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Bentham, Jeremy (1748–1832)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB004-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

Jeremy Bentham held that all human and political action could be analysed in terms of pleasure and pain, and so made comprehensible. One such analysis is how people actually do behave; according to Bentham, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Another such analysis is of how they ought to behave. For Bentham, this is that they should maximize utility, which for him is the same as producing the greatest happiness of the greatest number, which, again, is the same for him as maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. His chief study was planning how there could be a good system of government and law; that is, how laws could be created so that people being as they actually are (seeking their own pleasure) might nevertheless do what they ought (seek the greatest pleasure of all). The instruments which government use in this task are punishment and reward, inducing action by threats and offers. For Bentham, punishment is done not for the sake of the offender, but to deter other people from doing the same kind of thing. Hence on his theory it is the apparent punishment which does all the good, the real punishment which does all the harm.

Bentham thought that the primary unit of significance was the sentence, not the word. He used this idea to produce profound analyses of the nature of law and legal terms, such as’ right’, ‘duty’ or ‘property’. These are what he calls names of fictions – terms which do not directly correspond to real entities. However, this does not mean that they are meaningless. Instead, meaning can be given to them by translating sentences in which they occur into sentences in which they do not occur. Thus legal rights are understood in terms of legal duties, because sentences involving the former can be understood in terms of sentences involving the latter; these in turn can be analysed in terms of threats of punishment or, again, pleasure and pain. This gives sense to legal rights, but sense cannot be given in the same way to natural rights. For Bentham, we have no natural rights and the rights that we do have, such as property rights, are created by government, whose chief task is to protect them. Bentham also worked out how people could be protected from government itself, designing an elaborate system of constitutional law in which representative democracy was a central element.

Bentham invented the word ‘international’, and when he died he had an international legal and political influence. His chief influence in philosophy has been as the most important historical exponent of a pure form of utilitarianism.

Citing this article:
Harrison, Ross. Bentham, Jeremy (1748–1832), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB004-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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