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Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

by Jeremy Bentham

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The faith in science of many Enlightenment minds seems quite quaint to me. I do not mean faith that science can improve our standard of living—it has done that in a thousand ways—but I mean the strange faith that if you do things in a scientific way it somehow sanctifies them.

Jeremy Bentham held to this latter faith, so that when he died he left directions for his corpse to be dissected in front of his friends. He also instructed that his head should be removed and mummified, and that a wax replica of it should be placed upon his re-constructed skeleton. This horror was then displayed in Bentham’s own clothes, encased in a large glass display. To what end? It’s hard to say. But Bentham felt it was right, in that dimly superstitious Enlightenment way, to view things “scientifically.”

Not surprisingly, then, Bentham’s legacy is mixed. Fans of prison reform—and what Christian isn’t?—have to admire Bentham for his heart-felt desire to treat prisoners more humanely. Although his vision for the ideal prison is, to put it mildly, far from ideal, there is a lot to be said for a man who sees suffering and dedicates a good part of his life to trying to remedy it.

Still, the chief part of Bentham’s legacy is repulsive: along with John Stuart Mill, he is the man most responsible for popularizing the utilitarian ethic—the idea that you can know what is moral by calculating what will result in the greatest good for the greatest number. Bentham actually spoke in terms of “moral calculus,” and really believed that you could create a mathematical formula that could indicate whether or not an action was moral!

Though the idea of moral calculus is readily understood to be absurd, we may not dismiss Bentham as an anachronism. Once you “tune in” to the utilitarian ethic, you will be shocked to find most Americans justifying their moral decisions based on the greatest good for the greatest number. Why should the government socialize medicine? Utilitarianism. Why should prayer be allowed in public schools? Utilitarianism. Why should you provide a good education for your child? Utilitarianism.

Not all of this, of course, is Bentham’s fault. But whether he would disown the modern consequences or not, Bentham provided the excuse for the “good of society” to trump the right of the individual.

by Jeff Baldwin