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Jeremy Bentham: the greatest social philosopher


Bentham deserves a place among the great enlightened prophets, Plato (in his The Republic) and Marx; all of whom placed the purpose of government is to promote the well-being (public weal).  Bentham’s writings gave voice and direction to this concern of the 18th century enlightenment movement from which 19th and 20th century attempts were made to establish populists governments based on the public weal.  He argued that the purpose of government was to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  Such thoughts do not sit well with the corporate-globalizing elite and their media. 

Because Bentham and utilitarianism are a foundation for reform, for moral behavior, and social justice, it is in direct conflict with the capitalist system based upon profits maximization.  Thus a major piece in the enlightenment that moved the US founding fathers has been marginalized by our corporatist state.  Bentham’s ideas and influence are essential for an understanding of the intellectual foundation of the Enlightenment Age and it progression into the subsequent Modern Age.   



Bentham as a condition of his will, had his body dissected, his head shrunken, and he had a likeness made of him in wax affixed to his skeleton and dressed with a suit of his clothes.  This “auto icon” and his shrunken head were placed in a cabinet (below) which was stored in the Regent's room of University College London.  During the regent meetings the cabinet, overlooking the board table, was opened so that his presence would be felt--a practice that is still observed.

As he sits today at University College London

English utilitarian philosopher and social reformer; considered the father of utilitarianism because of his contribution thereto. He first attained attention as a critic of the leading British legal theorist in eighteenth century Sir William Blackstone. His ideas formed the foundation for the Napoleonic code, a structure for the legal systems around the world, but for the Britain and her colonies.  Besides criminal law, Bentham campaigned for social and political reforms.    He formulated the principle of utility, which approves of an action in so far as an action has an overall tendency to promote the greatest amount of happiness. Happiness is identified with pleasure and the absence of pain.  Intellectual pleasures and inner tranquility are types of pleasure.  Bentham at first believed that enlightened and public-spirited statesmen would overcome conservative stupidity and institute progressive reforms to promote public happiness. When disillusionment set in, he developed greater sympathy for democratic reform and an extension of the franchise. He believed that with the gradual improvement in the level of education in society, people would be more likely to decide and vote on the basis of rational calculation of what would be for their own long-term benefit, and individual rational decision-making would therefore, in aggregate, increasingly tend to promote the greater general happiness.   His works left a singular mark upon the development of enlighten government--his influence being greater on the continent than in England.     


Bentham's Paradox   ---     9/6/15

Paradoxes take many forms, are the realm of the academic philosopher, and are without intrinsic value. They can entertain, and they are used for show, but their solution doesn’t change the fact that Achilles won the race against the turtle.

Stephen Jay Gould in the August 92 issue of Natural History uses the (Francis) Bacon Paradox: “The old age of the world . . . is the attribute of our own times, not of that earlier age in which the ancient lived; and which, though in respect of us it was the elder, yet in respect of the world it was the younger.”  It is another example of the twaddle of scholars:  namely that the dating of the age of the earth as ancient is recent, while the world in ancient times was thought to be younger.  The meaning is inferred from the usage of “ancient” and “younger”.

Gould’s next point unintentionally results in an amusing paradox. On page 12 Professor Gould writes, Jeremy Bentham left this aphorism among his unfinished papers (published posthumously in 1824): "What is the wisdom of the times called old? Is it the wisdom of gray hairs? No.--It is the wisdom of the cradle." Thus according to Gould, Bentham lived to read his posthumously, published collected works--Bentham died 8 years later, June 6, 1832.

Perhaps Bentham faked his death. But this would be most unlikely. First, his body was dissected in the presence of his friends. Second, his head was shrunken according to the fashion of South Americans. Third, a wax replica of his “unshrunken” head was placed appropriately upon his skeleton; both were dressed in period attire, including hat, gloves and cane. So dressed, he remains seated in a cabinet facing the head of the long regent’s table in the Regents Meeting Room of University College, London. Oh, and his shrunken head sits at his feet. And as a conditions of his bequest, at each regents meeting--even to this day--the cabinet is opened. Bentham wanted the presence of his utilitarian ideal felt. Being a prominent figure, there can be no doubt about the time of death.

