Jeremy Bentham

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An influential critic of the English legal system, society, and government, Bentham founded the Utilitarian school of philosophy, which sought to place social theory and reform on a commonsense basis and to extend the benefits of an organized political community to all classes of society. Bentham was also a lifelong supporter of freedom of the press as a check on governmental abuse of power, and as an indispensable link between people and government. In his first published work, A Fragment on Government (1776), he wrote of the free press that through it “every man, be he of one class or the other, may make known his complaints and remonstrances to the whole community.” Bentham was also the intellectual—and formally designated—godfather of John Stuart Mill, whose On Liberty (1859) included an impassioned case against stifling free expression through censorship or other means.

The full significance of Bentham’s attacks on censorship was only apparent, however, after the close of the struggle with France in 1815. Thereafter the democratic implications became manifest of Bentham’s belief that the welfare of the lowest pauper should count as much to society as the happiness of the highest prince. As a full-blown democrat, Bentham set to work out reform proposals and policies that would put into practice his view that “the more closely we are watched, the better we behave.” Bentham had already put that philosophy to practice in his plans for a new kind of prison architecture and management in which inmates could be constantly watched. In the new democratic world of democracy that he envisaged, the “watchdog” function took a new form. Since governments tend constantly to abuse their power, the democratic public must have the means to expose government’s misdeeds. That means was a free and active press, which could inform an equally active and censorious public opinion.

The ultimate sanction against a corrupt or abusive government was elections that removed wrongdoers from office. However, as Bentham suggested in his pamphlet On the Liberty of the Press (1823), a free press is an essential tool for a democratic citizenry. Press freedom is not just a question of what Bentham called “securities against misrule.” Democratic liberty exists in part when government has sufficient power to carry out the popular will; but democratic government is also to be responsive to public demands and complaints. An unfettered press is a principal means of transmitting public sentiment between elections as well as informing an attentive public of government behavior.

Allied to Bentham’s opposition to formal press censorship was his hostility to libel law which had the effect of self- censorship and public silence on key issues. Libel law included “seditious libel,” in which the state itself is attacked as well as blasphemous libel. These laws were used repeatedly in England and on the continent to suppress political dissent. In his Letters to the Spanish People (1820), for example, Bentham denounced the use of libel to suppress criticism of the Madrid police and of a proposed law against political meetings. He called instead for freedom for fulsome attacks on public officials without hindrance of libel accusations. In so doing, he looked forward to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1966), which established just such a freedom. Indeed, Bentham held up American libel law of his day as shining evidence that public tranquillity and freedom of the press were thoroughly compatible.

Additional Reading

Davidson, William Leslie. Political Thought in England: The Utilitarians from Bentham to J. S. Mill. Ralph Curtis, 1979. Outlines the development of utilitarianism, clearly differentiating Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Offers insights into Bentham’s moral, social, and political philosophy and his theories of education and prison reform.

Halévy, Elie. The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. 1901. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1949. London: Faber, 1952. The classic analysis of the emergence of the Benthamites. Halévy writes with great clarity for the general reader. Exceptional bibliography.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. Victorian Minds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. The second of these essays uncovers Bentham’s obsession with the Panopticon, his rejected plan for a model prison. Examining the actual plans, Himmelfarb reveals a darker side of Bentham’s intended prison reforms and questions whether Bentham shared the democratic ideals of his later adherents.

Long, Douglas G. Bentham on Liberty: Jeremy Bentham’s Idea of Liberty in Relation to His Utilitarianism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977. Long has concluded that Bentham, in searching for a science of humanity and society, believed that liberty was secondary to security in establishing a plan for social action.

Lyons, David. In the Interest of the Governed: A Study in Bentham’s Philosophy of Utility and Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. An interpretation, suitable for advanced undergraduates, of An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Argues that Bentham has a dual standard of interests: community interest is the criterion of right and wrong in public or political affairs, whereas personal interest is the proper standard for “private ethics.” Comprehensive bibliography.

Mack, Mary Peter. Jeremy Bentham: An Odyssey of Ideas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963. This magisterial biography of Bentham’s first forty-four years draws from unpublished as well as published sources. The standard modern study of Bentham, scholarly yet written for the general reader.

Mill, John Stuart. On Bentham and Coleridge. Edited by F. R. Leavis. New York: G. W. Stewart, 1951. The classic and essential account of Bentham by his intellectual godson and heir, who was himself a leader of the utilitarians.

Rosen, F. Bentham, Byron, and Greece: Constitutionalism, Nationalism, and Early Liberal Political Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. This book offers insights into Bentham’s political philosophy.

Rosenblum, Nancy L. Bentham’s Theory of the Modern State. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1978. Highlights in readable fashion Bentham’s anticlassical views of the state and particularly of legislation. For Bentham, laws are neither the foundation of an ideal, unchanging order nor the instrument of character formation but an expression of utility.

Semple, Janet. Bentham’s Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. This interesting story of Bentham’s attempt to build a prison offers insights to his difficult character.

Steintrager, James. Bentham. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977. An interpretation of Bentham’s political thought, somewhat opposed to Mill and Halévy. Takes pains to dissociate Bentham from some aspects of what later became known as utilitarianism. For advanced undergraduates.

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