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Episode
116

Jeremy Bentham & Utilitarianism

First published on
December 18, 2020
Philosophy
-
22
minutes
Philosophy
The Enlightenment
Crime
Life in the UK
Weird history

He was the creator of utilitarianism, a philosophical framework for how societies should be structured, based on the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Learn about the fascinating life of this interesting character, how this theory impacted the law, and how he was true to his beliefs even in death.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Jeremy Bentham and the philosophical theory for which he is most famous, Utilitarianism. 

[00:00:33] It’s the idea that we should maximise happiness and minimise pain, and it provides a framework for thinking about how society should be structured, and how we should behave. 

[00:00:46] We’ll talk about how Bentham developed these theories, what the principles and key ideas of utilitarianism are, how Bentham used this to reform the law, and we’ll finish by revealing what happened to his body when he died.

[00:01:05] Bentham is a really interesting character, and utilitarianism is a super interesting topic that has had a huge impact on the way in which Western societies have developed. 

[00:01:17] So, I hope you’ll enjoy this episode.

[00:01:20] Before we get right into that though, let me quickly remind you that you can follow along to this episode with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary, so you don’t miss a word and build up your vocabulary as you go, over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:38] This episode is set to be released on December the 17th, and Christmas is only just a week away. So, if you’re looking for a Christmas present for someone who might want to improve their English in a more interesting way, or maybe you’d like a membership to Leonardo English yourself, then we also have gift memberships available. And I can’t think of many better Christmas presents for a curious mind.

[00:02:03] So, if that’s of interest, either for yourself or for someone else, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:13] Ok then, let’s get started and talk about Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism.

[00:02:20] Jeremy Bentham was born in London on the 15 February 1748, to a wealthy family. 

[00:02:28] He was reportedly a child prodigy, an extremely gifted child, and was once found sitting at his father's desk reading a multi-volume history of England.

[00:02:42] He even started to study Latin when he was three.

[00:02:47] He was sent to study law at Oxford university when he was only 12 years old, graduating as an undergraduate when he was 15, and getting his postgraduate degree when he was 18 years old, in 1766.

[00:03:03] He was destined to become a lawyer, but he had no interest in practising law, instead preferring to work on ways to improve it, and developing new frameworks to think about how rules and decisions should be made.

[00:03:22] This was towards the end of the Enlightenment, when pre-existing beliefs of morals, philosophy, and ethics had been brought into question.

[00:03:35] Bentham had been very influenced by Enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot and Voltaire, and he built on Enlightenment ideas about the moral role of government, what government was actually meant to do.

[00:03:52] In 1789, the same year as the French Revolution, he published his most important work, called Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

[00:04:05] This laid out his views on philosophy, and introduced the greatest happiness principle.

[00:04:13] Bentham proposed that every decision should be evaluated, it should be judged, based on the pleasure and pain that result from it, and that a society should seek to take decisions that are likely to cause the greatest happiness for the most amount of people.

[00:04:36] Now, this might not sound like a revolutionary idea, but it was novel at the time.

[00:04:44] Bentham proposed a new framework for thinking about every decision that we take. 

[00:04:51] Instead of relying on old, inherent principles of right and wrong, or laws that might have existed for hundreds of years, Bentham proposed an empirical, scientific system for evaluating everything that we do. 

[00:05:11] A way that you could actually measure, that you could quantify.

[00:05:17] By pleasure, he didn’t just mean pleasure in terms of physical pleasure; it was also spiritual pleasure.

[00:05:25] And the same for pain, it wasn’t just physical pain, but also spiritual pain.

[00:05:32] And he defined six different ways in which you could measure pleasure and pain

[00:05:40] The first was its intensity, how intense and powerful it was.

[00:05:47] Secondly its duration, how long it lasted.

[00:05:51] Thirdly, its certainty, how certain was the act to cause pain or pleasure.

[00:05:59] Fourth, its proximity, so, how close the pain or pleasure will be to the action - will it happen immediately or will it take 10 years?

[00:06:11] Fifth, its productiveness, so how likely is it to lead to more pleasure or pain?

[00:06:18] And finally its purity, so is it just pleasure, or does it also involve some pain?

[00:06:26] Bentham proposed that any action could and should be evaluated based on these six categories, and that this should be a framework for taking any decision, and also a framework with which rules and laws should be made.

[00:06:47] Bentham rejected the existing laws because they were not based on calculations and empirical data. There was no ‘reason’ for them, and just because they had always been like that, that didn’t make them right, it didn't make them morally correct.

[00:07:07] In many cases, he believed that the laws actually did more harm than good.

[00:07:14] One of his first examples of this was to do with the punishment of criminals, and how criminals were treated.

[00:07:22] Now, if you have listened to the episodes on things like the British empire, or the gin craze, you’ll know that the justice system in Britain was pretty harsh. 

[00:07:36] You could be executed or thrown into prison for crimes that we would now consider to be very minor, which had the result of hundreds of thousands of people being killed, put into prison or sent off to the colonies.

[00:07:54] Bentham used his new ethical framework to propose that the justice system was harmful, it was actually causing more pain than pleasure. The pain that these criminals had to endure was not only unnecessary in most cases, but it didn’t result in pleasure for society, or the reformation of these criminals.