Upon considering Gould’s error in dating the death of Bentham, we come to the most interesting of all the paradoxes. Bentham was not in the least given to odd behavior. The conditions of his will stand paradoxically to the acts if his long life. Bentham lived the utilitarian principle. He lived preached that AN ACT IS MORALLY RIGHT IF IT PRODUCES THE GREATEST BALANCE OF PLEASURE (HAPPINESS) OVER PAIN--and each person counts as one. This principle of utilitarianism expressed his singular commitment to the public’s wellbeing. He was a respected public figure life not given to being offensive. Yet in death he violated Victorian sensibilities: bodies endured a church service followed by internment in holy ground--and dissection was a crime. This review of Bentham’s life and teachings reveals how exceptional the cabinet is.

To understand what led to Bentham’s seemingly paradoxical end, one must understand his philosophy, his actions, and also his times. Bentham, the son of a successful attorney, was born in London on February 15, 1748. By the age of 3 he read such works as Rapin’s History and Commerce, and he was studying Latin. At 5 he was playing Handel and Corelli on the violin. And at the age of 13 he matriculated to Queens college, Oxford. At the age of 16 (1763), he took his Bachelors degree in law and in November of that year attended the Court of Kings Bench. Though his father steered him towards law, it was the world of ideas that dominated his interest. Fortunately his father was not adamant: Bentham never practiced law. Fortunately for the world his legal reforms were adopted around the world but for England and her colonies.  For 40 years (1790s to 1832) Bentham was the most influential liberal, a force in Europe for enlightened social, penal, and political changes.   


His philosophy and significance is best perceived against the backdrop of his predecessors. There were always notable predecessors.  Epicurus (341-270 BC) moral system consisted of enlightened pursuit of pleasure. The stoics and most other Greek philosophical schools also stressed happiness and the good life, but with different points of emphasis.  Among the educated, Epicureanism and Stoicism were the two principle schools of belief for over 600 years. It took 2,000 years for Epicurus’ premises on pain, pleasure, and the good life to be expanded into an all-encompassing theory, utility. Contributors include Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who employed this behavioral premise into an ethical theory of enlightened self-interest. John Locke (1632-1704) held that pleasure and pain are the greatest teachers of morality. In 1725 by Francis Hutcheson made the next major contribution when he proposed as a guide for government: THE GREATEST HAPPINESS FOR THE GREATEST NUMBER. David Hume, a skeptic and giant of modern philosophy in his Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals, 1751 and his close friend the famed laisser faire economist Adam Smith in Theory of Moral Sentiment, 1759, both expressed opinions similar to Hutchenson. The principle of utility was formulated before Bentham. Of influences, Bentham acknowledged three of singular importance. Bentham first found the principle of utility in Joseph Priestly’s (1733-1804), the discoverer of oxygen) Essay on Government.  From the French philosopher Helvetius he obtained enlightened egoism (self-interest). And in Hume’s Essays and Treatises, 1753, he [Bentham] had come upon the first mention of the principle of utility, though he felt that the idea attached to it was a vague one... (Jeremy Bentham, Charles Everett, Dell, 1966, p.19). Of the three, it was Priestley whom Bentham acknowledged as turning his life around.

Bentham, nevertheless, has been accepted as the father of the principle of utility because: (a) his works far eclipsed others in popularizing the principle of utility; (b) he expanded the principle from a yardstick for social reform and government performance into also a principle of personal conduct; (c) he became the most influential radical of his day in England; and (d) he correspond with--and thus influenced--many of the world leaders. Bentham took utility from being just a moral theory and made it into a force that shaped legislation around the world.

