It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong. ~ Jeremy Bentham
English philosopher, economist, and theoretical jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) developed utilitarianism, which considers morality a matter of utility: the measure of goodness being what does the greatest number well. Politically, the thrust of his approach was to try to ensure social stability through respect for individual rights and provide a modicum of economic security for all.
In his time, Bentham was a political radical. He advocated personal liberty, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, decriminalization of homosexuality, separation of church and state, and the abolitions of slavery, the death penalty, and physical punishment, including of children. Bentham was an early proponent of animal rights.
Though strongly in favor of individual freedom, Bentham considered natural law “nonsense upon stilts.” In a nod to practicality, property was neither natural nor inviolable.
Bentham also rejected the notion of social contract as chimera. The binding force of societal contract came from the government, not vice versa.
The notion of an actually existing unconnected state of nature is too wild to be seriously admitted. ~ Jeremy Bentham
Bentham sensed danger in social contract theory, and natural law, as justifying unwarranted governmental interference. For Bentham, the principle of utility provided the basis for all moral and political obligations.
A devout rationalist, Bentham was an atheist and denounced organized religion. His hatred of religion intensified as he aged.
Bentham’s ideas influenced the development of welfarism: a school of thought based on the premise that policies and acts should be evaluated on the basis of their consequences. Welfarism is a form of consequentialism, which holds that the consequences of conduct are the ultimate basis for judging their moral value. The nutshell of consequentialism is that the ends justify the means.
The basic premise of utilitarianism is that humans seek happiness, and that right action produces the most satisfaction for the greatest number. Utilitarianism dominated English political thought from the 1750s for a century.
Utilitarianism was recycling of Epicureanism, the philosophy of ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, which held that pleasure and pain are the metrics of good and evil. Epicurus held that the purpose of philosophy was to attain a tranquil life, with peace of mind and free of fear.
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of 2 sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. ~ Jeremy Bentham
Bentham contended that humans were by nature hedonists. He thought that government should be structured to maximize individual happiness. Liberty was secondary. The state was a contrivance for fulfilling the needs of citizens.
Bentham’s greatest contribution was in the field of legislation and jurisprudence. He opposed incomprehensibility in legal code. Laws should be able to be understood by an average individual.
The power of the lawyer is in the uncertainty of the law. ~ Jeremy Bentham
Bentham opposed judicial interpretation of the law, as it created inconsistent precedents. Instead, laws should be carefully drafted, and terms spelled out, giving little scope for judicial elaboration.
Bentham advocated litigation reform to reduce its expense and occurrence. He thought that disputes ought to be settled in the way a judicious father handles family disputes: by considering all the facts from anyone with information to contribute. Punishment should be in accordance with the consequence of the crime, namely, the number of people affected.
Bentham appreciated the laissez-faire economic theories of Adam Smith and went to the next level. In Defence of Usury (1787), Bentham argued that market forces alone should set interest rates.
Bentham was against colonialism, viewing it as bad for both colonizers and colonies. He advocated self-government on utilitarian principles. Bentham considered war as the chief cause of human suffering.
Bentham also opposed an interventionist foreign policy, arguing that international harmony among peoples was only possible if economic interdependence was recognized and accepted. While Smith mystically defended laissez-faire by appealing to the guiding hand of providence, Bentham justified the doctrine on utilitarian grounds.
When push came to shove, Bentham’s utilitarianism overrode his laissez-faire inclinations. He demanded a ceiling on grain prices during shortages, favored protection for small producers, and wanted government action to control inflation. Bentham insisted that government should provide subsistence for the indigent through public works projects, as a steppingstone to joining the working poor in the labor market.
Bentham had a Hobbesian sense about what human life would be without legal sanctions. Law ensured security for society and economy.
Experience taught Bentham to question the infallibility of his hypotheses. Practical obstacles as well as theoretical ones diluted his fervor. These included a lack of government statistics upon which to base policy, and the apathy and inertia of English bureaucracy. Ambiguity in what utility actually meant was a conceptual sticking point.
Bentham advanced several concepts central to the liberal agenda of the 19th and 20th centuries. These included free speech and an unfettered press, support for the rule of law, faith in democracy, universal suffrage, and freedom of trade and emigration.
Bentham retained Lockean liberty with due regard for property, but suggested gradual redistribution of wealth via inheritance tax, so that the poor had some economic security, while the rich did not feel threatened. In this, Bentham laid the foundation for the welfare state.