The English Utilitarians Informative Summary


Leslie Stephen’s “The English Utilitarians” delves into the lives and doctrines of the prominent figures who shaped this influential school of thought. He begins by painting a vivid picture of the political and social landscape of England at the turn of the 19th century, highlighting the dominance of the landed gentry, the burgeoning industrial revolution, and the pressing issues of pauperism, crime, and education. This historical context serves as the backdrop for understanding the emergence and impact of Utilitarian thought.

Stephen meticulously examines the lives and works of Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill, showcasing their unique contributions to the school. He dissects Bentham’s groundbreaking principle of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” analyzes his intricate legal and political theories, and traces the development of his radicalism. The book further explores the role of key disciples like Dumont in disseminating Bentham’s ideas and the growing influence of the Utilitarian school on political reform movements.

Key Findings:

  • The English Utilitarians, led by Bentham and the Mills, significantly impacted English thought and politics in the 19th century.
  • Their focus on practical application of “the greatest happiness principle” led to significant reforms in areas like law, punishment, and government.
  • The school’s “individualist” perspective, while advocating for individual liberties, also grappled with the complexities of balancing individual and societal needs.
  • Bentham’s systematic approach to legal and political analysis exposed the inefficiencies and corruption within the existing system, paving the way for reform movements.
  • Despite their “empirical” approach, the Utilitarians often arrived at conclusions as absolute as those of their “intuitionist” opponents, highlighting the inherent challenges in navigating between theory and practice.


  • Understanding of Utilitarianism: The reader gains a comprehensive understanding of Utilitarianism as a philosophical and political doctrine, its central tenets, and its historical development in England.
    • Details include: Bentham’s principle of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” the concept of “sanctions” and their role in shaping behavior, and the Utilitarian approach to law, punishment, and government.
  • The Impact of Social Context: The reader learns how the social and political environment of England in the 18th and 19th centuries influenced the development and reception of Utilitarian ideas.
    • Details include: the dominance of the landed gentry, the rise of industrialism, the problems of poverty and crime, and the influence of the French Revolution.
  • Bentham’s Life and Thought: The reader delves into the life and work of Jeremy Bentham, his struggles for recognition, his unwavering dedication to legal and political reform, and his key contributions to Utilitarian thought.
    • Details include: the influence of thinkers like Locke and Helvétius on Bentham, his development of the Panopticon prison scheme, his critiques of the English legal system, and his vision of a radical democratic constitution.
  • The Evolution of the Utilitarian School: The reader witnesses the evolution of the Utilitarian school, the contributions of key disciples like Dumont and James Mill, and their growing influence on political movements and reform efforts.
    • Details include: Dumont’s role in translating and disseminating Bentham’s works, Mill’s emergence as a leading Utilitarian thinker, and the school’s growing connection with Radical political reformers.

Historical Context:

The text is set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing England at the turn of the 19th century. The landed gentry still dominated politics, but the industrial revolution was transforming society, leading to urbanization, the rise of new industries, and the emergence of pressing social problems like pauperism and crime. This period also witnessed the impact of the French Revolution, with its ideals of liberty and equality, and the subsequent backlash against radicalism.


