An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

by Jeremy Bentham

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In attempting to layout the bases of penal legislation, Jeremy Bentham took a scientific approach. The underlying principles that he identified in human nature, which were ultimately directed by God’s will, supported manmade laws. The contrasting ideas of pleasure and pain are fundamental in motivation all realms of action. The use or “utility” of all actions, whether of an individual or a community, are likewise organized to generate or oppose pleasure or pain. “Utility” is the fundamental property that produces pleasure, which he considers equivalent to benefit, advantage, or happiness. That which works toward the opposite effect he calls “asceticism.”

Bentham devotes the book’s first chapter to further explanation of utility, turning in the second chapter to the adverse principles, mainly “asceticism.” Chapters III–VI are concerned with various dimensions of pleasure and pain, or sensibility more generally. It is only in the seventh chapter that the author begins detailed consideration of action, including consciousness, intentionality, consequences, and motive; each of the last three becomes the subject of a separate chapter. He then turns to an aspect of human nature, “disposition,” which moves the discussion to unique individuals rather than generic ones. Chapters XII and XIII discuss how disposition affects consequences, and situations that would not warrant punishment. In the last four chapters, Bentham discusses punishments and how they suit different offenses, and XVII, the final chapter, the limits of the penal branch.

It may seem counterintuitive to place the main subject, penal legislation, last, but Bentham’s goal was to build the most solid foundation possible so that his premises and the logical arguments that followed from them would seem irrefutable. It follows, of course, that one must accept his basic premises if the rest of the arguments are to make sense. In arguing for the “utility” of happiness, however, Bentham has found as many critics as supporters over the years.

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