Jeremy Bentham figured that laws should be socially useful and not merely reflect the status quo. While he believed that men inevitably pursue pleasure and avoid pain, Bentham thought it to be a sacred truth that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation. Bentham supposed that morality could be derived from “enlightened self-interest,” and that a person who always acted with a view to his own maximum satisfaction in the long run would always act rightly.
Bentham is comparable to William Godwin. They resembled one another in their contempt for the past. While each preached the need for nonviolent revolution, each had a different following. Bentham’s revolution was to be through legislation, Godwin’s through argument. It was in Bentham’s book, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), that he developed the idea that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should govern our judgment of every institution and action. Basically, he states that we should proceed with legislative action, which in turn will bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number.
Influenced by Rousseau, Godwin in turn influenced the English romantics including Shelly and Byron. Godwin believed it was impossible to be rationally persuaded and not act accordingly, and that man could live in harmony without law and institutions. He believed in the perfectibility of man. The two works Godwin is remembered for are An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and Caleb Williams (1794).
Rousseau was the author of Discours (1755), and, of course, his masterpiece, Contrat social (1762). “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” And man must “be forced to be free.” These were the notions of Rousseau and those who followed him. Rousseau’s concept of a social contract (via., that there existed unstated reciprocal obligations between the people and government) is not near as upsetting as his view that the existing social conventions should be immediately upset like a barrow of apples at the Saturday morning market: every apple, all at once, to be bruised and kicked. What Rousseau failed to observe or appreciate is that the state is an “organic organ” which has evolved over a very long time and runs (and can only run) on culture and custom. It would take a lot more than long years of war to change the fundamental beliefs of a people. It would take a lot of time, and several generations will have had to pass, with wise men in power applying gentle non-hurting pressure (simple and steady pressure).
Going against the writings of Godwin and Rousseau, Malthus, in his famous work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, believed that poverty and distress are unavoidable because population increases faster than resources. Malthus believed that war, famine, and disease were the best checks on population. Moral responsibilty on the people’s part was added later. His theory, when it was first introduced, was very controversial. It hasn’t held up much in the past century, though. This is because population levels have not come up to the levels expected. The reason is probably because of the introduction of inexpensive and readily available birth control procedures and cultural changes. What cannot be denied, is that a large human population, and more generally our increasing demands, has had, and is continuing to have, an impact on the environment. The difficulty is how we might go about stopping this impact, or reversing it. The government cannot do it. Lower population levels and lower demands will have to come spontaneously from the people themselves.