David Lyons (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: “Bentham's Utilitarianism: A Differential Interpretation” in In the Interest of the Governed: A Study in Bentham's Philosophy of Utility and Law, Clarendon Press, 1973, pp. 19-34.

[In the following excerpt, Lyons explores Bentham's basic principle of utility and its relationship to morality, ethics, and government.]


The principle of utility, Bentham says, is the foundation of his work on morals and legislation. This is so, and in a variety of ways. The criterion of utility shapes his attitudes and judgements in every area of life. No philosopher has embraced a doctrine more consistently; none has ever attempted to apply a theory as extensively or systematically as Bentham has done. His principle determines his attitudes towards legislation, the use of punishment and reward, legal reform and codification. Its repercussions are felt even where one might think that utility had little to say. His analysis of human action and motivation and his theory of law, for example, seem to be arrived at by one who self-consciously assumes the standpoint of a legislator committed to the standard of utility. Even in the ‘purest’ philosophical investigations, Bentham never adopts a morally neutral attitude. This seems no accident; it is the deliberate approach of a thoroughly committed utilitarian.

But what, exactly, does Bentham's principle say? In most respects the answers have seemed certain. Rarely have commentators expressed any doubts or indicated any evidence that might not harmonize with a certain view of that principle. For our purposes, the most important assumption makes it ‘universalistic’, requiring that the interests of all persons (perhaps all sentient creatures, including other animals) be taken into account, on an equal basis, when action is evaluated. But I shall argue that this generally accepted view is unsatisfactory, for it ignores what Bentham actually says. His principle is not ‘universalistic’. The beneficence it requires extends only to the borders of one's community. More precisely, Bentham embraces a dual standard, with community interest as the test within the public or political sphere, while self-interest is to rule in ‘private’ matters. But these standards are also conceived by him as resting on a more fundamental principle of utility—one which says (very roughly speaking) that government should serve the interests of the governed.

This aspect of Bentham's utilitarianism is not the only one that could profitably be explored, but is the one upon which we shall concentrate. We shall therefore ignore difficulties that may accrue to other features of his position unless they bear upon the main interpretive issue before us—the relations between community interest and self-interest and his principle of utility. This means that we shall take certain supposed elements of his position for granted, for we shall not examine them in close detail. Some of the assumptions that we shall make will be indicated by the following sketch of Bentham's principle.

Bentham's principle of utility is a standard for appraising actions—for determining which are right and which wrong, what ought to be done and what ought not. The principle is comprehensive, covering all acts, including ‘measures of government’ (An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation: IPML, I, 7). It is meant to be complete in that appeal to a supplementary principle is never required. Utility is also the ultimate criterion; it presupposes no other. It is therefore what some would call Bentham's ‘first principle’. But the principle of utility alone does not suffice to tell us which specific acts are right or wrong. In order to discover that, one must apply the principle, and then one must be willing to predict...

(This entire section contains 6107 words.)

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an action's consequences. For it is theeffects that acts have (or that they are likely to have), and nothing else, which determine what one should do. Acts are approved to the degree that they seem likely to promote happiness in particular. This is, roughly, what Bentham means by ‘utility’.

The principle is supposed to have implications for the law and political affairs, and these are clearly Bentham's main concerns. But what has such a principle to say about the law? How can a principle that applies to human action have anything at all to say about legal rules and institutions? This is a theoretical question, affecting at least the formulation of the principle, about which utilitarians have had remarkably little to say. Bentham himself is not entirely clear about the answer (although he is clear about its covering the law), but he does suggest some possible answers. There are at least two different ways in which such a principle might be thought to apply to the law. It could be formulated so that it directly applies not only to acts as such but also to legal rules or other objects to be evaluated. As acts are to be judged by their effects on human happiness, so laws could be judged according to effects that are assignable to them. An alternative approach would be to limit direct applications of the principle to actions, and then take in law (and anything else that needs to be included) indirectly. For the making or changing of a law (or the playing a part in a legislative process) is conduct of a kind, and it can be judged on the basis of its own utility. These two ways of applying the standard of utility to the law are not equivalent, as can be seen from the fact that the most useful legislative behaviour does not necessarily yield what would otherwise be judged as the most useful legal rules. In applying the test of utility directly to the law itself, we neglect the costs and benefits of changing or maintaining the law. For many purposes, however, these differences can be ignored, and Bentham does so when he discusses legislation in most general terms, without taking into account the special circumstances of the legislators. But the differences between these two approaches will not affect the substance of our main argument.

When Bentham explains what he means by ‘utility’, one is struck by his failing to differentiate between benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, and happiness, on the one hand, or between mischief, pain, evil, and unhappiness on the other (IPML, I, 3). This appearance is partly superficial, but perhaps not entirely so. By defining happiness as ‘enjoyment of pleasures, security from pains’, he makes one such differentiation (IPML, VII, 1). And other items on the list might well be defined by him, in somewhat different ways, in terms of pain and pleasure, which seem to be the basic items. A special complication is introduced by his including good and evil in these lists, for this may seem to commit him to what G. E. Moore later called ‘the naturalistic fallacy’.1 But it is not implausible to understand Bentham not as defining good as pleasure and evil as pain, but as expressing fundamental value judgements (IPML, X, 10). At the same time, however, Bentham could be charged with using the various terms too loosely. Because his use of ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ is somewhat vague, his overall position is uncertain and sometimes seems inconstant. He seems to vacillate between the idea that pleasure and pain are felt sensations and the idea that they are the necessary consequents of getting or failing to get something that one wants or has wanted. Now, it can be argued that ‘want-satisfaction’ and ‘want-frustration’ in the latter sense are not necessarily accompanied or followed by any particular type of sensation of phenomenological condition, and thus that these two ideas should not be confused. But Bentham seems to confuse them (although he may simply think that there is such a relation). His position is therefore open to criticisms along these lines. But this is an aspect of his views that will not concern us any further. We shall be content to say that Bentham values happiness or human welfare most highly. And thus we are entitled to say, in accordance with the usual jargon, that he is an ‘ethical hedonist’.

Now, utilitarians like Bentham are often singled out for valuing happiness so highly. But they are, in fact, far from alone. Many moralists seem to value happiness as much. This is shown, for example, by those who hold that happiness is the only fit reward for the truly virtuous. Such a view can be ascribed to Kant. He seems to say that everyone naturally, and rationally, seeks happiness for himself. But Kant believes that justice should apportion it, joining happiness with virtue and keeping it from the company of moral vice. Happiness must be earned, and any claim one has to it can be forfeited.2

Bentham would not agree. Each person should always get the best treatment that is possible. It may sometimes be right to make a person suffer, but that should always be regretted, never welcomed. Even the claim that someone deliberately causes unhappiness to others is by itself no justification for making him suffer. For pain is an evil, and punishment essentially involves pain, so its use must always be justified. The only justification possible is that greater pain can be prevented or that greater happiness can be purchased. The pain imposed by way of punishment always counts against imposing it; no type of pain or suffering may be discounted. Likewise, no pleasure may be discounted—not even the sadistic pleasure that one may secure by deliberately hurting another. This is Bentham's view, and it is entirely consistent with, even demanded by, a throughgoing utilitarianism. It is a view that few are brave enough—or, as Bentham might say, unprejudiced enough—to take. But it should be observed that Bentham makes some reassuring assumptions. He reasons, for example, that sadistic pleasures necessarily involve someone's pain, and then assumes (without justification) that the pains due to malevolence always far exceed the pleasures. This enables him to conclude that malevolent action could never be justified on the ground of its utility (by bringing more pleasure to the sadist, say, than pain to his victim). (See Bowring, I, 81, and IPML, Preface, note a; XIII, 2, note a.)

Whose happiness counts? Bentham will not allow us to neglect the interests of a man because he does wrong or has a malicious disposition. Does he mean, then, that it is always necessary (at least in principle) to considers everyone's interests? This might seem to follow, and its plausibility is enhanced by a few occasional comments, such as the suggestion that only the ‘most extensive’ benevolence coincides with the requirements of his principle (IPML, X, 36-7). He also seems to say that animals should receive the same consideration, for they too can suffer (IPML, XVII, 4, note b).

This suggests a universalistic utilitarianism—the kind embraced by J. S. Mill and most (if not all) other utilitarians after Bentham, and the one we are most familiar with today. We tend in fact to think of utilitarianism as essentially universalistic. No wonder, then, that the standard view of Bentham's principle has it say that each of us ought always to be aiming at the happiness of everyone. Whoever is likely to be affected by an action (or by its alternatives, since an action is to be compared with its alternatives) must be given due consideration. One may want to qualify this requirement, however, on the ground that it can sometimes be impossible actually to promote or protect the happiness of everyone affected because the interests of some might conflict with the interests of others and these conflicts can be beyond our immediate control. For this reason, it is sometimes said that the most generally applicable formulation of the utilitarian criterion is ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. Bentham uses the phrase himself, for just such reasons, and it can be found in many of his writings. It may come as a surprise, however, to learn that the phrase never once occurs in the book where he elaborates his principle most fully, the Introduction. It does not occur there because it does not represent his views about conflicts of interest when he wrote that book. And any universalistic connotations that the phrase may have are also foreign to that work. Let us see why this is so.


Let us begin by taking a timeless view of Bentham's works, considering them as a whole. This will suggest a second way of construing his principle of utility—a way that is far better supported by the evidence than the standard universalistic account. Bentham could be thought to have a (let us say) parochial principle, which requires not that everyone be taken into account, but only those within one's community. (We can speak either of the interest of the community or of its several members, for Bentham believes that these are the same; see IPML, I, 4.) I shall argue later that this interpretation would be mistaken, for it fails to account for very striking evidence. But that Bentham's view is (so to speak) more parochial than universalistic may be shown as follows.

If we consider the whole of Bentham's works, we find that in the majority of cases, when he gives a prominent statement of his standard he imposes the parochial restriction. When he states what end ought to be promoted he usually employs some ‘greatest happiness’ or ‘greatest interest’ formula, to which he sometimes adds ‘of the greatest number’. But in the majority of all these cases combined, throughout his published works, Bentham explicitly limits the interests to be considered to those of the community in question.3 Now, there is no other kind of evidence to suggest that Bentham vacillated between universalism and parochialism. It is therefore possible to regard the majority of cases, in which the parochial restriction is imposed, as fuller statements of the appropriate standard and the minority of cases, in which it is left out, as elliptical. After all, Bentham states his full position so often, at the start of so many of his works, that he may well assume it amply clear and not in need of complete elaboration every time. It should also be emphasized that this restriction is imposed throughout the Introduction (with a few crucial exceptions): in the first chapter, as we shall see, and in the first paragraphs of Chapters III, VII, XIII, and XVI—wherever occasion arises to state the appropriate general standard. This evidence makes it extremely difficult to regard Bentham as a universalist.

One might of course try to explain such evidence away. An argument like the following would be necessary. Since the restriction is sometimes added but sometimes omitted, perhaps Bentham adds it when (and only when) he thinks that the interests within the agent's community are the only ones that are likely to be affected by the actions under consideration. This would not explain why Bentham saw the need to impose such a qualification when he made general statements of principle; but some explanation is needed for a defence of the standard, universalistic account, this one seems as good as any, and it is perfectly intelligible. But I believe that there is not a shred of evidence to support it. If we look at the various works (cited in the notes), we shall find no relevant feature linking those in which the restriction is omitted that is absent when it is imposed, or vice versa. Someone who wishes to stand by the traditional, universalistic interpretation may find reassurance in a few isolated passages, such as Bentham's ambivalent suggestion that animals' interests should be taken into account, or the passage suggesting that utility demands the most extensive benevolence (which can be understood, in context, as expressing opposition only to that ‘partial’ kind of goodwill that does not extend to all the members of one's community and that therefore fails to harmonize with the parochial standard). But a defender of the universalistic interpretation must also ignore a mass of evidence (only some of which has yet been cited) and turn his back upon the question why Bentham saw fit to add the parochial restriction.

Why does Bentham limit the interests to be considered to those within the community? If one considered only the evidence that is most readily available, such as the evidence I have already cited, from the Introduction and elsewhere, one might reasonably conclude that the basic principle is simply parochial. Whatever Bentham's reasons might be, and whether or not the result is a defensible position, no other conclusion would seem possible.

And this is striking, for a parochial principle has potentially significant implications. The interests of a powerful nation might tragically conflict with the interests of mankind at large, and one committed to testing acts by the interests of the agent's community could therefore find himself endorsing conduct detrimental to the welfare of mankind as a whole. A parochial political philosophy would have frightening possibilities in the realm of international relations.

But I shall argue that parochialism neither exhausts the whole of Bentham's position nor represents a basic principle for him. Bentham also seems to have come to more palatable conclusions about international affairs than his political standard of community interest might lead us to expect.

To the extent that Bentham is a parochialist, it is a most important fact about his doctrines. But the evidence which leads us to entertain this possibility should also force us to look at his writings with a fresh eye. We must not assume that his utilitarianism is a simple prototype of the view that later philosophers have considered.


It is time to consider what Bentham actually says when he gives his most elaborate presentation of his principle of utility, in the Introduction:

By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness. (IPML, I, 2)4

But whose interest is ‘in question’? If Bentham were a universalist he would mean everyone’s—at least everyone who might be affected by an act or its alternatives. But Bentham does not say that. Nor does he say what a parochial principle would require—that the interest of the community, or the interests of its several members, must always be considered. And the reason seems to be that neither of these is what he means. For he continues his account by explaining what he means by ‘utility’ (which presumably tells us more about what he means by the principle of utility). His concern is to emphasize that he does not mean by ‘utility’ conduciveness to just any end whatever, regardless of its connections with human happiness. He means specifically what promotes the welfare of persons. And in making this point he does seem to tell us more about his principle:

By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case comes to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered: if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community: if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual. (IPML, I, 3)

This passage argues strongly against the universalistic interpretation, and the parochial account fares no better. For it seems quite reasonable to suppose that ‘the party whose interest is in question’, to whom Bentham refers in one paragraph when he states his principle, is the same as ‘the party whose interest is considered’, to whom he refers in the very next paragraph when he elaborates his notion of utility. And Bentham says that this party can be either the community (or, in other words, for Bentham, its several members) or some particular individual. So, the principle as given never seems to require that everyone's interests be considered—which rules out universalism; nor does it require that the interests of the entire community always be considered—which means that Bentham's principle is not simply parochial. The community must be considered in some cases, but only a particular individual need be considered in the others.

It must be admitted that the universalistic and parochial accounts are not conclusively defeated. Apart from other evidence that may encourage one or the other of them (evidence we shall look into later), one might try to explain away the apparent implications of this central and definitive passage. As before, one could hypothesize that Bentham speaks in these narrower terms when (but only when) he believes that in the relevant cases only the smaller class of interests would be affected. We have seen how such an argument might run, in favour of the universalistic interpretation, in the face of Bentham's frequent parochialistic statements. On behalf of a parochial interpretation (which we can now assume is more plausible than the universalistic account), the argument would run as follows. Bentham basically wants one to consider the interests of all the members of one's community, but he believes that sometimes only the interests of a particular individual can be affected by one's actions, and then of course one need only consider the interests of that person. The trouble with this suggestion is similar to before: no evidence can be found to support it, and there would be no reason for Bentham to qualify his most general statement of a parochial principle in such a way.

In fact, we can say much more. The rationale such an argument gives for Bentham's formulation is radically different from the one that Bentham himself seems to give. For he does indicate his reasons, though in a place where few, perhaps, have looked.


