Philosophy of Jeremy Bentham

THIS work was published in 1789. It was primarily intended as the introductory volume of a work designed to cover the whole field of the principles of legislation--principles based on that doctrine of utility, or the 'greatest happiness of the greatest number,' which Bentham regarded as equally the basis of ethics. The purpose of the work is at once to insist on this fundamental basis of the principles of legislation, and to treat of law in a manner which should make it intelligible to the general public.


MANKIND is governed by pain and pleasure. Utility is that property in anything which tends to produce happiness in the party concerned, whether an individual or a community. The principle of utility makes utility the criterion for approval or disapproval of every kind of action. An act which conforms to this principle is one which ought to be done, or is not one which ought not to be done; is right, or, at least, not wrong. There is no other criterion possible which cannot ultimately be reduced to the personal sentiment of the individual.

The sources or sanctions of pleasure and pain are four--the physical, in the ordinary course of nature; political, officially imposed; moral or popular, imposed by public opinion; and religion. Pains under the first head are calamities; under the other three are punishments. Under the first three heads they concern the present life only. The second, third and the fourth, as concerns this life, operate through the first; but the first operates independently of the others.

Pleasures and pains, then, are the instruments with which the legislator has to work; he must, therefore, be able to gauge their relative values. These depend primarily and simply on four things--intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, propinquity or remoteness. Secondarily, on fecundity, the consequent probable multiplication of the like sensations; and purity, the improbability of consequent contrary sensations. Finally, on extent--the number of persons pleasurably or painfully affected. All these being weighed together, if the pleasurable tendency predominates, the act is good; if the painful, bad.

Pleasures and pains are either simple or complex--i.e., resolvable into several simple pleasures, and may be enumerated; as those of the senses, of wealth, of piety, of benevolence, of malevolence, of association, of imagination. Different persons are sensible to the same pleasure in different degrees, and the sensibility of the individual varies under different circumstances. Circumstances affecting sensibility are various--such as health, strength, sex, age, education; they may be circumstances of the body, of the mind, of the inclinations. Their influence can be reckoned approximately, but should be taken into consideration so far as is practicable.

The legislator and the judge are concerned with the existing causes of pleasure and pain, but of pain rather than pleasure--the mischiefs which it is desired to prevent, and the punishments by which it is sought to prevent them--and for the due apportionment of the latter they should have before them the complete list of punishments and of circumstances affecting sensibility. By taking the two together--with one list or the other for basis, preferably the punishment list--a classification of appropriate penalties is attainable.

An analytical summary of the circumstances affecting sensibility will distinguish as secondary--i.e. as acting not immediately but mediately through the primary--sex, age, station in life, education, climate, religion. The others, all primary, are connate--viz. radical frame of mind and body--or adventitious. The adventitious are personal or exterior. The personal concern a man's disposition of body or mind, or his actions; exterior, the things or persons he is concerned with.

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