Jeremy Bentham
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Jeremy Bentham

Frederick Rosen, Frederick Rosen

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Jeremy Bentham

Frederick Rosen, Frederick Rosen

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Jeremy Bentham's (1748-1832) writings in social and political thought were both theoretical and practical. As a theorist, he made important contributions to the modern understanding of the principle of utility, to ideas of sovereignty, liberty and justice and to the importance of radical reform in a representative democracy. As a reformer, his ideas regarding constitutionalism, revolution, individual liberty and the extent of government have not only played an important role in eighteenth and nineteenth century debates but also, together with his theoretical work, remain relevant to similar debates today. This volume includes essays from leading Bentham scholars plus an introduction, surveying recent scholarship, by Frederick Rosen, formerly Director of the Bentham Project and Professor Emeritus of the History of Political Thought, University College London.

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Part I
The Utilitarian Tradition

‚ÄėUtility‚Äô and the ‚ÄėUtility Principle‚Äô: Hume, Smith, Bentham, Mill

University of Western Ontario

I. ‚ÄėUtility‚Äô and ‚ÄėUtilitarianism‚Äô: A Methodological Note

David Hume, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are often viewed as contributors to or participants in a common tradition of thought roughly characterized as ‚Äėthe liberal tradition‚Äô or the tradition of ‚Äėbourgeois ideology‚Äô. This view, however useful it may be for polemical or proselytizing purposes, is in some important respects historiographically unsound. This is not to deny the importance of asking what twentieth-century liberals or conservatives might find in the works of, say, David Hume to support their respective ideological persuasions. It is only to insist that attempts to use selected arguments, or parts of arguments, from great eighteenth-century thinkers to shore up twentieth-century programmatic political positions must be categorically distinguished from attempts to understand what Hume, Smith, Bentham or Mill actually meant, or could imaginably have meant, to say.
What Professor Quentin Skinner has rightly called ‚Äėmythologies‚Äô1 seem the unavoidable result when commentators insist on assessing the ‚Äėcompleteness‚Äô, ‚Äėadequacy‚Äô or ‚Äėsuccess‚Äô of the work of these four theorists in terms of their contributions to enterprises of which they can have had no conception even remotely similar to that employed by their twentieth-century interpreters. Neither Hume nor Smith, Bentham nor Mill was forging an ideology or attempting forcibly to sustain-as distinct from explicating-the hegemony of a given class in civil society. I wish, therefore, simply to set aside questions like ‚ÄėWas Hume the father of classical liberalism?‚Äô, or ‚ÄėWere Bentham and J. S. Mill possessive individualists?‚Äô.
Similarly, I do not propose to speak of Hume‚Äôs or Smith‚Äôs ‚Äėutilitarianism‚Äô. Neither of these thinkers used this term, which first appears in Bentham‚Äôs vocabulary in 1781. More importantly, I think it misleading to characterize the thought of either man as comprehensively ‚Äėutilitarian‚Äô, even in a negative or ‚Äėcontemplative‚Äô2 sense. What the relevant texts actually show us is that Hume and Smith used the term ‚Äėutility‚Äô, and also the phrase ‚Äėprinciple of utility‚Äô or reasonable facsimiles thereof, in a specifiable range of contexts and ways. These usages can, I think, be very usefully compared to the practices of Bentham and J. S. Mill, and in the present paper I shall try to make at least a few such comparisons.
Even in the cases of Bentham and Mill, I propose to focus on what they had to say about ‚Äėutility‚Äô and the ‚Äėutility principle‚Äô, rather than couching my analysis in terms of their respective versions, so to speak, of utilitarianism. It seems to me that major methodological problems begin to materialize as soon as we speak of ‚Äėversions‚Äô of utilitarianism: was Bentham an act or rule utilitarian? Did he ‚Äėsucceed‚Äô in anticipating in any way the preference-based utilitarianism of modern economists or the ideal utilitarianism of modern philosophers? To pose such questions is to ask, not what Bentham said or meant, but to what degree his words happen to harmonize with the insights, aspirations or predispositions of a wide variety of subsequent theorists. Hume, Smith, Bentham and Mill do not provide us with four ‚Äėversions‚Äô of utilitarianism. Each does, however, carefully characterize ‚Äėutility‚Äô and discuss the nature and operations of a ‚Äėprinciple of utility‚Äô within the broad context of a science of human nature and society. I shall argue that the distinctive treatment of the meaning of ‚Äėutility‚Äô and of the idea of a ‚Äėprinciple of utility‚Äô provided by each of these four theorists is strongly shaped by, and indeed presupposes, a particular conception of the methodology, scope and goals of that science.