Bentham’s life was like that of a missionary, only his audience was of world leaders. Catherine the Great of Russia was well acquainted with his ideas, and his younger brother Samuel was welcomed at her court in 1779. Later Samuel was in the employment of Prince Potemkin. Catherine’s acceptance of utilitarianism went beyond her numerous affairs. In her Instructions, Article VI #3536: “. . . which an act ought be forbidden: where the tendency of it is pernicious to such and such individuals in particular, and where it is pernicious to the community in general. The only proper end and object of the law is the greatest possible happiness of those who live under its protection. It cannot be another.”  In England he was intimate with Lord Holland, Lord Shelburne, and William Pitt. He corresponded with Mahomet Au, ruler of Egypt, Talleyrand, and many other leaders in politics. Probably he was the only human being ever to be on terms of intimacy with both Aaron Burr and John Quincy Adams. “Burr, while exile in 1808, lived as Bentham’s guest for some months...” (Everett, p. 8). Both Presidents Jefferson and Madison corresponded with him. John Quincy Adams during a visit to England personally delivered a letter from President Madison. In 1792 Bentham was made a citizen of France. Napoleon adopted his system judicial principles, now known as the Napoleonic code, a model for most other legal systems.  Among philosopher’s only Aristotle had more influence.  


Most of his efforts to influence people were of the more durable and wider ranging form, the written word. His first book, A Fragment on Government (1776), was well received. The second book, An Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation written in 1781, published in 1789 was translated into Russian and French, and from the French into Spanish, Polish, Italian, Hungarian, Portuguese, and German. Bentham observed that the dissemination through books of utilitarianism and reforms derived therefrom was the most effective way for him to promote the publics weal. Thus he wrote on many subjects (ethics, economics, law, structure of government, purpose of government, penal system, social customs, and psychology). All of his major works were translated into French by his friend Etienne Dumont, where they received a much wider circulation. To further spread enlightenment he organized like-minded people into a loose association, and then in 1823 he established the Westminster Review as a forum for philosophic radicalism. There was extensive correspondence with many of the notable figures of politics in both Europe and the New World. His collected works published posthumously amounted to 11 volumes, double column, small-type, about 600,000 words in each volume. His life task was the public weal, his principle tool the written word.

Bentham was a man full of good ideas. He designed a modern prison (panopticon) which Parliament though committed to construct, didn’t.  After his death many prisons, such as Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, and the Penonville Prison, London 1842, used this design.  Italy built Santo Stefano in 1795—closed 1965.  Three panopticons were built in the Netherlands.  100 years later, the state of Illinois in 1927 used his design to build the Penitentiary at Joliet. And in Russia, St. Petersburg, the Panopticon School of Arts was built in 1809.   Bentham propounded a scheme for cutting canals through the Isthmus of Suez and the Isthmus of Panama. In 1797-98 he studied the poor-law question and put forward suggestions not dissimilar from those actually adopted in 1834. In 1809, after having given up his Tory leanings, he wrote A Catechism of Parliamentary Reform. In it he advocated annual elections, equal districts, wide suffrage, and the secret ballot. He was in the forefront of the fight for universal suffrage, improvement of the status of women, abolition of trade restrictions, the development of international law, and the establishment of a world court. He vehemently attacked criminal laws. In England the death penalty was proscribed for over 200 different types of offenses, including the theft of an object worth two pence committed by a child under ten by breaking into a house, so too was homosexuality. Things were so foul that Edward Gibbon noted that conditions were better under the reign of Marcus Aralias than in England. 


His training in law helped him understand the corruption thereof and made him the leading voice for its fundamental reform. On English system and its most illustrious proponent he said: “[Blackstone] taught Jurisprudence to speak the language of the Scholars and Gentleman [he] has decked her out to advantage, from the toilette of classic erudition; enlivened her with metaphors and allusions; and sent her abroad in some measure to instruct, and in still greater measure to entertain, the most miscellaneous and even the most fastidious societies.” (Interest of Governed, I, 236). To clarify the laws, he fought for its codification of law (the British system relies upon the combination of statues and case precedent). His model was adopted in Napoleonic France. The French model was relied upon around the world, including Egypt, Japan, Germany, and czarist Russia but not England. The Napoleonic Code has become the model used today by most countries. It stands a testimony to his influence.  {With politicians appoint justices, the legal system is just another branch of government.  What is true in the US is true everywhere.}


