Jeremy Bentham was a British philosopher, social reformer, jurist, and human rights activist. Born on February 15, 1748, Bentham emerged as the founder of modern utilitarianism. He was a radical philosopher of law and politics, and gave ideas which were way ahead of his times.
Bentham’s theories laid the foundation of welfarism. He is one of the most important theorists in Anglo-American philosophy of law. Being a true humanitarian, he stood for the right of economic liberty, individual freedom, abolition of slavery, equality of women, freedom of expression, sexual liberty for homosexuals, and even animal rights. He also advocated the abolishment of physical punishment for children.
Bentham struggled in his life to give shape to his dream of creating an entirely utilitarian law code. He based the underlying principle of his ideal code of law on the philosophy of happiness; anything which creates greater happiness will decide between right and wrong.
This principle of greatest happiness forms the cornerstone of Bentham’s entire philosophy. By happiness he meant giving supremacy to pleasure over pain.
To test the amount of happiness, he classified between twelve kinds of pains and fourteen types of pleasures. This hedonistic theory of Bentham’s is often criticized for the utter disregard and ignorance towards the principle of justice and fairness.
His book, An Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislations presents his theories focusing on the principle of utility. According to Bentham, good is anything which causes least pain and greatest pleasure, and evil is what is most painful and least pleasurable. By these two feelings, he does not only mean physical but as well as spiritual kinds of pains and pleasures.
He also devised a criterion for the measurement of pains and pleasures; the criteria involved duration, intensity, proximity and certainty of the feeling among other factors.
Bentham advised the legislators not to create laws so unnecessarily strict that they may create more evil in society. The punishment for a crime should not be such that it may lead to more dangerous crimes and offenses, and thus to greater pain than pleasure in the society as a whole.
Bentham also gave economic principles leading to individual freedom. His work is considered to be one of the first attempts at a modern welfare economic system.
For Bentham, women rights were of utmost importance. In fact, he said that he chose to be a reformer only because of the grave indiscrimination against women he saw around him. He propagated complete equality between the two genders.
Bentham did not only stood for human rights, but he also took a stand for cruelty against animals. For him, presence of an intellect is not the criteria for fulfilling rights. Rather, the ability to suffer should be the benchmark when differentiating between acceptable and unacceptable treatment of a living being.
As a jurist, Bentham was the first person to have used the term ‘codify’. He strived for the codification of the common law in a proper, written set of statutes. He was the first advocate of codification of law in the United States and England.
Even though he wrote extensively on a myriad of topics in his lifetime, Bentham did not bring them to completion or before the public, except on rare occasions. His posthumous collection of writings reached to an estimated 30 million words, most of which is held by the UCL’s Special Collections.
Jeremy Bentham passed away on June 6, 1832. The world remembers him as an advocate of rights for all living beings, and the upholder of law and morality in grave times.