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UTILITARIANISM: the ethical theory for all times.
Bentham's Utilitarianism in Victorian England

Part of a course on Victorian England, with a literary slant, with some very good links at http://www.gober.net/victorian/online.html .   I couldn’t from this site find out who, what, or where. 


Bentham's Utilitarianism in Victorian England

 by Paul Roach

from http://www.gober.net/victorian/reports/utilitar.html  

The philosophy of Utilitarianism influenced many of the social reforms in Great Britain during the early half of the nineteenth century. The name most frequently associated with Utilitarianism is that of Jeremy Bentham. Bentham's philosophical principles extended into the realm of government. These principles have been associated with several reform acts entered into English law such as the Factory Act of 1833, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the Prison Act of 1835, the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, the Committee on Education in 1839,the Lunacy Act of 1845, and the Public Health Act of 1845. In terms of their effect on Victorian era reform Bentham's two most influential works appear to be An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) and Constitutional Code (1830-1841). Utilitarianism as a philosophy was also known as Benthamism or Philosophical Radicalism. Opponents to utilitarian thought included Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Charles Dickens.

Bentham's basic premise to his philosophy can be found in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do as well as to determine what we shall do (225) 1.

Along with this idea of pleasure and pain as sovereign masters Bentham introduced what he called the principle of utility. This principle can be summarized as the principle that "every action should be judged right or wrong according to how far it tends to promote or damage the happiness of the community" (29),2.  Bentham believed that human behavior was motivated by the desire to obtain pleasure and to avoid pain. In Introduction to the Principles he states that it is " the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong" (229) 1. These principles were intended by Bentham to be " a precept addressed to the legislators, to those responsible for the management of society" (27)2. Bentham hoped to affect some social change rather than to merely influence intellectual beliefs. He even went so far as to suggest that legislators should regulate the ways in which individuals sought their own happiness. The idea of punishment and reward were to be the means by which the legislator could control the people's pursuit of happiness. Rewards were regarded as a less important method than punishments. Utilitarianism taught that through the infliction and threat of pain people would be provided with motives for abstaining from socially harmful behavior.

Bentham sought to create what he termed a "Pannomion" or a codification of the entire body of English laws as they were known at that time. He believed that the one constant in all these laws should be that they were derived from the will of the legislator. these laws were to be made up of a command or prohibition supported by the threat of punishment. Bentham's emphasis on law and punishment reflected the fears he had towards the natural rights ideology that had resulted in the French Revolution. The "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen" found in the French Constitution of 1791 proclaimed that all men had unlimited rights to "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression". Bentham felt that such unlimited rights were incompatible with any type of law or government.

In his Constitutional Code Bentham developed ideas for what could be termed a utilitarian democracy. In such a democracy the happiness sought by the legislators as individuals had to be made to coincide with the people's happiness. Bentham suggested that the only way to achieve this was to ensure that the legislators were made such by an electoral system based on punishment by dismissal from office. He advocated the policies of secret voting, manhood suffrage, equal electoral districts, and annual elections. Many of these policies were adopted by radical parliamentary reformers during the 1830's and 40's (82).2 In dealing with issues of policy and welfare Utilitarianism considered forms of government that dealt with other issues besides the enforcement of punishment such as the prevention of crime and unemployment. Bentham devised two methods for dealing with these issues, the Panopticon penitentiary and the National Charity Company. The Panopticon penitentiary would be run according to the rules of lenity, severity, and economy. Lenity meant that the prisoners would not be subjected to physical harm. Severity meant that that the prisoner’s level of comfort would not exceed that of the members of the lowest class of society. The economy of the Panopticon would be arrived at through the limited amount of staff needed to run it. According to Bentham's architectural design of such a penitentiary:

The jailer in his central lodge would be able to see into each of the prisoner's cells, but screens and lighting would be so arranged that he himself could not be seen by them...so they would all have the impression of an invisible omnipresence (92).2

As for the poor Bentham proposed the creation of the National Charity Company. This organization was to be responsible for the relief of the indigent of the community. The company would be run under a system of contract management in which workhouses would extract labor from their pauper inhabitants. The contractor of such a workhouse would be paid an allowance per head by the government to house a certain number of paupers. As with the Panopticon, the conditions of the inhabitants were not to be better than the conditions of the lowest classes not living in workhouses. Bentham believed that a system of relief run by the government was necessary because "the greatest happiness principle required that everyone should be secured against starvation and the fear of it" (94). Through the influence of Bentham's ideas Utilitarians have been dubiously credited with helping to "lay the foundation for the creation of the welfare state in Great Britain"(828).3   Any failure of performance, however, cannot be placed upon the principle, but rather the politicians and bureaucrats who ran the programs. 

