Jeremy Bentham’s Philosophy

Jeremy Bentham

Work and philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, advocate of utilitarianism, opposition to natural rights idea, and influence on welfarism development.

Famous for principles of morals and legislation, and a leader of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an English philosopher born in London. Trained to become a lawyer, he became dissatisfied with legal conflicting principles and turned to philosophy.

Bentham undertook an inquiry into the nature and basis of law, morals and politics, wove the principle into the fabric of philosophy, society and culture, and developed a system of ethics, known as ‘utilitarianism,’ that is still of major importance today.

Bentham Philosophy of Pain and Pleasure

Utilitarianism is based on a simple view of human nature. Bentham’s philosophy shows how the covenant of law, politics and ethics could all be recast in a simple language of utility, which concerned only with maximizing that which we desire and minimizing that which we fear. He says: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure…”

Advocate of Utilitarianism

Bentham’s utilitarianism moral rule is this: what one needs to do is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. As a keen reformer of political, legal and social institutions, he argued that these institutions should be set up in accordance with this rule.

He designed a prison, the ‘panopticon,’ in which prisoners would be visible to the authorities at all times, and therefore encouraged to do what they ought to do to promote the greatest good for the greatest number in order to avoid pain. By this, punishment is thus intended as a means of reform, and carefully calculated so that its long-term consequences, though painful for the punished in the short term, would lead to an increase in pleasure.

He even constructed a ‘felicific calculus’ to aid the calculation of the exact quantity of pain and pleasure that would result from a given action.

Criticism of Bentham’s Philosophy

It is interesting that Bentham made no distinction between happiness and pleasure. To experience pleasure is to be happy as far as he is concern, a view that would be criticized by his utilitarian successor, John Stuart Mill. Moreover, Bentham’s ideas that pleasure and pain can be quantified makes no allowance for the different experiences of each individual. Despite this problem which relates to the notion in allowing the right of an individual, Bentham’s ethical system has held appeal to other thinkers.

Bentham’s Philosophical Works

A Fragment on Government, 1660 – He advocates basing laws on rational principles rather than on tradition and case law.

Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789 – This book provides a detailed account of his ‘greatest happiness’ principle of morality, and its application to law: that legislation should promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people and produce harmony between the interests of society as a whole and those of the private individual pursuing his/her own happiness.


  1. Biographical Dictionary, edited by Una Mcgovern, Chambers, 2002
  2. Illustrated Biographical Dictionary, edited by John Clark, London, Chancellor Press, 1994
  3. Philosophy, the Great Thinkers, by Philip Stokes, Capella, 2007