Because of the utilitarian doctrine which measures rightness by happiness and the lack thereof, he found the world both immoral and unpalatable:  a world that filled him with a passion for reform. Consider, for example, the prison system; it was equaled to those found in today’s impoverished nations.  Like cruelty, corruption was a way of life.  The Inspector General of the Navy (Jeremy’s brother Samuel) could not even do away with chips. Chips, boards under 3 feet, were not used in ship building. Workers were indifferent to the Napoleonic War. In Portsmouth, stairs were just under three feet wide; doors, shutters, and cupboards were formed of chips; all solidly built of good oak, oak that should have been used for the naval war. The moral ills of England went from the shipwright to the stodgy Admiralty. President Madison of the United States owes thanks to Lord Spencer for the satisfactory outcome of the War of 1812. In a demonstration in 1804 of sloop-of-war, the Dart, armed with 24-32 pounders, the dart sailed past the entire home fleet which was under full sail in the channel. American frigates would have had a difficult time in 1812 had a dozen more Darts been constructed. So rather than endure repeated embarrassments such as the demonstration of the Dart, Samuel was given a pension of 1250 pounds per annum on the grounds of ill health and distinguished service. But it was really the Admiralty that was suffering from ill health after ten years of Samuel Bentham as Inspector-General.

Between the building of the modern prison and the experiences of his brother, Jeremy became convinced that practical reform was hopeless. He saw Britain as having only two parties, who alternated in their control of the country. These he called the Oppressionists and the Depredationists. “The Oppressionists hate the mass of people so much that they will oppose any measure if it would improve the position of the poor, even ones that would put money into their own pockets. The other party, the Depredationists, was more liberal. To be sure, they are mainly concerned with measures that will bring them money, but they will allow the conditions of the poor to be improved if they themselves profit sufficiently from the measure.” Bentham knew government and thus statements such as this were published posthumously (Everett, p. 81)—as was his defense of homosexuality.

Bentham saw the prison system, the legal system, social traditions, and the Church of England as institutions rooted in superstition. He spoke and wrote against orthodox religion because it often conflicted with enlightened self-interest and because in Parliament members of the clergy always voted with the Oppressionists. Like Galileo’s science conflict with revealed truths, Bentham’s application of utilitarianism conflicted with many of the social positions taken by the church.  England was a maelstrom with its vortex in the Anglican Church. It was a puritan world with doctrines subjugating woman, encouraging prejudices, opposing natural philosophy, creating fears, and suppressing pleasures. Voltaire, a Deist, described the world of religion “as a walk through a lunatic asylum”. And as for pleasures, Macaulay, in his noted History of England, observed: “The Puritans hated bear bating not because it gave pain to the bears, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”  England of the 18th century was quite sick.

Bentham knew that teaching people to think was one of the best ways to oppose the existing order. Just as he lent to government nearly his entire inheritance on a prison-reform experiment, nearly his entire estate was given with certain provisos to University College, London. One, that the school be the first in England to drop the required courses in religion. Those who thought like Shelly, Voltaire, Dideriot, and Hume found themselves barred from teaching, for universities were under the thumb of the clergy. Bentham thus opened wider the doors at University College, London.

There could hardly be an epitaph more appropriate to Bentham than the quip of his old friend Talleyrand, who visited him shortly before his death. Bowring, Bentham’s secretary, had remarked that from no modern writer had so much been stolen without acknowledgement. Talleyrand assented, adding, et pille par tout le monde, il est tourjours riche, (Professor Holland, Cambridge Law Journal, No. 1, 1948). Death came peacefully to Bentham the day before the great Reform Bill of 1832 received Royal Assent.  


