Was Jeremy Bentham a Classical Liberal at heart? | Professor James Stacey Taylor
Jeremy Bentham, the Individualist
Jeremy Bentham was born on Feb. 15th, 1748, in Spitalfields, England. One of the main early advocates of utilitarianism — the ethical view that, roughly, an act is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and wrong insofar as it does not — he is best known for his view that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”
This impersonal, aggregative approach to ethics might seem to be a far cry from the individualism of classical liberalism. The impression that Bentham’s work lies outside the classical liberal tradition might be reinforced by the knowledge that in one of his major works, “Anarchical Fallacies,” he trenchantly criticized the view that persons had natural rights. And in fact, Bentham produced as one of his students Robert Owen, one of the founders of utopian socialism.
But Bentham himself was very much an individualist, and, as such, belongs firmly in the classical liberal tradition. Bentham’s opposition to natural rights (which he termed “nonsense on stilts”) stemmed from his view that the basis of morality was the value of happiness. For Bentham, this could be measured (through the “hedonic calculus”) with different types of happiness being ranked according to such factors as their duration and intensity. (It is important to note that for Bentham the happiness of all creatures mattered morally, not just that of humans.)
Bentham’s approach to morality was thus nothing if not empirical, and so insofar as it is true that certain institutional structures are more conducive to widespread well-being than others (e.g., markets, secure private property rights, and the rule of law) these would be supported by him.
But we need not rely on such indirect evidence to usher Bentham into the ranks of great classical liberals. In an age when (male) homosexuality was not only morally condemned but criminalized in England, Bentham wrote against the persecution of gay men, although he kept his essay on the topic (“On Offenses Against Oneself”) private and unpublished. He also argued (in “Defense of Usury”) in favor of economic liberty, holding that no-one “of ripe years and of sound mind, acting freely, and with his eyes open, ought to be hindered … from making such bargain … as he thinks fit.” And, of course, he was one of the primary mentors of John Stuart Mill, the great classical liberal author of On Liberty.
Bentham died in 1832, in Westminster, leaving behind some 30 million words of work on philosophy, law, economics, and politics. He also left behind his preserved body, which is now on display at University College, London. According to an urban myth, he still attends faculty meetings, where he is recorded as being “present, but not voting.”
Article by James Stacey Taylor, associate professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey. Originally published at www.learnliberty.org, February 15th, 2017.