Jeremy Bentham was a political radical and philosopher from England. He is best recognised today for his moral philosophy, particularly his Utilitarianism Principle, which judges actions based on their effects. The important consequences are, in particular, the overall happiness offered by the action to everyone affected by it. Bentham produced an ethical theory based on a comprehensive empiricist explanation of human nature, influenced by numerous enlightenment theorists, particularly empiricists such as John Locke and David Hume. He famously held a hedonistic explanation of both motivation and value, according to which pleasure and pain are intrinsically worthwhile and ultimately motivate humans. According to Bentham, happiness is the experience of enjoyment and the absence of pain.
Although he never practised law, Bentham wrote extensively on legal philosophy, spending most of his life criticising existing law and actively promoting legal reform. Throughout his book, he criticises numerous natural explanations of law, such as those that assert, for example, that liberty, rights, and so on exist independently of government. In this approach, Bentham may have produced an early form of what is now commonly referred to as "legal positivism." Aside from such criticisms, he finally argued that putting his moral theory into consistent practice will result in legal theory by providing legitimacy for social, political, and legal institutions.
During his lifetime, Bentham had a limited impact.
However, his influence grew over time as his theories were carried on by disciples such as John Stuart Mill, John Austin, and other conclusion shows.
Jeremy Bentham, a key theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law and one of the founders of utilitarianism, was born on February 15, 1748 in Houndsditch, London. He was the son and grandson of lawyers, and his upbringing was influenced by a blend of superstition (on his mother's side) and Enlightenment rationalism (from his father). Bentham lived at a time of significant social, political, and economic change. Bentham's thoughts on existing institutions reflected the Industrial Revolution (with its immense economic and social transformations), the growth of the middle class, and revolutions in France and America. Bentham entered Queen's College, Oxford, in 1760, and after graduating in 1764, he studied law at Lincoln's Inn. He was qualified to practice law, but he never did. Instead, he spent the most of his life writing about legal reform—though, oddly, he made minimal effort to publish most of what he wrote.
2. Moral Philosophy
According to Elie Halévy (1904), the foundation of Bentham's moral and political philosophy is comprised of three major characteristics:
- the greatest pleasure principle,
- universal egoism, and
- the artificial association of one's interests with those of others.
Though these traits may be seen throughout his work, they are most noticeable in the Introduction to the Ideas of Morals and Legislation, where Bentham is concerned with defining reasonable principles that would serve as a foundation & guide for legal, social, and moral change.
To begin, Bentham's moral theory reflects what he refers to as "the greatest happiness principle" or "the principle of utility," terms he borrows from Hume.
When he articulated this concept, he was referring not just to the usefulness of objects or activities, but also to the extent to which these things or actions increase global happiness. What is morally essential is that which offers the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, with happiness defined as the presence of pleasure and the absence of suffering.
"By the utility principle is meant that principle which endorses or disagrees of every acts whatever, according to the willingness with which it would seem to have to amplify or undermine the happiness of the party whose attention is in question: or, in other words, to encourage or criticise that happiness," Bentham writes. As Bentham emphasises, this is true of "every activity whatsoever," and hence anything that does not enhance the highest happiness (such as pure ascetic sacrifice) is ethically wrong. (Unlike some past attempts to articulate a universal hedonism, Bentham's method is entirely naturalistic.)
3. Political Philosophy
Elie Halévy (1904) identified Bentham as the main figure of a group of intellectuals labelled "the philosophic radicals," of whom both Mill and Herbert Spencer are "spiritual children." While it would be too strong to claim that the philosophic radicals' ideas reflected a common political theory, it is correct to say that they agreed that many of the social problems of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century England were caused by an antiquated legal system and economic control by a hereditary landed aristocracy opposed to modern capitalist institutions. As stated in the prior section, Bentham believed that the principles that control morals also rule politics and law, and that political reform necessitates a thorough study of human nature. While he introduces a number of notions that are already present in Anglo-Saxon political philosophy, he departs from it in fundamental ways.
a. Law, Liberty, and Government
The concept of liberty in Bentham's account is what is now known as "negative" liberty—freedom from external restraint or force. According to Bentham, "[l]liberty is the absence of restraint," and hence one has liberty and is "free" to the extent that one is not impeded by others. Bentham rejects the notions of liberty being "natural" (being "before to" social life and hence placing constraints on the state) or of an a priori field of liberty in which the individual is sovereign.Indeed, Bentham believed that people have always lived in society, and hence there can be no state of nature (though he distinguishes between political society and "natural society") and no "social compact" (a notion which he held was not only unhistorical but pernicious). Nonetheless, he observes that there is a major contrast between one's public and private lives, which has ethically significant repercussions, and he believes that liberty is good—that, while it is not a fundamental value, it embodies the highest happiness principle.
