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Cover Political Thinkers

20. Bentham  

Paul Kelly

This chapter examines Jeremy Bentham's political thought. Bentham is both an advocate of laissez-faire and an interventionist, a liberal rationalist and an equivocally liberal thinker prepared to sacrifice the rights of individuals to the well-being of the multitude. His ideas remain contested from all quarters, yet the outline of his actual political thought remains obscure. This chapter defends an interpretation of Bentham as an important liberal thinker with a commitment to the role of government in defending personal security and well-being, but also with a strong scepticism about government as a vehicle for harm as well as good. It first provides a short biography of Bentham before discussing his psychological theory as well as his account of value and duty. It also explores Bentham's views on psychological hedonism, obligations and rules, sovereignty and law, and representative democracy. It concludes with an assessment of Bentham's complex relationship with liberalism.