Jeremy Bentham was born on February 15, 1748 in Spitalfields, London into a wealthy family. Although he was trained as a lawyer, he chose not practice law, preferring instead to write about moral and political philosophy and advocate legal and social reform.
Bentham is best known for being one of the founders of an ethical system called utilitarianism (a form of a broader theory called consequentialism). In echoing the hedonistic philosophy of Epicurus, this principle maintains that 'the good' for man is the attainment of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
Bentham called it the principle of utility, or the happiness principle and felt that the maximizing of that which we desire and the minimizing of that which we fear should be encompassed in all law, politics and ethics.
As an ardent reformer of political, legal and social institutions, he argued that these institutions should all be set up in accordance with this rule.
Of course, utilitarianism was not intended to mean that only your own selfish views matter, but that everyone's happiness is to count equally. Our aim, according to Bentham, should be to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number - "the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation."
Some of the problems with Bentham's system included the quandary of qualifying and quantifying pleasure, as well as the concept of the subjugation of the individual for the good of the majority. As in the 'social contract' of Rousseau, his utilitarianism lacks the notion of individual rights.
Another problem for many in Bentham's day was the way in which his system gives God or religion no role in determining what is right and wrong. Then, as today, many believed that there is a higher moral authority above man that guides us in determining what is right and wrong. The utilitarian, however, rejects the traditional religious view of morality suggesting that all that matters is enhancing happiness in this life now.
Bentham was also one of the first thinkers to advocate for animals' rights. Because animals also experience pleasure and pain and this is what matters, morally speaking, they too deserve moral consideration. Previously many philosophers deemed animals to be of little if any moral significance because presumably they lack the faculty of reason. To Bentham it is the ability to suffer, not the ability to reason that matters.
Bentham's best known philosophical work and fullest account of his utilitarianism is his Introduction To the Principles of Morals and Legislation published in 1789. While many of his friends and followers found his work innovative and important, it was John Stuart Mill who took it onestep further and developed Bentham's utilitarianism into an influential and widely subscribed to ethical doctrine.
In an unusual request for that time, Jeremy Bentham bequeathed his body for the purposes of dissection to the Webb Street School of Anatomy. At that time only the bodies of executed murderers were legally obtainable for teaching purposes.
He left it in the hope that humanity 'may reap some small benefit by my disease'. As a result of his request, after his death the Anatomy Act made it legal for bodies to be given for dissection.
Above is Jeremy Bentham's preserved body on display at University College in London, England.