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Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher, who lived in the late 1700s and the early 1800s — that is, on the eve of the British Industrial Revolution — advocated radical political and social reform. Bentham founded Utilitarianism, a philosophy based on the idea that the outcome of an action defines its worth. Utilitarianism primarily defines these outcomes as the overall happiness, or pleasure, that an action provides to society. In his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham argues that a nation must achieve maximum happiness for its population, a principle better known as the greatest happiness principle. Bentham created his own algorithm, or felicific calculus, in order to calculate the amount of pleasure derived from a certain action systematically. Although Bentham advocated economic freedom, equal rights for women, and other liberal reforms, he is best known for his mechanistic approach to human happiness.

In “Signs of the Times,” Carlyle belittles Bentham’s theories for being overly mechanical and quantified. First, Carlyle argues that what is most important is not the future but the here and the now. He remarks that Bentham and his radical followers’ ambitions are lost within the “rage of prophecy.” Although Carlyle also strongly believes in social change that will bring about a better civilization, he argues that Bentham’s reformism cannot improve current conditions and advises his readers that “instead of gazing idly into the obscure distance, [Bentham and his followers should] look calmly around [themselves], for a little, on the perplexed scene where we stand.“ Carlyle criticizes Bentham’s theories for being not only overly prophetic but also mechanistic. Carlyle bemoans how the world has been stripped of all moral content, spirituality, and individual insight, in favor of mechanism. Criticizing Bentham's vision of morality as purely mechanical and calculated, Carlyle belittles him for reducing human happiness to an algorithm, or a mathematical formula, devoid of feeling or spirituality.

Related Material


Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907. First edition 1780.

Wikipedia contributors. "Utilitarianism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 14 Mar. 2010. Web. 21 Mar. 2010.

Last modified 23 March 2010