English philosopher Jeremy Bentham is best known today for his utilitarian ethics, in which he posited that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the measure of right and wrong.” This of course is far from Christian ethics which posits that the law of God is the measure of right and wrong.
Perhaps less well known is that Bentham left directions that, upon his death, his body was to be publicly dissected and his head mummified.
His requests were dutifully carried out, and the philosopher’s mummified haed actually was for many years put on public display at University College London.
But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. Eventually, the head became the object of student pranks and was removed from public view.
The college administrators who made this decision apparently did not share Bentham’s utilitarian ethics. Had they done so, they would have been forced to leave his head on public display, subject as it was to all manner of abuse. After all, Bentham’s mummified noggin provided far more happiness to far more people when it was available to the student pranksters than it ever did after it was locked away.
But there’s another development for which Bentham is famous. Oddly enough, it’s for an idea he had for a new type of prison that he called the Panopticon.
In Bentham’s words, the Panopticon was,
A building circular… The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference – The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence – The whole circuit reviewable with little, or…without any, change of place. Once station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.
Admittedly, Bentham’s design was rather ingenious. But the idea of an all seeing eye in a guard tower, men who had the power to obverse all while they themselves remained unobservable, that’s just a bit creepy.
Thankfully, we don’t have to deal with this kind of surveillance in our everyday lives. Or do we?