Jeremy Bentham

Introduction & Works:

Jeremy Bentham was the real founder of the utilitarian school of political philosophy. He represented a type of mind in England that had revolutionized industry through the application of steam to it. Born in 1748 Bentham soon showed that he was an intellectual prodigy. He went to Oxford but later entertained a poor opinion of the education he received there. From Oxford he went to Lincoln’s Inn in London to receive his legal training. Bentham had a scientific bent of mind, given to introspection. From a comparatively early age he was given to problems of social welfare. From Priestley’s Essay on Government, Bentham learnt that the true end of the state was to promote the happiness of the greatest number. A state and its laws were good or bad according as they kept this end in view. In spite of Blackstone’s eulogies of the British constitution and British Laws, Bentham was convinced that the English laws were a mass of obscurities, fictions and formalities’, unsuited to England of his day. In 1776 Bentham wrote his Fragment on Government advocating change in the government and laws of England, which brought him into contact with the ardent reformers and politicians of his day. His interest in the theory of jurisprudence and his zeal for legal reform, zeal kept up till his death in 1832, made Bentham write a number of treatises, the most important of which are:

  1. Fragment on Government (1776)
  2. Introduction to the principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)
  3. Discourse on Civil and Penal Legislation (1802)
  4. A theory of Punishments and Rewards (1811)

Bentham’s writings produced little practical effect during the 18th century because of the British dislike of innovations and British reactions against the excesses committed by the reformers of the French Revolution. But after 1815, the spirit and philosophy of Bentham carried all before them. Bentham became the leader of the radical philosophers, among who were such intellectual celebrities as David Ricardo, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, John Austin and George Grote. During his life time Bentham legislated not only for England but also for France, Russia, Mexico and Chili. He discounted racial differences and believed that he had discovered a body of general principles of universal application. He, therefore, was always ready to draw up legal codes for other countries. Bentham had no respect for antiquities. The age of an institution was no guarantee of its usefulness. Historical interpretations of institutions and historical method of study had no use for him. The law and institutions of a country must represent the needs of the day. They must be judged not with reference to past but from the point of view of their present utility.

Bentham on Utility:

“Nature has placed mankind under the government of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what w shall do. On the one hand, the standard of right or wrong, on the other the chain of cause and effect, are fastened to their thrones”. Bentham enumerates fourteen simple pleasures i.e. those of sense, wealth, skill, amity, good name, power piety, benevolence, malevolence, memory, imagination, expectation, association and relief. Simple pains were twelve i.e. privation, sense, awkwardness, enmity, ill-name, piety, benevolence, malevolence, memory, imagination, expectation and association. From the idea of pleasure and pain arises the principle of utility. “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency 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 oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever and therefore not only of every action of a private individual but of every measure of government’.

Felicific Calculus:

An action is right or wrong, good or bad, according as it brings pain or pleasure. Both pleasure and pain could be arithmetically calculated i.e. were subject to felicific calculus. While evaluating pain or pleasure, the factors that were to be measured and assessed were intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, propinquity or remoteness, fecundity i.e. the chance of its being followed by a sensation of the same kind and purity i.e. the chance of its not being followed by a sensation of the opposite kind. To these should be added the factor of extent when a number of persons were affected.

The sanctions of pleasure are physical, religious, moral and political. Bentham attaches three conditions to his principle of utility i.e. (1) it must be clear and precise, (2) it must be the single and sufficient account of motivation, (3) it must be applicable by means of a ‘moral calculus’. Bentham ignored the influence of conscience or moral sense in human conduct. Bentham’s doctrine of utility applied not only to morals but also to legislation and politics. The aim of law should be to apportion happiness among the members of a community on the principle of everybody to count for one, and no one for more than one. Political institutions ought to be so devised that everybody has a share in the control of government. Utility, therefore, needs that there should be a democratic and not aristocratic or royal absolutist government and the government should follow the policy of Laissez Faire. The principle of utility, therefore, demands individualism. For the principle of utility, Bentham later substituted the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It must be pointed out that Bentham's psychology is weak and inadequate. Its handling of human motivation is superficial. Benthamism does not seek to reconcile individual happiness with social happiness.

