Monday, 19 March 2012 08:15

Jeremy Bentham: Men of Ideas

Written by 

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an English philosopher and jurist noted for his contribution to Utilitarian philosophy.

Utilitarian philosophy asks basic questions, such as: who are human beings and what motivates their behaviors? Human beings are those animals whose bodies dispose to seek pleasure and avoid pain. If you bring noxious stimuli towards the human body, such as fire (heat), pin (prick) the body automatically moves away from it. The body moves away from whatever causes it pain.  Apparently, the body has a built in mechanism (nervous system) that instinctively knows that pain leads to harm, which leads to death. Pain is correlated with harm and death.

To live, to survive as a physical organism human beings and other animals instinctively avoid pain and whatever brings them pain. Conversely, whatever gives the human body pleasure seems to conduce to its well being and survival. Food, for example, gives the body pleasurable sensation. When people eat they derive energy from food, energy that their bodies need to do work and extract the nutrition that their bodies need to survive on. People therefore approach food with gusto. Of course, if a particular type of food is poisonous people avoid it.

All said people seek pleasure and avoid pain. Human beings are those animals characterized by desire for pleasure and avoidance of pain. No one can quarrel with this proposition (except the most self hating, masochistic religious person who is bent on punishing himself for imaginary sins he committed before some imaginary gods, gods who require him to surfer before they forgive him his imaginary sins).

If pleasure and pain characterize human motivation it follows, Bentham and his fellow Utilitarians (such as James Mill and Mill’s son, John Stuart Mill) reason, that social and political policies ought to be evaluated with a simple criterion: do they conduce to pleasure (for the many) or do they produce pain (for the many)?

If a Bill is in Parliament one simple question is asked: what does it do for the people, give them opportunity to optimize pleasure or pain? This may seem like a foolish question but consider George Bush’s Preemptive strike at Iraq, what has it given American people? Pain.

The Utilitarian assumes that human beings are rational animals and seek those behaviors that maximize their pleasure and avoid those behaviors that increase their pain. Therefore, before policies are made on behalf of the people they must be asked and they evaluate them from the pain-pleasure criterion. Do not tell the people what is good for them; ask them what is good for them, for only they know what is good for them.

If people tell you what is good for them then enact it into public policy; if they tell you what is not good for them do not enact it into public policy.

You do not know what is good for the people and should not presume to know and do not pass laws on behalf of the people until you have asked them what they feel about it. What is more democratic than this simple approach to legislation?

These may seem silly questions but we must not forget that in the past, and still so in some places, governments presumed to know what is good for the people and passed legislations without asking the people. More importantly, under the influence of the Church governments have punished many behaviors that some people claim to be pleasurable for them, such as homosexuality.

As utilitarians see it, if a significant number of the people find homosexuality and other behaviors some people consider perverted pleasurable, never mind what some people think, those behaviors ought to be regarded as a legal and not punished. By the same token, if a significant number of women desire abortion then make abortion legal. There is no god out there telling us what is good or bad for us, as religionists tend to preach; what is good or bad is what the majority of the people say so.

Social conservatives say that abortion should be illegal yet they would not make public money available for the poor children that are produced by pregnant girls, for they are generally also opposed to the state helping the individual. The children of under aged girls may not receive the best education and end up in the criminal population. Clearly, there is no rationality in conservatives’ opposition to abortion. People engage in such irrational behaviors because they believe that they are pleasing their imaginary god, not because it serves any useful social function; in fact, they cause more problems than they solve.

Utilitarians like Bentham were opposed to slavery, for it caused pain to slaves and the last time we checked no slave enjoys pain; they were for abolition of physical punishment, abolition of corporal punishment for children (children do not relish pain so why inflict pain on them); they were in favor of divorce laws, abortion laws, equal rights for men and women, animal rights (animals do not enjoy pain) etc.

Bentham and his fellow Utilitarians were not just armchair philosophers, they were practical and sought election to Parliament to influence law making. They attempted to implement their philosophy into public policy via legislation. They were responsible for many of the reforms we now take for granted in the western world, such as the outlawing of flogging of children at schools and by parents etc.

The utilitarians simply wanted law makers to use the same criterion ordinary folk employed in making decisions in making public policy: pass into law only what gives the people pleasure (the greatest number of the people, any way, for that which gives many pleasure conceivably may give some pain).

Jeremy Bentham was a prolific writer and wrote on many subjects, including philosophy, jurisprudence, economics, animal rights, social welfare rights (he is an advocate of the welfare state).

Later in life he worked assiduously to reform the English penal system. At his time, the philosophy behind incarceration was punishment. Folks committed crimes and they were punished.

Should punishment be the only goal for putting criminals in jail? If all you do is punish criminals, how would they feel? They would probably feel angry at you. What do angry folk do? They get back at those they believe punished them. Criminals often get back at you if you put them in jail and you may not like the bullet they put in your head.

Therefore, in addition to punishment may be we could try resocialization of criminals’ behaviors. We know that criminals tend to come from broken homes where they experienced inadequate socialization. Could we use their prison time to correct their behaviors and teach them pro-social behaviors?

Instead of seeking sadistic pleasure from punishing folk could we be useful to them by teaching them how to love and respect their fellow human beings?

Bentham sought to change the focus of prisons, from punishment to schooling; he helped make our prisons reformatory that taught criminals socially appropriate behaviors and also useful employment skills that enabled them secure jobs when they got out of prisons. His influence on the penal system is still felt today.

Occasionally, some vengeance driven conservative says:  let us put criminals into jails and prisons and throw away the key. Okay. Unless you are willing to keep them there for the duration of their lives (and remember the cost of incarceration, $35, 000 a year per inmate, this breaks state budgets) you are the loser for doing so. If you do nothing to help teach criminals trades and means of earning a living when they come out they would simply return to criminal behavior and would affect your welfare. It is in our self interest therefore to help criminals, Bentham reasoned.

Bentham carried his spirit of reform to many areas of living, including schools, animal rights and so on. His impact on English jurisprudence is quite substantial.


P.J. Kelly. Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice: Jeremy Bentham and the Civil Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Read 4638 times
Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176