Jeremy Bentham (Humanism)

I desire to begin posting about Humanists, including various humanists and their influence upon our world, the societies and association they have created, and the documents and manifestos they have published. This will come in many formats and it will consists of many posts. To know that  a post is part of this series the title of the post will give the name of the subject and after will have (Humanism) in parenthesis.  I hope to someday expand these posts into a book that will be but a volume in my endeavor to teach Christians the true nature of the society we are in and the dangers that exist for our churches and our children going on today and going into the future if we do not respond wisely.

When we look to history we must realize that what we see are transmitters, fountains, and sources of thoughts, beliefs, and actions that have worked to shape and mold what we know of today. Concerning the Western secularism that we find ourselves engulfed in, Jeremy Bentham is a great conduit in which to understand our modern condition and dilemma. The reason it is particularly helpful to look for an individual figure is because often the one person will encompass in himself all the various strains of philosophy, thought, and actions of those who came after him. In our time of complexity, with so much information, looking at one man like Bentham allows simplicity, for in him one can see in one look what would take a scanning of a vast horizon of the modern world.

Bentham was born in Houndsditch, London in 1748. It is important to note the date because it shows that Bentham was born right smack in the middle of the century that would bring the American and French Revolution. It was the height of the Enlightenment where all the ideals of the past century would be applied to politics, law, religion, ethics, and about every important human category that involves man.

Bentham began his study in the area of Law. This is very important to note, because, as we will see later, the idea of many modern secularists that ethics is a matter of privacy and has nothing to do with legal matters (legal positivism) would have been absurd to Bentham who began with law and through that concern developed a model of ethics that would shake the political and legal realm. Bentham never practiced law, but rather devoted himself to writing substantially on legal reforms, reforms he felt were badly needed in order to contribute to the new society that was rising up all around him and that he would take part in bringing focus and stability to and finally insitutionalizing. But though his reforms were for the legal realm, his ethics would help to form the political realm, even though he himself did not write on politics. This goes to show that the ethical theory of a people will shape the politicians’ actions, the laws that are passed, and the judgment of the courts. It becomes the guide and standard by which to judge right and wrong, just and unjust, good and bad. This is why the primary standard of a people is something to fight for, because around this standard the society will be created, and thus whoever gets to write this standard is the true authority of the land.

Bentham was certainly a sincere man, as is shown by the fact that he spent 20 years of his life working to convince and promote a prison model that he had developed known as the “Panopticon”, along with the massive amount of writings he wrote on social reform. He truly believed that his theories would help bring more justice and stability to his society–from the theory behind legislation and the process of legislation, all the way to the imprisonment and execution of legislation. But underpinning all of his legal theory was his ethical philosophy which is the true inheritance the Western world has received from him.

Before we go into specifics about Bentham’s moral philosophy, I must explain more about what I meant earlier when I called Bentham a conduit of philosophy to our day. Many moderns often assume, erroneously, that you can trace a thought to one individual, thus calling someone the father of something or other. But really all men are building on the works of other men, along with the events and concerns and assumptions of their time and the time prior to them as they continue the human endeavor to seek knowledge and understand the world we all share.

Thus, one individual may have articulated something the best, or may have been smart enough to bring many stream of thoughts together to make a concise and cohesive philosophy, but he surely will not be the inventor of this knowledge as much as a receiver and transmitter of it in a clear and potent way. Bentham himself received much of his thoughts and methods from others, and Bentham’s thoughts were received and expanded and implemented by others that followed. What makes Bentham important is the time that he was in, since he had the privilege to be born at a time where much of the prior philosophy could begin to be implemented, so that Bentham could work unimpeded by the impediments that may have faced his predecessors; and in return when his disciples received his thoughts they could actually apply them to the social realm. And thus, looking at Bentham helps us to see the results of the philosophies before him, and the beginning of the social applications after him.

