Utilitas

Research Article

‘From a Good Scheme to a Better’: The Itinerancy of Jeremy Bentham, 1769–1789

JAMES BURNS

University College London jhburns1@hotmail.co.uk

Abstract

Bentham was convinced throughout his adult life that law reform in both theory and practice was his vocation. As a deliberately briefless barrister he set out in the early 1770s to establish jurisprudence on the principle of utility. From the first, however, he was repeatedly diverted from this central task. Confronted by the authority of Blackstone, he wrote, without completing, his Comment on the Commentaries, and turned within that context to the specific theme of his Fragment on Government (1776). In the later 1770s he took up the subject of punishment as his principal theme (dealing with an immediate problem in his 1778 View of the Hard-Labour Bill). His Theory of Punishment was projected as his contribution to the siècle des lumières, in which he would stand beside Hume, Helvétius, Voltaire and d'Alembert. That contribution, however, took yet another form when he decided in 1779 to enter (though he did not in the end carry out his intention) the Berne competition for a penal code. For the next ten years he wrestled with the text and eventual destination of his ‘Code’ – still incomplete when the French Revolution took Bentham's attention elsewhere.