Dr. Priestley published his Essay on Government in 1768. He there introduced as the only reasonable and proper object of government, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ […]

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. […]

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

(See also Bentham’s quote in full)

[T]he origins and history of the phrase and of Bentham’s use of it have been the subject of protracted scholarly debate. The seeds of uncertainty were sown by Bentham himself in confused and inconclusive recollections recorded by John Bowring. The question of origins at least was definitively resolved over thirty years ago by Robert Shackelton, in an elegant piece of research. This demonstrated that by far the likeliest source of the phrase as Bentham used it is the English translation of Beccaria’s Dei delitti e delle pene, published in 1768. That was the year in which Bentham sometimes thought, mistakenly, that he had found the phrase in a work by Joseph Priestley, and it seems likely that he read the Beccaria translation in what he later called ‘a most interesting year’ – 1769.

Burns, J. H. (2005). Happiness and utility: Jeremy Bentham’s equation. Utilitas, 17(1), 46-61.

Added to diary 17 April 2018