Table of Contents

Handbook on the History of Economic Analysis Volume I

Handbook on the History of Economic Analysis Volume I

Great Economists Since Petty and Boisguilbert

Edited by Gilbert Faccarello and Heinz D. Kurz

Volume I contains original biographical profiles of many of the most important and influential economists from the seventeenth century to the present day. These inform the reader about their lives, works and impact on the further development of the discipline. The emphasis is on their lasting contributions to our understanding of the complex system known as the economy. The entries also shed light on the means and ways in which the functioning of this system can be improved and its dysfunction reduced. Each Handbook can be read individually and acts as a self-contained volume in its own right. It can be purchased separately or as part of a three-volume set.

Chapter 14: Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832)

Marco E.L. Guidi

Subjects: economics and finance, history of economic thought


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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