An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation Analysis

Jeremy Bentham


Jeremy Bentham’s aim in writing An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation was to discover the foundations for a scientific approach to penal legislation. Because he found these in human nature, rather than in statutes and precedents, his work is also a book on morals.

Two distinct elements appear in Bentham’s theory. The first is a psychology of motivation according to which all the actions of people are directed toward pleasures or away from pains. The second is a principle of social ethics according to which each person’s actions ought to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons. That the two principles are independent in their origin and application is not altered by the fact that happiness, according to Bentham, consists in nothing other than pleasure and the avoidance of pain.


The obligation to promote the happiness of the greatest number Bentham called the principle of utility. In the manner of the eighteenth century, he frankly admitted that this first principle of his philosophy cannot be proved, because a chain of proof must begin somewhere, and there can be no principle higher than a first principle. The principle, he said, is part of “the natural constitution of the human frame,” and people embrace it spontaneously in judging others if not in directing their own actions. Bentham believed that, in addition to this principle, there are in humans social motives, including “goodwill” or “benevolence,” which work in harmony with the principle of utility; but the inclination to kindness is one thing and the principle of utility something else. The latter is an intelligible rule that lies at the foundation of all morals; hence, also of legislation.

What chiefly distinguished Bentham from other eighteenth century moral philosophers was, first, that he recognized only one ultimate principle of morals and, second, that the principle that he maintained was one that admitted of empirical application. The Age of Reason commonly appealed to a whole array of self-evident principles, intuitive convictions, and laws of nature. However, Bentham complained that none of them provided an external standard on which people could agree. In many instances, the alleged truths of nature were an expression of the principle of utility, but at other times they were nothing but expressions of private feelings, prejudices, and interests. The principle of utility, on the other hand, made it possible to define good and evil, right and wrong, in terms that everyone understood and accepted.Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. . . . The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law.

These fundamentals having been laid down, Bentham devoted the remainder of his work to detailed analyses of the psychology of human behavior, chiefly as it bears on problems of social control. His aim was to find the natural divisions of his subject and to arrange the matter in tables that would be of help in drawing inductions.

Pleasures and Pains

First, Bentham treated of pleasures and pains. Legislators, he said, have a twofold interest in these. Inasmuch as the general happiness consists in pleasure and the avoidance of pain, legislators must consider these as ends or final causes; however, because, as legislators, they have to employ motives, they must also consider them as instruments or efficient causes. It is the latter consideration especially that makes it necessary to consider the sources of pain and pleasure. Legislators are advised that, in addition to such internal motives as people have toward benevolence, there are several external forces or “sanctions” that reinforce virtue and right. The physical sanction is the pain and loss that nature attaches to certain imprudent acts; the religious sanction is fear of divine displeasure or hope of divine favor; the popular sanction is the favor or disfavor of other people. Political sanction is a fourth source of pain and pleasure, being the rewards and punishments that the ruling power of the state dispenses in cases where the other sanctions are not effective.

The value of particular pains and pleasures is obviously relevant in connection with the ends of legislation, but not less so in connection with the means, because the deterrent must be made to outweigh the temptation to crime if it is to serve its purpose. Bentham believed that it is possible to estimate the amount of a pain or pleasure, and he suggested seven...

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Actions and Motives

Bentham then considered human action. Legislators are interested in acts in proportion to their tendency to disturb the general happiness; hence, their judgment has regard only to consequences, not to motives. Bentham distinguished carefully between the intention of an act and its motive. The intention of an act, he maintained, may have two things in view, the act and its consequences, but not equally: One must intend at least the beginning of the act, as, for example, when one begins to run; but one may have none of the consequences in view and rarely does one have more than a few. To make his point, Bentham took the story of the death of William II of a wound received from Sir Walter Tyrrel when they were stag hunting, diversifying it with different suppositions. Had Tyrrel any thought of the king’s death? If not, the killing was altogether unintentional. Did he think, when he shot the stag, that there was some danger of the king’s riding in the way? If so, the act was intentional but obliquely so. Did he kill him on account of hatred and for the pleasure of destroying him? If such was true, the deed was ultimately intentional. Such examples show that intention involves, besides the motive or will to act, an understanding of the circumstances in which the action takes place. It is the latter that, according to Bentham, must chiefly be taken into account when an intention is praised or blamed, for it is the consequences that are properly good or evil; the intention is good or evil only in so far as the consequences were in view from the start.

Bentham maintained that the will or motive of an intentional act is neither good nor evil. One desire is as legitimate as another, and the...

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Consequences and Punishment

True to the principle of utility, however, Bentham maintained that, strictly speaking, only the consequences of an act are good or bad. Pleasures and pains are real, as dispositions are not. Also acts and intentions, which are internal to the doer, are good or evil only as they attach to consequences. Bentham devoted approximately the last half of his book to distinguishing and classifying mischievous acts. The main division is between primary mischief, which is suffered by one or more individuals whose happiness is directly affected by the offense, and secondary mischief, which is the alarm or danger apprehended by the citizenry from the presence of the offender at large in their midst. Penal legislation must take account of both because the latter diminishes the general happiness (by disturbing people’s sense of security) no less than the former.

Bentham’s principles for penal legislation are frankly calculative. The lawmaker must estimate the strength of temptation to do mischief and make the punishment sufficiently severe to act as a deterrent. Bentham argues that there is no kindness in making the punishment light because if it is strong enough, persons disposed to crime will not have to endure it, whereas if it is too light, they will. Severity, of course, is not the only thing to be considered. Applying his method of calculating the amount of pleasure and pain, Bentham argued that the certainty and proximity of the punishment must also be taken into account, as well as its appropriateness.

There is no detailed account in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation of the purposes...

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Additional Reading

Davidson, William Leslie. Political Thought in England: The Utilitarians from Bentham to J. S. Mill. Ralph Curtis, 1979. Outlines the development of utilitarianism, clearly differentiating Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Offers insights into Bentham’s moral, social, and political philosophy and his theories of education and prison reform.

Halévy, Elie. The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. 1901. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1949. London: Faber, 1952. The classic analysis of the emergence of the Benthamites. Halévy writes with great clarity for the general reader. Exceptional...

(The entire section is 499 words.)