Jeremy Bentham

Quick Facts

Born: February 15th, 1748
Died: June 6th, 1832
Birthplace: London, England
Best known as: The Father of Utilitarianism


Jeremy Bentham was born on February 15th, 1748 in London, England. From an early age it was clear to see that he was a child prodigy. At just three years old, Jeremy began reading a multi-volume history of England and also began to study the Latin language. By the time he was 12, Jeremy was attending Queen’s College in Oxford.¹

Jeremy’s father, a notable attorney, had aspirations that Jeremy would one day become the Lord Chancellor of England. However, after hearing lectures from Sir William Blackstone, who was the foremost authority of the law at the time, Jeremy developed other plans. Instead of practicing law, Jeremy decided to write about it.²


Jeremy Bentham is known as the founding father of Utilitarianism. Simply defined, Utilitarianism is the philosophy that a moral act is one which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. He outlined this theory in 1789 in his writings of the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.³ Bentham began with the simple premise that people are motivated by two strong, primary desires:

1 - To achieve pleasure
2 - To avoid pain

Bentham believed that if society could measure pleasure and pain, then laws could be created that would result in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of individuals. Bentham admits that there is no direct proof of an analysis of human motivation—though he holds that it is clear that, through their actions, all people implicitly refer to it.⁴At the beginning of the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham writes:

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. (Ch. 1)”

In basic terms, Bentham's Principle of Utility:

(1) Recognizes the fundamental role of pain and pleasure in human life
(2) Approves or disapproves of an action on the basis of the amount of pain or pleasure brought about i.e, consequences
(3) Equates good with pleasure and evil with pain
(4) Asserts that pleasure and pain are capable of quantification (and hence 'measure').⁵

Bentham famously held a hedonistic account of both motivation and value according to which what is fundamentally valuable and what ultimately motivates us is pleasure and pain. Happiness, according to Bentham, is thus a matter of experiencing pleasure and lack of pain.⁴


Jeremy Bentham was influenced by many enlightenment thinkers, especially empiricists such as John Locke and David Hume, Bentham developed an ethical theory grounded in a largely empiricist account of human nature. Conversely, Bentham’s writings had far-reaching influence on many scholars.⁴ In particular, John Stuart Mill is widely known as the disciple of Jeremy Bentham.⁶

On-going Publications

The Bentham Project
has been an active initiative at the University College of London since 1968. They have produced 25 volumes of his work thus far, and there may be many more to come.

Further Reading

C.F.A. Marmoy, 'The "Auto-Icon" of Jeremy Bentham at University College London', Medical History, 2 (1958), 77-86.
R. Richardson, 'Bentham and Bodies for Dissection', The Bentham Newsletter, x (1986), 22-33.
R. Richardson and B. Hurwitz, 'Jeremy Bentham's self-image: an exemplary bequest for dissection', British Medical Journal, 295 (July-Dec. 1987).
Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ed. J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart, (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996).


1 - Nicoll, I. (2009). UCL Bentham project. Retrieved October 2nd, 2009 from
2 - Goldworth, A. (1983). Deontology Together With A Table of the Springs of Action and the Article on Utilitarianism.
New York : Oxford University Press, 1983.
3 - Bentham, J. (1789). An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. London : T. Payne & Son, 1789.
4 - Sweet, W. (2008). Bentham, Jeremy. Retrieved October 3rd, 2009 from
5 – Mautner, T. (1990). Jeremy Bentham. Retrieved October 3rd, 2009 from

6 - Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press