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.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Bentham, Jeremy — born Feb. 15, 1748, London, Eng. died June 6, 1832, London British moral philosopher and legal theorist, the earliest expounder of utilitarianism. A precocious student, he graduated from Oxford at age 15. In his An Introduction to the Principles… …   Universalium

  • Bentham, Jeremy — (1748–1832) English philosopher of law, language, and ethics. Born in London, Bentham was educated at Oxford, and studied law, for which he developed a profound mistrust. His major preoccupation became the flimsy theoretical foundations of law… …   Philosophy dictionary

  • Bentham, Jeremy — (1748 1832) Often regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism , Bentham is best known for his texts on legal philosophy, and his programmes of social (especially penal) reform. He was a leading figure of classical criminology , which… …   Dictionary of sociology

  • Bentham,Jeremy — Ben·tham (bĕnʹthəm), Jeremy. 1748 1832. British writer, reformer, and philosopher whose systematic analysis of law and legislation laid the foundations of utilitarianism. * * * …   Universalium

  • Bentham, Jeremy — See Utilitarians ( …   History of philosophy

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  • BENTHAM, JEREMY —    a writer on jurisprudence and ethics, born in London; bred to the legal profession, but never practised it; spent his life in the study of the theory of law and government, his leading principle on both these subjects being utilitarianism, or… …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

  • BENTHAM, Jeremy — (1748 1832)    English philosopher, political theorist and founder of UTILITARIANISM. His work The Handbook of Political Fallacies is a classic of common sense …   Concise dictionary of Religion

  • Bentham, Jeremy — (1748 1832)    English writer on jurisprudence and ethics.    Index: Sy An associate of Sydenham s, 13.    Bib.: Works, ed. by Bowring and Burton, 1843. For biog., see Dict. Nat. Biog …   The makers of Canada

  • Bentham, Jeremy — (1748 1832)    Writer on jurisprudence and politics, b. in London, s. of a prosperous attorney, ed. at Westminster and Oxford, was called to the Bar at Lincoln s Inn, but disliking the law, he made little or no effort to practise, but devoted… …   Short biographical dictionary of English literature

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