The effects of the Industrial Revolution in England produced a call for great social reform. Utilitarianism seemed to many members of the middle class to be the answer to that call. The philosophy became popular because it appealed to those who had benefited financially from the Industrial Revolution. The revolution "increased the power of the individual and extended his potential for the consumption of goods and services"(14).4 The utilitarian principle of happiness proposed by Bentham allowed the pursuit of individual happiness, in this case wealth, as morally good. The middle class of England had moved into a position of power as a result of their newfound wealth. This new power caused those who had it to be "enraged by the ridiculous impediments which still hindered individual freedom" (16).4.   The middle class realized that the best way for them to maintain their wealth and power was to enact a democratic system of government such as that suggested by Utilitarianism.

Along with the adoption of a new philosophy among those in new positions of power came the call for the social reform inherent to Utilitarianism. The Reform Act of 1832 allowed the utilitarian influenced middle class to have an active role in legislation. Bentham's influence was manifested when the criminal laws were codified in 1833 and severe penalties for minor crimes were reduced in 1837. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 resulted from the middle class' use of utilitarian principles as well. The belief that the old poor laws were demoralizing to those who received relief was a primary cause for reform. Equally important was the economic burden produced by the administration of the poor laws. The administration of the old poor laws had risen in cost from 619,000 pounds in 1750 to almost 8,000,000 pounds in 1818 (449). The means of supporting these costs fell on the landowners who now had sufficient reason to hope for poor law reform. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was passed and Edwin Chadwick, once Bentham's personal aide, was made secretary of the Poor Law Commission. The influence of Bentham's principles again became manifest when the Poor Law Commission began its new administrative organization. Previously there had been "15,000 different parishes and townships each of which was responsible for the treatment of the poor in their own area" (450).5.  These parishes were now grouped into unions and workhouses were built to house the poor.

The increase of the poor population in cities also resulted from the economic upheaval produced by the Industrial Revolution. The destruction of the cottage industry caused many rural workers to flock to the cities in search of work. Those who were unable to adjust to the new economic system produced a bottom-level middle class or laboring class. The growth of the working class led to a decrease in wages and further unemployment. Working class housing accommodations were essentially slums with poor sanitation. A cholera outbreak prompted Chadwick to order a survey of London to report the relationship of poor living conditions to disease. This led to his Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842) and ultimately to the Public Health Act of 1848.

In addition to the laws relating to the problem of pauperism Utilitarianism influenced other reforms. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 replaced squires and magistrates with bureaucrats who served elected councils. Before this reform there had been no local governments but unevenly formed districts governed by the whim of parish officials. With the Municipal Corporations Act the Benthamite idea that legislators should be subject to the punishment of dismissal was brought to life. By 1833 the government had begun allowing grants to help in the building of schools. In 1839 the first Committee on Education was formed. This parallels Bentham's suggestion in Constitutional Code for an Education Minister who would supervise the execution of new educational legislation.

The Factory Act of 1833 provided professional inspectors who had the power to enter factories, examine them, and asses fines for violations. This legislation was concerned with protecting the security of the governed people, another idea suggested by Bentham in Constitutional Code. Bentham proposed that a Preventive Service Minister be appointed for implementing legislation for among other things, safety regulations in mines and factories. The Lunacy Act of 1845 could also be considered a product of Bentham's proposal for a more humane system of government. In Great Britain national interest pertaining to the problem of insanity led to the formation of the Metropolitan Commission on Lunacy. Insanity became recognized as a medical rather than a moral problem. The Lunacy Act required all counties to "provide adequate asylum accommodation for pauper lunatics, to separate them from the merely indigent or criminal, and made the inspection of all private asylums compulsory" (398). Finally, Bentham's ideas concerning prison reform, they served as forerunners to the Prison Act of 1835.  Although a prison such as the Panopticon was never built Bentham's principles of lenity, severity, and economy in prisons were influential.

Although its premises were first published in the 1790's Bentham's Utilitarianism heavily influenced social reforms in Great Britain during the 1830's and 40's. Bentham died in 1832 before he could witness his ideas come to life in the form of new legislation. Sections of his Constitutional Code published posthumously allowed his presence to be felt during many of the reforms of the late 1840's. The new economy in England produced by the Industrial Revolution created such chaos in society that the utilitarian line of thought seemed logical to many parliamentary reformers. However the creation of the welfare state as well as the focus on using philosophical logic to form legislation had adverse effects. Critics of Utilitarianism said that its application to legislation resulted in the " mechanization of human life " as well as " a contemptuous disregard for the individual” ( 829).3.  Thus Utilitarianism gave rise to social reform as well as social protest such as Dickens' Oliver Twist.



Works Cited


1 All references to Bentham's Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation will be to the section of it republished in Burr and Goldinger's Philosophy and Contemporary Issues. New York: Macmillan,1992. p. 225-232.

2 Dimwiddy, John. Bentham. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

3 Mitchell,Sally,ed. Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. New York and London: Garland Publishing,1988.

4 Cazamian, Louis. The Social Novel in England 1830-1850. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

5 Woodward, Sir Llewellyn. The Age of Reform 1815- 1870. The Oxford history of England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1962.


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