II. From Scottish Moral Philosophy to ‚ÄėBenthamism‚Äô

In Adam Smith’s politics Donald Winch issued a salutary call for attention to the contrasts which an attentive textual analysis reveals between the moral, political and methodological theories of Hume and Smith on the one hand, and of the English utilitarians on the other:
… any history of the social sciences which fails to confront the discontinuity marked by the transition from Scottish moral philosophy and its associated histories of civil society on the one side, to Benthamism on the other, would be guilty of sidestepping one of the most intriguing problems in that history.3
Winch especially emphasizes the claim that Smith‚Äôs moral and political thought was not as radically ‚Äėindividualist‚Äô as that of Bentham or the two Mills:
… Smith’s values were … both post- and pre-individualist in the sense defined, say, by Hobbes on the one side, and redefined by Bentham and James Mill on the other. When the most is made of Smith’s negative and contemplative utilitarianism, and when his concept of self-interest is reduced to its narrowest form, it is still not possible to bridge the gap between his politics and the radical individualism of nineteenth-century utilitarianism: his science of the legislator is not the Benthamite science of legislation.4
I agree wholeheartedly with Winch‚Äôs suggestion that the discontinuities between the moral and political theories of the Scottish Enlightenment and those of the English Utilita1;ians are in need of clarification and emphasis. I am not sure that this cause is well served, however, by Winch‚Äôs concentration on the putative contrast between Smith‚Äôs civic humanist conception of the citizen/subject and the ‚Äėradical individualism of nineteenth-century utilitarianism‚Äô. An examination of the use of the idea of ‚Äėpublic utility‚Äô or the ‚Äėcommon interest‚Äô in Hume, Smith, Bentham and Mill reveals more continuity than this polarized view seems to postulate. Moreover, ‚Äėindividualism‚Äô seems to me a term dangerously prone to anachronistic-and/or partisan-misuse. The fecundity, as Bentham might say, of Winch‚Äôs line of historiographic inquiry might be better sustained if we pursued our ‚Äėhistory of the social sciences‚Äô by examining the features of, say, jurisprudence, political economy and moral philosophy as understood in each author in relation to the over-arching conception of a science of human nature and society. A comparison of Smith‚Äôs ‚Äėscience of the legislator‚Äô with ‚Äėthe Benthamite science of legislation‚Äô, for example, would be immensely valuable. It is well known that Bentham literally had no use for such central figures in the tradition of Natural Jurisprudence as Grotius, Pufendorf, Barbeyrac, Burlamaqui and Vattel. The antagonism between Scottish natural jurisprudence and Bentham‚Äôs ‚Äėcensorial jurisprudence‚Äô is only one of many possible illustrations of Winch‚Äôs claim that ‚Äėthe gulf between Smith‚Äôs intellectual enterprise and those that are often regarded as his successors runs deeper than has been suspected‚Äô.5 In the field of political economy, despite his public stance of discipleship and indebtedness to the work of Smith, Bentham developed a conception of the ‚Äėart and science‚Äô of political economy as a ‚Äėbranch of the art of government‚Äô6 which was much more interventionist7 than anything entailed by the ‚Äėcontemplative utilitarianism‚Äô8 of Smith. I can do little more here than to recognize what I take to be the great potential value of such lines of inquiry, and to invite any who have not yet had the pleasure of doing so to read the recent works on these topics of Knuud Haakonssen, Gerald Postema and others.9 Jurisprudence and Political Economy, from the perspective of the present discussion, are of interest as fields in which a given author‚Äôs concepts of ‚Äėutility‚Äô and the ‚Äėutility principle‚Äô may be applied. The field of moral philosophy requires more detailed study here, for this will help us to see how those concepts are shaped.
Evidence of Bentham‚Äôs attitude toward Scottish moral philosophy (which he took to be the source of what was distinctive in the Scottish version of Natural Jurisprudence), is provided by some of the marginal observations he added to his ‚ÄėTable of the Springs of Action‚Äô just prior to the printing of the ‚ÄėTable‚Äô in 1815. There he named ‚ÄėA. Smith‚Äô as a teacher of the principle of ‚Äėipse-dixitism‚Äô, and thus a practitioner of the art of ‚Äėsubstituting smoke to light‚Äô.10 He spoke of an ipse-dixitist ‚Äėphilosophy‚Äô as one
… Setting up SENSE or feeling, real or pretended, as a sufficient reason for obligation to act in opposition to utilitarianism: discarding calculation, disregarding consequences in respect of pleasure and pain.11
The ascendancy of Scottish moral philosophy in the eighteenth century had, he charged, been won largely by default. Scottish moral sense theory moved into the vacuum left by the substitution of unquestioning religious orthodoxy for ethical thinking at Oxford and Cambridge:
In English universities, religion kept Ethics out of the schools and drove her to Scotland. The Scotch Universities received those who looked for instruction. The English and Irish, those who looked for patronage. Subscriptions, not exacted in Scotland.12
Bentham seems to have seen this Scottish monopoly on ethical theorizing as conducive to a lax and subjective approach to the task:
When everything is done by feeling and talking about feeling, the task of a teacher is not difficult … Hume, Reid, Smith, etc. vied in cultivating it. No wonder[-] it fitted everyone and proved all DESIDERATA without skill or practice.
