Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham was a remarkable man with an enquiring, open mind and a sense of humour. As he grew up he became critical of many things he saw around him in society. Studying law made him disgusted with the state of the law, and he decided to study instead what the law should be. He spent his life trying to change things and for nearly 200 years he has been honoured as a reformer and thinker. He was involved in making prisons more humane places; he campaigned for greater democracy and for free education; he was concerned about working conditions and wanted guaranteed employment, a minimum wage, sickness benefit and old age insurance. He helped to bring about laws on children working in factories and a Public Health Act. He worked with the famous reformer, Robert Owen, on these matters. In fact, he was calling for the benefits of what is now called the Welfare State over 100 years before they were in fact introduced. He was opposed to empires, and therefore to Britain ruling colonies, and worked with William Wilberforce to achieve the end of the slave trade.

His desire for reform was based on utilitarian ideas. This means that we ought to judge any law, or any action we take, by its utility – we should consider whether it will be useful in bringing about ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people’ and what the consequences of any action will be. Bentham also thought that we should include animals in our moral thinking; he wrote about them: “ The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer? in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). Bentham did not base his moral views on a god-given code (such as the “Ten Commandments”). He said that human beings must work out their own morality and he greatly respected the ideas of humanistic Greek thinkers such as Epicurus. He considered that we should base our views on rational evidence and rejected belief in a god. To bring about social reform he said we should “Investigate; Legislate; Inspect.”

Around Bentham was formed a group called the Philosophical Radicals, which included some MPs. They published monthly journal and founded the Reform Club. John Stuart Mill grew up among them and carried on their work. Bentham thought it was unfair and wrong that universities should be controlled by religious bodies and that they were open only to members of the Church of England. So he helped to found University College, London, a secular college open to all, regardless of personal belief. Before he died, he said that he wished his body to be used for medical research, but his skeleton, dressed in his own clothes, was to be preserved in University College, so that he could continue to attend meetings there! His clothed skeleton, with sculpted head and hands, can still be seen in a glass case in University College, and is one of their treasured possessions.