An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

by Jeremy Bentham
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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

Jeremy Bentham wrote An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1870, and the book title is a good description of what it is about. In his utilitarian philosophy, Bentham explores how human society would function if humans sought to make laws governing their pleasures.

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In Bentham's mind, morals should naturally develop from the pleasure principle, since he believed that all we do, we do because we are seeking pleasure, both as individuals and groups.

To this end, the book reviews the major pleasures we seek in life, and how laws to regulate and distribute those pleasures would function. He asks, and answers, the question: what kind of system of laws would develop if we acknowledged our pleasure-seeking ("utilitarian") drives?

The book details how to measure various -- common, everyday -- sources of pleasure and pain. This is important because without quantifying what constitutes pleasure, how could a law limit or encourage a certain pleasure?

The twin goals of pleasure are happiness and usefulness. Because we like to be happy and feel good, it is also useful to do so. Bentham speculates on what qualities of pleasure are important for devising metrics, including intensity, duration and degree of predictability (or certainty).

The reason this book is called "An Introduction" is because the author believes that with careful analysis, or real knowledge of what pleasure is, humans can develop sensible laws to both contain it and utilize. The author details where pleasure and pain originate, and the different circumstances that affect pleasure and pain. For example, in Chapter 6 he discusses health, strength, firmness of mind, steadiness, and a host of other personal qualities that influence how pleasure is both attained and experienced.

Bentham applies his principles in the context of English laws, such as English common law, and discusses current understanding of what "rights" are under the law. In his analysis, he does not find many instances in which common law works well with the pleasure principle; most...

(The entire section contains 518 words.)

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