Master's Theses



Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


The purpose of this paper is to determine Jeremy Bentham's application of his own philosophy of utilitarianism when the philosophy was removed from the abstract world of ideas and applied to an actual physical structure, the Panopticon penitentiary. Bentham was the founder and foremost advocate of the utilitarian school of thought. From past philosophers, such as Claude Helvetius, David Hume and the Baron de Montesquieu, Bentham formulated his basic principles, “the greatest good for the greatest number" and the pain-pleasure principle. In developing the Panopticon penitentiary, Bentham was influenced by his philosophic principles as well as by humanitarian reform movements in England and on the Continent. Enlightened despots were trying to enact fair and equal laws while removing inhumane punishments for minor crimes. Domestic attention to prison reforms by English intellectuals and humanitarians during the last half of the eighteenth century influenced Parliament to pass the Penitentiary Act of 1779. Bentham intended to use the authority of this act to build his own prison. Bentham employed a novel architectural concept of a circular building with a central guard tower enabling constant surveillance of the cells on the circumference. His system of contract management was as novel as the architecture. Rather than the prison being government operated, a private individual would undertake the operation on a profit- loss basis. Contract management caused Parliament to reject the prison plan, but, even more, this management system became the basis for Bentham's deviation from his own philosophic system. Additionally, Bentham devised a secondary Panopticon. All prisoners who could not meet his conditions for release, joining the military or finding a bondsman to post an annual fifty pounds, would enter the subsidiary establishment. These former prisoners would continue working for the contractor, thus assuring continued profits. Quite probably, Bentham did not even realize his shift from utilitarianism. His original goal was reformation and release of the criminal for the betterment of society. However, as the Panopticon concept developed over a period of five years, the contractor-governor (Bentham) began to accrue greater personal control over the prison. Eventually, Bentham became concerned with the Panopticon's possibilities as a profit-making venture with the convicts providing cheap, controlled labor. The thesis of this paper is that Jeremy Bentham, founder of a philosophic school, was unable to apply his theories to actualities.


Robert B. Luehrs

Date of Award

Summer 1976

Document Type

Thesis - campus only access


© 1976 Ella Sue Rayburn


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