Bentham was influenced heavily by the Enlightenment and its strong trust in Reason as the authority of all matters. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy concisely summarizes Bentham’s influences:

Influenced by the philosophies of the Enlightenment (such as Beccaria, Helvétius, Diderot, D’Alembert, and Voltaire) and also by Locke and Hume, Bentham’s work combined an empiricist approach with a rationalism that emphasized conceptual clarity and deductive argument. Locke’s influence was primarily as the author of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and Bentham saw in him a model of one who emphasized the importance of reason over custom and tradition and who insisted on precision in the use of terms. Hume’s influence was not so much on Bentham’s method as on his account of the underlying principles of psychological associationism and on his articulation of the principle of utility, which was then still often annexed to theological views. (

Bentham was influenced by Locke’s epistemology in that Bentham perceived that Locke’s use of reason gave a model by which to bypass tradition as the authority of knowledge. Locke emphasized that human knowledge comes through human experience and is not something innate to human beings. And thus through their own ability to reason through their own experiences humans are able to realize what is true about the world around them. This is what the Encyclopedia means by saying that he combined an empiricist approach with rationalism. Humans experience reality and then by their own reasoning they are able to interpret reality properly and thus arrive at ideas and knowledge.

As for Hume’s influence, the encyclopedia says that he was influenced by Hume’s pscychological associationism and Hume’s principle of utility. Hume’s pscychological associationism  basically says that association is the basic  principle of mental activity. In a way Hume is basically building on Locke’s idea that knowledge comes through experience, he is just being more precise.  An example of what this theory of knowledge is saying is a child touching a hot stove brings a feeling: Ouch! That’s hot! This then gives the child the emotion of fear toward the stove and they now know that it is bad to touch the stove. Thus the meaning of the stove being dangerous because it could burn you and so you should not touch it comes to the child by the association the child makes through their feeling the hot stove and then fearing being burned again. This then brings us to the influence of Hume’s principle of utility.

It was the principle of utility in Hume that was the most important part of Bentham’s work. The principle of utility is important to the field of ethics because it is a theory of ethics concerning how to judge between what is good for man and what is bad for man based on what is useful for man’s happiness. Sparknotes makes this insightful commentary on Hume’s understanding of moral utility:

Hume proposes the idea that moral principles are rooted in their utility, or usefulness, rather than in God’s will. His version of this theory is unique. Unlike his Utilitarian successors, such as John Stuart Mill, Hume did not think that moral truths could be arrived at scientifically, as if we could add together units of utility and compare the relative utility of various actions. Instead, Hume was a moral sentimentalist who believed that moral principles cannot be intellectually justified as scientific solutions to social problems. Hume argues that some principles simply appeal to us and others do not. Moral principles appeal to us because they promote our interests and those of our fellow human beings, with whom we naturally sympathize. In other words, humans are biologically inclined to approve and support whatever helps society, since we all live in a community and stand to benefit. Hume used this simple but controversial insight to explain how we evaluate a wide array of phenomena, from social institutions and government policies to character traits and individual behavior (

For Hume, morality is a function of nature by which humans preserve themselves and survive based on what is instinctively best for them. But how do they know what is best for them? For Hume, pleasure is the natural desire that humans, like all animals, have, and pain is what all animals flee from and thus pain is nature telling animals and humans what is to be avoided, and thus what is bad for them.

Jeremy Bentham completely borrowed and expounded upon this concept by Hume, a concept Bentham called “the greatest happiness principle.”  Bentham applied Hume’s concept  to society in general and desired to articulate the principle in such a way that could be useful for legal and political matters. His principle makes claims for what is obligatory, what it is that people should do and should not do. And what people should do are things that bring the most happiness to the most amount of people. And again, by happiness he means pleasure. This approach to morality is known commonly as utilitarianism. Note that this form of utilitarianism in Hume and in Bentham is also a form of hedonism. Hedonism is the belief that pleasure is what is ultimately good and worthwhile in life and thus a hedonist lives in such a way as to experience as much pleasure as he can.

This hedonism for Bentham is individualistic and naturalistic. For Bentham, the individual human is ultimately concerned with his own pleasure. Innate in each self is the desire for the self’s own pleasure. The indiviudal’s self gratification is more important to the individual than the gratification of society. And thus society or community does not really exist, but rather what exists is a race of individuals who all desire their own pleasures and thus who create a civilization that works best to satisfy what the majority believe brings pleasure.