… In morals, instruction could be delivered without thought, so as to please every man.13
The teaching of moral theory in Scotland failed, in Bentham‚Äôs eyes, to exhibit the methodological features of ‚Äėadvanced sciences‚Äô such as ‚ÄėCosmography‚Äô, chemistry, ‚ÄėElectricity or Galvanism‚Äô, ‚ÄėNatural History‚Äô or even ‚ÄėDomestic Economy‚Äô.14 Speaking of the scientific study of motives, as exemplified in his ‚ÄėTable of the Springs of Action‚Äô, he claimed that ‚ÄėOf this as of other sciences, a man‚Äôs view is the more correct and complete the fewer the leading terms under which he has been able to reduce it.‚Äô15 Instead of progressing toward this methodological goal, the Scottish Enlightenment had moved in precisely the opposite direction:
Independent principles in multitudes imagined by a host of Scotch Sophists erroneously accounting for psychological phenomena already correctly accounted for by few principles: for each phenomenon a separate innate principle.16
More than 25 years before the printing of the ‚ÄėTable of the Springs of Action‚Äô, in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation,17 Bentham had already identified the methodological master principle responsible for the proliferation of operative principles in Scottish moral theory. Among anti-utilitarian principles, he wrote, this principle was the one ‚Äėwhich at this day seems to have the most influence in matters of government ‚Ķ the principle of sympathy and antipathy‚Äô.18 Bentham‚Äôs use of ‚Äėsympathy‚Äô here is profoundly different from the crucial use made of that term by both Hume and Smith in their moral and social theories. ‚ÄėSympathy‚Äô had been indispensable to Hume‚Äôs and Smith‚Äôs explanations of duty and obligation, and of that combination of self-interest and limited generosity upon which realistic moral and political theorists must rest their expectations of humankind. Sympathy, as something distinct from the perception of utility, made propriety and benevolence possible in civil society as well as ensuring a continuing commitment by citizens to the observance of the rules of justice. Sympathy-the modern equivalent would be ‚Äėempathy‚Äô with our fellow citizens-was for both Hume and Smith an integral part of the conception of self-interest. Given this assumption, the intelligently self-interested citizen could be expected to exhibit an adequate understanding of public utility. In Bentham, however, the phrase ‚Äėsympathy and antipathy‚Äô implied the very opposite of social ‚Äėempathy‚Äô. Bentham strove to attach to it connotations of self-centred sentimentalism and selfish partisanship. ‚ÄėSympathy‚Äô and ‚ÄėAntipathy‚Äô thus amounted to little more than Hobbesian desire and aversion, with the activity of the individual‚Äôs will resembling Hobbes‚Äôs process of ‚Äėdeliberation‚Äô.19 In 178920 Bentham considered trying to capture the arbitrariness and subjectivity of the principle of sympathy and antipathy by christening it the ‚Äėprinciple of caprice‚Äô, or evoking its connection with the multiplication of unwanted ‚Äėfictions‚Äô by entitling it ‚Äėthe phantastic principle‚Äô. Whichever guise it assumes, he argued, this principle ‚Äė‚Ķ approves or disapproves of certain actions ‚Ķ merely because a man finds himself disposed to [do so]‚Äô;21 it is really ‚Äėa term employed to signify the negation of all principle‚Äô.22 To adopt and apply it ‚Äėyou need but to take counsel of your own feelings ‚Ķ‚Äô:
… if you hate much, punish much: if you hate, little punish little: punish as you hate. If you hate not at all, punish not at all: the fine feelings of the soul are not to be overborne and tyrannized by the harsh and rugged dictates of political utility?23
In 1815, Bentham summarized the contrast, as he saw it, between his own social and political thought and the perspective of Scottish ‚ÄėSentimentalists‚Äô:
Utilitarianism, working by calculation, is consistent and solicitous beneficence. Sentimentalism, in so far as independent of utilitarianism, is in effect a mask for selfish[ness?] or malignity, or both for despotism, intolerance, tyranny.24
Bentham hated Scottish ‚Äėsentimentalism‚Äô as scientists despise sophists. Its popularity depressed him. To postulate that anything other than utility could be the basis of morals and government, he wrote, was ‚Äėas absurd in psychology as to say in physics that to take aim diminishes the chance of hitting a mark‚Äô.25 Bentham‚Äôs hopes for a Helvetian/Newtonian moral science seem not to have been altogether quenched, but must have been weakened, by his diagnosis of the general social situation he faced:
In politics, religion and morals every man clings to the notions most accordant to his prepossessions and all turn a deaf ear to truth which might shackle their will while it enlightened their understanding. Each man wishes to do his will. Truth, if subservient to this, is acceptable; if obstructive, odious.26

III. The ‚ÄėContinental Alternative‚Äô

Clearly Jeremy Bentham perceived the moral thought of the Scottish Enlightenment, of the whole ‚Äėhost of Scotch sophists‚Äô,27 as...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Jeremy Bentham
APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2017). Jeremy Bentham (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
[author missing]. (2017) 2017. Jeremy Bentham. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
[author missing] (2017) Jeremy Bentham. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Jeremy Bentham. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.