Our question is why Bentham says that the interest of the community must be considered in some cases, while the interest of an individual is all that need be considered in the others. An answer can be found in the final chapter of the same book, the Introduction. We should note that the first section of this chapter marks a return to his discussion of morals and legislation at the most general level, which he had suspended some chapters earlier. Bentham devotes the first two chapters to explaining and defending his principle of utility and the next fourteen chapters chiefly to matters concerning its application, which requires his analysis of action and motivation, for example, and the development of guidelines for apportioning punishments to offences. In Chapter XVII Bentham returns to certain more general theoretical questions, for this was originally meant as a transition to the proposed penal code. He wishes first to explain ‘the limits of the penal branch of jurisprudence’, but he approaches this by discussing the ‘Limits between private ethics and the art of legislation’ (in XVII, i).

After an introductory paragraph, he proceeds by defining ‘ethics’ (which is done, as soon becomes clear, from a utilitarian point of view). What immediately interests us is his language, which is striking:

Ethics at large may be defined, the art of directing men's actions to the production of the greatest possible quantity of happiness, on the part of those whose interest is in view. (IPML, XVII, 2)

That sort of phrase again: ‘whose interest is in view’. Bentham defines ethics in the same kind of terms he uses in his ‘explicit and determinate account’ of the principle of utility. As we might expect from a general discussion of ethics from a utilitarian point of view, it looks as if further light may be thrown on the principle of utility.

We should also observe that Bentham defines ethics in terms of ‘directing men's actions’ towards a certain end—the maximum happiness ‘of those whose interest is in view’. Who are these persons? We find out from his partition of ethics, which is done by reference to the person or persons whose actions are ‘directed’. This seems important, for he neither defines nor divides ethics in terms of those whose interests are affected, as the traditional view would lead us to expect.

The main partition of ethics is presented as follows:

What then are the actions which it can be in a man's power to direct? They must be either his own actions, or those of other agents. Ethics, in as far as it is the art of directing a man's own actions, may be styled the art of self-government, or private ethics.

What other agents then are there, which at the same time that they are under the influence of man's direction, are susceptible of happiness? They are of two sorts: 1. Other human beings who are styled persons. 2. Other animals, which on account of their interests having been neglected by the insensibility of the ancient jurists, stand degraded into the class of things.5 As to other human beings, the art of directing their actions to the above end [this means, apparently, towards their own happiness] is what we mean, or at least the only thing which, upon the principle of utility, we ought to mean, by the art of government: which, in as far as the measures it displays itself in are of a permanent nature, is generally distinguished by the name of legislation: as it is by that of administration, when they are of a temporary nature, determined by the occurrences of the day. (IPML, XVII, 3-4)

Thus, Bentham divides ethics into ‘the art of self-government’, or ‘private ethics’, on the one hand, and ‘the art of government’ (which, from its parts ‘legislation’ and ‘administration’, seems to be government in the ordinary, political sense), on the other. (As Bentham elsewhere suggests, we might balance this terminology by calling the latter ‘public ethics’. See IPML, IV, 2, note a., and Bowring, I, 195.) Ethics—at least from a utilitarian standpoint—has a dual character. But so does utility itself (and, presumably, the principle of utility), for it concerns the happiness of either an individual or a community.

It seems reasonable to suppose that the respective parts of the two accounts correspond, and it is easy to reconstruct the most likely correspondence. We are virtually told that the art of government is the art of ‘directing’ persons towards their own happiness. And government (in the ordinary sense) may be thought to ‘direct’ all the members of a community. This correlates the public half of ethics with the kind of utility that concerns the happiness of the community—that is, of its several members. The other correlation is then obvious: it comes by identifying the ‘particular individual’ that the other kind of utility concerns as the self-directing or self-governing agent of private ethics. Under the art of government, or government according to the dictates of utility, the interests of the entire community (or all its members) are promoted. The principle of utility applies directly to the government as a whole, which can be regarded as doing the relevant ‘directing’, and which is called upon to serve the agents that are governed, by way of ‘directing’ them towards their own happiness. Under the art of self-government, however, only the interests of the single, self-directing agent who is concerned are to be promoted, by himself.


We have now seen Bentham's most elaborate, ‘explicit and determinate’ account of the principle of utility and also his explicit and definitive discussion of ethics from a utilitarian point of view. Since both are found in the same early work, written entirely by Bentham himself, it is reasonable to assume that the discussion of ethics faithfully reflects Bentham's own current conception of his utilitarianism. This leads us to a tentative reconstruction of Bentham's basic utilitarian doctrines as follows. …

The basic principle of utility may be understood as saying, roughly, that one ought to promote the happiness of those under one's ‘direction’, that is, those subject to one's direction, influence, or control. All free or voluntary human action may be regarded as constituting the ‘direction’ of one or more human persons (either the agent himself, alone, or others as well), and the fundamental normative idea is that government should serve the interests of those being governed. We may call this a ‘differential’ principle because the range of relevant interests to be promoted is not fixed in the usual way; they are neither everyone's nor all those within the agent's community. The interests to be promoted are the interests of those being ‘directed’ rather than those who may be affected. The relevant interest for the purpose of applying the basic principle—the interest ‘in question’, ‘to be considered’, or ‘in view’—the interest to be served—is always that of the person or persons who are under one's governance, whose behaviour is subject to one's direction, influence, or control.

Furthermore, Bentham seems to conceive of this basic principle as if it applied in only two contexts—public and private. Ethics is private when a man ‘directs’ his own behaviour and no one else is subject to his control. He decides what he himself shall do; he does not direct others. (‘Private’ does not mean that others are not affected, but that others are not under one's ‘direction’.) The standard that accordingly applies (by application of the differential principle) is that of self-interest. Ethics is public in the context of government in the ordinary sense. Here, too, we may speak of behaviour being directed, influenced, or controlled, and it should be emphasized that government, for Bentham, is concerned not merely with determining what people ought to do, but also with controlling or at least influencing behaviour—with getting them to do it. The government as a whole (as personified for example in Bentham's ‘legislator’ or his ‘sovereign’) may be thought of as ‘directing’ all the members of the community.

All ‘measures of government’ must therefore serve the interests of the entire community, that is, the interests of all its members. Bentham accordingly embraces two distinct standards,6 one for each branch of ethics. In political affairs the happiness of all members of the community should be served, while in private matters one should serve his own best interests.

I should emphasize that this is a preliminary account. … But the evidence for a reconstruction along such lines is much stronger than one might at first expect, given the widespread unquestioning acceptance of the universalistic interpretation. The evidence is not uniformly strong; parts of the account are determined by explicit textual evidence, while other parts result from an attempt to forge a coherent whole that fits the tenor of Bentham's thought as well as the texts. The initial evidence is extremely strong. That Bentham embraces a dual standard—at least in the Introduction—is made clear not just in the prominent passages which we have already examined but also by his summary at the end of that first section of Chapter XVII, where the definition and division of ethics have been given:

To conclude this section, let us recapitulate and bring to a point the difference between private ethics, considered as an art or science, on the one hand, and that branch of jurisprudence which contains the art or science of legislation, on the other. Private ethics teaches how each man may dispose himself to pursue the course most conducive to his own happiness, by means of such motives as offer of themselves: the art of legislation (which may be considered as one branch of the science of jurisprudence) teaches how a multitude of men, composing a community, may be disposed to pursue that course which upon the whole is the most conducive to the happiness of the whole community, by means of motives to be applied by the legislator. (IPML, XVII, 20)

Evidence like this is not, of course, absolutely conclusive, but it weighs quite strongly in favour of the account proposed, and it cannot be ignored. (See also IPML, XVI, 46, and Bowring, X, 560.)

The differential interpretation also enables us to account for Bentham's parochial restriction. In accordance with my earlier suggestion, let us assume that he has a parochial standard not only in the majority of cases throughout his works, where he explicitly imposes it, but also in the fewer cases, when he does not state it. We shall suppose that, while his parochialism is generally explicit, it is otherwise implicit and always there. Then we can note an interesting fact. Whenever Bentham says or (as we are assuming) implies that his principle requires us to promote the happiness of the community, he is concerned with what he would classify as political or public issues. The topics with which he deals in those places vary widely, from the character of law, through government structure and legal codification, to legal punishments and rewards, judicial procedure and evidence, political economy and tactics. But each subject falls under the public application of his principle, the part that coincides with the art of government. The parochial restriction is therefore not only consistent with but even required by the sort of reconstruction I am proposing. For, when the subject is political, his principle is taken by him to require that the interests of everyone in the community be taken into account. And thus we see that Bentham's parochialism, while undeniable, is nevertheless neither basic nor his entire view. It is drawn from a principle that requires us to promote the interests of those under our governance, the same principle that is taken to yield a different standard in private matters. It should be added that, whenever Bentham formulates his general position in the Introduction (outside the passages that we have considered closely), it has the parochial qualification added, and in each case it is clear (except for one case, to be considered, where it is arguable) that he conceives his main concern to be with matters of legislation or other public affairs. There is considerable evidence, then, that Bentham employs the standard of community interest in the appropriate places. This is true throughout his works (if we regard the small number of cases in which the parochial restriction is omitted as elliptical) and particularly in the Introduction (where no such added conjectures are needed).

Although we have so far considered only a few passages very closely, the ones upon which the proposed reconstruction is based are all prominent, explicitly general, and claimed to be definitive by Bentham himself. … [It] is the most defensible account of Bentham's utilitarianism.


  1. Principia Ethica, ch. I, esp. pp. 17-19. But in view of Bentham's ‘imperational’ conception of moral and legal discourse, it does not seem as if he could have been a ‘naturalist’ in Moore's special sense. See below, ch. 6.

  2. See, e.g., Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, ch. I, pars. 1, 12.

  3. I have found the following examples in prominent passages of works ascribed to Bentham (volumes and pages in the Bowring edn. are indicated in parentheses):

    The parochial restriction is explicit in An Essay on Political Tactics, ch. I, sec. 2, par. 1 (II, 302); Principles of International Law, Essay I, par. 7 (II, 537); A Manual of Political Economy, ch. I, par. 2 (III, 33); Pannomial Fragments, ch. I, par. 2 (III, 211); Codification Proposal, full title (IV, 535); Official Aptitude Maximised, Expense Minimised, Paper I, Preface, par. 2 (V, 265); Introductory View of the Rationale of Evidence, ch. I, sec. 2, par. 3 (VI, 6); Securities Against Misrule, ch. I, sec. 2, par. 1 (VIII, 558); Constitutional Code, bk. I, Introduction (IX, 4-5).

    The parochial restriction is omitted in Principles of Judicial Procedure, ch. I, par. 1 (II, 8); The Rationale of Reward; Preliminary Observations, par. 1 (II, 192); Leading Principles of a Constitutional Code. sec. 1, par. 1 (II, 269); Letters to Count Toreno (VIII, 491).

  4. In a note added to the second edition of the Introduction Bentham formulates it as ‘that principle which states the greatest happiness of all those whose interest is in question, being the right and proper, and only right and proper and universally desirable, end of human action; of human action in every situation, and in particular in that of a functionary or set of functionaries exercising the powers of Government’ (I, 1, note a).

  5. Here Bentham appends a long note opposing cruelty to animals. This may suggest that the principle of utility requires that their interests be considered and thus that it is ‘universalistic’, comprehending all sentient beings. However, the point is made precisely where Bentham is regarding animals as ‘agents’, and this suggests that it can just as well be accommodated to the interpretation of his principle presented below.

  6. I shall call these two derivative principles ‘standards’ and their conjunction ‘the dual standard’ simply to differentiate them from Bentham's basic principle.

Frederick Rosen (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: “The Greatest Happiness Principle,” in Jeremy Bentham and Representative Democracy: A Study of the ‘Constitutional Code,’ Clarendon Press, 1983, pp. 200-20.

[In the following essay, Rosen analyzes Jeremy Bentham's greatest happiness principle, focusing particularly on the related ideal of equality.]

There is no necessary connection between utilitarianism and democracy. Many democrats have not been utilitarians and many utilitarians (including Bentham himself during a considerable portion of his life) have not been democrats. Nevertheless, the democratic principles of the Constitutional Code rest on a utilitarian foundation, and this study of Bentham's theory of democracy would be incomplete without an examination of it. In this [essay] we shall be concerned with the meaning and significance of the greatest happiness principle as it appears in the Code and in related writings.

Bentham formulates the greatest happiness principle in chapter II of the Code as follows:

Of this constitution, the all-comprehensive object, or end in view, is, from first to last, the greatest happiness of the greatest number; namely, of the individuals, of whom the political community, or state, of which it is the constitution, is composed; strict regard being all along had to what is due to every other—as to which, see Ch. vii, Legislator's Inaugural Declaration.

Correspondent fundamental principle: the greatest happiness principle.

Correspondent all-comprehensive and all-directing rule—Maximize happiness.1

It will be useful to compare this formulation with the second major statement of the principle which appears in chapter VII as part of the Legislator's Inaugural Declaration:

I recognize, as the all-comprehensive, and only right and proper end of Government, the greatest happiness of the greatest number of the members of the community: of all without exception, in so far as possible: of the greatest number, on every occasion on which the nature of the case renders it impossible by rendering it matter of necessity, to make sacrifice of a portion of the happiness of a few, to the greater happiness of the rest.2

In both of these accounts, Bentham states that the end of government is the greatest happiness of the greatest number. This is confirmed when he summarizes his principle in the same section of the Legislator's Inaugural Declaration as ‘greatest happiness of greatest number maximized’.3 In his later years, however he became increasingly dissatisfied with the phrase, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. Although he believed that the phrase was an improvement over the vague and somewhat general ‘utility’, he was troubled by several difficulties with it. He could not formulate it as the greatest happiness of all because (a) the happiness of all was often an impractical achievement and (b) the happiness of some might only be achieved at the expense of others.4 For example, the notion of the greatest happiness of all could not incorporate deterrent punishments.5 There is some evidence that he found the phrase cumbersome and the last part somewhat superfluous.6 More importantly, Bentham realized that the phrase implied a disregard for the welfare of the minority in society so long as the happiness of the majority was maximized. In an unpublished manuscript, dated 3 June 1828, he expresses this fear:

So long as the greatest number—the 1001—were in the enjoyment of the greatest degree of comfort, the greatest degree of torment might be the lot of the smallest of the two numbers—the 1000! and still the principal status or the proper object of endeavour of the greatest happiness of the greatest number be actually conformed to—not contravened.7

The date when Bentham abandoned the use of the phrase ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ can now be roughly ascertained.8 The two passages quoted from chapters II and VII above were most likely drafted in a final version at some time between 1824 and 1827. Although the Code was not published until 1830, these passages were in print by 1827.9 Thus, 1827 can be the latest date of their composition and a slightly earlier one is more probable. Shackleton has noted a manuscript dated 8 June 1829 where Bentham states difficulties in the standard formulation of the greatest happiness principle; the Westminster Review article on the ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’ of July 1829, attributed to Bentham but subsequently denied, contains the revision of the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ to more simply ‘the greatest happiness’.10 Since the Code passages quoted above retain the formula, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, at some point between 1827 and 1829 Bentham must have decided on the revision. Furthermore, in 1831 Bentham published a revised version of the Legislator's Inaugural Declaration (chapter VII of the Code) as a pamphlet and incorporated his new conception of the greatest happiness principle:

I recognize, as the all-comprehensive, and only right and proper end of Government, the greatest happiness of the members of the community in question: the greatest happiness—of all of them, without exception, in so far as possible: the greatest happiness of the greatest number of them, on every occasion on which the nature of the case renders the provision of an equal quantity of happiness for every one of them impossible: it being rendered so, by its being matter of necessity, to make sacrifice of a portion of the happiness of a few, to the greater happiness of the rest.11

In the summary of the statement he replaced ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number maximized’ with the new formulation, ‘greatest happiness maximized’.12 By comparing this material with the earlier statement in chapter VII of the Code, we have direct proof from texts Bentham himself wrote, revised, and published of his determination to reduce the ‘all-comprehensive end’ of the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ to ‘the greatest happiness’. Nevertheless, the change does not seem to have been a substantive one, but rather an attempt by Bentham to remove some of the ambiguity from the way the main principle had been formulated. As Bahmueller has noted, the phrase ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is retained to play a secondary role in explaining how the greatest happiness principle should be implemented.13


Having clarified this historical problem, we shall now examine several aspects of his conception of the greatest happiness principle. Returning to the initial formulation in chapter II, it is clear that the principle is initially restricted in application to the individual members of the political community to which the constitution is applied. This restricted application of the principle seems at first to confirm David Lyons's thesis that the principle is intended by Bentham to be ‘parochial’ rather than universal.14 That is to say, the calculation of the greatest happiness requires that only members of the political community be taken into consideration and not everyone affected by an action or practice. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that Lyons's argument can survive much scrutiny. For the parochial limitation seems to follow rather than precede the context in which the greatest happiness principle is applied. In the passage in question Bentham is concerned not with the ‘end in view’ of mankind, but with the ‘end in view’ of the constitution. Those subject to the constitution are the members of the political community. If the context of Bentham's discussion were universal legislation, the greatest happiness principle might very well apply universally. Thus, it is arguable that the parochial limitation follows from the fact that Bentham is directing the constitution to limited political communities. The limitation may rest on a general or universal premiss that the practice in question should aim to maximize the greatest happiness of those affected by it. In the Code those affected by the laws simply happen to be members of distinct political communities.

