John Stuart Mill once said of Jeremy Bentham that he “has been in this age and country the great questioner of things established.” To Bentham more than to any other source “might be traced the questioning spirit, the disposition to demand the why of everything.” It was largely owning to Bentham’s influence that “the yoke of authority has been broken” among thinking people, and “innumerable opinions, formerly received on tradition, as incontestable, are put upon their defense, and required to give an account of themselves.”

In a polemical flourish that overlooked Thomas Paine (among others), Mill went on to ask: “Who, before Bentham … , dared to speak disrespectfully, in express terms, of the British Constitution or the English law? He did so; and his arguments and his example together encouraged others.” Mill also notes that Bentham’s works, which in many cases were densely written and difficult to understand, had “never been read by the multitude.” His influence on political events, such as the Reform Bill of 1832, which extended the franchise and corrected some of the more egregious injustices of the “rotten borough” system in Britain, was exerted not through his own writings, but “through the minds and pens which those writings fed,—through men in a more direct contact with the world, into whom his spirit passed.”

Those “men in a more direct contact with the world” became known as Philosophic Radicals. Some of these men, such as James Mill, the father of John Stuart and Bentham’s most influential disciple, were accomplished intellectuals in their own right, whereas others, such as John Romilly, were practical politicians who fought for Radical causes in the House of Commons. The jurist John Austin forged many of Bentham’s ideas into a highly influential theory of legal positivism, while his brother Charles defended them at Cambridge, the source of many recruits.

In 1824, Bentham and John Bowring, who would later edit a collected edition of Bentham’s works, founded the Westminster Review to serve as the official organ of Philosophic Radicalism, just as the Edinburgh Review served this purpose for Whigs and the Quarterly Review for Tories. Subscriptions for the Westminster Reviewreached the respectable number of 3,000 within a few months. In 1828, James Mill and Henry Brougham were among the founders of the University of London, now University College London, and Bentham was instrumental in securing the appointment of John Austin as its first Professor of Jurisprudence. True to the democratic sentiments of Philosophic Radicalism, the University of London was open to all qualified students regardless of social class. Other Philosophic Radicals included the Unitarian physician Thomas Southwood Smith, a strong advocate of governmental regulation in the sphere of public health, and Edwin Chadwick, a proponent of administrative centralization.

The Benthamites were radical reformers, not revolutionaries. Indeed, a young Bentham, who then had Tory sympathies, condemned the American Declaration of Independence as so much “jargon.” In his Anarchical Fallacies, Bentham undertook a minute criticism of the French Declaration of Rights (1791). To say that “all men are born free,” he wrote, is “absurd and miserable nonsense.” The doctrine of natural rights is “simple nonsense,” and the doctrine of inalienable rights is “rhetorical nonsense—nonsense upon stilts.” In place of these “fictions,” Bentham proposed an empirical theory of utility. “Nature,” wrote Bentham in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), “has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” All pains are intrinsically evil; because governments impose coercive sanctions against those who disobey their laws, it follows that “All government is in itself one vast evil.” The only justification for a law is to apply an evil in order to prevent an evil that is even worse. This moral theory occasioned the need for Bentham’s felicific calculus, a method whereby legislators can estimate the effects of a given piece of legislation on the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Later, in an unpublished manuscript, Bentham conceded that his felicific calculus was little more than a “fiction” because the units of happiness in different individuals are not susceptible to cardinal measurement and so cannot be added up into a total sum. Nevertheless, this fiction was “useful” because it provided legislators with a reliable guide.

In the final analysis, Bentham’s theory tended to fall back on the doctrine that individuals are generally the best judges of their own interests, so they should be left free to make decisions and to act on their own judgments so long as they do not coerce or harm other people. There can be no doubt that Bentham, despite his mania for governmental efficiency—which led him to reject many traditional safeguards, including a system of checks and balances, and even juries—had strong libertarian sentiments. Among his earlier works, for example, we find Defence of Usury, which calls for the abolition of all regulation of interest rates, and a lengthy criticism of laws against homosexuality—the first of its kind.

The Philosophic Radicals are best known for their support of democratic reforms. They called for universal male suffrage (Bentham was even sympathetic to female suffrage, although this issue never became a plank of Philosophic Radicalism), annual elections, and the secret ballot. The idea behind this democratic theory was essentially a simple one. Rulers, like all other people, act to further their own interests. Thus, so long as there is nothing to restrain their activities, they will form special interest groups—which Bentham was fond of calling sinister interests— that work against the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Bentham’s solution to the problem of sinister interests was to establish a democracy. This democracy would give each citizen an interest in ensuring that government confined its activities to those measures that furthered the greatest good for the greatest number. Only in a democracy will the interests of rulers coincide with the interests of the ruled.

In the third volume of History of the English People, Élie Halévy said of Benthamite utilitarianism that it “was not solely, nor even perhaps fundamentally, a liberal system; it was at the same time a doctrine of authority which looked to the deliberate and in a sense the scientific interference of Government to produce a harmony of interests.” Halévy was not the first person to observe that utilitarianism conflicted with many of the tenets of an earlier individualism. Thomas Hodgskin vigorously criticized Benthamism, especially for its rejection of natural rights, in The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832). In 1851, Herbert Spencer launched a similar attack in Social Statics. Although both of these libertarians agreed with many of the reforms advocated by the Philosophic Radicals—state education was a notable exception—they also believed that Bentham’s substitution of the principle of utility for the principle of natural rights had seriously undercut the philosophical foundations of a free society and would ultimately, if unintentionally, be pressed into service to justify the extension of governmental power far beyond anything Bentham had intended. Indeed, when, in 1919, the distinguished legal philosopher and historian A. V. Dicey published Law and Public Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century, he included a chapter on “The Debt of Collectivism to Bentham.” Dicey noted “the tendency of Benthamite teaching to extend the sphere of State intervention,” and he maintained that its rejection of natural rights had deprived liberty “of one of its safeguards.”

George H. Smith
Originally published