  1. Parliamentary Supremacy: Parliament held supreme power in England after the Revolution of 1688.
    • This was a result of the political settlement that transferred power from the monarchy to Parliament, establishing the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.
  2. Rotten Boroughs: The electoral system was riddled with “rotten boroughs,” constituencies with very few voters controlled by wealthy individuals.
    • This was a legacy of the historical evolution of the electoral system, where representation was not based on population but on traditional land ownership.
  3. Landowner Dominance: The landed gentry held significant power in English society, influencing legislation, administration, and social norms.
    • Land ownership was the primary source of wealth and social status, giving the landed gentry a powerful position in the social hierarchy.
  4. Industrial Revolution: The late 18th century saw a rapid transformation of the English economy with the rise of factories, new technologies, and urbanization.
    • This was driven by technological innovations like the steam engine and the spinning jenny, leading to mass production and the growth of industrial centers.
  5. Rise of Manufacturers: A new class of manufacturers and merchants gained economic and social influence, challenging the dominance of the landed gentry.
    • These “self-made” men, often from humble backgrounds, rose to prominence through their entrepreneurial skills and the success of new industries.
  6. Church-State Connection: The Church of England was closely tied to the state, with bishops appointed by the government and the clergy often drawn from the ruling classes.
    • This connection reflected the historical role of the church as a pillar of the established order, supporting the existing power structures.
  7. University Stagnation: The English universities, dominated by the clergy, were largely stagnant intellectually, focusing on traditional classical education.
    • The universities primarily served as training grounds for the clergy, lacking a vibrant intellectual atmosphere and failing to embrace new scientific and philosophical ideas.
  8. Pauperism and Poor Laws: Pauperism was a growing problem, exacerbated by industrialization and economic fluctuations, leading to the expansion of poor relief and workhouses.
    • The poor laws were a system of providing relief to the poor, but they were often criticized for being inadequate, inefficient, and contributing to the degradation of the poor.
  9. Lack of Municipal Power: Large industrial towns like Manchester and Birmingham lacked effective municipal governments, relying on outdated manorial institutions.
    • This reflected the general aversion to centralized administration in England, leaving local governance to fragmented and often ineffective bodies.
  10. Defective Police System: London suffered from a chaotic and ineffective police system, with a fragmented force, corrupt practices, and a lack of centralized authority.
    • This resulted in high crime rates, a flourishing criminal underworld, and a general sense of insecurity in the metropolis.
  11. Brutal Criminal Law: The English criminal law was notoriously harsh, with a wide range of offenses punishable by death, though many sentences were ultimately commuted.
    • This severity reflected the traditional approach to crime, emphasizing punishment over rehabilitation or prevention.
  12. Prison Abuses: Prisons were overcrowded, unsanitary, and plagued by disease, with prisoners subjected to cruel treatment and extortion.
    • These abuses were often attributed to the “farming” of prisons to private individuals who profited from the exploitation of prisoners.
  13. Limited Education: Access to education for the poor was limited, with most children receiving only rudimentary instruction through charity schools or Sunday Schools.
    • This lack of widespread education reflected the social hierarchy, where access to knowledge was largely restricted to the upper classes.
  14. Rise of Sunday Schools: The late 18th century saw the growth of Sunday Schools, providing basic literacy and religious instruction to poor children on Sundays.
    • This movement reflected a growing awareness of the need for education, albeit within a limited and primarily religious context.
  15. Condemnation of Slavery: The campaign against the slave trade gained momentum, with growing public condemnation of the system and the emergence of abolitionist movements.
    • This moral awakening was fueled by the efforts of individuals like Granville Sharp and organizations like the Quakers, who exposed the horrors of slavery and advocated for its abolition.
  16. Impact of French Revolution: The French Revolution had a significant impact on English society, polarizing public opinion between supporters of revolutionary ideals and those who feared radical change.
    • The revolution sparked both admiration for its ideals of liberty and equality and fear of its violence and radicalism, influencing political discourse and social reform movements.
  17. Emergence of Radicalism: The post-war period saw the rise of a more assertive Radical movement, demanding parliamentary reform, social justice, and economic equality.
    • This movement was fueled by economic hardship, the growing influence of figures like Cobbett, and the disillusionment with the existing political system.
  18. Bentham’s Panopticon: Bentham’s ambitious Panopticon prison scheme, designed to combine surveillance, discipline, and profitable labor, ultimately failed due to government inaction and concerns over potential abuses.
    • The Panopticon reflected Bentham’s belief in the power of rational design to improve social institutions, but its failure highlighted the complexities of implementing idealistic schemes in the real world.
  19. Bentham’s Codification Efforts: Bentham dedicated much of his life to codifying laws, offering his services to various nations, believing that a clear and rational legal system would promote justice and efficiency.
    • This reflected his conviction that law should be based on utilitarian principles, clearly defined, and accessible to all, in contrast to the chaotic and often corrupt English legal system.
  20. Growth of Utilitarian Influence: Bentham’s ideas, particularly as articulated by Dumont, gained international recognition, influencing legal reform efforts and inspiring political movements in various countries.
    • This growing influence reflected the appeal of Bentham’s systematic and rational approach to law and government, particularly in societies seeking to modernize their institutions and address social problems.


