Bentham was a British political reformer. In an age when the death penalty was imposed for thefts as small as 5 shillings (maybe $20 today), or for unknowingly passing counterfeit money, for which the humane alternative was "transportation" to penal colonies like Georgia or, after the American Revolution, Australia, Bentham proposed an ideal kind of prison, the "panoptikon" ("all seeing"), where prisoners would be under constant supervision. This is more or less what modern prisons are like.
At the same time, Bentham had unusual ideas in other areas. Certainly the most unusual was what he wanted done with his body. Bentham thought that his body should be preserved and kept on display. This would be his "Auto-Icon." He believed this is what might be done with all famous men. His body, indeed, was preserved and is kept at the University College of London (UCL) in a wooden cabinet, modestly and precisely labelled "Jeremy Bentham." The body as such is not visible, since it is clothed and the head has been removed and replaced with a wax one.
Over the years a great deal of mythology has arisen about the Auto-Icon. The first story I ever heard about it was that Bentham contributed money to the University and required, not only that his body be displayed but that it be present for meetings of the University Board. Both of these are untrue. There are also myths about his mummified head, which at one time was actually displayed on the floor between his feet and then was, more delicately, kept in a hatbox in the cabinet. It is now locked away elsewhere, after students from King's College stole it as a prank. The myth is that they used it as football. This seems to be false.
In ethics, Bentham also had some new ideas. His proposal is called "Utilitarianism," and over the years there have been times when it was accepted as all but self-evidently true in Anglo-American philosophy. It is a variety of teleological morals. Bentham formulates the Principle of Utility as a single simple rule:
This is not the whole story, for the good itself must then be defined, and Bentham does. The good is happiness, and happiness is pleasure. Bentham is a Hedonist, holding that the only good is pleasure.
Utilitarianism, although popular enough, and contributing the concept of "utility" to much productive economic thought, is vulernable to a number of grave objections, several of which were soon voiced:
It also bothered John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Mill's father, James Mill (1773-1836), had been a personal friend of Bentham's, and John was raised in a culturally elevated and politicized atmosphere (he was speaking Classical Greek at three). Although he never broke with his father's ideas, Mill ironically became a historic advocate for individual rights. His books On Liberty (1859) and The Subjection of Women (1869) are classics. How to reconcile such rights with Bentham's "nonsense on stilts" was a challenge. Mill did it by making the object of the Priniciple of Utility, not individual actions (now called "Act Utilitarianism") but rules for action ("Rule Utilitarianism"). If individual rights produce the greatest good for the greatest number, then as rules they are to be preferred over anything else. Unfortunately, if individual rights simply have greater utility, they lose their immediacy and much of their moral force. More importantly, there is no obvious moral reason why rules rather than actions should be judged by their utility. If, in specific circumstances, one judges that breaking a rule would result in greater utility, there is no good reason why this should not be acceptable or desirable. Mill's construction works only if there is an independent moral basis for the rules. There isn't; and Mill makes things worse by suggesting -- as with the "Noble Lies" of Plato's Republic -- that we simply lie about the derivation of moral rules and teach them as deontological duties, i.e. goods-in-themselves. This is neither practical nor noble.
Nevertheless, Mill produced some of the clearest statements and principles of political liberty: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others" [On Liberty, 1859]. This may not be quite right, both because of the ambiguity of "harm" (it is "harm" if what you say makes me feel bad) and the possibility of abridging the will of others for paternalistic purposes (which prevents "harm"), but it is in the right ball park. It is not unlike Thomas Jefferson saying, "But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg" [Notes on Virginia, 1782]. As we otherwise do gather from Jefferson, we are free to do whatever does not involve such theft or violence to others. A better principle is no easy thing.
The problem of justification bedevils Utilitarianism in general. British natural rights ethics had often appealed to the self-evidence or the intuitive certainty ("Intuitionism") of natural rights. Bentham ridicules this, perhaps with justification, but then he has little to offer for the Principle of Utility apart from its intuitive certainty. Intuitionism is rejected, to be replaced by.....Intuitionism.
We know what happens with the alternative, i.e. a political provison of goods, which involves a political decision about what is worthy and what will be provided. Most of what people would like is condemned as vulgar and unnecessary, but even necessities becomes scarce because political payoffs, to labor, managers, or simply the connected, make any real efficiency impossible. Politics is the land of rent-seekers, whose only concern is getting their cut of the action. Thus, a paternalistic state, which denies consumers frivolities, is rarely able to provide much of the necessities that cannot be so dismissed. Sponges, for cleaning, were never available in the Soviet Union, because they were never regarded by the appropriate bureaucrat as necessary. At the same time, produce rotted in railroad cars because the transport system was not efficient enough to get it to market in a timely fashion. Similarly, as we see in the recent Canadian movie, The Barbarian Invasions (2003), the socialized Canadian medical system, where everyone is paid by the government, is riddled with irrationalities and inefficiencies. Fortunately, most Canadians live within 30 miles of the United States, where diagnostic tests and procedures can be obtained for which there are waits of months in Canada. Americans now like buying drugs in Canada, where there is official price fixing. If this gets bad enough, drug companies, which need to recover their costs, can simply limit supplies sent to Canada. Then Canadians themselves will want to prohibit foreigners from buying drugs there. Many Americans have forgotten the old American saying, "You get what you pay for." Or the rather newer saying, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" (TANSTAAFL).
Jeremy Bentham, one of the strangest individuals in the history of philosophy, thus leaves a confused heritage. Like Taoism, he makes for poor morals but much better political economy. This is a valuable contribution, but the matter is so confused that it has been difficult to draw the appropiate distinctions. In John Stuart Mill we see a vigorous development in many of the right directions, but with the whole still compromised by the paradoxes and improprieties of the original theory. The value of the tradition, therefore, can only be appreciated with grave provisions and with some robust theory to cover the deficiencies.
History of Philosophy