Jeremy Bentham

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Jeremy Bentham, is a British philosopher who is widely regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism. Born on February 15th, 1748[1] Bentham spent his entire life in England contributing many ideas to various fields including philosophy, economics, public policy, government, and law. He was considered a consequentialist and utilitarian, and in his contemplation of right and wrong, he explored the concepts of utility and the greatest happiness principle. Although he did not create these ideas, Bentham's contribution to these ideas has continued to influence thought throughout time beginning in the nineteenth century.[2] After years of work, Bentham died on June 6th, 1832 at the age of 84 in London.

Personal Life

Jeremy Bentham was born to Jeremiah Bentham, a lawyer in an established London family, and Alicia Grove, the daughter of a wealthy Andover tradesman. The Bentham's married in 1744, much to the dismay of Jerimiah's parents as it was their expectation that Jeremiah marry a family acquaintance. In 1748, four years after Jeremiah and Alicia married, their child Jeremey, named after his father, was born on February 15th in Red Lion Street, Houndsditch, London. In 1757, nine years after Jeremy's birth, Jeremy's brother Samuel was born on January 11th.[3] Samuel was the only surviving sibling of the five siblings which Jeremy had. All other siblings died prematurely.[4] His mother died in 1769, when Jeremy was 11 years old and the death of Jeremy's mother is said to be one of the reasons behind Jeremey's close bond with his brother, Samuel, which was an important aspect throughout his life.[3][4]


From an early age, both brothers were found to be very bright. Jeremy began reading and learning Latin at the age of four. His father's friends would refer to him as a "Philosopher" starting at the young age of five. Jeremy learned Latin grammar at the age of three and the Greek alphabet as a young child and also picked up the violin before age 7. Around this time, he also quickly learned French from a tutor and eventually used it to compose many of his works. Jeremy's parents played a large role in his studies, particularly Jeremy's father who found Jeremy's intelligence dumbfounding and believing that Jeremy would go on to be the Lord Chancellor of Britain. [5].

Pushing Jeremy to develop his intellectual abilities, in 1755, Jeremy's parents sent him to Westminster boarding school, where he earned a reputation for his ability to write Latin and Greek verse. In spite of his academic achievements at Westminster, Jeremy found his experience there to be unpleasant. Jeremy was sent to The Queen's College, Oxford at the age of 12. Shortly after being sent to Queen's College Oxford, Bentham became disillusioned with the law after hearing the lectures of Sir William Blackstone. Bentham would often spend eight to twelve hours a day writing on matters of legal reform, producing between ten and twenty sheets of manuscript each day, however much of the work he wrote remained unpublished by the end of his life. The majority of these manuscripts can be found at the British Library and the UCL Library. [3] Although Jeremy never became a practicing lawyer, he wrote many works critiquing law and suggesting improvements.[5]


Bentham began his career as a legal theorist in 1776 by anonymously publishing "A Fragment on Government".[6] However, his best known work was his book "An Introduction toe the Principles of Morals and Legislation," published in 1789. The book contains important statements that lay the foundations of utilitarian philosophy and pioneer the study of crime and punishment, both of which remain at the heart of contemporary debates in moral and political philosophy, economics, and legal theory.[2] Bentham also wrote three important French volumes of Traités de législation civil et pénale in 1802, two of which were later translated to English and published in "The Theory of Legislation" by the American utilitarian Richard Hildreth in 1840. This text went on to become the center of utilitarian studies in the English speaking world through to the mid-twentieth century.[7]

Bentham's plans for the panopticon prison design

Bentham also conceptualized the Abortive Prison Project. The prison model would call for a circular layout to the prison with multiple floors, and all prison cells facing the center. One gaoler or warden would stand on an elevated platform in the center of the prison allowing a single warden to observe many prisoners at once and reduce the cost of labor. The project's actual real-life application never came to fruition, as Bentham was continually met with roadblocks over the implementation of his plan which was finally scrapped in 1803, much to Bentham's dismay. The "Abortive Prison Project" design, however, lives on in popular culture and studies of privacy and surveillance, as the panopticon (the official term for the design) is a simple allegory to mass surveillance along with the problems and solutions it presents.[8]

Animal Rights

Bentham was one of the earliest advocates of animal rights, believing that the "insuperable line" should be drawn based on the ability to suffer, and not based on the ability to reason. He put forth the point that based on existing benchmarks to decide who ought to have rights and who ought not to, humans such as infants and people with disabilities would also not qualify, therefore, calling for a shift in perspective when it came to treating animals. However, he was not opposed to killing animals for food or to them being used as subjects for medical treatment experiments, on the premise that the ultimate purpose was structured in a way that would benefit mankind and humanity. He was still adamant that the animals should not have to undergo unnecessary suffering or be subject to cruelty to achieve these ends.[9]

Other Notable Causes

Bentham was a strong proponent for women's and LGBTQ rights, along with law reform, economics, and privacy. Although he still held a very sexist opinion on women in terms of intellectual capacity, Jeremy Bentham became a reformist because of his belief that women held an unfair position in life compared to men. Bentham also believed that homosexuality was not unnatural and argued that laws prohibiting it should be abolished.