After stating in the passage in chapter II that the object of the constitution is the greatest happiness of individuals making up the political community, Bentham adds the proviso: ‘strict regard being all along had to what is due to every other—as to which, see ch. vii. Legislator's Inaugural Declaration.’15 The phrase contains more than a cross-reference to chapter VII. It refers to duties to other states, duties which should accompany the direction of the greatest happiness principle to the more limited political society. In the statement of the greatest happiness principle in chapter VII (quoted above) the limitation of the principle to the political community is also repeated, but the qualification about duties to other states is not included, most probably because the Legislator's Inaugural Declaration itself contains a section dealing with relations between states.16 The reference in chapter II to ‘what is due to every other’ presumably refers to this section, the only major section in the Code dealing with general principles of international relations. We might be able to determine from this material how Bentham conceives the greatest happiness principle operating beyond the confines of the political community.

Most of the principles set forth are concerned with the legislator's duties to other states. He promises to observe the same standards of justice and impartiality in dealing with other states as he does with his own constituents and other citizens. He agrees to add to the power and wealth of his state only through friendly competition, where other states do not lose from his gain. This precludes conquest of other states, the acquisition of dominions, and war except where fought to defend his country. He also favours the free movement of persons from state to state.17 Lyons's argument about the relationship between Bentham's ‘parochial’ standard and relations between states, i.e. that Bentham never adopts a universal orientation but believes that ‘internationalism is really in each nation's best interest’, seems at first glance to be confirmed in the Code.18 None of the provisions goes beyond the ‘parochial’ limit. Nevertheless, in one important passage the legislator comes closest to possessing duties to all people. Bentham writes:

On every favourable occasion,—my endeavours shall be employed to the rendering, to the subjects, and for their sake to the constituted Authorities, of every foreign State, all such positive good offices, as can be rendered thereto, without its being at the expense of some other State or States, or against the rightly presumable inclination, as well as at the expense, of the majority of my fellow-countrymen, in this our State.19

It is true that the ‘endeavours’ of the legislator to the subjects of ‘every foreign state’ are restricted by the proviso that these are not done at the expense of the citizens of his own state. But Bentham also writes that these endeavours should not be at the expense of any other state. Although the former statement may support Lyons's ‘parochial’ standard and the principle on which it is based (‘one ought to promote the happiness of those who are subject to one's direction, influence, or control—in other words, those under one's governance’),20 the latter supports a universal outlook, that subject to the constraints imposed by one's constitution, one ought to promote as well the greatest happiness of the members of every foreign state. Bentham also constrains the legislator from acting in a way that causes expense to other states. None of these people is subject to his direct governance. Nor can they be said to be, except in the vaguest way, under his influence and control. Although the context of the constitution necessarily limits the perspective of the legislator to a primary concern for the members of his own political society, the universalistic character of the greatest happiness principle impels him to look beyond this in his calculations. His interests may still remain constrained by the perspective of seeing not ‘mankind’ but a number of foreign states and members therein. Nevertheless, Bentham is saying more than, as Lyons claims, that ‘internationalism is really in each nation's best interest’. Bentham's position amounts to a universalism qualified by the conditions of political existence. This position hardly amounts to a ‘parochial’ standard in international relations. In spite of the initial limitation of the Code to the members of the political community, Lyons's conception of a ‘parochial’ standard for Bentham's greatest happiness principle is not established.


Another aspect of Bentham's formulation of the greatest happiness principle concerns the status and significance of what has been called ‘psychological egoism’. In his first major discussion of securities in the Code, Bentham provides an important (and generally overlooked) statement of his principles as a series of assumptions on which his conception of securities is based.21 He first grants that in all human minds there are ‘propensities’ towards both self-regard and sympathy for others.22 These may exist in different proportions in different people, and presumably some people would exhibit stronger sympathetic motives for action than others. Bentham then argues that self-regard is a more fundamental characteristic than sympathy.23 Without basic self-regard he believes that sympathy cannot exist, because self-regard ensures the physical survival of the species. If Adam thought only of Eve and never of himself and Eve thought similarly of Adam, sooner or later (but not as long as twelve months) the two, Bentham contends, would have perished.24

Having stated these assumptions Bentham then defines the role of the utilitarian legislator:

To give increase to the influence of sympathy at the expense of that of self-regard, and of sympathy for the greater number at the expense of sympathy for the lesser number,—is the constant and arduous task, as of every moralist, so of every legislator who deserves to be so.25

Bentham's conception of the task of the moralist and legislator may seem self-defeating. If he succeeds in his duty of replacing self-regard with sympathy as the sole motive and influence on conduct, his subjects will perish. Bentham himself does not reach this conclusion, largely because he feels that it is physically impossible to replace self-regard completely with sympathy, and, furthermore, it would be imprudent to attempt to do so. But why then should he be concerned with increasing sympathy? Part of the difficulty with answering this question stems from an ambiguity in his argument. At one level he postulates self-regard to ensure physical survival. Each person must satisfy his physical desires at a certain basic level or perish. If he ignores them and devotes his whole attention to the welfare of others (ceases to eat, drink, etc.) he will die. Obviously, at this level sympathy is dependent on physical survival. But the struggle in which the legislator is called upon to engage, to maximize sympathy at the expense of self-regard, is not at this level. On a different plane Bentham seems to be conceiving self-regard in terms of selfishness and self-aggrandizement. Here he is concerned more with morality than with what might be called the physical conditions for morality. At this level, sympathy does not appear to be based on self-regard; it forms an opposing term. To advance the greatest happiness, the legislator's ‘constant and arduous task’ is to increase ‘the influence of sympathy at the expense of self-regard’. Bentham does not distinguish between self-regard and sympathy on each of these levels, and the result renders his argument somewhat incoherent. As it stands, however, the argument uses the ambiguity to provide the further assumption that sympathy will never prevail over self-regard.26 Otherwise, beyond physical survival, it would seem that sympathetic motives would be as strong as self-regarding ones. At times Bentham seems to suggest that this is so, but he also argues the primacy of self-regard on the basis of physical survival, and then uses the latter to establish the primacy of self-regard over sympathy. He succeeds in his overall argument only through his exploitation of the ambiguity.27

Bentham postulates this rule to guide the legislator:

whatsoever evil it is possible for man to do for the advancement of his own private and personal interest … at the expense of the public interest,—that evil, sooner or later, he will do, unless by some means or other, intentional or otherwise, prevented from doing it.28

To be successful the legislator will on the one hand assume that sympathy plays a small role in human action and on the other hand use arrangements based on the primacy of self-regard to generate actions contributing to the greatest happiness. And while a few individuals in every society will be distinguished by their sympathy and regard for the greatest happiness, the legislator must proceed on the assumption that the individuals for whom he legislates are not.

Bentham's Constitutional Code is not a scheme for enabling the most sympathetic and benevolent actions to be performed. He does not, as Aristotle does, see the public sphere as one where all of the virtues can be cultivated and brought to perfection.29 Throughout his writings, including the Code, Bentham endeavours to distinguish between two kinds of sympathetic action. The first is positive and is based on motives to enhance the happiness of others. The second is more negative and is manifest in forbearing to diminish the happiness of others.30 Bentham's remarks on sympathy, which appear somewhat incoherent, may become more intelligible if this distinction is borne in mind. After he states that the legislator should act to increase sympathy as much as possible (see the quotation above), he adds the following:

But, in regard to sympathy, the less the proportion of it is, the natural and actual existence of which he assumes as and for the basis of his arrangements, the greater will be the success of whatever endeavours he uses to give increase to it.31

Bentham seems to be saying that if we assume that people will act without much sympathy and build on this assumption the various entities of the state, the institutions, having been built on solid foundations, will actually increase sympathy. At the minimum they will increase the negative form of sympathy. But if this is his argument, he does not need to discuss sympathy at all in relation to the work of the legislator. By creating institutions which appeal to self-interested men, and preventing them from harming one another he is (like Hobbes) creating a successful and stable state. Nevertheless, Bentham does not want to deny that men act from sympathetic motives, because empirically they claim that they do. But he also does not wish to claim that a constitutional system will induce men to act with positive benevolence towards one another. To aim at this sort of society is, for Bentham, to court disaster with one's constitutional arrangements. He does not jettison his concern with sympathy; he concentrates instead on enhancing negative benevolence which is manifest in the desire not to harm others. The institutions of his Code are designed so that power cannot be abused. Rulers are not trusted to behave wisely and benevolently; nor are they allowed to serve only themselves. They are induced to act benevolently in a limited sense by the threat of punishment or dismissal if they harm those they rule in order to serve themselves. The task of the legislator in designing securities is to enhance the limited, negative benevolence of rulers. In this way, Bentham feels that the legislator will be successful.

Bentham reflects this negative attitude towards benevolence in the way he formulates his ‘moral code’ for legislators, the Legislator's Inaugural Declaration. He states many of the principles in negative terms, so that the promises of the legislator amount to his agreeing not to harm others. The legislator, for example, is placed on his guard:

against the power of all those appetites, to the sinister influence of which, the inalterable nature of my situation keeps me so constantly and perilously exposed: appetite for power, appetite for money, appetite for factitious honor and dignity, appetite for vengeance at the expense of opponents, appetite for ease at the expense of duty.32

Similarly, when the legislator promises to act with impartiality, which, as a positive principle, is difficult to reconcile with utility, Bentham again formulates the promise in a negative fashion:

On every occasion … sincere and anxious shall be my endeavour, to keep my mind as clear as may be, of undue partiality in every sense: of partiality in favour of any class or individual, to the injury of any other: of partiality, through self-regarding interest: of partiality, through interest inspired by sympathy: of partiality, through interest inspired by antipathy.33

In Bentham's formulation, impartiality is conceived as not harming others with partiality. It lacks the positive notions of reason and equality which are usually associated with impartiality.34

It is clear that in the Code Bentham's psychological egoism has an important effect on the way in which the greatest happiness principle is to be realized in terms of constitutional arrangements. The legislator is not encouraged to establish any scheme which will promote happiness; it must be conceived in terms which will allow for human selfishness and will control aggressiveness. This limits the scope of the legislator in one sense, but it also makes his work more demanding. The legal system must create motives in self-regarding people to prevent them from oppressing others. The primacy of self-regard is compatible with this limited benevolence and Bentham sees here the key to successful legislation.


A third aspect of Bentham's conception of the greatest happiness principle concerns the place of equality in its formulation. This is a complex and much debated problem, and most commentators accept A. J. Ayer's assertion that Bentham ‘held, as he must have held to be at all consistent, that the right action was that which produced the greatest measure of happiness, no matter how it was distributed’.35 Although the concept of equality can enter into utilitarian theory on a number of planes, we shall look first at the extent to which equality of distribution is part of Bentham's conception of the greatest happiness principle. To do this we shall examine again the three examples quoted above where Bentham sets forth his principle. In the first of these (chapter II of the Code) Bentham simply states that the object of the constitution is the greatest happiness of the greatest number of the individuals of the state in question. No reference to equality appears here, though in referring to the object of the constitution Bentham may have held implicitly that laws apply to all members of the state equally. Nevertheless, he does not develop this point.

In the second formulation of the greatest happiness principle (chapter VII), he adds the proviso that, where possible, the legislator should seek to maximize the greatest happiness of all, and, where not possible, that of the greatest number. This is a familiar contrast in Bentham, but it does not indicate whether or not he favours an equal distribution. One might be able to argue that in so far as he makes the contrast in the first place he favours the widest possible distribution. But this would depend on what he means when he says that the happiness of the greatest number is to be preferred to the greatest happiness of all ‘on every occasion on which the nature of the case renders it impossible, by rendering it matter of necessity to make sacrifice of a portion of the happiness of a few, to the greater happiness of the rest’. If Bentham simply means that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be preferred to the happiness of all where a greater sum of happiness can be produced by greater inequality or by the sacrifice of pleasures of a few for the sake of very much greater pleasures of the rest, his interest in equality is minimal. Nevertheless, on this interpretation it is not clear why Bentham would use such words as ‘impossible’ and ‘necessity’. What would be at stake is simply a calculation of the greater amount of happiness. However, one point is certain: the greatest happiness of the greatest number seems to be a second-best criterion for distribution to which the legislator resorts when it is not possible to distribute according to the greatest happiness of all. On this interpretation, the best distribution would be the one which most closely approximates the greatest happiness of all. But we have still not determined how the greatest happiness of all is linked to equality.36

In the third formulation of the greatest happiness principle in the revised form of chapter VII which appeared in 1831 Bentham uses the notion of equality to explain what is meant by the greatest happiness of all in relation to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Government is to maximize the greatest happiness: ‘of all of them, without exception, in so far as possible: the greatest happiness of the greatest number of them, on every occasion on which the nature of the case renders the provision of an equal quantity of happiness for every one of them impossible.’37 Clearly, Bentham means here by a policy, which serves the greatest happiness of all, one which does so equally to all. And if the greatest happiness of the greatest number is to approximate as closely as possible the greatest happiness of all, it must maximize the greatest quantity of happiness to as many as possible on an equal basis.

Bentham's formulation of his principle in this third example thus contains an explicit and conscious attempt to link the greatest happiness of all with equal distribution. The equality which he favours seems more than a formal equality, i.e. equal things for equal people depending on other principles, for example, need, desert, or ability, for the determination of how goods should be distributed. Nor is he referring to notions of ‘equal respect’ or ‘equal rights’ which are commonly invoked in discussions of equality but which may or may not entail a commitment to substantive equality in the distribution of goods.38

Bentham's overall position with regard to equal distribution as a substantive goal of legislation may be seen in the following passage:

on the supposition of a new constitution coming to be established, with the greatest happiness of the greatest number for its end in view, sufficient reason would have place for taking the matter of wealth from the richest and transferring it to the less rich, till the fortunes of all were reduced to an equality, or a system of inequality, so little different from perfect equality that the difference would not be worth calculating.39

This position is in turn reflected in his conception of the place of equality in the greatest happiness principle. Nevertheless, Bentham's conception of equality needs further elaboration to see how he deals with equal distribution. His various discussions of equality rest on several assumptions to which more critical scrutiny would be given today. He assumes firstly that what will make one man happy will by and large do the same for another. He also assumes that to increase wealth and power (as instruments of felicity) leads to an increase in happiness, and a decrease in wealth and power leads to a decrease in happiness.40 He is not naïve in his use of these assumptions. The character of each individual, he admits, is unique and inscrutable and the circumstances of two men are never the same. Nevertheless, if assumptions like these are not made, he argues that no general propositions about equality can be advanced. It is sufficient, he believes, that they are closer to the truth than another set of propositions and that they can be of use to the legislator with less inconvenience than any other set of assumptions.41 He thus does not try to avoid the problem of equality by saying that human variability and subjectivity make all discussion fruitless.

