The late eighteenth century saw notable rationalist figures in English philosophy. Tom Paine demolished the theology of Christianity as a collection of absurdities in his The Age of Reason. The philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) argued for the reform of society based on utilitarian principles. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) terrified everyone with his predictions that poverty and war were the unavoidable consequence of the laws of population. Erasmus Darwin anticipated his famous grandson by suggesting some aspects of natural selection in his surveys of biology. It was a fruitful and disquieting age.
One man decided to apply Enlightenment principles to law and morals. The jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) asked himself why the cobwebbed laws of England—most of them dating back to medieval times—should not be viewed with the same skepticism that scientists were then applying to the inherited wisdom about the natural world. Laws, he believed, should be judged solely on one criteria: whether they function as a net benefit to society. If they do, they are good; if not, they should be discarded.
Is Bentham right? Is utilitarianism a socially useful philosophy, or simply a cover for opportunistic logic-chopping? Is it even possible to base an ethical or moral code on the shifting sands of economic expediency?
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