UCL News


Big Brother in reverse would be Bentham's ideal state

12 October 2004

Utilitarian philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham was a significant driving force in the social reform of the 19th century and beyond, but what would his take be today on the society that he helped lay the foundations for? As a plaque is erected in his honour today at the site of his Westminster home - where the Home Office now stands - UCL's authority on Bentham suggests he would welcome ideas, such as identity cards and increased surveillance, which are causing a stir in some quarters.

But it would not all be praise. As a great critic of the state, Bentham would be dismayed that a republican constitution had not been established; that our judicial system was still dominated by the common law; and that medical research which could benefit many people was being hindered on account of religious and metaphysical dogma.

Professor Philip Schofield, head of UCL's Bentham Project who has dedicated 20 years of research to investigating the work of UCL's spiritual father, explains:

"Bentham's radical critique of society aimed to test the usefulness of existing institutions, practices and beliefs against an objective standard - contribution to happiness. He was an outspoken advocate of law reform, a pugnacious critic of established political doctrines like natural law and wrote the most profound critique of the philosophy of human rights, and was the first to produce a utilitarian justification for democracy.

"He also had much to say of note on subjects as diverse as prison reform, religion, poor relief, international law, and animal welfare. A visionary far ahead of his time, he advocated universal suffrage and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

"Much progress has been made in the 172 years since his death but even today we have not solved the problem as to how we can confirm that the people we are deal with are who they say they are. While some oppose the government's current proposal of introducing identity cards because they believe increased regulation decreases freedom, Bentham believed that regulation had the potential to increase civil liberty.

"Back in the 1700s there wasn't the technology we have today so Bentham's idea was that everyone should have an identity tattoo. Fraud would then be much more difficult; confidence and security would increase; and people have greater freedom to pursue legitimate activities. Similarly Bentham would be in favour of CCTV. He believed that you could make people act in a socially responsible way by watching them.

"This was the principle he used when designing the Panopticon (all-seeing) prison. Its design ensured that no prisoner could ever see the 'inspector' who conducted surveillance from the privileged central location within the radial configuration. The prisoner could never know when he was being watched - uncertainty that in itself would prove to be a crucial instrument of discipline.

"But there was another, more important angle to this. Government would be like the prisoners in Panopticon; the public like the inspector. Bentham called for responsible, and thus open, government-Big Brother in reverse."

Professor Schofield will be available for interview on Bentham's take on the world today on topics including: constitutional reform; the Ministry for Justice; reform of the judicial system; and his plan for world peace.

The plaque to commemorate Bentham will be erected on Tuesday 12 October 2004 at 11.30am at the Home Office, 50 Queen Anne's Gate, London, SW1H 9AT.

Notes to editors


About the Bentham Project

The aim of the Bentham Project is to produce a new scholarly edition of the works and correspondence of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the influential jurist, philosopher, and social scientist. The case for producing a new edition of Bentham's works rests partly on the importance of his thought, and partly on the inadequate and incomplete fashion in which his works were previously published.

Research into his work continues at UCL in the Bentham Project, set up in the early 1960s with the aim of producing the first scholarly edition of his works and correspondence, a projected total of some seventy volumes.

His writings are remarkable for their range, originality and influence. He was one of the greatest reformers, perhaps the greatest, in the history of English law. He was a legal philosopher of major importance, being one of the founders of the theory of legal positivism. In ethics he provided the classic exposition of the utilitarian theory which has been a major strand in moral philosophy since the eighteenth century. In political thought he was important both as a critic of established doctrines such as that of natural law, and as the originator of one of the main theoretical justifications for democracy.

Further information about Jeremy Bentham can be found at:

For further information, please contact:

Judith H Moore
Media Relations Manager
University College London
Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 7678
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Email: Judith.moore@ucl.ac.uk