Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was born into an upper-middle-class English family in a suburb of London. Bentham, a philosopher and political and social reformer, must be viewed within the context of his times for any measure of understanding of his works. He grew up during a time of rapid social change brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the attendant changes in the distribution of population as young people, in particular, migrated from rural areas to urban industrial centers seeking economic opportunity not available under the British system of landownership. Bentham and his family benefited from the attendant redistribution of wealth as industry and commerce replaced land as the major source of socioeconomic status. Many persons, however, were driven from the land and forced into cities not because of industrialization but because of changes in agricultural techniques sparked by advances in technology and ideas of profitability. As a result, crime increased, as did other social problems related to poverty and the attendant social dysfunction, including widespread substance abuse and the decline of the family as an instrument of social control. In many respects, Bentham lived during a period best described as anomic. Persons living in such times tend to possess a heightened sense of concern for public order. For Bentham, this concern was displayed in a near obsession for social reform and increased governmental power to improve social conditions and restore social order. His social and political theories focused on security being one of the most important aspects of governments and societies. This entry first discusses the influences and beliefs that shaped Bentham’s worldview, then describes his opinion of natural law, and concludes with an examination of his position on personal and political liberties.
Displaying an early genius, Bentham received his bachelor’s degree at age 15 years and was admitted to the bar in 1769. He never practiced law but was a legal scholar and a student of what would be viewed today as the sociology of law and political science. Early in his legal studies, he condemned the British legal system as too complex and thus subject to manipulations leading to injustice and inefficiency. Having witnessed the treatment of the London poor and the criminal classes through the eyes of the educated English middle class, Bentham came to view the true purpose of law as a tool for social stability and reform. In developing his theory of government, he was strongly influenced by many of the thinkers of the European Enlightenment, including David Hume (1711–1776) and John Locke (1632–1704), and was a correspondent of Adam Smith (1723–1790), an early advocate of free market economics.
The Enlightenment emphasized empiricism and reason over faith, discounting ideas that could not be corroborated through experimentation or logic. As a follower of the Enlightenment, Bentham rejected the ancient notion of natural law as unscientific. He likewise denied the existence of natural law rights—rights granted by “nature or nature’s god,” to use the familiar Jeffersonian phrase. Bentham believed that such rights were merely a creation of the human imagination and without divine sanction. Bentham also did not endorse the idea of a social contract, as propounded by Hume and others at the time. Bentham held that Hume’s idea of humans originating in a “state of nature” with “perfect freedom” never existed; rather, he believed that humans have always lived in social groups and under the limitations to freedom imposed by social life in an ordered society.
Bentham recognized a difference between political society and natural society, which is the difference between one’s public and private life, but he still held that even in private, one was constrained by the demands and expectations of one’s public life. Bentham rejected the notion of liberty as an inherent or natural law right, stating that liberty exists only where established through law and protected through a governmentally sponsored justice system. Bentham thus defined liberty in terms that can be classified as negative liberty, which is freedom from external constraint, whereas positive liberty is a matter of personal autonomy or the exercise of free will.
As interpreted by Bentham, there is no perfect freedom in a state of nature, but rather, individuals are free only to the degree that they are not restrained in their actions by others. As such, he viewed liberty not as an inherent right but rather as a social tool developed by communities and later used by governments to secure an orderly society. Bentham regarded the true goals of government (and society) to be “the happiness and security of the community.” More specifically, Bentham believed the goals of society to be “security, subsistence, abundance, and equality” for its members; liberty was merely a means to attain security at both a personal and a societal level. Bentham identified two types of liberty: personal liberty and political liberty. Personal liberty was merely “security against a certain class of wrongs which affects the person.” This would include the idea of a right to privacy in terms of one’s relationships with other people and would thus be associated, for example, with torts against paparazzi. Political liberty was also included under security, with political liberty being “security against injustice at the hands of the persons entrusted with government”; we would refer to that as civil rights (e.g., those protections secured by the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution). His concern toward personal liberty extended only to the possible effect that it might have on the good of the community as a whole. Likewise, his concern for the preservation of rights in terms of political liberty applied only to its positive effect on the community as a whole and not its individual members.
In a just social system under Bentham’s theory, law should be least restrictive, in terms of constraints on personal liberty, to accomplish the goal of the greater good of society. However, Bentham regarded personal liberty as less of a concern than the security of a society. In addition, Bentham concluded that individual rights could exist only when established through a set of laws and a formal justice system to ensure their equitable enforcement. Therein lies a paradox: Individual liberty can exist only when limited by the greater needs of society. Conflicts between the liberty needs of the individual (personal liberty) and the liberty needs of society (political liberty) were to be resolved through the principle of utility administered through just laws tailored to the needs of the particular community. As stated by Bentham in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, “The science of legislation consists in determining what makes for the good of the particular community whose interests are at stake.” He acknowledged that such legislation would be difficult to craft and might be more difficult to implement and enforce.
M. George Eichenberg
See also Civil Liberties ; Civil Rights Movement ; Locke, John
Bentham, Jeremy. “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation” (n.d.). http://www.econlib.org/library/Bentham/bnthPML1.html (Accessed August 2017).
Bentham, Jeremy. “Principles of the Civil Code” (n.d.). http://www.laits.utexas.edu/poltheory/bentham/pcc/ (Accessed August 2017). (Digitized from Vol. 1 of the 1843 Bowring edition of Bentham’s works.)
Emsley, Clive. Crime and Society in England, 1750–1900 (3rd ed.). Harlow, England: Longman Pearson, 2005.
Kirk, Russell. The Roots of American Order. Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1991.
Mill, John S. On Liberty: Morality and the Law (ed., Richard A. Wasserstrom). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1971.
Quinn, Michael and Xiaobo Zhai. Bentham’s Theory of Law and Public Opinion. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Rosenblum, Nancy. Bentham’s Theory of the Modern State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Stephen, Leslie. The English Utilitarians. New York, NY: P. Smith, 1950.