waldron in Jeremy Bentham: Introduction in Steven Cahn (eds), Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy, 709

[11] Lord Macaulay, Quoted by Jeremy Waldron in Bentham: Introduction in Steven Cahn, Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy 709