Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) — The Utilitarian (Utilitarianism)

Jeremy Bentham Biography, Theory and Ethics

Jeremy Bentham was raised in a strict home with a father who strongly believed in education. At the age of four, Bentham was already studying Latin, and at the age of twelve he attended Queen's College in Oxford. Following the wishes of his father, Bentham studied law and pursued a legal profession for a time but later deserted it to follow a scholarly life.

It is interesting to note that after his death, Bentham dedicated his entire estate to the University of London with the requirement that his remains be present at all Board meetings. To meet this stipulation, the university took his skeleton, stuffed it, dressed it, and seated it in a chair along with a cane in a gloved hand. His actual head was also preserved and lies between his feet (Bentham, 1968).

In 1780, Jeremy Bentham published An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. He was most noted for his idea of the principle of utilitarianism based on the idea of man seeking for his own greatest happiness. For his work, Bentham was labeled as the father of "utilitarianism."

Viewing human beings as being fundamentally individualistic and essentially lazy, Bentham introduced the idea for the "natural" governance of mankind under two sovereign masters: pleasure and pain and asserted that all human motivation can be reduced to the single principle of a desire to maximize one's utility. In specific, Bentham said: "all human activity springs from the desire to maximize pleasure." Since any kind of work, for example, could give pain, all work was undertaken with calculation of the potential returns of both pleasure and pain. Hence, the key for human welfare and happiness was the calculation of individual pleasure.

Recall that while using the water/diamond paradox comparison as an example, Adam Smith rejected the notion that utility or use-value could be systematically linked to exchange value. However, Bentham, along with other later proponents of utility theory of value, held that it was not the total utility of a commodity that determined its exchange value or value, but rather its "marginal" utility or the additional utility derived from a small, marginal increase in the commodity. In fact, from this idea was born the neoclassical tenet of "marginalism." Bentham refuted Smith's water/diamond illustration by pointing out that it was not a question of abundance so much as it was a question of circumstance. At times water can be highly valuable and worth a lot in exchange, especially when a man is very thirsty. Hence, the value was concluded to be highly circumstantial, and the value's comparative analysis was most accurately conducted by using the principle of marginal utility.

In similarity to former economists, Bentham originally believed in an automatic adjustment of the market to equilibrium level and as a result judged Malthus's glut theory as unrealistic. Bentham hence believed that there would never be a depression from overproduction or involuntary unemployment because savings would always be invested into more capital. However, later in the 19th century, Bentham's opinions changed. Bentham later agreed with Malthus that there would be continuous disequilibria between savings and investment causing production to diminish, involuntary unemployment to increase, and the free market to not function properly.

Bentham initially agreed with Adam Smith that minimizing the role of government was best for an optimal productive free market, especially in light of the government's tendency to have its own self-interests and lack of impartiality in decision making. However, Bentham later did recognize the socially harmful effects of inequality and the possible problems that could arise from market disequilibria. Hence, later in life Bentham began to increasingly see the need for government to lessen some of these adverse effects and to also control the amount of money kept in circulation. Government could redistribute money from the rich to the poor so that society's aggregate utility could increase. According to Bentham, this redistribution was justifiable based on the principle of diminishing returns to marginal utility. This basically meant that the enjoyment or benefit gained by the rich for the millionth dollar spent was much less than the potential enjoyment gained by the poor for their thousandth dollar spent. In other words, the rich would not miss the loss of their money as much as the poor would gain if a redistribution of money were to occur. As a whole, all would be better off. Bentham was one of the first to advocate free education, free medical care, and social security. The issue that bothered Bentham the most about social reform was in the area of work-force motivation, especially in the sense that any type of redistribution or social handout could have a counterproductive effect of diminishing worker output (Bentham, 1968).