An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

by Jeremy Bentham

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Jeremy Bentham is most often associated with the theory of “utilitarianism,” based on his notion of “utility” (Chapter I):

that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, … or… to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered….

This “party” can be the individual or the community; the interests of the latter are the sum of those of the former.

The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members.

Bentham also provides a theory of what constantly opposes utility, which is primarily the principle of “asceticism.” This works to approve of actions that diminish happiness, and vice versa. “Asceticism” is a principle like utility, in that it approves or disapproves of an action

according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question; but in an inverse manner….

Following from these basic ideas, Bentham lays out the ways they apply to the laws laid down in society. These are applied in accordance with the pain or pleasure they will cause—again, to the individual or society. What he terms “sanctions” are the sources of those feelings (Chapter III):

There are four distinguishable sources from which pleasure and pain are in use to flow: considered separately they may be termed the physical, the political, the moral and the religious….

Bentham goes on to lay out different aspects of each of those sources, and to enumerate many things within the categories of pleasure and pain. He then turns to government (Chapter VII), explaining its function in relation to pleasure and pain.

The business of government is to promote the happiness of the society, by punishing and rewarding. That part of its business which consists in punishing, is more particularly the subject of penal law. In proportion as an act tends to disturb that happiness, in proportion as the tendency of it is pernicious, will be the demand it creates for punishment.

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