I often see Jeremy Bentham being categorised as Liberal, but I cannot understand the reasons behind it. His Utilitarian thinking is not directly related to liberal notions like equality, private property and freedom, even though these may naturally arise from maximising utility.

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    Do you mean classic liberalism, or USA modern liberalism (welfare state)? See this answer, liberal vs libertarian
    – user1873
    Mar 22, 2014 at 16:05
  • I was referring to classic liberalism
    – ddriver1
    Mar 22, 2014 at 16:41
  • +1. Great question. One reference: Rosen, Frederick (1990). "The Origins of Liberal Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham and Liberty". In R. Bellamy, ed., Victorian Liberalism: Nineteenth-century Political Thought and Practice, London, pp. 5870
    – user4012
    Mar 25, 2014 at 16:30

3 Answers 3


Classic liberalism, as a political philosophy, holds at its core that liberty is a fundamental value which should be prioritised in all aspects of politics and society. This idea has underpinned much of Western thought today, including the “liberal notions” you mentioned above.

As you said, Jeremy Bentham is primarily recognised for his moral philosophy of “utilitarianism” where the greatest good is determined by what will maximise pleasure and minimise pain for the greatest number of people. However, he also wrote extensively on the subject of liberty and the philosophy of law. Bentham defines liberty as “the absence of restraint”, denoting “private” and “public” spheres in which an individual has different levels of personal sovereignty (today defined as “negative liberty”).

While he denies that individuals have an a priori guaranteed right to liberty, Bentham recognised that it holds value. Liberty is deemed to be good because it is “pleasant” and restriction of liberty is bad because it is “painful”. However, liberty was not to be valued above all else – only so far as it continued to maximise the good.

For this reason, he argued that the power of the state and laws should only extend so far as to achieve social well-being without unduly sacrificing liberty, as their fundamental purpose was to maximise societal good. He also advocated for radical changes in the political and legal system, including greater suffrage, representative government and more extensive freedom of contract, believing increased liberty to generally help maximise the good.


Most of the world even now would classify Bentham as liberal, I think. He's part of the tradition of classical liberalism. Along the way, probably around the time of the New Deal era, the United States started to flip the conventional definitions of liberalism, at least as far as conversational talking points are concerned.

"Liberal" then started to mean what it means now in the United States, meaning a preference for governmental involvement in things, et cetera(more like the Labour Party in the United Kingdom).


we can say jermy Bentham as a hybrid liberalist because do not full support to liberalism. Jermy Bentham confused us in utilitarianism or liberalism. one side he support to liberty and in same time he against the full freedom of individuals. lebarals against the interfere of state in any matter of public but Jermy bentham says state impose law on society for the improvement in society.

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