In line with this notion of liberty, Bentham (like Thomas Hobbes before him) saw the law as "negative."
Given that pleasure and pain are crucial to – indeed, provide – Bentham's criterion of worth, liberty is a good (because it is "pleasant"), while restriction of liberty is wicked (because it is "painful"). Law, by definition a restriction of liberty and a source of misery for those whose freedom is curtailed, is a prima facie bad. Individual freedom exists only in as much as state control is restrained. Bentham realised that law is required for social order, and that excellent laws are definitely necessary for successful administration. Indeed, probably more than Locke, Bentham considered law and government as having a beneficial function to play, notably in attaining collective well-being. To the extent that the law develops and protects one's economic and personal goods, and that the purpose of government is self-governance, the law reflects the individual's interests.
Unlike many prior theorists, Bentham believed that law is not based on "natural law," but is merely a command expressing the sovereign's desire. (This legal account, later expanded by Austin, is typical of legal positivism.) As a result, a law that requires ethically dubious or immoral actions, or that is not based on agreement, is nonetheless the law.
Bentham's rights views are perhaps most known for his attacks of the concept of "natural rights," which appear throughout his work.These arguments are particularly explored in his Anarchical Fallacies (a polemical attack on the declarations of rights released in France during the French Revolution), which was composed between 1791 and 1795 but was not published in French until 1816. Bentham's comments in this section are based on his conception of the nature of law. The law creates rights, and law is just a demand from the sovereign. As a result, the existence of law and rights necessitates the existence of government. Rights are also frequently (though not always) correlative with legal duties and, as Hobbes stated, are either those that the law officially grants us or those that exist inside a legal system where the law is silent. The notion that there may be rights that are not founded on sovereign command and predate the foundation of government is denied.
The word "natural right," thus, is a "perversion of language," according to Bentham. It is "ambiguous," "sentimental," and "figurative," with anarchical ramifications. Such a "right" can only teach us what we should do; it cannot act as a legal constraint on what we can or cannot do.
According to Bentham, the word "natural right" is confusing since it implies that there are general rights—that is, rights over no specific object—so that one can claim whatever one wants. Exercising such a universal, natural "right" would have the effect of erasing the right entirely, because "what is every man's right is no man's right." No legal system could work with such a broad understanding of rights. As a result, there can be no general rights in the sense that the French declarations propose.
Furthermore, the concept of natural rights is symbolic. There are no rights prior to the establishment of government. According to Bentham, the premise of the existence of such rights appears to be derived from the notion of the social contract.
Individuals from society choose a government by alienating certain of their rights. However, such a philosophy is not only unhistorical, but it also does not serve as a useful fiction to explain the origins of political authority, according to Bentham. Governments emerge by habit or force, and for contracts (particularly, some original contract) to bind, a government must already be in place to enforce them.
Finally, the concept of natural rights is "anarchistic." Such a right, according to Bentham, entails freedom from all restraint, including all legal restraint.
Because a natural right would be prior to law, it could not be limited by law, and if everyone had such freedom (because humans are motivated by self-interest), the result would be absolute anarchy. To have a right in any meaningful sense implies that others cannot legitimately interfere with one's rights, which indicates that rights must be enforceable. As previously stated, such restrictions are within the purview of the law.
As a result, Bentham concludes that the concept of "natural rights" is "simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense,—nonsense on stilts." Rights, or what Bentham refers to as "actual" rights, are inherently legal rights. All legal and specific rights must exist (that is, having both a specific object and subject).
They should be made when they are beneficial to "the universal mass of felicity," and rights should be removed when their elimination will benefit society. Rights are safeguarded insofar as they exist in the law; outside of the law, they are merely "reasons for wishing there were such things as rights." While Bentham's works on natural rights are mostly polemical in nature, many of his criticisms remain important in contemporary political theory.
Nonetheless, Bentham did not abandon the discussion of rights entirely.
Some services are vital to human enjoyment and cannot be left to others to fulfil as they see fit; therefore, these individuals must be compelled, under penalty of punishment, to fulfil them. In other words, they must respect the rights of others. Thus, while Bentham was usually sceptical of the concept of rights, he admits that the phrase is useful and enumerates a vast number of rights in works such as A General View of a Complete Code of Laws. While the interpretation he gives to these rights is mostly stipulative rather than descriptive, they obviously represent the ideals he defends throughout his work.
There has been some debate about whether the rights defended by Bentham are based on or reducible to responsibilities, whether he can consistently maintain that such duties or commitments are based on the principle of utility, and whether the existence of what Bentham refers to as "permissive rights"—rights that one has where the legal system is silent—is consistent with his general utilitarian view. This latter aspect has been extensively examined by H.L.A. Hart (1973) and David Lyons (1969).