A Visit with Jeremy

March 6, 2009

A Visit with Jeremy

A Life Dream Come True 

Jeremy and Buie

Jeremy and Buie

I had always wanted to visit the great social reformer and founder of Utilitarian Philosophy Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) at University College London.  Friday of this week I was able to secure an appointment.  Conveniently, as a condition of his Last Will and Testament, Dr. Bentham is preserved in a glass case at the College he helped found.  He is seated in his old college chair and has a most pleasant expression on his face.  Turns out neither the face nor the head are his anymore, it having become necessary to substitute a life-like wax head because on three separate occasions his real head was taken away as part of various student pranks.  His head is retained elsewhere, and I was, unfortunately, not able to meet with this part of Professor Benthan.

There are so many commendable things to relate about Jeremy.  He was mentor and teacher for father James Mill and son John Stuart Mill, the latter having done the major lifting  to ensconce Utilitarian thought in its place as one of the two classic approaches to normative ethics.  Bentham was also someone who worked against both racism and sexism in the laws and institutions of early 19th Century England, and was a strong critic of such practices as the death penalty, as well as corporal punishment of most sorts, particularly such punishment directed at children.  Bentham championed the separation of church and state (not a popular position to this day in the UK), and opposed the criminalization of homosexual acts.  He was both a lawyer and an academic.  With such a magnificent resume, I was truly impressed with how little he had to say about himself.  He proved to be an excellent listener throughout my brief visit.

Jeremy is still active in affairs of his college, having attended on at least two occasions meetings of his faculty – the 100th and 150th anniversaries of his death.  Apparently, being dead is a useful attribute in terms of fully appreciating and enjoying faculty meetings.  He also plays (though I was unable to get him definitively to confirm this) an important role in faculty meetings of University College; Bentham dutifully breaks all ties by voting in the negative.  He recommended this approach to me as being an insightful way not to have to listen to faculty hair-splitting debates, while almost always contributing to the greatest good for the greatest number relative to the outcome of faculty decisions.  Nothing being usually better than something.

As many of my colleagues know, I am not inclined to be particularly Utilitarian or Teleological in my approach to ethics.  Teleological (teleos is Greek for “the end”) ethics in which ends justify means has always left me cold.  But I will grant him this, Jeremy Bentham has uniquely avoided an end that most would agree is as inevitable as taxes.  Oh, by the way, Jeremy did ask me as I was about to leave if I could speak to the Provost about turning up the heat in University Hall.

3 Responses to “A Visit with Jeremy”

  1. 1 Rick March 11, 2009 at 4:34 am


    Good to visit with you. I had a bit of a headache before your visit, but how quickly it resolved once we began our talk.


  2. 2 Don March 14, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Hi again Buie,

    We just returned from a 4 hour St. Patrick;s Day parade in Hartford and enjoyed Lucy, Caroline, and their parents.

    Your post about Jeremy B. makes me think about what other people are stuffed and on display in our world, and that, in turn, takes me back to that wonderful place in Denver where we had dinner several years back….some sort of a hunting club, I recall. EVERYTHING was stuffed (as in taxidermy) !! As I sampled my antelope and elk meat, I gazed on between 20 and 30 stuffed heads of their family members on the dining room wall.

    Away from stuffed animals and on to stuffed people. My son, Rob, saw Ho Chi Minh come up out of the ground and be on display in Hanoi, and I have another friend who saw Lenin elevated for daily viewing in Red Square, but that’s as far as I can go with stuffed people….althougb I can now add Jeremy to the list. I don’t know if both Ho and Vladimir still make take their daily elevator rides, and i read that Vladimir Lenin needed some major filler on his face a few years back. What wonderful cocktail party conversational grist that knowledge is!!

    Glad you and Jeremy had a wonderful time together, and I’m sure he apprecited the kind comments about him on your blog.

    Best wishes from The Land of Steady Habits.


  3. 3 Jimmy Williams March 22, 2009 at 8:47 pm


    ‘Just kidding…I think.


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