- Bentham, Jeremy
- (1748–1832)One of the most influential philosophers and legal theorists of the modern age. Against the traditionalist account of English law formulated by William Blackstone, Bentham advanced the principle that law should aim to maximize “utility,” which he defined as human happiness, according to a directly hedonist and indeed reductionist account of happiness as pleasure. It was Bentham’s rationalist revolt against the prescriptivism of earlier legal and social theorists that was most influential. A method of reasoning that attempted to derive sound social policy from some stated root principle, from which all else was held to follow, was characteristic of Bentham and his followers among the so-called philosophic radicals. The radicalism of Bentham and his followers was a powerful weapon against the often rococo absurdities of the ancient constitution and its associated class structure. But it also led to the kind of dogmatic insistence on principle over evidence that Macaulay attacked in James Mill’s Essay on Government and ultimately depended on an unrealistic optimism about the ability of reason to prescribe social arrangements.That dogmatic optimism was in evidence in Bentham’s letter to the French Assembly of 1793, “Emancipate Your Colonies!,” which argued on economic grounds against imperialism, and which clearly presumed that a democratic assembly would be swayed by a well-formulated rational argument. Obviously Bentham’s advice on colonies was taken neither in Paris nor in London; he later argued that colonies were retained as sources of employment, emoluments, and ideological justification for the ruling class and its institutions, a line of argument that became a fixture of subsequent antiimperialism. Bentham’s rationalism, his humanism - social arrangements existed to further secular human happiness - and his disdain for traditional and prescriptive arguments were central to later arguments about empire, and indeed most other political subjects.See also <
>.FURTHER READING:Bentham, Jeremy. Rights, Representation and Reform. Edited by Philip Schofield, Catherine Pease-Watkin, and Cyprian Blamires. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002;Bowring, John, ed. The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham. Edinburgh: W. Tait, 1843;Dinwiddie, John. Bentham. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.MARK F. PROUDMAN
Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.