Image: Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)
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Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was perhaps the most radical thinker of his time, and developed the concept of utilitarianism. Bentham was an atheist, a prison reformer, animal rights activist, believer in universal suffrage, free speech, free trade and health insurance at a time when few dared to argue for any. He was schooled rigorously from an early age, finishing university and being called to the bar at 18. His first book, Fragment of Government (1776) published anonymously was a trenchant critique of William Blackstone's Commentaries of the laws of England. This gained wide success until it was found that the young Bentham, and not a revered Professor had penned it. In The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1791) Bentham set out his theory of utility.
The aim of legal policy must be to decrease misery and suffering so far as possible while producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Bentham even designed a comprehensive methodology for the calculation of aggregate happiness in society that a particular law produced, a felicific calculus. Society, argued Bentham, is nothing more than the total of individuals, so that if one aims to produce net social good then one need only to ensure that more pleasure is experienced across the board than pain, regardless of numbers. For example, a law is proposed to make every bus in the city wheel chair accessible, but slower moving as a result than its predecessors because of the new design. Millions of bus users will therefore experience a small amount of displeasure (or "pain") in increased traffic and journey times, but a minority of people using wheel chairs will experience a huge amount of pleasure at being able to catch public transport, which outweighs the aggregate displeasure of other users. Interpersonal comparisons of utility were allowed by Bentham, the idea that one person's vast pleasure can count more than many others' pain. Much criticism later showed how this could be twisted, for instance, would the felicific calculus allow a vastly happy dictator to outweigh the dredging misery of his exploited populus? Despite Bentham's methodology there were severe obstacles in measuring people's happiness.