He would also contend that transparency of everyone was for the good. He likened this to how journalist hold those in power accountable, but in today's modern society his ideas of surveillance would certainly be very controversial. However, his argument would make an interesting case on issues of patents and digital property.[10]

Adulthood and Death

Jeremy's father died in 1792, leaving Bentham financially independent in Westminster for the following forty years. [3] Jeremey never married, and died in 1832 without children. He left behind tens of thousands of unfinished manuscripts that he had one day hoped to have published, and a large estate that would eventually be used to finance the creation of University College London. [11] As specified in his will, Bentham's body was dissected by his friend and experienced surgeon, Thomas Southwood Smith. Bentham requested that his skeleton be preserved as an Auto-Icon. His body is currently on display at the University College London. [4]

Jeremy also played a part in responding to the Americans Declaration of Independence in 1776. He wrote an essay, "Short Review of the Declaration" , which voiced his opinion against the new America's politics. [12]


Much of Bentham's philosophical views are shaped as a result of a deep-seated distrust of those in positions of power.[6] Jeremy also played a part in responding to the Americans Declaration of Independence in 1776. He wrote an essay, "Short Review of the Declaration" , which voiced his opinion against the new America's politics. [12]For Bentham, a right action is one that produces good, or prevents evil. He also believed in psychological hedonism, that the nature of mankind revolves around the experiences of pain and pleasure. The development of his psychological theory was rooted in uncovering the telos of human action. Bentham asserted "the greatest happiness principle" or "the principle of utility" 'assumes' the truth of ethical hedonism and constructs a moral 'system' on its 'foundation' with the help of 'reason.'[11] The moral agent, then has an obligation to maximize overall human happiness. According to his principles, any act which does not maximize human happiness is considered morally wrong. For government, Bentham believed it could most effectively maximize human happiness by concentrating on the community it represents, by making the happiness of their citizens a primary concern.

Bentham also acknowledged the importance of context. He thought moral agents should promote the interest of others, given the circumstances they may find themselves in. He also recognized that violation of moral rules could have desirable consequences in some cases. According to Bentham, if the benefits of violating a moral rule can be shown, then the act is warranted by the principle of utility.[11] In spite of the nuanced view he chose to take on, Benthan was grouped into a collection of intellectuals referred to as "the Philosophic Radicals" by Elie Halévy in 1904. John Stuart Mill and Hebert Spencer were considered precursors to Bentham and were grouped into this family of philosophers as well. [6]

John Stuart Mill

Bentham would become the teacher of John Stuart Mill, whom is considered one of the greatest thinkers on utilitarianism. Bentham was a friend of James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill, that became friends in their political activism of the day. Both would be the the leaders of "the Philosphic Radicals" and it was during this period that the younger Mill would be influenced by Bentham. Mill would also go on to become an editor of the Westminster Review, which was started by his father and Bentham. [13]

Privacy and Information Ethics

Jeremy Bentham gave significant attention to his thoughts on individual privacy. He strongly believed that law was an invasion of privacy and that it should be justified on the ground of necessary utility. This idea also influenced the thinking of John Stuart Mill, who was contrastingly supportive of publicity.[14]


Bentham also believed transparency was of moral value because it held those in power accountable for their actions. This is often how journalism is viewed in modern society. The use of 21st-century technologies to challenge institutions by allowing dissenting opinions to be heard and disseminated is a deployment of Bentham's "publicity principle" and is exemplified in many modern movements, such as the "#MeToo" movement. [15]

Although Bentham believed in transparency, he also held nuanced views about "too much" transparency and what kind of influence that might have on voters' decisions in elections. The best way to qualify Bentham's argument on this issue is to use his own words, "The system of secresy has therefore a useful tendency in those circumstances in which publicity exposes the voter to the influence of a particular interest opposed to the public interest. Secresy is therefore in general suitable in elections." [16] These ideas also influenced political theorist, Jon Elster, who held a similar view on the pros and cons for privacy and publicity.[16]


Bentham considered both surveillance and transparency to be useful in generating understanding and improvements for people's lives. This was exemplified in his creation of a prison design he called Panopticon. A panopticon is a circular shaped building that while standing in the center of, allows any person to safely enter and see into each cell on the circumference of the building. This allows an advantage to the public to see how prisoners were being treated, and held prison guards more accountable for their treatment of prisoners.[17] However, in this design, the prisoners could not see out of their cells. This was "designed so an observer can watch anything, but without being seen."[18] The panopticon serves as a metaphor as well that, "when you're under constant surveillance, you're in a prison."[18] Today, the presence of surveillance is rising, especially online. In online spaces, data is constantly collected without consent from the provider. This is similar to the prisoners, they are being watched, however, they are unable to see who is watching them and therefore unknowing of their privacy.