[00:08:21] So he proposed some radical ideas about what could be done about the wider justice system. 

[00:08:30] But what he started off with was actually an idea about a new type of prison, something called a Panopticon. 

[00:08:40] This idea involved a circular prison, with a room with guards in the centre. 

[00:08:47] From there the guards could look out and observe all the prisoners, leading to a reduction in the number of guards that were actually required. This would lead to more efficient, less expensive prisons that actually did a better job at rehabilitating the prisoners inside. 

[00:09:08] So more pleasure, less pain, it ticked all the boxes in the utilitarian framework

[00:09:16] After some initial interest from the British government, and Bentham ploughing in large amounts of his own money, the plan was rejected, leaving Bentham bitter about the interests of the ruling class, which he later developed into a theory of how selfish interests manifest themselves in decision making.

[00:09:40] But this rejection of his architectural idea didn’t stop Bentham from pursuing his more radical plans about how the justice system, and the penal code, should be reformed.

[00:09:54] Seen through the lens of utilitarianism, a lot of the prevailing justice system, the justice system at the time, didn’t make sense.

[00:10:04] Why should someone be killed for stealing? 

[00:10:08] This causes a lot of pain to them, and to their family, and what pleasure is gained, who actually benefits? 

[00:10:16] What good does it actually do?

[00:10:20] This concept of pleasure vs. pain wasn’t actually Bentham’s invention. It can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, and to Epicurean. 

[00:10:33] And naturally, ideas of what is right and wrong, and how to evaluate right and wrong is at the core of philosophy. 

[00:10:42] But the ancient philosophers tended to focus on individual decision making, so how should you or I take a decision?

[00:10:53] Bentham enlarged this to focus on a society as a whole, with his system of utilitarianism proposing that societies should base their decisions on where the most amount of pleasure can be gained at the expense of the least pain.

[00:11:12] So for every decision, what should be done in order for the most amount of pleasure to be created for society and the people in it?

[00:11:23] Bentham accepted that this idea in itself had its own share of problems though. For example, if a majority in society gains pleasure from something at the expense of the extreme suffering of a minority in society, is that acceptable?

[00:11:42] You could point at things like gladiators in ancient Rome and say, well, the audience gain pleasure from seeing people killing each other and being eaten by wild animals, and there are thousands of people in the audience and only a handful of people who are savagely killed. 

[00:12:03] And indeed this was one of the greatest criticisms of utilitarianism, and certainly is still a problem today - countries and societies don’t agree on the best way to solve it.

[00:12:17] Just look at almost any democratic election around the world today and there will be a plethora of different viewpoints about what the trade-offs should be between helping the least fortunate in society vs helping the majority.

[00:12:35] The pro-utilitarianism point of view is that at least Bentham, and utilitarianism propose an empirical framework to think about it, a way that you can actually measure to evaluate what the best decision is.

[00:12:53]Of course, taking decisions purely from a utilitarian point of view allows for a society to become very unequal, assuming that those experiencing the pain, or having the least, are in the minority.

[00:13:10] Bentham continued to hone his theory, to adapt it for these sorts of scenarios and prepare it for these questions, but the basic theory of utilitarianism remained that decisions should be taken based on the total happiness of its people, the total pleasure minus total pain.

[00:13:30] Another issue, or critique, that is often raised about utilitarianism is that it doesn’t provide a definition of what happiness is. 

[00:13:42] This is evidently a question that has troubled, and continues to trouble, philosophers throughout history, but Bentham’s utilitarian framework wasn’t trying to provide the meaning of happiness. 

[00:13:57] Instead, he was providing a framework for how we should think about decision-making, how societies should be structured in order to make sure that the most happiness can be experienced, whatever happiness actually may be.

[00:14:14] And although he started with the world of criminal justice, he didn’t stop there, he expanded his theories to evaluate the laws around everything from economics to sexuality and animal rights.

[00:14:28] In terms of economics, England had been experiencing rising food prices and life for the poor in the country was dreadful. Bentham proposed changes to monetary policy that would help the poor, such as pumping money into the financial system to pay for things like poor houses, which were large houses for poor  people to live and work in.

[00:14:55] In terms of sexuality, he used this framework to propose the reform of laws around homosexuality. 

[00:15:03] Using the greatest happiness principle, Bentham suggested that homosexual acts resulted in pleasure for people who felt the desire to do them, and caused no pain to people who didn’t do them, therefore it make no sense for them to be prohibited by law, for them to not be allowed by law. There was no good reason for homosexuality to be illegal.

[00:15:29] And he was also one of the earliest proponents of animal rights, again, using the same framework

[00:15:38] He agreed that animals could be killed if the pleasure that was obtained from their death was greater than the pain caused, so they could be killed for food, for example. And there could be experiments done on animals if the pleasure that would result from them would be greater on aggregate, in total, than the pain caused to that animal.

[00:16:02] The previous system for thinking about the treatment of animals had been based on the fact that animals can not reason, they cannot think rationally, therefore they shouldn’t be considered in the same category as humans. 

