left biblioblography: Profiles In Atheism: The Jurist of Jurisprudence

Monday, July 23, 2007

Profiles In Atheism: The Jurist of Jurisprudence

Not long ago, I had a theist who kept trying to engage me in a conversation about the is-ought problem (I'm fairly sure the fellow was trying to trap me in the naturalistic fallacy, but it's hard to be sure - he was a slippery clown, to be sure). He kept referring to it as a fallacy, but it's really not...quite that distinct.

He also kept using the word jurisprudence - again, it was unclear as to the inference (I assume it was that it was 'gawd' that had huge ramifications in the Western legal system).

Truth is, I was terribly distracted at the time, and with multiple items to juggle, I shrugged and evaded the issue (between a lack of concern and allocating hours to analyze/view just exactly what the hell he was talking about).

But, as is my wont, I dipped into the subject as my schedule permitted, and one name kept popping up: Jeremy Bentham:

(February 15 , 1748 O.S. (February 26, 1748 N.S.) – June 6, 1832) was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. He was a political radical and a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law. He is best known as an early advocate of utilitarianism and animal rights[1][2] who influenced the development of liberalism.

Bentham was one of the most influential utilitarians, partially through his writings but particularly through his students all around the world. These included his secretary and collaborator on the utilitarian school of philosophy James Mill, James Mill's son John Stuart Mill, and several political leaders (and Robert Owen, who later became a founder of socialism).

He argued in favour of individual and economic freedom, including:

He was in support of:

  • Inheritance tax;
  • Restrictions on monopoly power;
  • Pensions; and
  • Health insurance


Bentham was born in Spitalfields, London, into a wealthy Tory family. He was a child prodigy and was found as a toddler sitting at his father's desk reading a multi-volume history of England. He began his study of Latin at the age of three.[5]

He went to Westminster School, and in 1760 his father sent him to The Queen's College, Oxford, where he took his Bachelor's degree in 1763 and his Master's degree in 1766. He trained as a lawyer and (though he never practised) was called to the bar in 1769. He became deeply frustrated with the complexity of the English legal code, which he termed the "Demon of Chicane".

Among his many proposals for legal and social reform was a design for a prison building he called the Panopticon. Although it was never built, the idea had an important influence upon later generations of thinkers. Twentieth-century French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that the Panopticon was paradigmatic of a whole raft of nineteenth-century 'disciplinary' institutions.

Bentham was in correspondence with many influential people. Adam Smith, for example, had opposed free interest rates before Bentham's arguments convinced him on the subject. As a result of his correspondence with Mirabeau and other leaders of the French Revolution, he was declared an honorary citizen of France, but Bentham was an outspoken critic of the revolutionary discourse of natural rights, and of the violence which arose after the Jacobins took power (1792).

In 1823, he co-founded the Westminster Review with John Stuart Mill as a journal for the "Philosophical Radicals" - a group of younger disciples through whom Bentham exerted considerable influence in British public life.[6]

Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon in University College London

Bentham is frequently associated with the foundation of the University of London, specifically University College London (UCL), though in fact he was 78 years old when UCL opened in 1826, and played no active part in its establishment. However, it is likely that without his inspiration, UCL would not have been created when it was. Bentham strongly believed that education should be more widely available, particularly to those who were not wealthy or who did not belong to the established church, both of which were required of students by Oxford and Cambridge. As UCL was the first English university to admit all, regardless of race, creed, or political belief, it was largely consistent with Bentham's vision, and he oversaw the appointment of one of his pupils, John Austin, as the first Professor of Jurisprudence in 1829.

He was an odd duck (aren't we all?), as observed in the following snippet:

As requested in his will, his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet, termed his "Auto-icon". Originally kept by his disciple Dr. Southwood Smith,[7] it was acquired by University College London in 1850. The Auto-Icon is kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the College. This has led to the familiar, but untrue story that the Auto-Icon is occasionally brought to meetings of the Council (at which Bentham is listed on the roll as "present but not voting").

The Auto-Icon has always had a wax head, as Bentham's head was badly damaged in the preservation process. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks including being stolen on more than one occasion. It is now locked away securely.

There is a plaque on Queen Anne's Gate, Westminster commemorating the house where Bentham lived, which at the time was called Queen's Square Place.

Yet, according to this account, he was perhaps not so odd:

Bentham was not in the least given to odd. The conditions of his will stand paradoxically to the acts if his long life. Bentham lived the utilitarian principle. He lived/preached that AN ACT IS MORALLY RIGHT IF IT PRODUCES THE GREATEST BALANCE OF PLEASURE (HAPPINESS) OVER PAIN--and each person counted as one. This principle of utilitarianism expressed his singular commitment to the public’s wellbeing. He was a respected public figure life not given to being offensive. Yet in death he violated Victorian sensibilities: bodies endured a church service followed by internment in holy ground--and dissection was a crime. This review of Bentham’s life and teachings reveals how exceptional the cabinet is.

