Jeremy Bentham was a notable philosopher who lived during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. He is best known in philosophy and ethics for utilitarianism. Due largely to the advocacy of Bentham, utilitarianism influenced many social reforms in Great Britain, most of which took place after Bentham’s death.
His basic principle of philosophy can be found in the opening paragraph of his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we out to do as well as to determine what we shall do. (Bentham, 1780)
For Bentham the pain and pleasure principle was a blueprint for social and legal reform in Great Britain. He viewed the idea of punishment and reward as a means for legislators to control an individual’s pursuit of happiness. To Bentham, punishments seemed to be the more important method of enforcement. He believed that through the infliction and threat of great pain, individuals would be provided motivations for refraining from harmful behavior.
Bentham’s emphasis on law and punishment of law-breakers, reflected the doubts he had towards the ideology of natural rights, which basically states that individuals had unlimited rights to “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression” (Lafayette, 1789). His philosophy had direct bearing on his ideas about criminal justice.
He focused on the prevention of crime through the creation of Panopticon penitentiary systems. In his own words, Bentham describes the Panopticon penitentiary as a system that would be run according to “rules of lenity, severity, and economy” (Bentham & Mills, 1987). This system stated that the prisoners would not be physically harmed, but also would not be afforded more luxury than the members of the lowest social class. Bentham’s design of the prison would severely limit the necessary staff to operate the facility, which would enhance the economic feasibility of the system. For instance, Bentham designed the architecture of the penitentiary to be rounded allowing one guard to view and monitor several rooms at the same time, while thanks to screens and lighting, the inmates would be unable to know if someone is watching. This gave the inmates “an impression of invisible omnipresence” (Bentham & Mills, 1987).
Bentham’s ideas regarding prison reform laid the foundation for what was to become the Prison Act of 1835. This act, while not resulting in a penitentiary like the Panopticon, used his system of lenity, severity, and economic approach to prisons quite successfully.
My disagreement with Bentham involves his view of the prison system. In his view, inmates were discouraged from deviant acts due to the threat of consequences associated with them. This led Bentham to design a prison system where all the inmates are housed in a circular building and are unaware of how often they are being watched over by guards. This Panopticon would benefit society because it would cost very little money to run the facility and would be successful because the inmates would never know if a guard is on or off duty.
In my opinion, however, inmates need rehabilitation and socialization while in prison rather than just fear and consequences. There are currently many experimental prisons operating in the US that attempt to do this very thing while maintaining a low cost to the community and tax payer. These facilities (mostly rehab) run at no extra cost because they are operated daily by the inmates. The facility employs a low number of guards to maintain supervision and order, but the day-to-day operations are left up to the inmates. Cleaning, maintenance, supervision, activities, and services are all carried out by the prisoners themselves. They help organize and operate a strict rehab facility for drug users. Their days are structured with equal parts exercise, education, reflection, meditation, and socialization. They perform services at the facility such as auto-mechanical which also helps to bring in income to the prison to pay for the food (not processed junk) and facility operation. This type of prison allows the inmates to still feel hopeful about life after prison. They also acquire the treatment they need to break troublesome habits and nearly all acquire new skills and education that will make them successful contributors to society once prison is over.
I agree with many of Bentham's ideas regarding the motivation of pain and pleasure. However, fear can motivate only so far. Assuming that inmates are eventually going to be integrated back into society, they must be helped and given a chance to be successful, otherwise every sentence to prison becomes a life sentence. Prisoners must pay for mistakes they have made, but they also should receive tools while paying their debt to ensure that the majority don't fall into the same harmful patterns that landed them in prison. Fear works in the short term, but begins to fade over time. Teaching skills and providing prisoners with knowledge is the only way to rehabilitate them and prepare them to be contributing members of society.
Shane Bennett is a former Ethics student at Midway College.