[00:16:18] But Bentham, forever the logician, using logic to evaluate every argument, suggested that if that were the case, and the ability to reason was what decided who had rights and who didn’t, then human babies and some adults with disabilities should also not have those rights, therefore the previous way of thinking made no sense.

[00:16:46] Instead, coming back to utilitarianism, Bentham proposed that the deciding factor should be whether animals can feel, whether they can sense pain or pleasure. 

[00:16:59] Animals can, of course, feel, they can sense pleasure and pain, therefore we should consider actions towards them in exactly the same way in which we think about actions towards fellow humans.

[00:17:13] Now, although Bentham’s ideas and utilitarianism were not without their critics, and there are certainly imperfections in his theories, they were hugely influential in England, and have had an impact on philosophers and legal systems all over the world.

[00:17:31] Indeed, if a lot of the theories we’ve talked about today seem not that revolutionary to you now, it is probably because the legal systems that exist today are greatly influenced by utilitarian ideas.

[00:17:47] When he died, on June 6, 1832, Bentham was true to his utilitarian beliefs. 

[00:17:55] He could have asked to be buried, but what pleasure would that cause anyone? 

[00:18:01] Instead, he wanted his death to result in the greatest utility, the greatest benefit, the greatest pleasure to mankind, so what did he do?

[00:18:12] Firstly, he donated it to medical science, and requested for it to be dissected, for it to be cut up. 

[00:18:20] Further to that, he also requested for something called an auto-icon to be created.

[00:18:27] Now, Bentham really invented this concept, so I don’t blame you if you haven’t heard the term ‘auto-icon’ before.

[00:18:35] Essentially it means that he wanted his body to be embalmed and put on display so that others could see it. 

[00:18:43] And you can still see Jeremy Bentham’s body today. It actually sits in a glass cabinet in my old university, University College London. 

[00:18:55] Jeremy Bentham was the spiritual founder of University College London, which was founded on utilitarian ideas of equality and justice, and there is this glass box in the entrance hall of the university with Jeremy Bentham sitting there, dressed up and looking as if he is thinking about a tough philosophical problem. 

[00:19:19] It is his real body, although the head is a waxwork

[00:19:24] In a slightly gruesome twist, the original head was stolen by students from a rival university, King's College London, in 1989, before being returned a few weeks later.

[00:19:39] Legend has it that they actually played football with the head as they took it back to their university.

[00:19:47] Then a year later, after the original, the real head had been safely locked away and replaced with the waxwork one, it was stolen again, by students from the same rival university, before being returned to University College, where it now remains.

[00:20:06] No doubt the students gained a lot of pleasure and happiness by stealing Bentham’s head, but it caused a lot of pain to University College. 

[00:20:15] So, was the pleasure of stealing and playing with the head greater than the pain of it being stolen? 

[00:20:23] Who knows what Jeremy Bentham would think, but he would certainly be happy that we were looking at the question through a utilitarian lens.

[00:20:34] OK then, that is it for  this little introduction to Jeremy Bentham. 

[00:20:39] He gave us a framework for life, an ethical framework for how to structure societies for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

[00:20:49] Whether we believe it’s the right framework is another question.

[00:20:54] And as to the question of what happiness really is, that of course is one Bentham left for us to figure out for ourselves.

[00:21:03] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:07] If you're a member of Leonardo English, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:16] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, to unlock the transcripts, the subtitles, and key vocabulary, and to support a more interesting way of improving your English then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:21:37] As I said at the start of the episode, we also now have gift memberships available, so if you are looking for the perfect present for someone who wants to improve their English in a more interesting way, then you should head on down to leonardoenglish.com

[00:21:52] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:21:58] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF PODCAST]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Jeremy Bentham and the philosophical theory for which he is most famous, Utilitarianism. 

[00:00:33] It’s the idea that we should maximise happiness and minimise pain, and it provides a framework for thinking about how society should be structured, and how we should behave. 

[00:00:46] We’ll talk about how Bentham developed these theories, what the principles and key ideas of utilitarianism are, how Bentham used this to reform the law, and we’ll finish by revealing what happened to his body when he died.

[00:01:05] Bentham is a really interesting character, and utilitarianism is a super interesting topic that has had a huge impact on the way in which Western societies have developed. 

[00:01:17] So, I hope you’ll enjoy this episode.

[00:01:20] Before we get right into that though, let me quickly remind you that you can follow along to this episode with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary, so you don’t miss a word and build up your vocabulary as you go, over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:38] This episode is set to be released on December the 17th, and Christmas is only just a week away. So, if you’re looking for a Christmas present for someone who might want to improve their English in a more interesting way, or maybe you’d like a membership to Leonardo English yourself, then we also have gift memberships available. And I can’t think of many better Christmas presents for a curious mind.

[00:02:03] So, if that’s of interest, either for yourself or for someone else, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:13] Ok then, let’s get started and talk about Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism.

[00:02:20] Jeremy Bentham was born in London on the 15 February 1748, to a wealthy family. 

[00:02:28] He was reportedly a child prodigy, an extremely gifted child, and was once found sitting at his father's desk reading a multi-volume history of England.