For more on the works and life of this amazing fellow, see here, here, and here is a great quote:

Said Bentham, "There is no pestilence in a state like a zeal for religion, independent of morality."* One of the founders of the philosophy of Utilitarianism, and a mentor to John Stuart Mill, in private Bentham was candid about his Atheism: he called Christianity "Jug" or "Juggernaut" in unpublished manuscripts.** With English historian George Grote he wrote Analysts of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind (1822), under the pseudonym "Philip Beauchamp," a work in which both attacked religion and professed Atheism.

And one more for the road (alas, I can't find Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion On the Temporal Happiness online for free - so if you're intrigued, guess you'll have to order it, sorry):

“No power of government ought to be employed in the endeavor to establish any system or article of belief on the subject of religion.

. . . in no instance has a system in regard to religion been ever established, but for the purpose, as well as with the effect of its being made an instrument of intimidation, corruption, and delusion, for the support of depredation and oppression in the hands of governments.”
-- Jeremy Bentham, Constitutional Code


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Atheist in a mini van. said...

Nice post. :) I'd never heard of the If-Ought argument.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Hey, possum, how are ya?
Hume is...daunting, to say the least. Of all the philosophers, he was a toughie.
I'll be doing a profile on him sometime soon, but it may be more than 1 post.
He really opened some doors in his day.

niran said...

haha...this has really bothered you hasn't it. Bentham's utilitarianism should be of concern to those who subscribe to the golden rule or the categorical imperative because it could for instance, be used to justify the killing of an innocent man by the sheriff in a riot for the purpose of preventing the deaths of other lives. I think these copy and paste jobs really don't do any service to the "province of jurisprudence" so to speak... You might want to check out Mill's rule utilitariansim which tries to plug the holes in Bentham's thesis.

Oh and by the way, the ought-is dichotomy is at the heart of jurisprudential debate since the atheist Hume. Denial through ignorance is a little pathetic.

Krystalline Apostate said...

niran - no, it really hasn't bothered me that much. In fact, I find it fascinating, & thanks for the heads up.
Nor was it a 'copy 'n paste job' - just a simple nod to people in the past.
Denial through ignorance is a little pathetic.
As per usual, you read what you like into what biases you pack around like oversized luggage.
I've denied nothing. Poisoning the well.
As usual, you came a-runnin'. Predictable.

Aaron Kinney said...

Hey KA,

Why am I getting a stack overflow erro when I visit your blog? Is anyone else getting this or am I just retarded? :(

Krystalline Apostate said...

Hi Aaron. Stack overflow? Which browser are you using?
I wonder if that's happening to anyone else.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Aaron - what line # is it telling you?
I've only hit 3 complaints (on blogger) about this - 2 talk about IE.
Let me know, thanks.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Well, niran? You up for it? Where'd you go?

niran said...

up for what dude?? Its not like the copy and paste of some entry on Bentham constitutes an argument. Bentham is respected because of his work on positivism. His utilitarian thesis, while attractive would still justify the sherriff's murder of the innocent in the pursuit of public order. The felicific calculus swings heavily in favour of the sheriff if the riot would be potentially dangerous. So there, it'd help if you actually read up round the names you drop here. What's your argument though? That morality stems from utilitarian considerations? I thought you were one who believed in the golden rule, and those two don't always sit well together mate;-)...so sad.

Krystalline Apostate said...

niran - I didn't say any of that, did I? You keep inserting interpretations between the lines that aren't there.
So sorry, but it's not so sad. Not even close.
You keep mentioning jurisprudence, no? I'm guessing you're an advocate of the Naturalist school of thought?
As to your criticism of my profiles, I'm not going to change my approach - so you may as well drop that. Ad hominem isn't a valid form of debate.

niran said...

Mate, do you have an argument?

karen said...

So Bentham had himself displayed after death, eh? When I first saw the title of the post and the picture, I thought this was the proverbial atheist closet come to life!

I'm using Mozilla Foxfire, and while I didn't get any error message, it did take some time to load today, instead of popping right up as usual.

remy said...

I am also getting the 'overflow" message.

Krystalline Apostate said...

remy - does it give a line #?

Karen - yeah, it's about the closest anyone can get to any sort of immortality.

All law is man made.

remy said...

Why, yes, it does.

"Stack overflow at line:2"

By the way, have you any idea what has happened to Beep Beep?

Krystalline Apostate said...

remy - I thought she was on vacation? I don't know, to be honest.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Problem w/overflow's been fixed. I had a javascript problem w/CoComment.

karen said...

I was just reading the comments and had to write something because my word verification below is "tkbudpie".

tk budpie, I like that, for some reason. Sounds like a good screen name.

Krystalline Apostate said...

karen - tkbudpie is cute, in a weird sorta way.
You got my permission, doll. ;)