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Jeremy Bentham: Biography, Theory & Ethics

Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Learn who Jeremy Bentham was and what he contributed to the field of criminology. Review Bentham's biography, analyze his classical theory of utilitarianism and examine his contribution to prison design.

Biography

As people, we tend to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Who wouldn't rather relax and enjoy a good meal than, say, do hours of grueling chores? But if you knew that doing something pleasurable, like eating a nice meal that you can't pay for, would lead to something painful, like being forced to do dishes for the restaurant you now owe, would that stop you from eating the meal in the first place? Well, this principle is basically what Jeremy Bentham, a member of the classical school of criminology, included in his theories.

Jeremy Bentham was born in Houndsditch, London in 1748. He was an advanced student and at only age 12, he was accepted into Queen's College. He graduated in 1763 with a bachelor's degree and went to law school. He was admitted to the bar in 1767 but did not practice.

Bentham decided to devote his life to working on the philosophical study of the law. He also sought to reform and codify the existing laws. Bentham believed that the existing laws were unnecessarily cumbersome and obscure, so he sought to make the law more simple and concise by transforming it into a utilitarian code of law. The utilitarian code of law was based upon the principle that the greatest happiness comes from the greatest amount of individuals. Moreover, Bentham believed that this was where morality and legislation derived from.

Theory

Bentham was known for utilitarianism, which is sometimes referred to as hedonistic calculus. Under utilitarianism, individuals are expected to balance the consequences of their behaviors prior to acting in order to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Thus, pain and pleasure should be considered when criminal legislation is considered.

Bentham theorized that this was how legislators should control criminal behavior. Bentham believed that criminals would consider the pain associated with punishment against any pleasure derived from committing a crime. Therefore, the pain of the penalty should outweigh any pleasure.

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