[00:02:42] He even started to study Latin when he was three.

[00:02:47] He was sent to study law at Oxford university when he was only 12 years old, graduating as an undergraduate when he was 15, and getting his postgraduate degree when he was 18 years old, in 1766.

[00:03:03] He was destined to become a lawyer, but he had no interest in practising law, instead preferring to work on ways to improve it, and developing new frameworks to think about how rules and decisions should be made.

[00:03:22] This was towards the end of the Enlightenment, when pre-existing beliefs of morals, philosophy, and ethics had been brought into question.

[00:03:35] Bentham had been very influenced by Enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot and Voltaire, and he built on Enlightenment ideas about the moral role of government, what government was actually meant to do.

[00:03:52] In 1789, the same year as the French Revolution, he published his most important work, called Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

[00:04:05] This laid out his views on philosophy, and introduced the greatest happiness principle.

[00:04:13] Bentham proposed that every decision should be evaluated, it should be judged, based on the pleasure and pain that result from it, and that a society should seek to take decisions that are likely to cause the greatest happiness for the most amount of people.

[00:04:36] Now, this might not sound like a revolutionary idea, but it was novel at the time.

[00:04:44] Bentham proposed a new framework for thinking about every decision that we take. 

[00:04:51] Instead of relying on old, inherent principles of right and wrong, or laws that might have existed for hundreds of years, Bentham proposed an empirical, scientific system for evaluating everything that we do. 

[00:05:11] A way that you could actually measure, that you could quantify.

[00:05:17] By pleasure, he didn’t just mean pleasure in terms of physical pleasure; it was also spiritual pleasure.

[00:05:25] And the same for pain, it wasn’t just physical pain, but also spiritual pain.

[00:05:32] And he defined six different ways in which you could measure pleasure and pain

[00:05:40] The first was its intensity, how intense and powerful it was.

[00:05:47] Secondly its duration, how long it lasted.

[00:05:51] Thirdly, its certainty, how certain was the act to cause pain or pleasure.

[00:05:59] Fourth, its proximity, so, how close the pain or pleasure will be to the action - will it happen immediately or will it take 10 years?

[00:06:11] Fifth, its productiveness, so how likely is it to lead to more pleasure or pain?

[00:06:18] And finally its purity, so is it just pleasure, or does it also involve some pain?

[00:06:26] Bentham proposed that any action could and should be evaluated based on these six categories, and that this should be a framework for taking any decision, and also a framework with which rules and laws should be made.

[00:06:47] Bentham rejected the existing laws because they were not based on calculations and empirical data. There was no ‘reason’ for them, and just because they had always been like that, that didn’t make them right, it didn't make them morally correct.

[00:07:07] In many cases, he believed that the laws actually did more harm than good.

[00:07:14] One of his first examples of this was to do with the punishment of criminals, and how criminals were treated.

[00:07:22] Now, if you have listened to the episodes on things like the British empire, or the gin craze, you’ll know that the justice system in Britain was pretty harsh. 

[00:07:36] You could be executed or thrown into prison for crimes that we would now consider to be very minor, which had the result of hundreds of thousands of people being killed, put into prison or sent off to the colonies.

[00:07:54] Bentham used his new ethical framework to propose that the justice system was harmful, it was actually causing more pain than pleasure. The pain that these criminals had to endure was not only unnecessary in most cases, but it didn’t result in pleasure for society, or the reformation of these criminals.

[00:08:21] So he proposed some radical ideas about what could be done about the wider justice system. 

[00:08:30] But what he started off with was actually an idea about a new type of prison, something called a Panopticon. 

[00:08:40] This idea involved a circular prison, with a room with guards in the centre. 

[00:08:47] From there the guards could look out and observe all the prisoners, leading to a reduction in the number of guards that were actually required. This would lead to more efficient, less expensive prisons that actually did a better job at rehabilitating the prisoners inside. 

[00:09:08] So more pleasure, less pain, it ticked all the boxes in the utilitarian framework

[00:09:16] After some initial interest from the British government, and Bentham ploughing in large amounts of his own money, the plan was rejected, leaving Bentham bitter about the interests of the ruling class, which he later developed into a theory of how selfish interests manifest themselves in decision making.

[00:09:40] But this rejection of his architectural idea didn’t stop Bentham from pursuing his more radical plans about how the justice system, and the penal code, should be reformed.

[00:09:54] Seen through the lens of utilitarianism, a lot of the prevailing justice system, the justice system at the time, didn’t make sense.

[00:10:04] Why should someone be killed for stealing? 

[00:10:08] This causes a lot of pain to them, and to their family, and what pleasure is gained, who actually benefits? 

[00:10:16] What good does it actually do?

[00:10:20] This concept of pleasure vs. pain wasn’t actually Bentham’s invention. It can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, and to Epicurean. 

[00:10:33] And naturally, ideas of what is right and wrong, and how to evaluate right and wrong is at the core of philosophy. 

[00:10:42] But the ancient philosophers tended to focus on individual decision making, so how should you or I take a decision?

