Bentham was an English legal philosopher and social reformer born in 1748 in London. He is best known for his belief that the greatest happiness is the result of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is known as utilitarianism. Bentham put forth that the “greatest happiness principle,” should be followed in order that society as a whole will achieve the greatest happiness. Bentham sees happiness as the presence of pleasure and absence of pain, and encouraged legal reforms which would promote the greatest happiness. He argued for the rights of women and animals, opposed slavery, and that everyone be treated as equals under the law.
Living during the time of the Industrial Revolution as well as the French and American Revolutions, Bentham recognized that the society in which he was living was rapidly changing. Traditional institutions and beliefs were being questioned and replaced, however there were many injustices that still existed at this time. Women were not considered equal, animals did not have rights, and slavery was being practiced. Having himself studied law, Bentham sought for social reform on these issues, as well as to present society with a rational principle to guide its actions.
Bentham saw society as a collection of individuals. He believed that the individual has a natural interest in self-preservation, which manifests itself as the desire to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. Seeing this as the basis of happiness, he therefore encouraged that society try to maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain of its citizens. This is known as the “greatest happiness principle,” or the “principle of utility.” Bentham writes, “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”
This philosophy, known as utilitarianism, Bentham puts forth in his work An Introduction to the Principles of Moral and Legislation. He explains that an individual pursuing his own happiness cannot be considered inherently “right,” since in doing so he might cause considerable harm to others. In order to determine what is right, one must therefore look at what the result will be for everyone. Actions should therefore be judged on the basis of whether they will result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Since, “one man is worth just the same as another man,” Bentham’s principle of utility therefore assumes that everyone in society should be considered equal.
Bentham understands liberty as being the “absence of restraint.” He sees laws as important to society, but believed that there shouldn’t be unnecessary laws which limit our freedom. For example, Bentham didn’t believe in punishing homosexuals, since their actions only concerned themselves and not the public at large. Recognizing the validity of any law that a society chooses to create (known as legal positivism), Bentham believed that the people should have the right to create the laws which they are to live by.
The French Revolution had been influenced by the social contract theory, employed by philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The social contract theory explains that society was based on a “social contract” which involved people agreeing to give up some of their individual freedoms in order to live together under a system of laws and government. By accepting this “social contract,” man left the “state of nature” and entered political society. Bentham saw the concept of the social contract, as well as the belief that there is an original state of nature as fictitious. First, he maintained that humans always existed in some form of society. Second, he explains that governments do not get established on the basis of a social contract, but arise by either habit or force. Bentham therefore wished to overcome the theory of a social contract, in order to establish society and its laws on empirical (i.e. observable) realities and utilitarian principles.
Likewise, Bentham denied the concept of “natural rights.” Unlike other political theorists, Bentham did not believe that there is such a thing as natural rights, referring to them as “nonsense upon stilts.” Bentham explains that the only rights that really exist are legal rights, because they are protected by the law. Without law, there are therefore no rights, only “reasons for wishing there were such things as rights.” In this way, Bentham wants to move people away from appealing to abstract concepts such as “natural rights” as the basis for social and legal reforms, and encourage people to focus on the practical implications of this or that action or law.
Bentham is famous both for his legal philosophy as well as his social reforms. In addition to supporting the equality of women, opposing slavery, and speaking up for animal rights, he also was a supporter of the freedom of expression, separation of church and state, and making education more widely available. His philosophy of utilitarianism would be continued by John Stuart Mill, while his understanding of the law has been influential on developments in legal philosophy.