Most early economists were fascinated with a school of thought called utilitarianism, which was founded in the nineteenth century by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), an eccentric English philosopher and social reformer. At the core of utilitarian philosophy was the idea that satisfactions or "utilities" of individuals could be measured and, through a "felicific calculus" whereby individual utilities could be summed, aggregate pleasure could be computed. Notice that utility means something different in this context than in baseball or electricity. A "utility" baseball player can play several positions; a public utility sells natural gas or electricity. Here, utility refers to satisfaction.
Jeremy Bentham--lawyer, philosopher, and social reformer--can barely be called an economist, although his influence on subsequent economic thought was immense. He admired the ideas of Adam Smith but did not accept Smith's political philosophy. Smith asserted that there is a natural harmony between private and public interests that operates through the "invisible hand" of the competitive marketplace. Bentham focused on conflicts between private and public interests, especially as manifested in illegal activities. He agreed that Smith's "harmony of interests" might be desirable, but did not see this result as a natural consequence of human behavior. Thus, Bentham devoted much of his long life to designing institutions that would bring about the harmony of interests that Smith took for granted.
Bentham tried to develop a science of human behavior integrating law, economics, politics, and education. His theory identified the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain as the forces controlling all human actions. The goal of Bentham's hedonistic philosophy was the attainment of "the greatest good," or maximum utility.
Bentham's most conspicuous successes were in the area of English law and judicial procedure. He applied the principles of utility and "felicific calculation" to crime and punishment, suggesting that the evil of a crime is proportionate to the number of people hurt by it. It follows, therefore, that punishment of crimes should not be based on motive alone, but on the amount of social pain caused by a felony. Properly speaking, Bentham viewed the functions of law and law enforcement from the economic perspective of incentives. He theorized that by raising the "cost" of crime in the form of punishment to the criminal, self-interested individuals would choose to commit fewer misdeeds, and the public interest would be served.
It is an understatement to say that Bentham was eccentric. His pet pig roamed freely through his mansion and slept at the foot of his bed. He once petitioned the London City Council for permission to replace the shrubbery along his driveway with mummified human cadavers. He thought dead bodies "far more aesthetic than flowers."
In spite of his personal eccentricities, Bentham's ideas attracted a loyal group of disciples, including James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill, and his proposals for social reforms were widely translated into action. Benthamite principles were among the intellectual wellsprings of many great reforms of the first half of the nineteenth century. Possibly the secret of Bentham's success is that he gave his disciples not only specific ideals, but also concrete plans to achieve them.
Bentham dreamed of
immortality. His sizable estate was left to the University of London on the
condition that his body be embalmed in a certain way, stuffed and dressed in
his own suit of clothes, and that it attend all meetings of the university's
trustees. In this way, Bentham hoped to be "present" whenever
utilitarian principles were discussed at his university. Bentham's wishes
were carried out. (Minutes of all trustees' meetings record him as
"present but not voting.") Over 170 years later, the dauntless
utilitarian still resides in his glass closet in a corridor at
1 The notion that
behavior is motivated by attempts to gain pleasure predated Bentham and
utilitarianism by centuries. In ancient
Author: Ralph Byrns
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