In addition, the idea for courtrooms to allow third parties to view and critique the proceedings is an idea formulated by Jeremy Bentham and has been influential in shaping the adjudication policies of republics around the world. [15]

While both of these instances are examples of concrete surveillance, surveillance in modern society has become more "liquified".[19] The panopticon served to make prisoners and guards more conscientious of their surroundings and actions; likewise, citizens of the modern world are aware of surveillance methods such as cameras, biometric checks, and identification documents that serve to mitigate unwarranted behavior. The ethical implications of both forms of surveillance have been frequently debated, and concerns have increased since the digitalization of surveillance and personal information. A main concern is that as surveillance becomes more omnipresent, transparency will increase among citizens and decrease within governments and organizations. This would create a societal shift in power, secrecy, and knowledge. Scholars have considered the liquefaction of surveillance, characterized by its ubiquity and adaptability, a move towards a more post-panoptical society.[19]

Perfect Voyeurism

In his paper, "Privacy and perfect voyeurism", Tony Doyle make the argument for why perfect voyeurism is morally acceptable. Doyle defines perfect voyeurism as "covert watching or listening that is neither discovered nor publicized." [20] Doyle then justifies perfect voyeurism by claiming that under the tenets of classical utilitarianism it is a morally correct behavior. He argues that when you consider the pleasure that is derived by the voyeur in this situation, that classical utilitarians would have to agree with the actions of perfect voyeur.

However, according to Jeremy Bentham, perfect voyeurism would not be appropriate under utilitarianism. The reason for this disagreement would be that Bentham would say that it does not match his greatest happiness principle. The greatest happiness principle, also known as the principle of utility, posits that actions that promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is the morally obligatory act. [13]

Although under Doyle's definition of perfect voyeurism, the actions of the voyeur do appear to fit with the greatest happiness principle, since happiness is defined as also being the absence of pain. Classical utilitarianism, when applied to perfect utilitarianism, would consider if the person being viewed or listened to is receiving any pleasure as well. The issue occurs when voyeurism is detected. Not only may the victim receive deep feelings of violation and traumatization, widespread feelings of insecurity of privacy are felt by the entire society. If people are not secure in their sense of privacy at home, then their autonomy is limited as they will not act at home as they otherwise would to maximize their pleasure. This violates the greatest happiness principle. As there is no way to ensure perfect voyeurism, the act of voyeurism by utilitarian principles proposed by Bentham, should be highly discouraged.

See Also


  1. "Duignan, Brian, and John P. Plamenatz. “Jeremy Bentham : British Philosopher and Economist.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11 Feb. 2019,
  2. 2.0 2.1 " Bentham, Jeremy. The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham : An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Edited by J. Burns et al., Clarendon Press, 1996."
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "Atkinson, Charles M. Jeremy Bentham : His Life and Work. Methuen & Co., 1905."
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Pease-Watkin, C. ‘Jeremy and Samuel Bentham – The Private and the Public.’ Journal of Bentham Studies, 2002, 5(1): 2, pp. 1–27. DOI:
  5. 5.0 5.1 UCL Bentham Project,
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 "Crimmins, James E., "Jeremy Bentham", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>."
  7. "Jeremy Bentham, Principles of International Law (1786-1789/1843)" Carolina Kenny, Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Missouri State University, August 20, 2015.
  8. Bentham 1995, pp. 29–95
  9. Bentham, Jeremy (9 March 1825). "To the Editor of the Morning Chronicle". Morning Chronicle. London. p. 2.
  10. "McStay, Andrew (8 November 2013). "Why too much privacy is bad for the economy". The Conversation. Retrieved 28 April 2019.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 "Bentham, Jeremy. Critical Assessments. Routledge, 1993."
  12. 12.0 12.1 Lind., Bentham (1776). "An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress". Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  13. 13.0 13.1 "Sweet, William. "John Stuart Mill". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  14. "Barendt, Eric M. “Why Privacy Is Valuable.” Privacy, edited by Eric Barendt, Dartmouth Publishing Company and Ashgate Publishing, 2001, p. 3–9."
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Resnik, Judith, The Functions of Publicity and of Privatization in Courts and their Replacements (from Jeremy Bentham to #MeToo and Google Spain) (October 22, 2018). Open Justice: The Role of Courts in a Democratic Society, Burkhard Hess and Ana Koprivica (editors), Nomos, 2019; Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 659. Available at SSRN:"
  16. 16.0 16.1 "Gosseries, Axel and Parr, Tom, "Publicity", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.
  17. " Benjamin J. Goold (2002) Privacy rights and public spaces: CCTV and the problem of the “unobservable observer”, Criminal Justice Ethics, 21:1, 21-27, DOI: 10.1080/0731129X.2002.9992113"
  18. 18.0 18.1 Shaw, Johnathan. "The Watchers Assaults on privacy in America" Harvard Magazine. 2017.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Lyon, D. & Buaman, Z., "Liquid Surveillance", 2013, p. 1-17
  20. "Doyle, Tony. “Privacy and perfect voyeurism.” Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009, p. 3."