Great Economists Since Petty and Boisguilbert
Edited by Gilbert Faccarello and Heinz D. Kurz
Chapter 14: Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832)
Jeremy Bentham is universally reputed to be the founder of modern utilitarianism, although various aspects of this philosophy were developed before him (Rosen 2003). He was born in Houndsditch, London, into a wealthy family, on 15 February 1749. He graduated at Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1764, and subsequently studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, London. Though called to the bar in 1769, he never practised. Instead, he decided to devote his life to writing on matters of law and institutional reform. In a work entitled An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (hereinafter IPML), printed in 1780 although published only in 1789, he laid down the groundwork of utilitarian philosophy. The latter is based on the “greatest happiness principle” (GHP), according to which both individuals in their private sphere and governments in the public sphere ought to promote “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (Bentham 1983: 309–10). This ethical doctrine is based on the assumption that individuals seek pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, an action is morally right and morally obligatory if and only if it promotes the greatest amount of pleasure and minimizes the pain of those who are affected by it, independently of any other quality they may have (principle of impartiality). This implies that individuals must be able to calculate the “value” of pleasures and pains. In chapter 4 of IPML Bentham argued that such a value depends on various “circumstances”, including intensity, duration, probability, propinquity, number of persons affected, and the secondary dimensions...
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