[00:10:53] Bentham enlarged this to focus on a society as a whole, with his system of utilitarianism proposing that societies should base their decisions on where the most amount of pleasure can be gained at the expense of the least pain.

[00:11:12] So for every decision, what should be done in order for the most amount of pleasure to be created for society and the people in it?

[00:11:23] Bentham accepted that this idea in itself had its own share of problems though. For example, if a majority in society gains pleasure from something at the expense of the extreme suffering of a minority in society, is that acceptable?

[00:11:42] You could point at things like gladiators in ancient Rome and say, well, the audience gain pleasure from seeing people killing each other and being eaten by wild animals, and there are thousands of people in the audience and only a handful of people who are savagely killed. 

[00:12:03] And indeed this was one of the greatest criticisms of utilitarianism, and certainly is still a problem today - countries and societies don’t agree on the best way to solve it.

[00:12:17] Just look at almost any democratic election around the world today and there will be a plethora of different viewpoints about what the trade-offs should be between helping the least fortunate in society vs helping the majority.

[00:12:35] The pro-utilitarianism point of view is that at least Bentham, and utilitarianism propose an empirical framework to think about it, a way that you can actually measure to evaluate what the best decision is.

[00:12:53]Of course, taking decisions purely from a utilitarian point of view allows for a society to become very unequal, assuming that those experiencing the pain, or having the least, are in the minority.

[00:13:10] Bentham continued to hone his theory, to adapt it for these sorts of scenarios and prepare it for these questions, but the basic theory of utilitarianism remained that decisions should be taken based on the total happiness of its people, the total pleasure minus total pain.

[00:13:30] Another issue, or critique, that is often raised about utilitarianism is that it doesn’t provide a definition of what happiness is. 

[00:13:42] This is evidently a question that has troubled, and continues to trouble, philosophers throughout history, but Bentham’s utilitarian framework wasn’t trying to provide the meaning of happiness. 

[00:13:57] Instead, he was providing a framework for how we should think about decision-making, how societies should be structured in order to make sure that the most happiness can be experienced, whatever happiness actually may be.

[00:14:14] And although he started with the world of criminal justice, he didn’t stop there, he expanded his theories to evaluate the laws around everything from economics to sexuality and animal rights.

[00:14:28] In terms of economics, England had been experiencing rising food prices and life for the poor in the country was dreadful. Bentham proposed changes to monetary policy that would help the poor, such as pumping money into the financial system to pay for things like poor houses, which were large houses for poor  people to live and work in.

[00:14:55] In terms of sexuality, he used this framework to propose the reform of laws around homosexuality. 

[00:15:03] Using the greatest happiness principle, Bentham suggested that homosexual acts resulted in pleasure for people who felt the desire to do them, and caused no pain to people who didn’t do them, therefore it make no sense for them to be prohibited by law, for them to not be allowed by law. There was no good reason for homosexuality to be illegal.

[00:15:29] And he was also one of the earliest proponents of animal rights, again, using the same framework

[00:15:38] He agreed that animals could be killed if the pleasure that was obtained from their death was greater than the pain caused, so they could be killed for food, for example. And there could be experiments done on animals if the pleasure that would result from them would be greater on aggregate, in total, than the pain caused to that animal.

[00:16:02] The previous system for thinking about the treatment of animals had been based on the fact that animals can not reason, they cannot think rationally, therefore they shouldn’t be considered in the same category as humans. 

[00:16:18] But Bentham, forever the logician, using logic to evaluate every argument, suggested that if that were the case, and the ability to reason was what decided who had rights and who didn’t, then human babies and some adults with disabilities should also not have those rights, therefore the previous way of thinking made no sense.

[00:16:46] Instead, coming back to utilitarianism, Bentham proposed that the deciding factor should be whether animals can feel, whether they can sense pain or pleasure. 

[00:16:59] Animals can, of course, feel, they can sense pleasure and pain, therefore we should consider actions towards them in exactly the same way in which we think about actions towards fellow humans.

[00:17:13] Now, although Bentham’s ideas and utilitarianism were not without their critics, and there are certainly imperfections in his theories, they were hugely influential in England, and have had an impact on philosophers and legal systems all over the world.

[00:17:31] Indeed, if a lot of the theories we’ve talked about today seem not that revolutionary to you now, it is probably because the legal systems that exist today are greatly influenced by utilitarian ideas.

[00:17:47] When he died, on June 6, 1832, Bentham was true to his utilitarian beliefs. 

[00:17:55] He could have asked to be buried, but what pleasure would that cause anyone? 

[00:18:01] Instead, he wanted his death to result in the greatest utility, the greatest benefit, the greatest pleasure to mankind, so what did he do?

[00:18:12] Firstly, he donated it to medical science, and requested for it to be dissected, for it to be cut up. 

[00:18:20] Further to that, he also requested for something called an auto-icon to be created.

[00:18:27] Now, Bentham really invented this concept, so I don’t blame you if you haven’t heard the term ‘auto-icon’ before.

[00:18:35] Essentially it means that he wanted his body to be embalmed and put on display so that others could see it. 

[00:18:43] And you can still see Jeremy Bentham’s body today. It actually sits in a glass cabinet in my old university, University College London. 

