British gentleman, political activist, legal scholar, social philosopher and linguist, Jeremy Bentham is best known as the founder of British utilitarianism.
Born into a wealthy Tory family, Jeremy was educated at Westminster school and Queen’s College, Oxford and was trained as a lawyer. His independent wealth permitted him to set himself up as a writer in London.
His first book was an attack on Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. Bentham claimed that all laws, ancient and modern, should be evaluated according to the single ethical principle of “utility”.
Despite his adamant opposition to natural law and principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, he welcomed both the American and French Revolutions.
He introduced the distinction between individual hedonic calculation as a basis of a positive theory of behavior, and social calculation as a normative theory of social organization.
The eminent jurist argued that all human actions – altruism, asceticism, love, duty, faith, etc. are reducible to individual pleasure and pain calculations. By applying his utility hypothesis so widely, Jeremy made it empirically unverifiable.
However, Jeremy recognized the principle of diminishing marginal utility, that is, the greater the amount of utility a person already has, the smaller will be the utility gain of any extra increment of wealth.
The critical question Bentham puzzled over was whether the unhindered pursuit of individual happiness could be reconciled with morality. The only ethical principle he accepted was that increasing general happiness is “good”, while decreasing it is “bad”.
For the jurist only consequences mattered. Actions are to be judged strictly on the basis of how their outcomes affect general utility.