Bentham relies most on various conceptions of diminishing marginal utility in his arguments regarding equality. In the early ‘Principles of the Civil Code’, a translation of part of Dumont's Traités of 1802,42 he considers three cases of the effect of wealth on happiness, and in each case he argues that there is greater happiness as wealth is more equally distributed in society.43 The first is concerned with the possession of wealth. Here he starts with the argument that a portion of wealth corresponds to a portion of happiness, and he who possesses the greatest wealth will possess the greatest happiness. He rejects the view that there is a point beyond which the possession of wealth will no longer bring happiness and that people will be satisfied with a determinable amount of wealth. Nevertheless, the happiness of a very rich man is not exactly proportionable to his wealth. A king with the wealth of a thousand labourers with sufficient earnings for their needs ‘and a trifle to spare’ will not be a thousand times happier than the labourers; he is unlikely to be even five or ten times as happy. A man born to wealth, he argues, is not aware of the value of his fortune. ‘It is the pleasure of acquiring, and not the satisfaction of possessing, which is productive of the greatest enjoyment.’44 This sharper pleasure belongs to the artisan more than it does to the king who already possesses so much. Bentham uses this argument to assert that as fortunes approach more closely to equality, there will be a greater mass of happiness, because more will approach the condition of the artisan and fewer that of the king. As to the second case, the acquisition of wealth, Bentham argues that where fortunes are equal, it is best that an equal distribution is made, and where fortunes are unequal, the distribution should aim to increase equality. In both of these instances the production of greater equality means the production of a greater total amount of happiness. Because of diminishing marginal utility, a movement towards increased inequality would not lead to a corresponding increase in happiness. Thus a condition of equality is preferable.

The third case is concerned with loss. Bentham begins by asserting that the loss of a given amount of wealth will produce a loss of happiness in proportion to the amount retained, so that a man who loses a fourth of his wealth will lose a fourth of his happiness. But he then qualifies this assertion by noting that loss beyond a certain stage becomes disproportionate to loss of happiness. If loss means the loss of the means of physical existence a slight loss at this level will produce a catastrophic loss of happiness. Bentham then advocates the equalization of loss or the distribution of loss so that the fortunes of those who suffer loss become more equal. He speaks favourably of schemes of insurance and compensation which distribute losses widely rather than have them fall heavily on a few. The argument for equality of outcome is presumably similar to those made earlier.

Bentham develops his argument further by examining some cases where one person profits at the expense of another. He presents a number of arguments to the effect that the person losing will suffer more pain than the person gaining will obtain pleasure. For example, if two men each have £1000 and one receives £500 from the other, the person who gains will gain a third more wealth, but the person who loses will lose half of his wealth. A redistribution according to the greatest happiness principle would favour a return to equality. Furthermore, the move back to equality would be favoured by weighing up the pain of disappointed expectations involved in the first loss against the pain of not having gained following the redistribution. Bentham feels that the former is much stronger than the latter; otherwise, ‘every man would experience this evil with regard to every thing which he did not obtain’.45 Finally, the pain of loss is stronger, Bentham believes, than the pleasure of gain. ‘Mankind in general’, he writes, ‘appear to be more sensible of grief than pleasure from an equal cause.’46 Where the person losing is poor and the gainer is rich, there are even stronger reasons for a return of the loss, as, in addition to the arguments above, the poor man may suffer greater pain from his loss in so far as it may affect his possession of the necessities of life. If a rich man suffers loss, he will also suffer the pains associated with a shock to his security, although Bentham admits that there will be some compensation in good arising from the movement towards equality.

Bentham does not depart very much from this early view of equality in his later writings. In Leading Principles of the Constitutional Code, he writes: ‘In proportion as equality is departed from, inequality has place: and in proportion as inequality has place, evil has place.’47 He also compares the happiness of the monarch with that of the artisan. Here, he reflects his later political radicalism in stating ‘that the quantity of felicity habitually experienced by a gloomy, or ill-tempered or gouty, or otherwise habitually diseased monarch, is not so great as that habitually experienced by an habitually cheerful, and good tempered, and healthy, labourer’ even though the monarch possesses the wealth of between 10,000 and 100,000 labourers.48 In a body of late manuscript which was published posthumously in the Bowring edition under the title of ‘Pannomial Fragments’ he returns to the sort of arguments or ‘axioms’ he advances in the ‘Principles of the Civil Code’.49 To each particle of wealth, he begins, belongs a particle of happiness. The person with the most wealth must be regarded by the legislator as possessing the most happiness. But, as he argues earlier, happiness does not increase in the same proportion as wealth, and from this premiss (and others employed earlier) he reaches the same conclusion that with the greater equalization of wealth, a greater quantity of happiness will be produced. Furthermore, in Leading Principles, he speaks of an equal distribution of power as well as wealth.50 The greater the concentration of power in society (and hence the greater the inequality of power) the greater will be the tendency to abuse it. Hence, with a movement towards greater equality of power (presumably in the replacement of monarchy with representative democracy based on universal suffrage) there will be less opportunity for the abuse of power and consequently more happiness. There should be no doubt now that Bentham regards substantive equality in the distribution of wealth and power as producing the greatest happiness. From the point of view of equality, therefore, the greatest happiness requires equal distribution or a distribution that moves people towards a condition of equality.

It is true that Bentham places limits on equality, but these do not diminish his view of the desirability of equality as an end for legislation. He recognizes, however, that there are other ends, namely, security, subsistence, and abundance (as future security) which have a higher status. Although he believes, as we have seen, that under a new constitution a redistribution of wealth which would correspond as closely as possible to equality would be desirable in the first instance, he immediately qualifies his argument to bring in evils of a second and third order which would limit such an action. The evil of the second order is the threat to security caused by such a proposed redistribution. The evil of the third order is the threat to subsistence by the extinction of any inducement to labour produced by compulsory equalization of property. Related to this is the possibility that with equal distribution there will be no accumulations of abundance to provide security against famine, calamity, etc. in future years. With greater inequality the wealthier members of society would possess this superfluity.51

Throughout his writings it is security (and recall the connection between security and liberty) which Bentham places over all other ends of legislation. Equality as a co-ordinate end comes into conflict most often with security. In the ‘Principles of the Civil Code’ Bentham sees equality mostly in opposition to security. Security, ‘under the name of justice’, requires that the legislator ‘maintain the distribution [of property] which is actually established’, though it is fair to say that security is extended equally to all members of society.52 But where security is threatened, Bentham argues, so is subsistence and abundance; society without security ‘would relapse into the savage state from which it has arisen’.53 What threatens security most is a sudden movement towards equality. Bentham then argues that to an extent security and equality can be reconciled.54 Limitations can be placed on inheritance to prevent too great an accumulation of property, but most important is a gradual progress towards equality which will take place in a society which values security and free trade. This will allow the development of industry and trade and consequently a movement towards equality of wealth as opposed to the polarization of wealth and power found under feudalism.

Bentham also argues that security in some senses must give way to achieve security in others. He notes that taxation to pay for a standing army reduces security in one sense by taking the citizen's property but increases the means by which he can enhance his security in another sense by ensuring security against foreign enemies.55 Thus, he can envisage a considerable redistribution of property for the sake of security. But he is strongly opposed to a general shock to security which would follow a sudden move to introduce equality of property.

With Bentham's emphasis on security and especially security of property, one might well wonder how he reconciles this with his political opposition to monarchy and aristocracy and the inequalities inherent in these regimes. Does his later political radicalism founder on the principle of security? Bentham's main insight which enables him to be radical in politics, a committed egalitarian, but not to abandon the primacy of security is his belief, which appears only in his later writings, that equality can be an important means to achieve security. Only through equality of power (approached in universal suffrage) is it possible to gain security from arbitrary and tyrannical government. Universal suffrage and representative democracy have additional advantages in enabling security and equality to be advanced without disturbing security of property. This is the great achievement of democracy in America to which Bentham never tires of pointing.56 The system of representative democracy also allows for reform which moves towards equality of property so long as there is no shock to security. The greatest happiness, as the ‘end in view’ means, as we have seen, equal happiness. In his later writings Bentham does not emphasize the maintenance of the existing distributions of property. The ‘disappointment-prevention’ principle allows for reform to take place towards equality so long as full compensation is paid for violations of ‘fixed’ expectations.57 Although it is arguable that full compensation merely maintains the original distribution, in major projects of reform there are numerous consequences flowing from alterations of established states of affairs. Where the object is the production of the greatest happiness, the new arrangements may lead to a greater equality generally than existed before. Furthermore, we have seen in chapter VI that Bentham believes that government policies which require general taxation can be more readily justified if the benefits are distributed widely in society. He is highly critical of policies which tax the many and benefit the few.

Finally, one wonders whether Bentham would authorize the redistribution of property in circumstances where civil strife is prevalent and security can be re-established only with radical redistribution. In his early writings he notes that the overthrow of property by revolution, though of great importance, is transitory and leads usually to another system of property. It is far less dangerous than the direct attempt to establish permanently a system of equal property.58 The former may provide only a temporary shock to security followed by enhanced security due to the benefits of the redistribution. The latter may constitute a permanent shock to security.

From this discussion, we might distinguish between the goal of equality of wealth and power in a substantive sense to which Bentham clearly subscribes and the means to achieve this end which are more limited. He recognizes, of course, that the goal can never be fully realized. The more egalitarian ‘greatest happiness of all’ must often give way to the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’. The goal of equality must give way to security which has a higher status. Nevertheless, Bentham seems more apprehensive about the means to equality than the end. If a condition of equal wealth evolves in a stable representative democracy, he would see this condition as itself augmenting happiness. His great fear is the shock to security which any sudden move towards equality may cause. However, this fear about the means does not diminish the extent to which Bentham values the end of equality.

Having now seen the emphasis Bentham places on equality in his conception of the greatest happiness principle and generally in his thought, we must consider a remark, such as Parekh’s, that ‘in Bentham's view there is no prima-facie case for equality and fairness in the distribution of benefits or burdens’, as mistaken.59 There is indeed a prima-facie case made for equality, but not an absolute one. Similarly, John Rawls's comment that ‘the striking feature of the utilitarian view of justice is that it does not matter, except indirectly, how this sum of satisfactions is distributed among individuals's a comment that leads him to the conclusion that ‘utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons’ will have to be revised.60 In Bentham, at least, the principle of equality guides the distribution of benefits and burdens, providing a substantive goal within the framework of the greatest happiness principle.


  1. Ch. II, Art. 1 (CW), pp. 18-19. The major discussions of the greatest happiness principle appear in chs. II, VII, and IX, § 25, Art. 1 (CW), pp. 18-25, 133-46, 419-20. Other references to ‘ends in view’ appear at ch. IX, § 1, Arts. 1-2; § 7, Bi§ 1, Arts. 2-5; § 15, Art. 1 (CW), pp. 170, 218-20, 297. Most commentators, including David Lyons, In the Interest of the Governed, Oxford, 1973, whose work is discussed here at length, rely on the compilation of manuscripts in Doane's ‘Book I’ (Bowring, ix. 1-145) some of which were not written for the Code or were subsequently excluded from it. This chapter is based primarily on that part of the Code Bentham himself published. Thus, Lyons's brief attempt to extend his discussion from the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation to the Constitutional Code suffers, because he does not use the important discussions in Bentham's own text.

  2. Ch. VII, § 2 (CW), p. 136.

  3. Ibid., (CW), p. 137.

  4. See Bowring, ix. 6.

  5. See UC xxxvii, 106 (15 June 1823).

  6. See R. Shackleton, ‘The Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number: the History of Bentham's Phrase’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, xc (1972), 1480-1.

  7. UC cxii, 154 (3 June 1828). The MS contains the notation ‘not for 1830’. See also Bentham's Political Thought, ed. Parekh, pp. 309-10.

  8. The development of Bentham's principle has been discussed recently by L. Werner, ‘A Note about Bentham on Equality and about the Greatest Happiness Principle’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, xi (1973), 237-51, which elaborates the earlier discussion of A. Goldworth, ‘The Meaning of Bentham's Greatest Happiness Principle’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, vii (1969), 315-21. Beginning with the view that ‘despite the popularity of these convictions about Bentham's later opinion, the basis for holding them is pretty shaky’, Werner (pp. 243-7) proceeds to show a firmer basis in the manuscripts used by Bowring for the Deontology. However, the account offered here will establish from texts written, published, revised, and published again by Bentham himself a clear account of the new formulation of the greatest happiness principle.

  9. See the note by Doane to the Bowring edition, ix. p. iii.

  10. Shackleton, op. cit., pp. 1480-1; see Werner, op. cit., pp. 245-7 where he provides substantiation for the claim of Perronet Thompson, the real author of the Westminster Review article, that Bentham did in fact revise the form of his principle. See also BL Add. MS 33,551, fo. 326. For the passage in the article which announces the change, see J. Lively and J. Rees, Utilitarian Logic and Politics, p. 149.

  11. Parliamentary Candidate's proposed Declaration of Principles: or say, A Test proposed for Parliamentary Candidates, London, 1831, p. 7.

  12. Ibid., p. 8. See also the copy of the Constitutional Code, vol. i, London, 1830 in the Library of University College London (shelf mark: Bentham Collection, 2 c. 19) where Bentham has crossed out the reference in ch. VII (see above, note 3) to the ‘greatest happiness of greatest number maximized’ to leave ‘greatest happiness maximized’.

  13. See Bahmueller, The National Charity Company, pp. 240-1 (note 121).

  14. See Lyons, op. cit., pp. 24 ff. On Lyons's overall argument see also J. B. Stearns, ‘Bentham on Public and Private Ethics’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, v (1975), 583-94; J. R. Dinwiddy, ‘Bentham on Private Ethics and the Principle of Utility’ (unpublished paper).

  15. Ch. II, Art. 1 (CW), pp. 18-19.

  16. Ch. VII, § 8 (CW), pp. 142-4.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Lyons, op. cit., p. 103.

  19. Ch. VII, § 8 (CW), p. 144.

  20. Lyons, op. cit., p. 85.

  21. Ch. VI, § 31, Arts. 6 ff. (CW), pp. 118 ff.

  22. Ibid., Art. 7 (CW), p. 119.

  23. Ibid., Art. 8.

  24. Ibid., Art. 9.

  25. Ibid., Art. 10.

  26. Cf. W. Godwin, Enquiry concerning Political Justice, London, 1793, Bk IV, ch. X, where this assumption is not made.

  27. To clarify Bentham's argument we might distinguish between a physical egoism and a moral egoism. In each of these, Bentham assumes the primacy of self-regard, but he fails to make clear the status of sympathy. In relation to physical egoism a person's sympathy would be self-destructive; in relation to moral egoism, it would enhance his character and contribute to the greatest happiness of society. One might give up moral egoism while adhering to physical egoism in the sense of cultivating a benevolent disposition without jeopardizing physical existence. Nevertheless, Bentham's egoism (in either form) should not be conceived too narrowly. See S. R. Letwin, The Pursuit of Certainty, Cambridge, 1965, p. 141: ‘the self-preference principle expressed, in an unusual, technical form, Bentham's awareness of an ultimate mystery and privacy about every man's view of life.’