[00:18:55] Jeremy Bentham was the spiritual founder of University College London, which was founded on utilitarian ideas of equality and justice, and there is this glass box in the entrance hall of the university with Jeremy Bentham sitting there, dressed up and looking as if he is thinking about a tough philosophical problem. 

[00:19:19] It is his real body, although the head is a waxwork

[00:19:24] In a slightly gruesome twist, the original head was stolen by students from a rival university, King's College London, in 1989, before being returned a few weeks later.

[00:19:39] Legend has it that they actually played football with the head as they took it back to their university.

[00:19:47] Then a year later, after the original, the real head had been safely locked away and replaced with the waxwork one, it was stolen again, by students from the same rival university, before being returned to University College, where it now remains.

[00:20:06] No doubt the students gained a lot of pleasure and happiness by stealing Bentham’s head, but it caused a lot of pain to University College. 

[00:20:15] So, was the pleasure of stealing and playing with the head greater than the pain of it being stolen? 

[00:20:23] Who knows what Jeremy Bentham would think, but he would certainly be happy that we were looking at the question through a utilitarian lens.

[00:20:34] OK then, that is it for  this little introduction to Jeremy Bentham. 

[00:20:39] He gave us a framework for life, an ethical framework for how to structure societies for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

[00:20:49] Whether we believe it’s the right framework is another question.

[00:20:54] And as to the question of what happiness really is, that of course is one Bentham left for us to figure out for ourselves.

[00:21:03] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:07] If you're a member of Leonardo English, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:16] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, to unlock the transcripts, the subtitles, and key vocabulary, and to support a more interesting way of improving your English then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:21:37] As I said at the start of the episode, we also now have gift memberships available, so if you are looking for the perfect present for someone who wants to improve their English in a more interesting way, then you should head on down to leonardoenglish.com

[00:21:52] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:21:58] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF PODCAST]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Jeremy Bentham and the philosophical theory for which he is most famous, Utilitarianism. 

[00:00:33] It’s the idea that we should maximise happiness and minimise pain, and it provides a framework for thinking about how society should be structured, and how we should behave. 

[00:00:46] We’ll talk about how Bentham developed these theories, what the principles and key ideas of utilitarianism are, how Bentham used this to reform the law, and we’ll finish by revealing what happened to his body when he died.

[00:01:05] Bentham is a really interesting character, and utilitarianism is a super interesting topic that has had a huge impact on the way in which Western societies have developed. 

[00:01:17] So, I hope you’ll enjoy this episode.

[00:01:20] Before we get right into that though, let me quickly remind you that you can follow along to this episode with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary, so you don’t miss a word and build up your vocabulary as you go, over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:38] This episode is set to be released on December the 17th, and Christmas is only just a week away. So, if you’re looking for a Christmas present for someone who might want to improve their English in a more interesting way, or maybe you’d like a membership to Leonardo English yourself, then we also have gift memberships available. And I can’t think of many better Christmas presents for a curious mind.

[00:02:03] So, if that’s of interest, either for yourself or for someone else, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:13] Ok then, let’s get started and talk about Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism.

[00:02:20] Jeremy Bentham was born in London on the 15 February 1748, to a wealthy family. 

[00:02:28] He was reportedly a child prodigy, an extremely gifted child, and was once found sitting at his father's desk reading a multi-volume history of England.

[00:02:42] He even started to study Latin when he was three.

[00:02:47] He was sent to study law at Oxford university when he was only 12 years old, graduating as an undergraduate when he was 15, and getting his postgraduate degree when he was 18 years old, in 1766.

[00:03:03] He was destined to become a lawyer, but he had no interest in practising law, instead preferring to work on ways to improve it, and developing new frameworks to think about how rules and decisions should be made.

[00:03:22] This was towards the end of the Enlightenment, when pre-existing beliefs of morals, philosophy, and ethics had been brought into question.

[00:03:35] Bentham had been very influenced by Enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot and Voltaire, and he built on Enlightenment ideas about the moral role of government, what government was actually meant to do.

[00:03:52] In 1789, the same year as the French Revolution, he published his most important work, called Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

[00:04:05] This laid out his views on philosophy, and introduced the greatest happiness principle.

[00:04:13] Bentham proposed that every decision should be evaluated, it should be judged, based on the pleasure and pain that result from it, and that a society should seek to take decisions that are likely to cause the greatest happiness for the most amount of people.

[00:04:36] Now, this might not sound like a revolutionary idea, but it was novel at the time.

[00:04:44] Bentham proposed a new framework for thinking about every decision that we take. 

[00:04:51] Instead of relying on old, inherent principles of right and wrong, or laws that might have existed for hundreds of years, Bentham proposed an empirical, scientific system for evaluating everything that we do. 

[00:05:11] A way that you could actually measure, that you could quantify.

[00:05:17] By pleasure, he didn’t just mean pleasure in terms of physical pleasure; it was also spiritual pleasure.

[00:05:25] And the same for pain, it wasn’t just physical pain, but also spiritual pain.

[00:05:32] And he defined six different ways in which you could measure pleasure and pain

[00:05:40] The first was its intensity, how intense and powerful it was.

