Originally developed by English political philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism asserts that actions and institutions should be judged by their contribution to utility, which is measured by calculating the relative contribution to happiness or pleasure, as opposed to pain. The aim of government should thus be ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’.
It has been pointed out that not only is pleasure difficult to measure, but that utilitarianism provides neither any guarantee of individual rights against majority interests, nor any means of weighing high levels of pleasure for a few against lower levels of pleasure for greater numbers.
David Miller, ed., The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)
Jeremy Bentham (/ˈbɛnθəm/; 15 February 1748 [O.S. 4 February 1747] – 6 June 1832) was an English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism.
Bentham defined as the “fundamental axiom” of his philosophy the principle that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism. He advocated individual and economic freedoms, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and (in an unpublished essay) the decriminalising of homosexual acts. He called for the abolition of slavery, capital punishment and physical punishment, including that of children. He has also become known as an early advocate of animal rights. Though strongly in favour of the extension of individual legal rights, he opposed the idea of natural law and natural rights (both of which are considered “divine” or “God-given” in origin), calling them “nonsense upon stilts.” Bentham was also a sharp critic of legal fictions.
Bentham’s students included his secretary and collaborator James Mill, the latter’s son, John Stuart Mill, the legal philosopher John Austin, American writer and activist John Neal, as well as Robert Owen, one of the founders of utopian socialism. He “had considerable influence on the reform of prisons, schools, poor laws, law courts, and Parliament itself.”
On his death in 1832, Bentham left instructions for his body to be first dissected, and then to be permanently preserved as an “auto-icon” (or self-image), which would be his memorial. This was done, and the auto-icon is now on public display in the entrance of the Student Centre at University College London (UCL). Because of his arguments in favour of the general availability of education, he has been described as the “spiritual founder” of UCL. However, he played only a limited direct part in its foundation.
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