  28. Ch. VI, § 31, Art. 11 (CW), p. 119.

  29. See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, V, 1129b25 ff.

  30. See ch. IX, § 21, Art. 26 (CW), p. 397; cf. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, XVII. 6-7 in CW, pp. 283-5.

  31. Ch. VI, § 31, Art. 10 (CW), p. 119.

  32. Ch. VII, § 3 (CW), pp. 137-8.

  33. Ch. VII, § 9 (CW), p. 144.

  34. See, for example, D. D. Raphael, Problems of Political Philosophy, London, 1970, pp. 175 ff. Bentham's conception of negative benevolence reflects his conception of liberty as non-interference. See chapter IV above.

  35. A. J. Ayer, ‘The Principle of Utility’ Jeremy Bentham and the Law, eds. G. W. Keeton and G. Schwarzenberger, London, 1948, p. 250. Goldworth, p. 317n confirms Ayer's argument.

  36. In the passage under consideration Bentham does not directly speak of equality. Curiously, in his summary of principles he includes the maxim, ‘equality maximized’ even though equality is not discussed in the text he summarizes.

  37. Parliamentary Candidate's Declaration, p. 7 (my italics).

  38. Bentham includes some of these notions in his concept of security and in other concepts, including equality, but these need not concern us here.

  39. ‘Pannomial Fragments’ (Bowring, iii. 230).

  40. ‘Principles of the Civil Code’ (Bowring, i. 304-5).

  41. Ibid., p. 305.

  42. It is arguable that this work, though based on Bentham's manuscripts, is Dumont's rather than Bentham’s. I have treated it as a work of Bentham, especially as the material discussed here does not conflict with similar arguments made directly by Bentham himself.

  43. Ibid., pp. 304-7.

  44. Ibid., p. 305.

  45. Ibid., p. 307.

  46. Ibid.

  47. Bowring, ii. 271.

  48. Ibid.

  49. Bowring, iii. 228-30. Some commentators dwell on Bentham's early ‘Essay on Representation’ of 1788 (UC clxx, 114-16, 89-92) for remarks relevant to equality and democracy. See Halévy, La Formation du radicalisme philosophique, i, pp. 424-39; Mary Mack, op. cit., pp. 448-53. The essay contains the argument about diminishing marginal utility and the assumption that people have a roughly equal capacity for happiness. Although Bentham gives the impression (see Werner, op. cit., p. 239) that he is indifferent to the distribution of happiness, he does qualify his remarks in the next paragraph with observations about diminishing marginal utility. However, the essay does not contain an account of equality in relation to the greatest happiness principle.

  50. Bowring, ii. 271.

  51. ‘Pannomial Fragments’ (Bowring, iii. 230).

  52. Bowring, i. 311.

  53. Ibid., pp. 312-13.

  54. Ibid., p. 312.

  55. See Ibid., p. 313.

  56. See, for example, Radical Reform Bill (Bowring, iii. 560).

  57. See ch. VI above.

  58. See ‘Principles of the Civil Code’ (Bowring, i. 311-12).

  59. B. Parekh, ‘Bentham's Theory of Equality’, Political Studies, xviii (1970), 494.

  60. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 26, 27.

James E. Crimmins (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Ethics and the Science of Legislation,” in Secular Utilitarianism: Social Science and the Critique of Religion in the Thought of Jeremy Bentham, Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. 66-98.

[In the following excerpt, Crimmins views the scientific basis of Bentham's utility principle and its hostility toward religious ethics.]

Weak reasoners in morals, by a kind of instinct, take shelter behind the altar. Yet not even this shall save [them]. Mankind is too deeply interested in the display of those truths which [they] would keep concealed … to make it pardonable to desist from the pursuit. The Sanctuary is in its own nature common ground, unless where fenced about by Intolerance which it can never be but by the help of Usurpation … No foreign arguments are needed to set against [their] doctrines: to expound is to expose them: to confront them is to confute.

‘Preparatory Principles’, headed ‘Divine Law’, UC 69/107

Bentham's religious radicalism was not confined to the pages of unread manuscripts for over forty years, only to surface as an ingredient in the radical political attack of the second decade of the nineteenth century. A careful reading of the early celebrated writings on ethics and legislation (notably the Introduction, i.e. IPML) reveals in no uncertain terms the nature of Bentham's secularizing intentions. The Introduction, it should be said, was published long before his association with Bowring began in 1820; hence it was impossible for the latter to expunge its offending statements (a tactic employed with disastrous results in Bowring's 1834 edited version of the Deontology).1 Bentham's animosity toward fundamental articles of Christian belief was clearly indicated here and in other writings of the period. Indeed, the critique of religion he supplied in the early works on ethics and legislation was typically of a radical nature and there is no question that he was there mapping out an entirely secular science of society.

Bentham set out to establish that as an agent of moral welfare religion is inadequate, not to say pernicious, and that we should look to legislation to replace it as the principal means of harmonizing interests in society in order to produce the greatest happiness. In the process he consciously contrasted his rational legislative version of the utilitarian doctrine with the religious brand of utilitarian thought that dominated English ethics at that time. It will assist our understanding of the relationship between religion, ethics, and legislation in Bentham's thought, therefore, if we know precisely what it was that he rejected. The intellectual context of his thought is incomplete if we fail to take notice of the writings of the eighteenth century ‘theological’ exponents of utility,2 for the moral theory to which they gave voice was integral to the social and political fabric of the age against which secularists, like Bentham, rebelled.


Bentham's attentions were focused on religious affairs primarily in two periods or phases of his life—from 1773 to 1782, and from 1809 to 1823. In the early period he wrote A Comment on the Commentaries (largely completed 1774-5, with additions 1776-7, but not published until 1928),3A Fragment on Government (1776), and the Introduction (printed 1780, published 1789).4 In these works and in other manuscripts which date from this time, especially those headed ‘Crit[ical] Jur[isprudence] Crim[inal]’—part of the proposed magnum opus—Bentham struggled to confine his thoughts on religion to a critical, but generally restrained (when compared with the later works) appraisal of the traditional relationships between religion, ethics, and legislation. For the most part religion is here viewed apart from ecclesiastical establishments, though there is some trace of the anticlericalism which pervades the later religious publications. With the notable exception of his preface to Le Taureau blanc and the unpublished fragments on subscription, Bentham at this time refrained from overt criticism of the Established Church. Even so, his basic denial of the truth of religion is evident from the beginning, and it is this which lies at the heart of his religious radicalism.

The second and later phase is the period in which Bentham's views on the Church and on the nature of religion generally reached a final form and were published at great, not to say excruciating, length. In these works Bentham launched a massive strike at all the various manifestations of Church influence, both spiritual and temporal. No longer content to confine himself to the particular theoretical deficiencies of religion as an agency of moral welfare, his critique now encompassed Church institutions and practices as well as fundamental Christian beliefs. The test of utility was applied to both and the results were overwhelmingly negative.

What this pattern of development in Bentham's thoughts on religion indicates is the striking transformation that ‘utilitarianism’ as a social philosophy underwent in his hands. For it has rarely been acknowledged that, in the age before he wrote, the doctrine of utility was nurtured at the breast of the same Church that he came so much to revile.

A few years before Bentham published his now famous Introduction another advocate of utility had made a reputation in the field of ethics in England. In 1785 the Revd William Paley (1743-1805) published his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy.5 His account of a utilitarian God promoting the happiness of his basically self-interested human creatures was similar to that expounded by his near contemporary and admirer Edmund Law, Bishop of Carlisle (1703-87); had been set out a generation before by the Revd John Brown (1715-66) and Abraham Tucker (1705-74); and, a generation before these, though in much less detail, by the Revd John Gay (1699-1745), while a little earlier than Gay one can find similar ideas set out in unsystematic form in the work of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne (1685-1753).6Contra Hume, throughout the century these Church moralists expounded a doctrine of utility which depended as much on orthodox Christian teaching as Bentham was to depend on empiricism, reason, and an abhorrence for traditional metaphysics. The religious tenets of their ethics demanded belief in a benevolent God whose will is to be obeyed, in the immortal nature of the soul, and in a future day of reckoning when virtue will be rewarded and evil punished. But the persuasive power of the theory had its source not in these beliefs alone, but in their succinct combination with a hedonistic psychology as a prerequisite to understanding and directing human nature. Preaching spiritual perfection and happiness as the indispensible criteria of the good life, both in this world and in the world to come, the principle of utility nestled comfortably in the proselytizing arms of the Church, and added substance to the claim that for the sake of the well-being of the community the privileged position of the clergy as the guardian of the nation's morals should be protected by the state.

All these religious moralists employed the utilitarian language of happiness and its component parts. From Locke they learnt that it is considerations of pleasure and pain that supply individuals with the impulse to action, and to this they added that the criterion of virtue is the standard of universal happiness.7 But what specifically distinguishes them is the endeavour to reintroduce, against the current trend, religion into ethics. The problem they addressed was to what extent the obligation to pursue personal happiness could in practical terms influence individuals to pursue the great end of virtue, the maximization of the happiness of all. The solution lay not in postulating a ‘moral sense’, in unsupported reason, or in the mere observance of human laws, but in the adherence to the will of God and in the Christian belief that at some time after death he will dispense to each his just deserts.8

John Brown (who was to earn high praise from no less than J. S. Mill for the ability with which he set out the doctrine of utility),9 reasoned that legislation was inadequate to the task of motivating individuals to practise virtue, that is, to the pursuit of general happiness. He did not say that laws were entirely ineffectual, but pointed out their limitations as the foundation for a progressive system of ethics. In the Essays on the Characteristics of the Earl of Shaftesbury (1751) Brown recognized that laws endeavour ‘by the infliction of Punishment on Offenders, to establish the general happiness of Society, by making the acknowledged Interest of every Individual to coincide and unite with the public Welfare’.10 Nevertheless, laws, by their very nature, are fundamentally limited in what they can effect in the way of motivation. They can only govern external actions, invariably leaving inner thoughts untouched. As the impetus for benevolence must come from within, so virtue cannot depend on laws alone; a ‘natural’ or ‘internal’ motive is required, and this only religion can supply. Religion, the law of God, and not human law, therefore, is the chief and essential support of morality; it supplies universally the ethical imperative to be good which legislation provides imperfectly. People can only be uniformly convinced of their duty to pursue universal happiness by ‘the lively and active Belief of an all-seeing and all-powerful God, who will hereafter make them happy or miserable, according as they designedly promote or violate the Happiness of their Fellow Creatures’.11 The harmony between the private interests of the individual and those of the public at large is here firmly based on the necessity that each person, according to the teachings of Christ, take into account in all their thoughts and deeds their own eternal happiness. As William Paley was to remark:

A man who is in earnest in his endeavours after the happiness of a future state, has in this respect, an advantage over all the world: for, he had constantly before his eyes an object of supreme importance, productive of perpetual engagement and activity, and of which the pursuit (which can be said of no pursuit besides) lasts him to his life's end.12

The communal rewards of this doctrine are manifest. Each individual is responsible not only for his own spiritual well-being, but (towards this end) for the temporal well-being of everyone else with whom he has an association. To ‘be good’ means that we actively pursue the happiness of others whenever it is within our power, for only by so doing can we secure our own happiness in the most encompassing sense of this term—eternal happiness.

To divorce morality from religion, therefore, was a sophistication (if that it be) which it did not occur to the religious utilitarians to entertain. On the contrary, the threats posed to religion by, on the one hand, the theological divisions of the day, and on the other, the apparent indifference of the laity to (and even disdain for) its established norms and practices, made the defence of Christian beliefs of paramount interest to moralists, like Brown and Paley, who found in religion the means by which the desired end of morality could be achieved. Mounting public enthusiasm for a more worldly approach to ethics not only lent a sense of urgency to this defence, but also required that it take a practical as well as a theoretical form.

When Ernest Albee came to trace the history of utilitarianism at the beginning of the twentieth century he represented its secular and theological exponents as each in turn contributing to the stockpile of utilitarian thought as it expanded and was handed down from one generation of moralists to the next. If John Gay influenced Brown and Paley, so this argument goes, then indirectly he also influenced Bentham.13 But did Gay really have an influence on Bentham? Gay's ‘Dissertation’ is indeed a seminal work and shares certain features with Bentham's Introduction. We should not, however, read too much into this. For example, it suits Albee's argument to draw our attention to the similarity between the list of sanctions that each set out—physical (or natural), moral (or virtuous), political (or civil), and religious14—but the supposed connection may well be spurious since it is likely that both were borrowing from Locke.15 A more telling point of comparison (though one less supportive of Albee's thesis) centres upon the degree of importance each attributed to the authority or will of God. As we have seen, as a source of pleasures and pains Bentham thought this a ‘fiction’. Nowhere did he acknowledge any necessity for the intercession of religion in the practical moral life. ‘The principle of utility’, he wrote, ‘neither requires nor admits of any other regulator than itself’ (IPML 33).16 Gay, on the other hand, reduced all forms of obligation to the religious—‘the will of God is the immediate criterion of Virtue, and the happiness of mankind the criterion of the will of God’.17 The language of happiness is common to both, but the spiritual part of human nature, fundamental to the thought of the religious exponents of utility, is not considered a factor by Bentham.

Indeed, it was principally as a consequence of the efforts of Bentham that utility came to be identified with a social philosophy opposed to the teachings of Christianity. A feature of this development, closely connected in the mind of Bentham with the application of the methods of natural science to social analysis, is the substitution of legislation for religion as the paramount agency for resolving conflict between the personal interests of private individuals and the general needs of society. This feature is central to my analysis of the relationship between religion, ethics, and legislation in utilitarian thought.

Bentham described the difference between the object of his own ethical system and that of the ‘religionists’ in his Commonplace Book of the years 1781-5: ‘The laws of perfection derived from religion, have more for their object the goodness of the man who observes them, than that of the society in which they are observed. Civil laws on the contrary have more for their object the moral goodness of men in general than that of individuals' (Works, x. 143). There is a curious tension here between Bentham's nominalism with its regard for discrete entities and the emphasis he places on the abstract and collective, but the shift in focus indicated clearly distinguishes the central aim of his work from that of his Christian precursors. Moreover, it heralded the approaching demise of the religious version of the doctrine of utility as the basis of a persuasive theory of morals.18 For in the course of the attempt to prove the worth to society of a rational system of jurisprudence, founded on empiricism and nominalist logic, Bentham took great pains to discredit religion as a necessary motivational factor in effecting the occurrence of actions conducive to general happiness. In later life he articulated the essence of this intellectual appraisal of the role of religion in society thus: ‘How did I improve and fortify my mind? I got hold of the greatest happiness principle: I asked myself how this or that institution contributed to the greatest happiness—Did it contribute?—If not, what institution would contribute to it?’ (Works, x. 581). The probing of the deficiencies of religion as an agency of social welfare in the work on ethics and legislation was eventually to be complemented by the explicit political attack on the Church in the later works, but the connection between the interests of society and the legislative means to advancing these was present and prevalent from the first.19


Bentham's disdain for religion and emphasis on legislation had its source not only in his scientific method but also in two distinct areas of his early life: his personal experiences with religion and the influence of writers to whose thought he found himself most receptive. As noted above, Mary Mack has claimed that Bentham's early brushes with religion at Oxford lay at the bottom of his utilitarianism, and Bentham himself late in life lent this view some credence (CE, pp. xiii-xxvii). As an explanatory factor, however, it is limited. While it indicates his early disaffection with religion, it does not sufficiently explain the peculiar scientific nature of his utilitarianism with its all-pervasive emphasis on the role of legislation. Attention is better directed to the intellectual influences and exemplars to which he was exposed as a youth, for it was these who gave form and direction to his immature thoughts and grievances.