  1. Parliamentary Control: In 1793, 154 individuals controlled a majority of the seats in the House of Commons, highlighting the undemocratic nature of the electoral system.
  2. Cornwall’s Disproportionate Power: 21 boroughs in Cornwall, controlled by about 15 individuals, returned 42 members to Parliament, nearly as many as all of Scotland.
  3. Population Growth: The population of Birmingham grew from 24,000 to 74,000 between 1740 and 1780, illustrating the rapid urbanization driven by the industrial revolution.
  4. Clerical Incomes: In 1809, the average income of an Anglican clergyman was estimated at £255, while nearly 4,000 livings were worth less than £150, showcasing the disparity in clerical wealth.
  5. Prison Population: In 1780, the total number of prisoners in England and Wales was approximately 4,400, highlighting the relatively low incarceration rate at the time.
  6. London’s Poverty: In 1800, an estimated 20,000 people in London woke up each day without knowing how they would survive, illustrating the scale of poverty in the metropolis.
  7. Prevalence of Prostitution: Colquhoun estimated that there were 50,000 women in London supported wholly or partly by prostitution, highlighting the social problems associated with urbanization and poverty.
  8. London’s Public Houses: London had 5,000 public houses in 1800, suggesting a high density of drinking establishments catering to a large and diverse population.
  9. Cost of Crime: Colquhoun estimated that crime in London generated an annual revenue of £2,000,000, illustrating the scale of criminal activity and the economic costs associated with it.
  10. Prevalence of Receiving Houses: The number of receiving houses for stolen goods in London increased from 300 to 3,000 in a twenty-year period, reflecting the growth of a criminal underworld.
  11. Growth of Gambling: The sums lost in London’s gambling houses were estimated at over £7,000,000 annually, highlighting the popularity of gambling and its potential for social and economic harm.
  12. London’s Limited Police Force: The Metropolitan Police in 1800 had only 189 paid officers, illustrating the limited resources dedicated to law enforcement in a vast and growing city.
  13. Ineffectiveness of Capital Punishment: Only about one-fifth of capital sentences were actually carried out in England, suggesting the frequent use of pardons and commutations.
  14. Transportation Costs: The cost of transporting convicts to Australia was extremely high, leading to the use of overcrowded and unsanitary prison hulks as a temporary measure.
  15. London’s Charitable Revenue: London’s charitable institutions had an annual revenue of £445,000, reflecting the philanthropic impulse of the time and the role of private organizations in addressing social needs.
  16. Limited Schooling: A report in 1818 estimated that roughly half the children in a large district of England were entirely uneducated, highlighting the lack of universal education.
  17. Sunday School Participation: Within a few years of their inception, Sunday Schools were estimated to have 200,000 to 300,000 students, showcasing the rapid growth of this educational movement.
  18. Bentham’s Panopticon Expenses: Bentham personally invested £6,000 and spent £2,000 annually on developing his Panopticon scheme, demonstrating his commitment to the project.
  19. Bentham’s Compensation: Bentham ultimately received £23,000 in compensation from the government for the abandonment of his Panopticon scheme in 1813.
  20. Sales of Dumont’s Traités: By 1830, an estimated 40,000 copies of Dumont’s French translations of Bentham’s works had been sold in Paris for distribution in South America, illustrating the international reach of Bentham’s ideas.


