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Jeremy Bentham Research Papers

Jeremy Bentham research papers overview the philosopher's ideas and philosophy. One of the most famous British philosophers, Bentham is best known for being the Father of Utilitarianism.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a British philosopher best remembered as the father of utilitarianism. He was also a radical political leader who advocated the following:

Bentham coined the “greatest happiness principle,” which states that an individual must always act in order to produce the greatest level of happiness for the greatest number of people.

Jeremy Bentham

Bentham's Early Years

Born in London, by age three had started studying Latin. His father sent him to Queen’s College, Oxford, at the age of twelve, where he earned a Master’s degree by 1766. In 1823, he co-founded the Westminster Review with John Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill, a journal for self-described radical philosophers.

Bentham’s philosophy was utilitarianism, which held the greatest happiness for the greatest number as its fundamental axiom. John Stuart Mill would later expand utilitarianism in an influential work of philosophy.

Bentham died in 1832 at the age of 84. He had made careful preparations for the dissection and preservation of his body. His skeleton and head were kept in a wooden cabinet, the “auto-icon.” The skeleton was padded with hay and dressed in his clothes. Bentham wanted his head mummified, but the disastrous results led to a wax head being placed on display. The Auto-icon is on display at University College London.

Bentham's Influences

Bentham was much influenced by Beccaria’s seminal work, On Crimes and Punishment, a work that emphasized the need for swiftness and certainty in the apportionment of punishment and which, as the work of a “proto-utilitarian” (the word is Draper’s), sought to find in punishment things which would work to protect the rights of  law-abiding citizens by deterring future offenses. Organic to Bentham’s philosophy of punishment was the more general utilitarian notion that the pains and pleasures caused by any given act, including a criminal act, could be measured, that punishment was the infliction of pain by society on the offender, and that “rules of proportionality” could be devised which would allow the determination of the appropriate degree of pain to be administered to the person who has committed a crime. Interestingly, Bentham believed that “the mischief” of an offense involved not only pain to “assignable” individuals directly and indirectly affected by the mischief, but that this mischief extended out into society and affected unassignable individuals, a belief that would seem to be at odds with any notion of our ability to make the precise calculations that his system calls for. Bentham’s “calculations” respecting proportionality are on display in chapter 14 of The Principles of Morals and Legislation. These calculations would seem to place an absurd demand on the ability of human beings to determine quantities of pleasure and pain arising out of crimes and punishments. For example, conceding that the sensibilities to punishment of two people who commit the same offense differ, he argues that it should be the case, respecting punitive pain, “That the quantity actually indicted on each individual offender may correspond to the quantity intended for similar offenders in general, the several circumstances influencing [individual] sensibility ought always to be taken into account” (XIV:22). This goes beyond the ability of the social sciences to make such determinations and, because that is so, renders his argument respecting capital punishment suspect.  

Bentham detailed his reasons for opposing capital punishment in a pamphlet addressed to the citizens of France that was published in 1831. Speaking of the arguments advanced by Bentham in this pamphlet, Draper notes that they reflected Bentham’s earlier conclusions on the theory of penology, and, of the contents of the pamphlet, Draper states, “Bentham denounced capital punishment for possessing the detrimental qualities of inefficiency, irremissibility, positive maleficence [i.e. tending to produce crimes], and for the enhancement of evils produced by ill-applied pardons” (Section 3.5). Bentham viewed the pains of capital punishment itself, and the pains arising out of the threat of capital punishment, as being of such a quantity as to make them excessive and thus not tending to produce the utilitarian requirement that social policy be more productive of pleasures that of pains. But of the three reasons cited above, only irremissibility is not subject to argument; and the other two, inefficiency and positive maleficence, are things very much subject to debate even at this time when the statistical tools available to social scientists are vastly more sophisticated than were those that were available in Bentham’s time. It is quite possible that, given the complexity of human behavior, statistically valid determinations of quantities of pleasures and pains such as Bentham dreamed of, will never be possible.

It should also be remembered that as an “act-utilitarian” Bentham demanded that the consequences of each and every act be considered separately (“Ethics—i] Types of Utilitarianism”. para 1). Had he been prone to, as rule utilitarians are, consider the consequences of kinds of actions, his system would have been more “real world” workable, but as it stands, his penal theories involve a degree of complexity that would make them unworkable under any conceivable body of law.

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