Throughout his life Bentham claimed that in developing the key practical ideas of his moral and legal philosophy he was indebted above all others to Helvétius and Beccaria—that is, to theorists sympathetic to utility but of a very different cast of mind from the religious exponents of the doctrine. In the previous chapter I tried to show that it was in the work of these continental philosophes, among others, that he found principles of natural science employed as the foundation of social philosophy. Here I am more particularly concerned with the priority they gave to legislation as the principal means to achieving social felicity at the expense of the claims of theology. Before discussing the nature of these influences on the moral and legal thought of the young Bentham, however, we should perhaps say something of David Hume, whose major works Bentham had read and who was an undeniable presence in the history of secular thought during this period.20 Bentham could not help but note Hume's deliberate and concerted efforts to introduce the ‘experimental method’ into moral reasoning. None the less, there is an understandable ambivalence in his references to Hume's moral thought which, since Hume is frequently cited as of integral significance in the development of eighteenth-century utilitarian thought, deserve our attention.

It was in Hume's Treatise—which declared that all social inquiry should be based on the ‘experimental Method of Reasoning’—that Bentham tells us he found virtue equated with utility:

That the foundations of all virtue are laid in utility, is there demonstrated, after a few exceptions made, with the strongest force of evidence: …

For my own part, I well remember, no sooner had I read that part of the work which touches on this subject, than I felt as if scales had fallen from my eyes. I then, for the first time, learnt to call the cause of the people the cause of Virtue. (FG 440 n.).21

Bentham goes on to say that he could not see any more than Helvétius the reason for Hume's exceptions to this rule, but this is understandable when Bentham's dogmatic utilitarianism is compared with the more sensitive handling of the logic of moral judgement set out by Hume. The ‘exceptions’ are indicative of Hume's commitment to a ‘moral sense’ account of obligations. Later on Bentham's disappointment with Hume became explicit. ‘Added Observations’ on the Table of the Springs of Action include the following remarks:

611. Of ERROR, inconsistency is a natural accompaniment—not so of TRUTH.

612. Hume acknowledges the dominion of utility, but so he does of the moral sense: …

614. Here then is a compromise of incompatible contradictions—necessary result inconsistency (Deon. 57).

The ‘inconsistency’ consists in the exempting of some cases from the governance of utility—some actions can be assumed to be self-interested, but not all; social analysis is based on the calculation of consequences, but this is not always the case. Such disregard for uniformity in first principles seemed guaranteed to undermine the effort to place ethics upon a scientific footing. On another occasion, reflecting on his intellectual influences in the ‘Article on Utilitarianism’, Bentham states that the idea attached to utility by Hume was ‘altogether vague’ and consequently of little practical use (Deon. 290).22 Fully cognizant of the differences between his own speculations in the realm of morals and those of the Scotsman, in later life Bentham even went so far as to state that he gained little from his reading of Hume. Having forgotten, it seems, his generous if qualified praise of the Treatise in A Fragment on Government, in the Chrestomathia he was only prepared to single out the lesson taught by Hume's distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ (Works, viii. 128 n.). As important a discovery as this was to the young Bentham in his subsequent career as critic and inventor, it is difficult to believe that Hume's influence can be reduced to this. Even if only in terms of a general awareness of Hume's reputation as a critic of things established and as an unbeliever—and this is the very least one can surmise since Bentham had read the Treatise and, by his own admission, profited from it—we can assume an influence greater than Bentham was willing to allow in later life.

It was disingenuous of Hume to suggest that his essay ‘On Miracles’ alone was, of all his writings, offensive to Christians.23 Not only had he produced other writings critical of Christianity, but the omission of the essays ‘Of Suicide’ and ‘Of the Immortality of the Soul’ (under threat of a law suit) from the Dissertations (1757) is an indication that he knew that he had.24 Equally likely to give the impression that Hume was an unbeliever are such writings as the Natural History of Religion (1757), the essays ‘Of Superstition’ and ‘Of Enthusiasm’, the posthumously published Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779), those parts of the Enquiries where religion is indicated as the corrupter of true philosophy, and occasional passages in The History of England (1754-62), at least parts of which Bentham had read.25 It is possible that Hume was not an atheist in the modern sense (that is, one who is certain that God does not exist), but he openly if cautiously undertook to show that belief in the existence of God could not be based on empirical grounds. He was an equally open and scathing critic of organized religion, entirely happy to trace the origins of religion to natural causes, to reduce the allegedly supernatural to the natural.

Admittedly, there is no evidence that Bentham had absorbed Hume's far-reaching philosophical critique of the basic tenets of Christianity contained in these various works. But, at the same time, the secular direction of Hume's thought could not be missed by so perceptive a mind as the young Bentham possessed—he could not help, for example, but be impressed that in the Treatise Hume ignored God and religion altogether. The first assumption of Hume's science of politics is that human nature is uniform; everyone is governed in the public realm, whether acting alone or in combination, by self-interest. It is, he claimed, ‘a just political maxim, that every man must be supposed a knave’.26 Given this assumption of motivation, it is the task of the legislator to draw up plans to balance the interests that are advanced among the nation's citizens for the general good of the community. This being the case the nation's capacity to survive in an orderly and virtuous condition depends upon its institutions. Just as the ‘tumultuous governments’ of classical Athens were due to ‘defects in the original constitution’, so the stability of modern Venice is firmly grounded on the orderly form of its government.27 Constitutions, government institutions, and legislation are for Hume the primary determining factors of the moral and political welfare of the State. It is these structural arrangements which give it order and upon which the comfort and well-being of its citizens depend. Religion, therefore, will only be of incidental interest for the inquirer anxious to provide a scientific study of political life. What the legislator will learn from this science is that, on the basis that there exists a certain regularity between causes and effects, ‘wise regulations in any commonwealth, are the most valuable legacy that can be left to future ages’.28

The ‘science of man’, then, for Hume underlay all moral reasoning. Theology was no longer to be enlisted to explain natural phenomena where common sense could supply cogent explanations based on other principles, and the criterion for assessing the moral worth of actions was to be not God's will but the happiness of people and usefulness to the community. Critical judgement based on observation and experience was to be substituted for blind faith and superstitious fancies. The rewards and punishments of futurity play no part in Hume's scheme of ethics; social morality is utilitarian and secular.

Helvétius wrote in the same spirit of secularized positivism. In his Commonplace Book of the 1770s Bentham noted that ‘From Locke [the law] must receive the ruling principles of its form—from Helvétius of its matter’ (Works, x. 71), and there are many other references to Helvétius in the manuscript material of this period. After reading Helvétius's De l’esprit (1758) in 1769 Bentham was inspired to ask himself ‘Have I a genius for anything?’ and more specifically, since Helvétius had pointed to legislation as the most important of earthly pursuits, ‘have I indeed a genius for legislation?’. To which he replied ‘fearfully and tremblingly—Yes?!’ (Works, x. 27).29 There can be no doubt that the influence of De l’esprit upon Bentham was considerable. If he vacillated in the case of Hume, his praise for De l’esprit was rarely qualified. In an ‘Article on Utilitarianism’, written in later life, he maintained the same enthusiasm he had for the work sixty years before:

Important is the service for which morals and legislation stand indebted to this work: … The light it spreads, on the field of this branch of art and science, is to that steady light which would be diffused over it by a regular institute or say didactic treatise, like what the meridian sun sheds over a place when bursting forth one moment from behind a cloud it hides itself the next moment behind another, is to that comparatively pale but regular and steady system of illumination afforded to a street by two constantly lighted rows of lamps. (Deon. 325)

It was not merely for the idea of the relationship between genius and legislation that Bentham was grateful to Helvétius. In a manner infinitely more determinate than that shown by Hume, Helvétius gave form to the project of maximizing public utility. In De l’esprit, announced Bentham, ‘a commencement was made of the application of the principle of utility to practical uses’ (Deon. 290). Helvétius's contribution in this respect was twofold. First, he established the connection ‘between the idea attached to the word “happiness”, and the ideas respectively attached to the words “pleasure” and “pain” … [A]ttached to the words “utility” and “principle of utility” were now ideas in abundance, ideas which could not be but continually present and familiar to the most inattentive, unobservant and scantily-instructed minds' (Deon. 290). Secondly, he suggested the implicit relationship that ought to exist between the principle of utility and legislation. Near the beginning of De l’esprit Helvétius announced that it was upon the Newtonian principle of physical motion that he sought to found moral science: ‘If the physical universe be subject to the laws of motion, the moral universe is equally so to those of interest.’ Interest is ‘the mighty magician’ of action and a principle ‘so agreeable to experience’ that it is, therefore, ‘the only and universal estimator of the merit of human actions’.30 Just as gravitation is the great causal principle which explains the behaviour of the heavenly bodies, so interest or personal happiness is the causal principle which explains human behaviour. Utility, therefore, understood as general happiness, ‘ought to inspire the legislator with the resolution to force the people to submit to his laws; to this principle, in short, he ought to sacrifice all his sentiments, and even those of humanity itself’.31 The combination of these two features of Helvétius's thought gave Bentham the rough outline of his legislative project to fashion a society based on utilitarian principles. Helvétius had written that ‘morality is evidently no more than a frivolous science, unless blended with policy and legislation. … if philosophers would be of use to the world, they should survey objects from the same point of view as the legislator.’32 It was from this that Bentham took his lead: utility can only be maximized by designing a system in which each person by following his own interest will contribute to the general happiness. It is the task of the legislator so to arrange matters, employing coercion where necessary, so that self-interest and general interest coincide. As Helvétius put it: ‘All the art therefore of the legislator consists in forcing [us] by self-love to be always just to each other.’33

Bentham was always loud in his praise of Helvétius's refusal to compromise his scientific principles by making concessions to theology. ‘What Bacon was to the physical world, Helvétius was to the moral’, is a typical pronouncement from the enthusiastic Bentham (UC 32/158). But if Bacon was a philosopher dedicated to understanding the intricacies of a world divinely ordered by the hand of God, Helvétius was just as keen to keep theological considerations out of the matter. He not only dispensed with religion but condemned it bitterly. Even in the face of Jesuitical persecution, he was virulently critical of the role hitherto played by religion in moral life.34 Those ‘of more piety than knowledge’, he declared in the later De l’homme (1777), who argue that the virtue of a nation, its humanity, and refinement of manners depend on the purity of its religious worship are ‘hypocrites’, and sadly ‘the common part of mankind’ have believed them ‘without examination’. All experience and history show that the prosperity and virtue of a nation depends on the excellence of its legislation and little else. Religion is not merely ineffectual in the pursuit of happiness, it is an obstacle to it. ‘What does the history of religions teach us? That they have every where lighted up the torch of intolerance, strewed the plains with carcasses, embued the fields with blood, burned cities, and laid waste empires; but they have never made men better.’ The ‘true doctors of morality’ are not the priests but the magistrates, since only ‘sagacious laws' can produce ‘universal felicity’.35

If in Helvétius Bentham found the essential connections between the idea of happiness and the ideas of pleasure and pain and between these and the role of legislation, to Cesare Beccaria he gave the laurel for inspiring him to introduce ‘the precision and clearness and incontestableness of mathematical calculation’ into the field of jurisprudence (Works, iii. 286). This was Beccaria's unique addition to the project initiated by Helvétius. With the idea that it was possible for legislators to calculate the precise amounts of punishment required to deter persons from criminal acts, in Dei delitti e delle pene (1764) Beccaria wrote that ‘If geometry were applicable to the infinite and obscure combinations of human actions, there ought to be a corresponding scale of punishments, descending from the greatest to the least.’36 By thus measuring utility, with ‘geometrical precision’, appropriate punishments could be devised in order to effect deterrence. The end in view is to harmonize self-interest with social well-being by constructing a system of laws and punishments ‘upon the foundation of self-love’, making ‘the general interest … the result of the interests of each’.37

In the pantheon of the young Bentham's exemplars Beccaria stands as ‘the father of Censorial Jurisprudence’ (FG 403), a philosopher not afraid to tackle the established legal systems of the day. Bentham was later moved to address the following eulogy to the Italian philosophe: ‘Oh, my master, the first evangelist of Reason … you who have made so many useful excursions into the path of utility, what is there left for us to do?—Never to turn aside from that path.’38 Concerned in the first place to offer a critical challenge to the legal systems of the age, but perhaps mindful too of the persecution that was the reward of unbelievers who dared to publish their heresy, Beccaria cautiously refrained from considering religion. He mentioned it in passing as one of the three sources, together with ‘natural law’ and the ‘established conventions of society’, of the moral and political principles that govern our lives.39 However, by concentrating upon the ‘established conventions’ Beccara's aim was to apply systematically the principles enunciated by Helvétius, specifically those regarding the nature of motivation and the role of legislation. In the course of doing so he made much of, and expressed almost word for word, the utilitarian formula ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, later popularized by Bentham, as the criterion for evaluating the measures of the legislator.40 Beccaria, more than anyone else of the day, made jurisprudence a secular science.

It was in 1769 that the works of Hume, Helvétius, and Beccaria had first come to Bentham's attention. The next few years were spent elucidating the insights they provided principally within the context of his study of the law. From the first, however, criticisms of religion were intimately connected in his mind with the belief that the role of the legislator should be paramount in all matters of social felicity. By the early 1770s, as he himself testified in the early correspondence and in the later memoirs, Bentham had before him the basic principles of his system.41 In an unpublished manuscript of this time he writes that the fewer the principles to which a science can be reduced the nearer it is to perfection, and that before Helvétius and Beccaria the principles of morality and censorial jurisprudence were many:

Happily this is the case no longer. Beccaria has with an applause that in this country seems to be universal, Beccaria has established … for … censorial Jurisprudence, as Helvétius for morality in general as an all commanding principle the principle of utility. To this then all other … principles that … can be proposed, if legitimate … stand in subordination: … any one … which cannot is to be … cast out as spurious. (UC 69/17)

And cast out as spurious religion was to be. Drawing freely upon the work of Helvétius and Beccaria, Bentham began to map out the details of his secular view of social life and in the process trained a critical eye upon the claims of religion.

In the manuscript pages of ‘Crit[ical] Jur[isprudence] Crim[inal]’—a surprising number of which are devoted to an analysis of the religious sanction, he intimated distaste for the practice of mixing religion with law. ‘Religion’, he writes, ‘is a source from whence the Legisl’or hitherto at least has drawn & continues to draw more mischief than he … has benefit.’ To the objection that divine justice serves a higher end than human justice he replies that ‘The only merit of Human Justice is its subserviency to Human Happiness. If Divine Justice has not that merit, what has it?’ (UC 69/13). And again, this time concerning the uncertainty of the supposed rewards and punishments of the afterlife, he remarks:

I protest against the embarrassing this or any other political question with theological considerations. I … lay myself at the feet of one of the most illustrious fathers of our Church [William Warburton], for I aver with him that the happiness of this life is the only proper object of the Legislator … Unlike God man's knowledge is confined to experience, hence he has knowledge only of what has been and what is, and nothing of what will be. (UC 69/140)

Another reason why religion should not be mixed with jurisprudence was because it lent the latter a sanctimonious air which frequently posed an obstacle to its reform. Bentham took up this theme in his work on Blackstone's Commentaries: ‘nurtured in the Sanctuary of religion [Oxford]’, Blackstone could not see his way to criticizing the legal system he purported to analyse; he saw only what is and nothing of what might or should be. The Commentaries was a work of exposition merely and, therefore, unavoidably fraught with the fictions and fallacies that attend its subject-matter (Comm., ch. 1, sec. 3). For example, according to Blackstone the Law of Revelation is included in the general concept of the law of nature, and ‘no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original’.42 The law of nature is the will of God, and we are to discover this law by virtue of our reason. But if this is so, quips Bentham, ‘it is in the regions of non-entity [reason] is to discover them’ (Comm. 14). Such philosophizing is a confusion of discredited theories. To say that human laws which conflict with Divine Law are not binding, that is to say, are not laws, is to talk nonsense, and the concept of Natural Law is itself ‘nothing but a phrase’, a ‘formidable non-entity’ (Comm. 20). Nor could Revelation be of service in solving these apparent contradictions, for it is a thousand times easier to say even what the Common Law might be than it is to determine Divine Law from the Scriptures. Blackstone's propositions are repugnant to ‘real fact’. Anyone ‘who had been at all accustomed to examine into the import of words’ could have seen this. ‘The wonder is the greater’, writes Bentham, ‘as the fictitiousness of the “precept”, the “command” in one case, and the reality of it in the other, is all that he could have, according to the amount he gives us of the Law of Revelation, to distinguish that from this’ (Comm. 13 n.). In a manuscript of c.1773 Bentham's position is clearly conveyed by the margin heading ‘The Idea of God useless in Jurisprudence’ (UC 96/139).