  1. Utilitarianism: The ethical and political theory that the best action is the one that maximizes utility, usually defined as happiness or well-being, for the greatest number of people.
  2. Greatest Happiness Principle: Bentham’s central tenet that the goal of morality and legislation is to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
  3. Sanctions: In Bentham’s theory, sanctions are the means by which laws and moral rules are enforced. They can be physical (punishments), political (legal penalties), moral (social disapproval), or religious (divine retribution).
  4. Springs of Action: Bentham’s term for the fundamental motivations of human behavior, including desires for pleasure, aversion to pain, and social emotions like sympathy and antipathy.
  5. Felicific Calculus: A theoretical method for calculating the overall happiness or pain produced by an action, taking into account its intensity, duration, certainty, and other factors.
  6. Disposition: Bentham’s term for the sum of a person’s intentions, reflecting their overall character and susceptibility to various motives.
  7. Tutelary Motives: Motives that deter individuals from engaging in harmful or criminal behavior, such as the fear of punishment or the desire for social approval.
  8. Sinister Interest: In Bentham’s political theory, a sinister interest is a motive that leads rulers to act in their own self-interest rather than in the interest of the public good.
  9. Democracy: A form of government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation, typically involving periodic free and fair elections.
  10. Codification: The process of systematically arranging and writing down laws into a comprehensive code, aiming for clarity, consistency, and accessibility.


  1. Dunning’s Resolution: Dunning’s famous resolution in 1780, declaring that “the power of the crown had increased, was increasing, and ought to be diminished,” exemplified the Whig concern about excessive royal influence.
  2. Bubb Dodington’s Patronage: The case of Bubb Dodington, who controlled multiple parliamentary seats and used them to gain a peerage, illustrates the corrupt practices associated with rotten boroughs.
  3. Josiah Child’s Descendant: Josiah Child, a successful merchant in the 17th century, saw his son elevated to the peerage as Earl Tylney, demonstrating the aspiration of wealthy merchants to join the landed gentry.
  4. Fearne’s Essay on Remainders: Fearne’s complex legal treatise on “Contingent Remainders” exemplifies the intricate and often obscure nature of English property law, which required expert legal knowledge to navigate.
  5. “Trading Justices”: The establishment of paid magistrates in London, who earned their income through fees, led to concerns about corruption and the emergence of the derogatory term “trading justices.”
  6. The Gordon Riots: The Gordon Riots of 1780, fueled by religious fanaticism and anti-Catholic sentiment, highlight the potential for mob violence and the fragility of social order.
  7. Bishop Watson’s Grievances: Bishop Watson, who enjoyed a comfortable life but resented his lack of promotion to a wealthier diocese, exemplifies the careerism and worldly ambitions of some clergy within the Church of England.
  8. Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital: Thomas Coram’s establishment of the Foundling Hospital in response to the plight of abandoned children in London illustrates the growing awareness of social problems and the philanthropic efforts to address them.
  9. The “Speenhamland System”: The Speenhamland system, which linked wages to the price of bread and family size, exemplifies the well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous attempts to alleviate poverty through government intervention.
  10. The Case of the Fleet Prison: The revelation that the Fleet Prison was a privately owned enterprise, where proprietors profited from mistreating prisoners, exemplifies the abuses associated with the “farming” of public institutions to private individuals.


Leslie Stephen’s “The English Utilitarians” provides a rich and insightful exploration of this influential school of thought. It highlights the key figures, their core doctrines, and their impact on English society and political life. The book vividly portrays the historical context in which Utilitarianism emerged, the challenges it faced, and its successes in promoting legal and political reform. While acknowledging the limitations of Bentham’s approach, Stephen recognizes the immense value of his relentless focus on “utility” as a guide for rational legislation and social improvement. The book serves as a valuable resource for understanding the development of modern political thought, the enduring legacy of the Utilitarian school, and the complex relationship between theory and practice in shaping social and political change.

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