Jeremy Bentham was a jurist and philosopher born in 1748 in London. Many historians describe him as a child prodigy. This is after accounts surfaced that his father found him reading a multi-volume history of England when he was just a toddler. He even began to study Latin when he was just three years old. His father, confident that his son would one day become the Lord Chancellor of England, sent him to Queen’s College Oxford when he was barely 12 years old.
However, Bentham became disillusioned with studying the law especially after listening to the lecturers of William Blackstone, the then authority on all matters relating to law. Instead, Bentham focused his efforts on writing about the law and all the mistakes he saw in the law of the land at the time. He also gave suggestions on how some facets of the law could be improved.
His greatest contribution to the society came in the form of utilitarianism and the principle of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ He was the first individual to provide authoritatively a utilitarian justification for democracy. He campaigned for social and political reforms in all spheres of life based on the doctrine of utilitarianism. He documented and promoted these reforms through his book ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’.
In this work, he developed the tenet of utility, which advocates for the carrying out of actions that have the overall tendency to promote the largest amount of happiness for all those who are affected by the action including the doer of the action. To put it more clearly, Bentham wanted people to evaluate their actions based on the consequences of such actions. Based on this theory of generating the greatest happiness, happiness is described as the absence of pain and the presence of pleasure. He also had a hedonistic view of values and motivation of which he believed that those things that are fundamentally valuable and what ultimately motivates human beings was pleasure and pain. That is why he concluded that happiness was the absence of pain.
In addition, any action that conforms to this view of utility can be said to be right or it cannot be said that the action is wrong. It is important to note that Bentham does not apply the word ‘duty’ to his theory. This is because he believed that the word carried some legal connotations. A moral duty would require a moral legislator presumably a spiritual being or deity. He, however, did not want to enter into theological discussions in his work. He also condemned the common notion of natural rights citing that it led to unnecessary bloodshed and violence as seen in the French Revolution. He believed that constantly applying his moral theory of utilitarianism would be productive by providing justification for a number of legal, political, and social institutions that would be created.
He also noted that there were several advantages to his moral philosophy. The principle of utility is clear especially when compared to the moral principles that were being used at the time. It also allows for focused, objective, and dis-interested (non-partisan) public discussion. This enables the right decisions to be carried out in the face of conflicts arising from legitimate interests. This hedonistic moral approach is also committed to human equality in every circumstance.
He also advocated for the decriminalization of homosexual activities as well as advocating for universal suffrage. His influence was minimal during his lifetime. However, his followers such as the influential John Stuart Mill and Austin John among other consequentialists propagated his ideas globally. His writings are still authoritative when it comes to academic debates especially in relation to welfare economics, social policy, and legal positivism.