By the time Bentham printed the Introduction in 1780 his views on the obstacles posed by religion to a rational system of jurisprudence were complete in all important details, and they stayed with him for the rest of his days. True to the spirit of Helvétius and Beccaria, he announced that the principle of utility is the foundation of his system. Its object ‘is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and law’ (IPML 11), and the principal means to achieve this is through government, whose business it is ‘to promote the happiness of the society by punishing and rewarding’ (IPML 74). As nearly as legislation conforms to the calculations demanded by utility ‘so near will such process approach the character of an exact one’ (IPML 40).

On these terms the science of legislation is viewed as a means to a practical end, that is, to the beneficial reform of society. As surely as the prevailing legal system favoured special privileges for the few at the expense of the happiness of the many, by changing the laws the evils of social life can be alleviated. The science of legislation must, therefore, be a study both of what the law is and of what the law ought to be. The first Bentham called ‘expositional jurisprudence’; the second he referred to as ‘censorial jurisprudence’. The ‘expositor’ is principally occupied in stating or in enquiring after facts; the ‘censor’ in discussing reasons: ‘To the Expositor it belongs to shew what the Legislator and his underworkman the Judge have done already: to the Censor it belongs to suggest what the Legislator ought to do in future’ (FG 397-8). To augment knowledge is the function of the ‘expositor’; refining knowledge is the task of the ‘censor’.

These two aspects of the science of legislation, however, are not clearly distinct: the process of enlightenment began for Bentham with the criticism of established ideas but, as Douglas Long has pointed out, the Censor in defending his own censorial stance becomes his own Expositor. Hence Bentham's endeavour to perfect knowledge was to be achieved by a synthesis of the expository and censorial functions.43 It is the special aim of the latter to provide an objective standard capable of evaluating the law as it is and spelling out what the law ought to be in order to conform to human nature. Accordingly, in the Introduction Bentham recognized that religion was of some influence in the field of morals, but there can be little doubt that he believed that its influence should be entirely obliterated. In the relative safety of the unpublished ‘Crit[ical] Jur[isprudence] Crim[inal]’ he had already stated as much:

A great source and subject of diversity, will be those whimsies, or those weaknesses or those prejudices, or those oppressions, or those impostures, which under the several national establishments come under the title Religion. With this title I shall have … no other concern else than to shew that reason which every lover of … mankind has to wish … to see it … greatly narrow’d at least if not … totally expunged. (UC 69/14)

In the rational society, a society organized and governed according to the dictates of utility, religion is superfluous to ethics and need not be a consideration for the legislator. But Bentham does not confuse the censorial and expositional functions of his study; in the knowledge that conditions are not yet ripe for its eradication he includes religion in his list of sanctions (together with the physical, moral, and legal) at the disposal of the legislator (IPML 37). While it exists and has influence, while it is yet a factor in moral motivation, the legislator can and should make use of it. Where social evils are beyond the curative power of other sanctions the legislator might on occasion have recourse to the religious sanction. Such occasions are those of drunkenness (not then restricted by legislation), and any evil act where there are not witnesses, such as smuggling. Here supernatural fears and threats might be of some use. Like the moral sanction the religious sanction can be considered an ‘auxiliary’ sanction which the legislator can employ to supplement the work of the legal or political sanction (LG 196). The pleasures and pains of piety, those ‘that accompany the belief of man's being in the … possession of the good-will or favour of the Supreme Being’ (IPML 44), or his ‘being obnoxious to the displeasure of the Supreme Being’, are useful weapons in the legislator's armoury (IPML 48). If only as a game of bluff, then, religion has its uses. But Bentham is not concerned for its supposed impact in the afterlife, since ‘this is a matter which comes not within the cognizance of the legislator’ (IPML 202n.). In this respect the religious sanction is an empty formula. Unlike the other sanctions which operate immediately in this world, the religious sanction holds out only an uncertain threat. The pleasures and pains of futurity are not intelligible to us. Not being experienced in this life they cannot be observed, and as they are not observable it cannot be said that we can truly know any thing of them (IPML 36).44

Bentham well understood that the clergy employ the religious sanction to some effect. No doubt the inculcation of the belief in the power of a supreme invisible being is useful in that it supplies the deficiencies in point of efficacy of the religious powers of this world, who cannot see all the acts which require punishment, nor be sure that the punishment they administer will always reach an offender (IPML 201). But where the motives supplied by religion are efficacious they are at best ‘semi-social’ in the sense that their consequences reach only to the sect or society governed by the particular religion from which they emanate. On the whole, however, religion ranks last in the list of sources of efficacious motives because it is the least likely to coincide with utility. Despite the ingenuity of the attempt, William Warburton (1698-1779), the erstwhile Bishop of Gloucester, had failed to substantiate the claim of the first book of the Divine Legation of Moses (1738), that the religious sanction has always been inculcated by legislators because of its utility. And, unless it can be shown that the actions enjoined or condemned by that sanction are useful to society, the mere inculcation of the belief in the afterlife is useless and may even be pernicious (UC 140/2). Only if God were universally supposed to be as benevolent as he is wise and powerful would the dictates of religion coincide in all cases with those of utility (IPML 119). In plain terms, and quite apart from his epistemological difficulties regarding the existence of God, Bentham's position was that unless God aimed at increasing worldly happiness he could not be described as benevolent. In a manuscript of the period he notes: ‘God is not good, if he prohibits our possessing the least atom of clear happiness which he has given us the physical capacity of attaining’ (UC 70a/25). In other words, if God does not support utility this proves not that utility is not good, but that God is not good. Too often, it is God's malevolence that is brought to view by the teachers of Christianity:

They call him benevolent in words, but they do not mean that he is so in reality. … For if they did, they would recognise that the dictates of religion could be neither more nor less than the dictates of utility: not a title different: not a title less or more. But the case is, that on a thousand occasions, they turn their backs on the principle of utility. (IPML 120)

Acts induced by the religious sanction which do not tend to the advantage of society are to be restricted by law, for religion itself is only a good in so far as it is the auxiliary of virtue. In short, its tendency ought to be in conformity with the plan of utility. Though he was ready to make use of religion in the existing social system, then, Bentham's reasons were not of a spiritual nature.

What of acts offensive to religion which are not prevented by human laws? Bentham derisively suggests that such actions do not need the punishment of mere mortals, because God will punish all sinfulness by his wrath—only the impious claim the right of punishment in such instances. The misery occasioned by penal laws meant to maintain the religious beliefs of official or established religion for ever raised his ire. ‘When, when, alas!’, he asks in the manuscript pages of ‘Crit[ical] Jur[isprudence] Crim[inal]’, ‘will men cure themselves of the fond pretension of assisting the all-wise with their counsel, the almighty with their power?’ Is it not written ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord’? (UC 140/13).

As an admirer of Voltaire, Bentham would not tolerate the clergy playing the role of ‘middleman’ in order to reveal God's will. Religious texts require interpretation, no doubt, but we are all fallible. In a more critical vein, Bentham charged that the clergy could not be trusted to live up to the otherwise meritorious features of their faith. Too often they have applied the title ‘Divine Justice’ to dictates ‘which could have no other origin than the worst sort of human caprice’ (IPML 110n.). Too often they invoke the name of God to achieve ends wholly contrary to his supposed benevolent will and pernicious to society. In language reminiscent of Helvétius, Bentham chides the zealous advocates of Christianity with causing the ‘sufferings of uncalled martyrs, the calamities of holy wars and religious persecutions, the mischiefs of intolerant laws’ (IPML 121).

As a principle of ethics in the hands of its official professors, then, religion is found to be vague, theoretically deficient, and open to manipulation. In a direct attack on the religious exponents of utility, Bentham even argues that to unite this principle with religion is to apply it in a ‘perverse’ manner—in two respects. It is perverse in the first place because it lends credence to religious asceticism as a bona fide moral life. In a sense, asceticism can be said to have been a target for Bentham from the beginning, and in religion he found its primary vehicle. Having briefly touched on the subject in 1774 in connection with ‘Sexual Nonconformity’ (UC 73/90-100; 74a/1-25) he returned to it in the Introduction to give it a definitely religious context. His exhaustive analysis of the role of the religious sanction in morals and legislation during the 1770s brought him to this stand against religious asceticism, and he once again pondered the subject in 1780 in connection with his writings on ‘indirect legislation’ (UC 87/17-41). Religious asceticism repressed the quest for pleasure on the premiss that the pleasures and pains of this life are nothing in comparison with those of the future state (UC 69/12). ‘The greater the … pleasures of a future life, the less ratio do the greatest possible pleasures or … pains of the present bear to them’ (UC 140/2). Motivated by the prospect of pain which is ‘the offspring of superstitious fancy’, the religious ascetic is led by fear to approve of actions which diminish happiness and to disapprove of those that tend to augment it (IPML 17-18). Where the ascetic is not a ‘fanatic’ attempting to influence the happiness of others, religious asceticism is strictly a principle of private ethics and not therefore a subject for legislation (IPML 19). But if this principle should ever become general, were the world peopled by religious ascetics, they would turn it into a temporal hell (IPML 20). For the motive supplied by religion produces worse secondary mischief than even the worst in Bentham's category of motives—ill-will. Because it is a more constant motive than ill-will (vengeance and antipathy) it is all the more dangerous. Wherever it gives birth to mischievous acts and becomes fanaticism, it will normally be more pernicious than even the most dissocial of motives (IPML 156). Moreover, religious asceticism seems to be accompanied by a special intellectual blindness. The religious fanatic is not able to see that he is fighting against adversaries who ‘think, or perhaps only speak, differently upon a subject which neither party understands’ (IPML 156n.); he does not realize that there would be even more heretics if there were more thinkers (IPML 133). Fanaticism, particularly religious fanaticism, ‘never sleeps: it is never glutted: it is never stopped by philanthropy: it is never stopped by conscience: for it has pressed conscience into its service. Avarice, lust, and vengeance, have piety, benevolence, honour: fanaticism has nothing to oppose it’ (IPML 156n.).

Secondly, the union of utility and religion is perverse because it deflects the science of morals from its true focus of study—the observation and calculation of pleasures and pains. In the preface to the Introduction Bentham writes that, ‘There is, or rather there ought to be, a logic of the will, as well as of the understanding’ (IPML 8). Philosophers from Aristotle down have neglected the former and directed their attentions to the study of the latter. Yet the science of law is absolutely dependent upon a logic of the will. As John Hill Burton observed, for Bentham sanctions are ‘the chains … which bind a man from following his own wild will’.45 The science of legislation is, therefore, founded on this logic, on the study of the connection between pleasures and pains and actions. In essence this constitutes Bentham's advance from the work of Helvétius. As Long again has observed, ‘his “logic of the will” was meant to be the social and moral equivalent of Newton's physical laws of motion: the core of a science of human nature upon which an entire catalogue of social sciences might be based’.46

For the ‘theological’ exponents of utility, the operations of the will were not understood in the way just outlined. It is not how wisely legislation binds the will to its purpose, but how nearly the will conforms to God's laws that is important. In the truly Christian commonwealth the will would be neither wild nor aimless, but would naturally be directed to the fulfillment of God's purpose. In short, the human will would become one with the Divine will. In the less perfect commonwealth the moral and legal sanctions serve their purpose, but more weight attaches to the wrath of God, which is reserved for those who openly and deliberately flaunt his laws. For these laws, unlike those of society, are perfect, eternal, and immutably directed to the enduring happiness of all. Hence, the religious exponents of utility reduced all forms of obligation to the religious. As John Gay expressed it, ‘the will of God is the immediate criterion of Virtue and the happiness of mankind the criterion of the will of God’.47

John Brown's explanation of the dimensions of the motivation supplied by religion was perhaps the subtlest of those set out by the religious utilitarians. What Brown, in language peculiar to the day, termed ‘the religious principle’, has two branches, the first of which is fear. His defence of religion in terms of this is of little interest. Fear, and specifically the fear of divine punishment, being a passion which we all have the capacity to feel, constitutes the lowest base from which we could become virtuous. Even so, says Brown, there is nothing slavish in this; rather it ‘implies a lively and habitual Belief, that we shall be hereafter miserable, if we disobey [God’s] Laws’, and this does no more than induce ‘a rational Sense’ of evil and the determination to avoid it.48 Of more interest is Brown's elucidation of the second branch of the religious principle, since it is here that the positive character of the motive to virtuous action which Christianity supplies is to be found. This branch of the principle is ‘the Hope and Prospect of higher Degrees of future Happiness and perfection’.49 To understand fully what Brown meant by this his theological position as a defender of orthodox beliefs must be borne in mind. Among the faithful of the day the spiritual dimension of the perfection of the soul was commonly held to be integral to the idea of personal happiness in its most encompassing sense. In Brown's Christian version of the doctrine of utility it could be no less so: here temporal happiness joins hands with the eternal happiness of the soul in pursuit of the ideal, the perfect harmony of virtue and happiness. For Brown,

‘Man is never so sincerely or heartily benevolent, as when he is truly happy in himself’. Thus the high Consciousness of his being numbered among the Children of god, and that his Lot is among the Saints; that he is destined to an endless Progression of Happiness, and to rise from high to higher Degrees of Perfection, must needs inspire him with that Tranquility and Joy, which will naturally diffuse itself in Acts of sincere Benevolence to all his Fellow-Creatures.50

Only when a man ‘is truly happy in himself’ can he be expected to progress in ever greater degrees towards perfection, and it is religious consciousness which provides this happy disposition, making his own perfection and his contribution to human happiness possible. Neither happiness nor perfection on this view can be said to be the primary consideration for the true Christian, but each is essential for the possibility of the other. As Brown put it elsewhere,

the whole Weight and Energy of the Gospel is employed in enforcing the Idea of moral Perfection, of our nobler SELF, of Self-Interest in the higher Sense, of the Necessity of extirpating every meaner Passion, and cherishing the great one of unbounded Love, as the necessary and only Discipline that can qualify us for future Happiness.51

Hence it is not that religion merely promises an extension or rectification of human justice, nor that the rewards and punishments of futurity are simply an addition to the imperfect rewards and punishments established by civil society. There is a specific aspect of religion which cannot be accounted for in such terms, something over and above the religious sanction which imparts to the doctrines of Christianity an undeniable efficacy. It is a spiritual quality which has nothing to do with visions or ecstasies, but everything to do with the will to be and to do good. This will is most appropriately characterized as love, and it is a love which causes each person to be loved in return, such that ever increasing numbers open their souls to benevolence. The notion of posthumous rewards and punishments provides an aid to this moral endeavour, but it is in religion in its positive role—that which prompts individuals not merely to refrain from evil but actually to do good, to love their friends and neighbours and thus progress on the path to perfection—that the Christian finds himself most fully in accord with God's benevolent will.