[00:05:47] Secondly its duration, how long it lasted.

[00:05:51] Thirdly, its certainty, how certain was the act to cause pain or pleasure.

[00:05:59] Fourth, its proximity, so, how close the pain or pleasure will be to the action - will it happen immediately or will it take 10 years?

[00:06:11] Fifth, its productiveness, so how likely is it to lead to more pleasure or pain?

[00:06:18] And finally its purity, so is it just pleasure, or does it also involve some pain?

[00:06:26] Bentham proposed that any action could and should be evaluated based on these six categories, and that this should be a framework for taking any decision, and also a framework with which rules and laws should be made.

[00:06:47] Bentham rejected the existing laws because they were not based on calculations and empirical data. There was no ‘reason’ for them, and just because they had always been like that, that didn’t make them right, it didn't make them morally correct.

[00:07:07] In many cases, he believed that the laws actually did more harm than good.

[00:07:14] One of his first examples of this was to do with the punishment of criminals, and how criminals were treated.

[00:07:22] Now, if you have listened to the episodes on things like the British empire, or the gin craze, you’ll know that the justice system in Britain was pretty harsh. 

[00:07:36] You could be executed or thrown into prison for crimes that we would now consider to be very minor, which had the result of hundreds of thousands of people being killed, put into prison or sent off to the colonies.

[00:07:54] Bentham used his new ethical framework to propose that the justice system was harmful, it was actually causing more pain than pleasure. The pain that these criminals had to endure was not only unnecessary in most cases, but it didn’t result in pleasure for society, or the reformation of these criminals.

[00:08:21] So he proposed some radical ideas about what could be done about the wider justice system. 

[00:08:30] But what he started off with was actually an idea about a new type of prison, something called a Panopticon. 

[00:08:40] This idea involved a circular prison, with a room with guards in the centre. 

[00:08:47] From there the guards could look out and observe all the prisoners, leading to a reduction in the number of guards that were actually required. This would lead to more efficient, less expensive prisons that actually did a better job at rehabilitating the prisoners inside. 

[00:09:08] So more pleasure, less pain, it ticked all the boxes in the utilitarian framework

[00:09:16] After some initial interest from the British government, and Bentham ploughing in large amounts of his own money, the plan was rejected, leaving Bentham bitter about the interests of the ruling class, which he later developed into a theory of how selfish interests manifest themselves in decision making.

[00:09:40] But this rejection of his architectural idea didn’t stop Bentham from pursuing his more radical plans about how the justice system, and the penal code, should be reformed.

[00:09:54] Seen through the lens of utilitarianism, a lot of the prevailing justice system, the justice system at the time, didn’t make sense.

[00:10:04] Why should someone be killed for stealing? 

[00:10:08] This causes a lot of pain to them, and to their family, and what pleasure is gained, who actually benefits? 

[00:10:16] What good does it actually do?

[00:10:20] This concept of pleasure vs. pain wasn’t actually Bentham’s invention. It can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, and to Epicurean. 

[00:10:33] And naturally, ideas of what is right and wrong, and how to evaluate right and wrong is at the core of philosophy. 

[00:10:42] But the ancient philosophers tended to focus on individual decision making, so how should you or I take a decision?

[00:10:53] Bentham enlarged this to focus on a society as a whole, with his system of utilitarianism proposing that societies should base their decisions on where the most amount of pleasure can be gained at the expense of the least pain.

[00:11:12] So for every decision, what should be done in order for the most amount of pleasure to be created for society and the people in it?

[00:11:23] Bentham accepted that this idea in itself had its own share of problems though. For example, if a majority in society gains pleasure from something at the expense of the extreme suffering of a minority in society, is that acceptable?

[00:11:42] You could point at things like gladiators in ancient Rome and say, well, the audience gain pleasure from seeing people killing each other and being eaten by wild animals, and there are thousands of people in the audience and only a handful of people who are savagely killed. 

[00:12:03] And indeed this was one of the greatest criticisms of utilitarianism, and certainly is still a problem today - countries and societies don’t agree on the best way to solve it.

[00:12:17] Just look at almost any democratic election around the world today and there will be a plethora of different viewpoints about what the trade-offs should be between helping the least fortunate in society vs helping the majority.

[00:12:35] The pro-utilitarianism point of view is that at least Bentham, and utilitarianism propose an empirical framework to think about it, a way that you can actually measure to evaluate what the best decision is.

[00:12:53]Of course, taking decisions purely from a utilitarian point of view allows for a society to become very unequal, assuming that those experiencing the pain, or having the least, are in the minority.

[00:13:10] Bentham continued to hone his theory, to adapt it for these sorts of scenarios and prepare it for these questions, but the basic theory of utilitarianism remained that decisions should be taken based on the total happiness of its people, the total pleasure minus total pain.

[00:13:30] Another issue, or critique, that is often raised about utilitarianism is that it doesn’t provide a definition of what happiness is. 

[00:13:42] This is evidently a question that has troubled, and continues to trouble, philosophers throughout history, but Bentham’s utilitarian framework wasn’t trying to provide the meaning of happiness. 