His work was carried forward by his godson John Stuart Mill and later by Mills godson Bertrand Russell--both utilitarians. Utilitarianism is still among philosophers a widely debated school of ethics, and among the common man the principle, as Bentham suggested, is tacitly accepted. “To trace the results of his teaching in England alone would be to write a history of the legislation of half a century. Upon the whole administrative machinery of government, upon criminal law and upon procedure, both criminal and civil, his influence has been most salutary; and the great legal revolution which in 1873 purported to accomplish the fusion of law and equity [justice] is clearly traceable to Bentham”  (Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 2, 1957, p. 418). His thoughts have moved not just Parliament but also the world.

Among his thoughts was disapprobation towards the Church of England.  Even in rest he mocked its authority.  Because of its doctrine of the resurrection of the body, England forbids dissection.  Bentham was dissected and his oft organs placed in a jar.  Medical schools experienced a serious shortage of cadavers that were in part satisfied by grave robbers.  By having his bones dressed up and displayed, he was not buried in sacred grounds. But more important than scoffing at religious tradition was the promotion of utilitarianism. University College London is England’s most liberal university.  Whatever ones opinion concerning the propriety of his final enthronement, his presence in the Regent’s Room reminds the world of utility--a church yard wouldn’t. The paradox between character and repose dissolves with an understanding of his times and his commitment to utility.


LINK to an excellent site on utilitarianism and its founders



The Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham


Probably UCL's most famous possession is the 'auto-icon' of Jeremy Bentham, which consists of his skeleton, padded with straw, clothed in his original clothes, with a wax head on its shoulders, placed in a glass-fronted case. Bentham requested that his body be preserved in this way in his will made shortly before his death on 6 June 1832. The cabinet was moved to UCL in 1850

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a philosopher, associated with the doctrine of utilitarianism and the principle of 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. Bentham is considered UCL's spiritual father: many of the university's founders held him in high esteem and, when UCL was founded in 1826, it embodied many of his ideas on education and society.

Bentham strongly believed that education should be made more widely available, and not only to those who were wealthy and members of the established church, as was the case at the traditional universities of Oxford and Cambridge. As the first English university to open its doors to all, regardless of race, creed or political belief, UCL went a long way to fulfilling Bentham's vision of what a university should be.

Not surprisingly, the unusual nature of the Auto-Icon has given rise to numerous legends and anecdotes. One of the most commonly recounted is that the Auto-Icon regularly attends meetings of the College Council, and that it is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room to take its place among the present-day members. Its presence, it is claimed, is always recorded in the minutes with the words Jeremy Bentham - present but not voting. Another version of the story asserts that the Auto-Icon does vote, but only on occasions when the votes of the other Council members are equally split. In these cases the Auto-Icon invariably votes for the motion.

Bentham had originally intended that his head should be part of the Auto-Icon, and for ten years before his death (so runs another story) carried around in his pocket the glass eyes which were to adorn it. Unfortunately when the time came to preserve it for posterity, the process went disastrously wrong, robbing the head of most of its facial expression, and leaving it decidedly unattractive. The wax head was therefore substituted, and for some years the real head, with its glass eyes, reposed on the floor of the Auto-Icon, between Bentham's legs.  (Older photos verify this—jk).   However, it proved an irresistible target for students, especially from King's College London, and it frequently went missing, turning up on one occasion in a luggage locker at Aberdeen station. The last straw (so runs yet another story) came when it was discovered in the front quadrangle being used for football practice. Thereafter it was removed to the College vaults, where it remains to this day.

Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon can be seen 07:30-18:00 Monday to Friday in UCL's South Cloisters

Further information about the Auto-Icon can be obtained from:

Dr Nick Merriman , Curator of College Collections. Tel (0)20 7679 7536


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The skeptic is one who judges all things according to the evidence.  The common herd affirms many things to a degree well beyond what the evidence supports; and conversely doubts that which is worthy of greater affirmation.  The humanistic skeptic applies a second measure, that of  harm resulting from such beliefs.  Issues of economics and politics, of religion, quackery and corporate medicine, and of imprudent behavior top the harm done list.   Education and scientific psychology are gateways to following the dictates of reason.