Jeremy Bentham

Dr. Priestley published his Essay on Government in 1768. He there introduced, in italics, as the only reasonable and proper object of government, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ It was a great improvement upon the word utility. It represented the principal end, the capital, the characteristic ingredient. It took possession, by a single phrase, of every thing that had hitherto been done. It went, in fact, beyond all notions that had preceded it. It exhibited not only happiness, but it made that happiness diffusive; it associated it with the majority, with the many. Dr. Priestley’s pamphlet was written, as most of his productions, currente calamo, hastily and earnestly.

Somehow or other, shortly after its publication, a copy of this pamphlet found its way into the little circulating library belonging to a little coffee-house, called Harper’s coffee-house, attached, as it were, to Queen’s College, Oxford, and deriving, from the popularity of that college, the whole of its subsistence. It was a corner house, having one front towards the High Street, another towards a narrow lane, which on that side skirts Queen’s College, and loses itself in a lane issuing from one of the gates of New College. To this library the subscription was a shilling a quarter, or, in the University phrase, a shilling a term. Of this subscription the produce was composed of two or three newspapers, with magazines one or two, and now and then a newly-published pamphlet; a moderate sized octavo was a rare, if ever exemplified spectacle: composed partly of pamphlets, partly of magazines, half-bound together, a few dozen volumes made up this library, which formed so curious a contrast with the Bodleian Library, and those of Christ’s Church and All Souls.

The year 1768 was the latest of the years in which I ever made at Oxford a residence of more than a day or two. The motive of that visit was the giving my vote, in the quality of Master of Arts, for the University of Oxford, on the occasion of a parliamentary election; and not being at that time arrived at the age of twenty-one, this deficiency in the article of age might have given occasion to an election contest in the House of Commons, had not the majority been put out of doubt by a sufficient number of votes not exposed to contestation. This year, 1768, was the latest of all the years in which this pamphlet could have come into my hands. Be this as it may, it was by that pamphlet, and this phrase in it, that my principles on the subject of morality, public and private together, were determined. It was from that pamphlet and that page of it, that I drew the phrase, the words and import of which have been so widely diffused over the civilized world. At the sight of it, I cried out, as it were, in an inward ecstasy, like Archimedes on the discovery of the fundamental principle of hydrostatics, eureka!

Jeremy Bentham, “Deontology, or the Science of Morality”, The British Critic, Quarterly Theological Review, and Ecclesiastical Record, vol. 16, no. 32 (October, 1834), pp. 279-280