For Bentham,  an individual is the ultimate being, and thus his relationships with others are not what give him values or meanings, since is own innate instincts will tell him best what is delightful and thus what makes him happy. William Sweet (whose summary is extremely helpful and to which I owe much debt for this post) states most succinctly Bentham’s stance when he says:

Bentham’s understanding of human nature reveals, in short, a psychological, ontological, and also moral individualism where, to extend the critique of utilitarianism made by Graeme Duncan and John Gray (1979), ‘the individual human being is conceived as the source of values and as himself the supreme value'(

And this human is a mere animal reacting to his own primal instincts which dictate to him what brings pleasure, therefore what is good, and therefore what should be law and the shape society should be. Bentham is often called the Father of Modern utilitarianism, mostly because of the influence he had on other utilitarians. He influenced John Mill and the more famous John Stuart Mill. It was John Stuart Mill who would expound on Bentham’s works and actually implement many of his ideas in the legal and social sphere of Britain in the 19th century. In this way, Bentham is a conduit who took the thoughts of the thinkers before him and passed them to those after him who continue to shape the world along the line of these philosophies.

To sum up Bentham’s life, thoughts, and contributions, Bentham was concerned with continuing the change of society that had begun at the Reformation and had gained intellectual and social momentum during the century before him. His philosophy was not an abstract philosophy of someone staring at the stars and saying things that make no impact on humanity. But rather he should be seen as an activist who desired to see great change and application of his theories in the world of politics, law, and society.

This philosophy which Bentham wanted applied to all realms of society is the philosophy that has caused him to be known as the father of modern utilitarianism. Humans are animals who are governed by their desire for pleasure and their aversion to pain. The individual human is the ultimate being, the ultimate source of what is moral, and what is moral is what brings him happiness. And so society consists of individuals who know instinctively what makes them happy and where there is disagreement or conundrums, then the greatest good for the most people is the ultimate good for society. And thus legislation, politics, social reform, state institutions, should be governed by the will of the majority, and that is agreed upon selfish pleasures of the many individuals.  This philosophy was carried down and carried out by those who would follow Bentham, and would come to greatly influence Western society and people’s views on morality and legality.

What can be learned from Bentham is that philosophy is never something that remains in an ivory tower. Even if it begins as an articulation received and studied by other learned men, these learned men go out and apply it to the world and continue to pass it down to other learned men. In this way, this philosophy is brought to the common man, and he begins to understand it instinctively, like a dance or a language that he has always been a part of and that is now natural in his assumptions. Bentham was mostly concerned with shaping society, and this would prove to be true of many of those who would expound on his philosophy and would apply it to the world.

From his philosophy Bentham found the ammunition for his social views and these views in his days were seen as radical. He was a feminist who spoke for the equality of women; he was an advocate of animal rights; and he viewed homosexuality as a private matter that should not be condemned so harshly by society. That these issues have now been embraced by society as  “moral and righteous causes” shows how the assumptions of Bentham have surely filtered down into our modern society, and this reveals where these assumptions are coming from. They are not arrived at by natural reasoning, liberal Christianity, or scientific endeavors, but these beliefs are passed down by common assumptions which shape scientific endeavors, natural reasoning, and liberal Christianity. They certainly are not the morality the Bible is mostly concerned with (although animal rights and woman’s equality could be argued from the Scriptures at a lower level) the emotion and zeal of these issues is coming from the common assumptions of the masses. Those who would use the Bible to argue for these issues have first been convinced of their righteousness by forces outside of the Bible, for Bentham was a humanist and yet he was very zealous for these causes.

To put it in Bentham’s own phrases, many modern assumptions of what is moral and legal and healthy and good are coming from the human instinct for self-preservation and self-gratification, they are coming from human desires and inclinations. They are coming from human nature, which according to the Scriptures is inclined to constantly stray from God  and to create  a world of sin, a Babylon, if it is not enlightened and transformed by God’s redemption in our Lord Jesus Christ.


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