It was on these grounds that the religious exponents of utility held that the religious principle gave the fullest scope to human development. Its reality does not rest on simple post facto evidence, but is derived from the theological consideration that human nature has a spiritual as well as a physiological side. Despite their emphasis on the importance of the appeal to the concern for future happiness, Paley, Brown, and the others recognized that the moral efficacy of religion is not constituted by this alone. Virtuous effort demands that we form an ideal of the highest good towards which this effort tends. That ideal is the harmony of virtue and happiness according to the laws and purpose of God, a harmony which is approachable in the present life but which is only truly realizable in the life to come. The virtuous person constantly reaches forth in a seemingly endless effort to reach perfection, but such endeavour, though fundamentally spiritual, is of great temporal significance in ordinary social and political life. It manifests itself in love, the love of God, and through him the love of all with whom one comes into contact; its consequence is a peaceful and ordered society and, in the best of all possible worlds, extensive benevolence leading to universal happiness.

Bentham's argument against this form of reasoning is founded upon his metaphysics and reveals how little he could empathize with or enter into the language of religion. The will of God, having no existence in reality that can be observed, is a fictitious entity. As he wrote in 1816, that ‘such or such a thing is a cause of pain or pleasure is a matter of fact and experience: that the use of it has been prohibited by the Deity, is a matter of inference and conjecture’ (UC 58/210).52 In the Introduction he was equally clear that when moralists refer us to the ‘will of God’ their meaning is frequently confused, and this is not only a source of error but of positive evil. The revealed will of the Scriptures is too vague and subject to too great a range of interpretation to provide a general standard of ethics. What moralists usually settle for is ‘the presumptive will: (that is to say, that which is presumably to be his will on account of the conformity of its dictates to those of some other principle’ (IPML 31). But if this principle is not general happiness in this life then it is nothing more than either the principle of ‘sympathy’ or ‘antipathy’ in some other shape (IPML 31). The potential for evil lies in the fact that these principles—sympathy and antipathy—approve and disapprove of actions, not on account of their augmenting or diminishing happiness, ‘but merely because a man finds himself disposed to approve or disapprove of them’. They provide no external criterion or ‘extrinsic ground’ for judgement; therefore, all is uncertain and unpredictable (IPML 25).

Bentham was later to expose this evil in terms of the influence on the will of the citizen exerted by illegitimate, as opposed to legitimate, sources of authority in society. The influence of a Church, which relies on interpretations of the ‘will of God’ and not on utility to determine what is or is not admissable, is just such an illegitimate use of authority, and where an ecclesiastical establishment has an influence in government the dangers to the comfort and well-being of the citizen are multiplied. However, Bentham's arguments concerning the redundancies of religious doctrines and their pernicious consequences when propagated by an unscrupulous clergy were clearly stated in his writings on ethics and jurisprudence during the early period of his career. Entirely cynical concerning the value of religion to society he demanded that it be replaced as the central agency of moral control and social regulation. Hence, we find that his critique of religion is closely associated with his emphasis on legislation and the logic of the will as the only sure means for promoting human happiness. At the heart of this vision of a secular society stands the principle of utility, and Bentham never doubted that it was an appropriate standard by which to measure the worth of religion. In the manuscript pages of ‘Crit[ical] Jur[isprudence] Crim[inal]’ he commended those writers who had gone before him in this:

A numerous tribe of anonymous writers in whom the acrimony they have shown in their attacks against religion in general, has been more conspicuous than any strength or regularity which they have display’d in the manner of conducting them, have mostly however had this merit in common, that they have professed to take this principle (utility) for their standard. (UC 159/270)

To advocate the principle of utility as the ultimate standard of all policies is to advocate the eradication of the influence of religion over the mind and the demotion of official religion from its privileged position as the protected ally of government. Legislation is to hold centre stage. Its aim is to achieve the greatest happiness by bringing about the concurrence of private and public interests. Government must induce individuals to follow the optimal path by holding out the prospect of rewards and punishments for the adherence to, or infringement of, laws prescribed in order to create the conditions in which the greatest happiness can be achieved.


  1. See the editorial introduction to Deon., p. xxxii.

  2. The term ‘theological utilitarianism’ was coined by W. H. Lecky and later used by Ernest Albee to describe the moral thought of those 18th-cent. moralists who, while giving prominence to the principle of utility as the standard for assessing the worth of an action, found in the Christian religion the essential motive to virtue. Neither Lecky nor Albee, however, saw any need to present these moralists as exponents of a distinctive doctrine. They appear to have assumed that before Bentham utilitarianism as a school of thought in England was a loose and somewhat diffuse one, encompassing writers of different temperaments and purposes. Theological utilitarianism, though significant, represented merely a transitory stage prior to the final, secularized, maturity of utilitarian moral theory. See W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals from Augustine to Charlemagne, 2 vols. (London, 1869); E. Albee, A History of English Utilitarianism (London, 1901); and for a discussion see my ‘John Brown and the Theological Tradition of Utilitarian Ethics’, History of Political Thought, 4:3 (1983), 523-50.

  3. J. Bentham, A Comment on the Commentaries, ed. C. W. Everett (1928; repr. Darmstadt, 1976).

  4. LG also belongs to this early period: a continuation of IPML substantially completed by 1782, the manuscripts were discovered at University College Library by C. W. Everett in 1939 and subsequently edited and published by him as The Limits of Jurisprudence Defined (New York, 1945).

  5. IPML had been completed and printed as early as 1780 but not published until 1789. George Wilson wrote to Bentham (24 Sept. 1786) during his sojourn in Russia informing him of Paley's success, in reply to which (19-30 Dec. 1786) Bentham affected indifference (Corr. iii. 490-1 and 513-14).

  6. G. Berkeley, ‘Passive Obedience’ (1712) and ‘An Essay towards preventing the ruin of Great Britain’ (1721), in The Works of George Berkeley Bishop of Cloyne, ed. A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop, 9 vols. (London, 1948-57), vi; J. Gay, ‘Preliminary Dissertation concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Morality’, prefixed to W. King, Essay on the Origin of Evil (London, 1732); [A. Tucker], The Light of Nature Pursued by ‘Edward Search’, 7 vols. (London, 1768-78); J. Brown, Essays on the Characteristics of the Earl of Shaftesbury (1751; 3rd edn. London, 1752); E. Law, ‘On Morality and Religion’ and ‘The Nature of Obligation of Man, as a sensible and rational Being’, in W. King, Essay on the Origin of Evil, trans. E. Law (1732; 5th edn. London, 1781).

  7. See A. P. Brogan, ‘John Locke and Utilitarianism’, Ethics, 69:2 (1959), where he argues that Locke formulated the basic theses of 18th-cent. utilitarianism. Brogan, however, seems to assume that utilitarian ethics in the century after Locke was all of a kind, and that John Gay and others simply ‘took Locke's theses and organized them into a systematic presentation’.

  8. It is true that the rudiments of a similar view of the motivation supplied by the afterlife are to be found in Locke, but it is hardly developed by him. See Essay concerning Human Understanding, in Works, ii, Bk. II, ch. 21, secs. 38, 70. For Locke, Christian ethics are ‘natural’: the reason for doing what Christ said is not simply that Christ had said it, but that in conforming to his will one promotes one's own happiness, and to this end all men are impelled by their natural self-love. Even so, it is a fact of some interest that Locke ultimately failed to live up to the promise of his maxim that ‘reason must be our last judge in everything’ (ibid., Bk. IV, ch. 19, sec. 14) and instead recommended a morality based on faith and revelation.

  9. ‘We never saw an abler defence of utility than in a book written in refutation of Shaftesbury, and now little read—Brown's “Essays on the Characteristics” ’ (Mill, ‘Bentham’, in Collected Works, x. 86-7).

  10. Brown, Essays on the Characteristics, p. 209.

  11. Ibid. 210.

  12. W. Paley, Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Bk. I, ch. 6, in The Complete Works of William Paley, 4 vols. (London, 1825), i. 34.

  13. See Albee, A History of English Utilitarianism, ch. 9.

  14. See ibid. 182; L. A. Selby-Bigge (ed.), British Moralists: Being Selections from Writers Principally of the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1897), ii, sec. 863; IPML 34.

  15. Locke, Essay concerning Human Understanding, in Works, ii, Bk. II, ch. 28, sec. 7. The 3 sanctions set out by Bentham in FG correspond precisely to those of Locke (both omit the physical; added by Bentham in IPML).

  16. In the earlier Comm. Bentham put it thus: ‘The principle of utility once adopted as the governing principle, admits of no rival, admits not even of an associate’ (Comm. 27). Another variation occurs in the marginals for the Table of the Spring of Action: ‘Principle of Utility allows no rival. Whatever is not under is opposite to it’ (Deon. 31).

  17. Selby-Bigge, British Moralists, ii, sec. 864.

  18. It does not alter this assessment that John Austin set out a version of the religious doctrine of utility in the lectures he gave at UCL, published under the title The Province of Jurisprudence Determined (1832; London, 1971). It was Bentham's secular version of the doctrine that came to dominate in 19th-cent. England.

  19. Yet it was well into the 19th-cent. before the radical nature of Bentham's utilitarianism was appreciated outside the band of philosophical radicals that gathered about him. As J. B. Schneewind has so rightly said, it was only from the middle of the 1830s that Paley was no longer considered the central figure in philosophical discussions of utilitarianism, Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (Oxford, 1977), 151. It should also be noted that though Dr Southwood Smith, W. J. Fox, and John Bowring were closely associated in practical affairs with Bentham, other Unitarian philosophers saw Paley as the fountain-head of the utilitarian doctrine. For instance Bentham is mentioned only in passing by T. Belsham in Elements of Philosophy of the Human Mind and of Moral Philosophy (London, 1801); and by W. Jevons in Systematic Morality, 2 vols. (London, 1827).

  20. For the influence of Hume, Helvétius, and Beccaria on Bentham see Mack, Jeremy Bentham, ch. 3; N. Rosenblum, Bentham's Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), ch. 2; H. L. A. Hart, ‘Bentham and Beccaria’, in Essays on Bentham: Studies on Jurisprudence and Political Theory (Oxford, 1982); Harrison, Bentham, esp. ch. 5.

  21. It is likely that Bentham was mistaken and that he had in mind Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), in Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (3rd edn. rev. P. H. Hidditch, 1748, 1751; Oxford, 1975), sec. 5, ‘Why utility pleases’.

  22. There is little to substantiate and, if this were the place, much to say against the claim of John Plamenatz that Hume ‘is rightly regarded as the founder of utilitarianism’. Plamenatz appears to base this on the fact that Hume provided his successors with the concept of ‘utility’. Hume's employment of the term and his tendency to equate it with ‘virtue’ are not in question, but his connection with the ‘moral sense’ school of moral thought is no less important. With this in mind Plamenatz's statement that Hume ‘is a utilitarian but … not a complete one’ does not do justice to the richness of Hume's ethics; J. Plamenatz, The English Utilitarians (Oxford, 1958), 22, 28.

  23. Hume to Hugh Blair (1761), The Letters of David Hume, ed. J. Y. T. Greig, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1932), i. 351.

  24. E. C. Mossner, The Life of David Hume (Edinburgh, 1954), 319-35.

  25. For these references and an analysis of Hume's religious scepticism in the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding I am indebted to D. F. Norton, David Hume: Commonsense Moralist, Sceptical Metaphysician (Princeton, 1982), 279-90.

  26. D. Hume, ‘Of the Independency of Parliament’, in Essays Literary, Moral, and Political (London, n.d. [1870?]), 29.

  27. Hume, ‘That Politics may be reduced to a Science’, ibid. 19. See also Hume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748), in Enquiries, sec. 8, pt. 1, p. 90.

  28. Hume, ‘That Politics may be reduced to a Science’, in Essays Literary, Moral, and Political, p. 19. See also the essay ‘Of National Characters’ in the same volume.

  29. There are several sections of De l’esprit devoted to a discussion of ‘genius’, by which Helvétius meant the ability of men to discover or invent objects of importance to the well-being of mankind. In this respect Helvétius mentions the effect on human progress of the work of a wide variety of literary and philosophical figures including, naturally, Newton and Locke. For Helvétius's discussion of ‘genius’ see esp. De l’esprit, Essay III, ch. 1.

  30. Ibid., Essay II, ch. 2, pp. 42-3.

  31. Ibid., ch. 6, p. 63.

  32. Ibid., ch. 15, pp. 124-5.

  33. Ibid., ch. 24, p. 185.

  34. That the Jesuits posed a formidable personal threat to Helvétius after the publication of De l’esprit in 1758 is part of the story of D. W. Smith's Helvétius: A Study in Persecution (Oxford, 1965).

  35. C. A. Helvétius, A Treatise on Man: His Intellectual Faculties and his Education [De l’homme, 1777], trans. W. Hooper, 2 vols. (London, 1810), i. 144, 148, 196.

  36. C. Beccaria, An Essay on Crimes and Punishments [Dei delitti e delle pene, 1764; first Eng. trans. 1767], trans. H. Paolucci (Indianapolis, 1975), ch. 3, p. 64.

  37. Ibid. 10, 59.

  38. UC 32, a fragment headed ‘Introduction, Principes Project Matiere’, (c.1785-90), trans. from Bentham's French by Halévy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, p. 21. The reference to the evangelical nature of Beccaria's work is consistent with Bentham's habit of borrowing the terminology of religion to dramatize the efforts of the secularists, including his own. This is discussed below in the Conclusion.

  39. Beccaria, An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, p. 5.

  40. How this formula travelled from Francis Hutcheson via several hands to Beccaria, later to be taken up by Bentham, is the subject of Robert Shackleton's informative essay ‘The Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number: The History of Bentham's Phrase’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 90 (1972), 1461-82.

  41. See Corr. i, Letter 192; ii, Letters 248, 250, and 251; and Works, x. 70, 79, 142. Bentham was always happy to indicate his pleasure whenever he found these basic principles enunciated. Hence, despite the concessions to Christianity it contained, he could still commend the Marquis de Chastellux's An Essay on Public Happiness [De la félicité publique, ou considérations sur le sort des hommes dans les différentes époques de l’histoire, 1772], 2 vols. (London, 1774; repr. New York, 1969). See UC 142/211-13.

  42. Blackstone, Commentaries, i. 41.

  43. Long, Bentham on Liberty, p. 13.

  44. Elsewhere Bentham was not so circumspect: ‘under the guidance of religion men have made to themselves an almighty being, whose delight is in human misery, and who, to prevent a man's escaping from whatsoever misery he may be threatened with in the present life, has without having denounced it formed a determination, in the event of any such escape, to plunge him into infinitely greater misery in a life to come’ (Deon. 131).

  45. Burton, Benthamiana, p. 358.

  46. D. G. Long, ‘Physical Sciences and Social Sciences: The Case of Jeremy Bentham’ (unpublished), Proceedings of the Canadian Political Science Association Annual Convention 1975, 3.

  47. Gay, ‘Preliminary Dissertation concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Morality’, in Selby-Bigge, British Moralists, ii, sec. 864.

  48. Brown, Essays on the Characteristics, p. 214.

  49. Ibid. 215.

  50. Brown, Essays on the Characteristics, p. 221.

  51. Ibid. 329.

  52. Among MSS used by Bowring for the 1st vol. of Deon. published in 1834. Written in the hand of Bowring, it is likely that this is a rephrasing by him of Bentham's original, probably dating from 1816.


Criticism: J. S. Mill's Utilitarianism: Liberty, Equality, Justice


Further Reading