(For curiosity sake, I start with the large entry on Bentham from my Webster’s Biographical Dictionary. It does show the derivative nature of Bentham’s philosophy, yet this does not diminish his own achievement as the acknowledged father of Benthamism, or utilitarianism, although it does of course point to his unquestionable limitations as a derivative thinker.---
“Bentham, Jeremy. (1748-1832). English jurist and philosopher; one of chief exponents of utilitarianism. M.A., Oxon. (1766). Called to bar (1772); wrote criticism of Blackstone’s Commentaries as showing antipathy to reform (1776). Made recommendations in View of the Hard Labor Bill (1778) for improvement in mode of criminal punishment, published later in Rationale of Punishment and Rewards (1825). Made trip to Russia [nota bene!!!] (1785-1788) to visit his brother (see below; there wrote Defense of Usury (printed in 1787), his first essay in economics, following the principles of Adam Smith. Published (1789) work on administration of justice, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, expounding his basic ethical doctrine that morality of actions is determined by utility, that is, the capacity for rendering pleasure or preventing pain, according to which the object of all conduct and legislation is ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ --- the key phrase of Benthamism (suggested by Priestley’s Essay on the First Principles of Government, 1768, and earlier used in Hutcheson’s Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, 1725). Studied poor law question (1797-98). Wrote several treatises developed in Rationale of Judicial Evidence (edited by J. S. Mill, 1825). Aided in establishing Westminster Review (1823) to spread philosophical radicalism; working on codification of laws and Constitutional Code (1stvolume, 1827) at his death. His nephew and secretary (1826-32) George (1800-1884), was an English botanist; studied law; wrote Outlines of a New System of Logic (1827), setting first for the first time principle of qualification of the predicate; author of Handbook of British Flora (1858); produced for government works on flora of Hong Kong and Australia; collaborated with Joseph Hooker in Genera Plantarium (7 volumes, 1862-1883). Jeremy’s brother Samuel (1757-1831) was a naval architect and engineer; colonel in Russian service; and superintendent of shipbuilding yard at Kritchev.”
The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation. This celebrated phrase represents the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), known as utilitarianism. Bentham was a prominent British lawyer, who became famous when he started dabbling in politics and social reform. His primary claim to historical fame however has been as a philosopher, founder of utilitarianism, capsulated in the key phrase “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”This catchword is not, however, original to Bentham. He himself attributes it to Joseph Priestley’s 1768 Essay on the First Principles of Government, but the minor Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) ought to be given the proper credit for it, writing in his 1720 Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil: “That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.” To Bentham, however, belongs not the prize for originality, but the application of this principle to a wide variety of practical problems.
This borrowed phrase has however become the distinctive slogan of utilitarianism, or Benthamism, as it is also known. Bentham’s 1776 Fragment on Government, and 1789 Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation have become world famous in their own right, probably, as a “collateral advantage” of his great success as a reformer of the whole British government system, and thus one of the very few officially recognized “establishment” philosophers. Unlike his success in reform, though, Bentham’s philosophy has been naïve, and occasionally outright silly.
Aside from the banner principle of utilitarianism, which, as we said, was not original in Bentham, his hat is adorned with another feather which is not his either. The so-called association principle articulated in 1749, that is, before Bentham, by the minor British philosopher David Hartley (1705-1757) promotes association of ideas as the basic principle of psychology. Considering that there was little new in what Bentham could add to Hartley here, the philosophical significance of Bentham’s appropriation of this principle is minimal, and hardly worthy of a further discussion.
Bentham has been spectacularly lucky in this fashion to become treated as a major philosopher, rather than just a political figure. Even his harshest critics are giving him too much personal credit on the rebound, in recognition of his connection to the political-social system, which took root in Britain thanks largely to his efforts. Karl Marx attack on him sounds like a loud commendation of his overblown role in British social, economic and political life: The arch-philistine Jeremy Bentham was the insipid, pedantic, leather-tongued oracle of the bourgeois intelligence of the Nineteenth Century. (Das Kapital, I, 1867)
I value Jeremy Bentham most not for his specific “positive” theories, but for his “negative” contribution to the philosophical debate over politics and government. Like the Russian mathematician Lobachevsky was a revolutionary in geometry with his disregard for the basic premises of Euclidean geometry, Bentham can be credited for knocking the gods of social contract and natural law off their pedestals. The indestructible prerogatives of mankind, he wrote, have no need to be supported upon the sandy foundation of a fiction.
This reminds me of my own argument against rationalizing God, as I insist that those wobbly and inherently fallacious efforts impede and complicate the discovery of the right solution to forego the hopeless search for proof of this improvable theorem, and to accept it as a founding axiom, true by definition.
By the same token, it is patently silly to try to justify a better state of world organization by appealing to a preexistent condition, where sheer pragmatism without any such preconditions may yield fresh unexpected insights and results. Therefore, there is some considerable value in Bentham’s pragmatism, as long as it is not stretched out too far and too authoritatively, and it does not become a panacea for curing all social ills. Among Bentham’s similar successes in liberating himself from the conventions of contemporary political philosophy was his reduction of all civil laws to only four purposes: subsistence, abundance, security, and equality. Liberty had little value for him, and he had contempt pour les droits de l’homme, which, he said, were plain nonsense: these rights of man, he said, fell into three categories: unintelligible, false, and both. Fortunately for Bentham, and for his reluctant successor John Stuart Mill, their respective legacies cannot be cruelly reduced by some intellectual Procrustes to the one-size-fits-all utilitarian bed that Bentham built and John Stuart Mill was born in.