[00:13:57] Instead, he was providing a framework for how we should think about decision-making, how societies should be structured in order to make sure that the most happiness can be experienced, whatever happiness actually may be.

[00:14:14] And although he started with the world of criminal justice, he didn’t stop there, he expanded his theories to evaluate the laws around everything from economics to sexuality and animal rights.

[00:14:28] In terms of economics, England had been experiencing rising food prices and life for the poor in the country was dreadful. Bentham proposed changes to monetary policy that would help the poor, such as pumping money into the financial system to pay for things like poor houses, which were large houses for poor  people to live and work in.

[00:14:55] In terms of sexuality, he used this framework to propose the reform of laws around homosexuality. 

[00:15:03] Using the greatest happiness principle, Bentham suggested that homosexual acts resulted in pleasure for people who felt the desire to do them, and caused no pain to people who didn’t do them, therefore it make no sense for them to be prohibited by law, for them to not be allowed by law. There was no good reason for homosexuality to be illegal.

[00:15:29] And he was also one of the earliest proponents of animal rights, again, using the same framework

[00:15:38] He agreed that animals could be killed if the pleasure that was obtained from their death was greater than the pain caused, so they could be killed for food, for example. And there could be experiments done on animals if the pleasure that would result from them would be greater on aggregate, in total, than the pain caused to that animal.

[00:16:02] The previous system for thinking about the treatment of animals had been based on the fact that animals can not reason, they cannot think rationally, therefore they shouldn’t be considered in the same category as humans. 

[00:16:18] But Bentham, forever the logician, using logic to evaluate every argument, suggested that if that were the case, and the ability to reason was what decided who had rights and who didn’t, then human babies and some adults with disabilities should also not have those rights, therefore the previous way of thinking made no sense.

[00:16:46] Instead, coming back to utilitarianism, Bentham proposed that the deciding factor should be whether animals can feel, whether they can sense pain or pleasure. 

[00:16:59] Animals can, of course, feel, they can sense pleasure and pain, therefore we should consider actions towards them in exactly the same way in which we think about actions towards fellow humans.

[00:17:13] Now, although Bentham’s ideas and utilitarianism were not without their critics, and there are certainly imperfections in his theories, they were hugely influential in England, and have had an impact on philosophers and legal systems all over the world.

[00:17:31] Indeed, if a lot of the theories we’ve talked about today seem not that revolutionary to you now, it is probably because the legal systems that exist today are greatly influenced by utilitarian ideas.

[00:17:47] When he died, on June 6, 1832, Bentham was true to his utilitarian beliefs. 

[00:17:55] He could have asked to be buried, but what pleasure would that cause anyone? 

[00:18:01] Instead, he wanted his death to result in the greatest utility, the greatest benefit, the greatest pleasure to mankind, so what did he do?

[00:18:12] Firstly, he donated it to medical science, and requested for it to be dissected, for it to be cut up. 

[00:18:20] Further to that, he also requested for something called an auto-icon to be created.

[00:18:27] Now, Bentham really invented this concept, so I don’t blame you if you haven’t heard the term ‘auto-icon’ before.

[00:18:35] Essentially it means that he wanted his body to be embalmed and put on display so that others could see it. 

[00:18:43] And you can still see Jeremy Bentham’s body today. It actually sits in a glass cabinet in my old university, University College London. 

[00:18:55] Jeremy Bentham was the spiritual founder of University College London, which was founded on utilitarian ideas of equality and justice, and there is this glass box in the entrance hall of the university with Jeremy Bentham sitting there, dressed up and looking as if he is thinking about a tough philosophical problem. 

[00:19:19] It is his real body, although the head is a waxwork

[00:19:24] In a slightly gruesome twist, the original head was stolen by students from a rival university, King's College London, in 1989, before being returned a few weeks later.

[00:19:39] Legend has it that they actually played football with the head as they took it back to their university.

[00:19:47] Then a year later, after the original, the real head had been safely locked away and replaced with the waxwork one, it was stolen again, by students from the same rival university, before being returned to University College, where it now remains.

[00:20:06] No doubt the students gained a lot of pleasure and happiness by stealing Bentham’s head, but it caused a lot of pain to University College. 

[00:20:15] So, was the pleasure of stealing and playing with the head greater than the pain of it being stolen? 

[00:20:23] Who knows what Jeremy Bentham would think, but he would certainly be happy that we were looking at the question through a utilitarian lens.

[00:20:34] OK then, that is it for  this little introduction to Jeremy Bentham. 

[00:20:39] He gave us a framework for life, an ethical framework for how to structure societies for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

[00:20:49] Whether we believe it’s the right framework is another question.

[00:20:54] And as to the question of what happiness really is, that of course is one Bentham left for us to figure out for ourselves.

[00:21:03] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:07] If you're a member of Leonardo English, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:16] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, to unlock the transcripts, the subtitles, and key vocabulary, and to support a more interesting way of improving your English then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:21:37] As I said at the start of the episode, we also now have gift memberships available, so if you are looking for the perfect present for someone who wants to improve their English in a more interesting way, then you should head on down to leonardoenglish.com

[00:21:52] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:21:58] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF PODCAST]