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Jeremy Bentham is best known as the man who founded the theory of utilitarianism. He was born in London on 15 February 1748 and lived at Queen's Square Place in Westminster. He was reading serious literature at the age of three, playing the violin at the age of five and studying Latin and French at the age of six. He went to the University of Oxford at 12 where he studied law. At the age of fifteen he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn and was admitted to the Bar. He did not practise as a lawyer but instead worked on a thorough reform of the legal system and on a general theory of law and morality. One of Bentham's patrons was the Earl of Shelburne. He published short works on aspects of his thought and his books include Fragment on Government (1776) and Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). Bentham's other works include the Rationale of Judicial Evidence (1827) and the Constitutional Code (1830). Bentham travelled widely in Europe and Russia and was made an honorary citizen of the French Republic in 1792.
Bentham was the leader of a group known as the Philosophical Radicals, whose members included James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill. They founded and edited the Westminster Review, which became a vehicle for publishing their ideas. Although James Mill continued to follow the ideas of Bentham (particularly in bringing up his son, John Stuart), JS Mill later rejected many of Bentham's ideas. Bentham was an outspoken critic of the government of Lord Liverpool and its failure to address the 'Condition of England Question' in the 18-teens.
In 1813, Jeremy Bentham became a stockholder in a new textile company established by Robert Owen who was frustrated by the restrictions imposed on him by his partners. The members of the new company, content with a 5 percent return on their capital and ready to give freer scope to Owen's philanthropy, bought out the old firm. In 1829 Edwin Chadwick met Jeremy Bentham and became his literary secretary and friend. Chadwick went on to become secretary of the Poor Law Commission.
In the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham advocated utilitarianism as the basis for reform. He claimed that it was possible to decide by scientific means what was morally justifiable by applying the principle of utility. He said that actions were right if they tended to produce "the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people". Bentham thought that happiness was equivalent to pleasure. Through a calculation of pleasures and pains - which Bentham called felicific calculus - he thought that people could tell what was a right or a wrong action. If all pleasures and pains were on the same scale, then a utilitarian evaluation of human activity would be possible. The whole point of the penal system was to make the pain of punishment worse than the pleasure given by committing an offence, for example. Bentham also argued that if values were based on pleasures and pains, then there could be no such thing as "natural rights". In fact, Bentham said: " The idea of rights is nonsense and the idea of natural rights is nonsense on stilts". Bentham wanted to abolish all legislation that did not bring about the "greatest happiness for the greatest number of people" and in some ways was ahead of his time.
Bentham was responsible, along with others such as Henry Brougham, for the founding of the non-denominational London University in 1828. This new University accepted non-Anglicans as students: until this point only Anglicans were admitted to University. For Oxford and Cambridge it continued to be the case until the Universities Test Act of 1871.
Bentham's ideas had great influence on the reforms of the latter part of the 19th century in the administrative machinery of the British government, on criminal law, and on procedure in both criminal and civil law. One of his projects was in prison design: Bentham planned the "panopticon" prison where the warders could see all round. Pentonville gaol was based on Bentham's plans.
More particularly, Bentham's ideas were applied to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. Unfortunately at this time the "people" were considered to be only voters. To give the "greatest happiness to the greatest number of people" meant cutting the poor rates. Consequently the poor suffered and his ideas of utilitarianism were re-named "Brutilitarianism" by the working classes.
Bentham died in London on June 6, 1832 and his body was dissected. His skeleton, fully clothed and provided with a wax head (the original was mummified), is still kept in a glass case at University College, London.
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