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English jurist and reformer (1748-1832)

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Benthamism.—Jeremy Bentham, an English jurist and reformer, b. at Houndsditch, London, February 15,1748; d. in London June 6, 1832, was of middle-class parentage. After passing through Westminster school he went to Oxford, where he took his Bachelor’s degree in 1763 and his Master’s degree in 1776. He qualified for the Bar, but soon, disgusted with what he called the “Demon of Chicane”, he abandoned the practice of law and devoted himself to the study of philosophers then in favor, chiefly Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Helvetius, Beccaria, and Barrington. Under the influence of these writers, he entered upon what proved to be a lifelong and fruitful career of speculation upon the principles of legislation and political government. Bentham’s primary purpose was not the construction of theories or the establishment of abstract principles. He first attacked specific abuses in the English system of penal legislation. In tracing these abuses to their source he was led to investigate the ultimate principles of law; and subsequently he undertook to construct a complete science of legislation. In like manner, his efforts to lay bare the evils existing in the legislative machinery carried him on to assail the defects of the British Constitution itself.

He published anonymously, in 1776, his first noticeable work, “A Fragment on Government”, in the preface of which he formulated his celebrated utilitarian principle, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, which he borrowed from Beccaria or Priestly. It is the use which he makes of this principle that characterizes Bentham among philosophers. By it exclusively he would estimate the value of juridical, political, social, ethical, and religious systems and institutions; does utility justify their existence? In 1779 Bentham’s chief work, “Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation”, appeared. It is the only important one that was published by himself alone; all the others were compiled with more or less cooperation from his followers. One of these disciples, E. Dumont, helped to secure for Bentham, at the opening of the nineteenth century, international fame as a legal and social reformer by arranging Bentham’s writings and publishing them in French. About this period he was engaged in many philanthropic schemes, the chief of which was one for the reform of the convict prison system. This undertaking, though aided by the British Government, proved a failure. After the peace of 1815, when the codification of laws was occupying a large place in the attention of statesmen, Bentham’s writings were studied, and he himself consulted, by jurists of Russia, Spain, Germany, and some South American countries He also exerted an influence upon legislation in the United States, notably Pennsylvania and Louisiana. In England his ideas of political reform were taken up by the leaders of the rising radicalism, Cobbett, George Grote, the two Mills, and others. With them, in 1823, he established the “Westminster Review” as the organ of the party. He maintained a correspondence with many prominent men of his day, including Madison and Adams, Presidents of the United States.

Bentham attacked the Established Church as a factor in the general system of abuse, and from the Church he passed, characteristically, to the Catechism, then to the New Testament, and finally to Religion itself. In the “Analysis of Religion“, published by George Grote under the pseudonym of Philip Beauchamp, he applies the utilitarian test to religion, and finds religion wanting. True to this same principle in ethics, Bentham maintained happiness to be the sole end of conduct; pleasure and pain, the discriminating norm of right and wrong; and he reduced moral obligation to the mere sanction inherent in the pleasant or painful results of action.

The patriarch of utilitarianism, as Bentham has been called, was of upright character and simple in his manner of life. His bent of mind was for the abstract; and he was singularly deficient in the wisdom of the practical man of the world. Nevertheless, circumstances turned him to grapple with intensely practical problems; and, with the help of his followers, he has wielded on political development and philosophic thought in England a powerful influence which is far from exhausted. The spread of his ideas contributed signally to the carrying of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the beneficent parliamentary reform of 1832. At the same time they helped to open the way in English ethical and theological speculation for the positivism and agnosticism of the last half of the nineteenth century. One of his principal works, “Deontology, or the Science of Morality“, was published after the author’s death by his disciple Sir J. Bowring, who also edited Bentham’s collected works in eleven volumes (1838-43). This edition has not been superseded. A good edition of the “Fragment on Government” was issued by the Clarendon Press in 1891.


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