Origin of Political Society:

Bentham did not believe in the contractual origin of the state. Political society, and rights and duties of the state and of the individuals did not emanate from consent or contract. The ultimate reason for men submitting to law and government is not original contract but present interest and utility. Governments exist because they promote happiness i.e. because of their utility. Men obey the law and the state because know that the “probable mischief of obedience are less than the probable mischief of disobedience”.  If in a group there is on the part of some of the members the habit of paying obedience to other members, whether one or more, that whole group constitutes a political society. To Bentham, therefore, habit, born of utility, and not contract, is the basis of the state. Bentham's doctrine that utility was the sole criterion and justification of every institution including the govern­ment was more revolutionary in its implications than the theory of Natural Rights.

Law and Rights:

Bentham began his political writings at a time when writers like Thomas Paine and Godwin imbued with the spirit of the Age of Reason were dilating on Natural Law and the Natural Rights of Man. Bentham rejected the idea of a law of nature. Nature, to him, was a very vague term and, therefore, natural law and natural rights were meaningless. Borrowing somewhat from Hobbes, Bentham conceived of law as the expression of the sovereign will, in the form of a command, of a political society which gets the natural obedience of its members. Legislation is the characteristic function of sovereignty. Law is the expression of will which God and man possess but not so nature. There can, therefore, be a divine and a human law but no natural law. But divine law, too, is unascertainable and, therefore, in every political society, there must be some human will which gives law and which holds the sovereign power. Law, to Bentham aims at four ends i.e. security, substance, abundance, equality.  It is general obedience which gives a law its permanence and makes it effective and thus enables it to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Bentham believed in natural rights as little as in natural law, and characterized them as simple nonsense. Rights are not natural but are created by law whose worth depends on its utility. Bentham thus ­replaced natural rights by utility. Bentham believed in freedom and equality but he would not base them on natural law.

Bentham on Sovereignty:

Bentham gave unlimited powers to the sovereign who could legislate for all and everything. “The supreme governor’s authority though not infinite allowed to be indefinite, unless limited by express convention”. The only conceivable restraint on a sovereign is his own anticipation popular resistance, base on popular interests. Bentham believed in written constitutions to ensure a rational government of people, but he was against any bills of rights and he would give his sovereign the power to amend the constitution. A government was liberal or despotic according to the arrangement of distribution and application of supreme power. the sovereign was not bound to respect any individual rights. A right involves a correlative duty but duty has no other basis than interest or utility. B will not perform the duty of respecting A's rights if the consequences of doing so are not more agreeable to him than those of doing otherwise, unless the sovereign authority forces him to do so. Hence indivi­dual rights emanate from the sovereign. Bentham recognized three kinds of duties, political, religious and moral and two kinds of rights, 1egal and moral. Natural rights had, as ob­served above, no meaning for him.

Right of Resistance:

Bentham thought that a subject had no legal right to resist his sovereign. On the other hand he has a legal duty to obey his sovereign unconditionally. But a subject has a moral right an a moral duty to resist his sovereign if the utility of resistance were greater than the evil of resistance. The exercise of his  unlimited powers by the sovereign would depend on considerations of utility.


The utility of any system of government or law could be known by correlating, weighing and measuring the factors that enter into a situation including the important factor of the degree of sensitivity of the people. Bentham ,believed in the long run a representative democracy was a form of government more likely than any other to secure the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The main thing is that the government should be an agency of good i.e. happiness and not of evil. The constitution should be so drawn that political power of various individuals and organs of government could be used for good and not for evil. The extension, duration and intensity of this power should be properly restricted and delimited with a view to securing the maximum of happiness and minimum of unhappiness. This is possible more in a demo­cratic constitution than in any other.

Bentham did not agree with Blackstone on the latter's characterization of the British constitution as a perfect and suggested some amendments to it. He was for the introduction of universal manhood suffrage, annual parliaments and voting by ballot. Bentham was in favour ofa democratic government. He disliked both the monarchy and the House of Lords in Britain.   A republican government was best because it ensured efficiency, economy, and supremacy of the people and brought about the greatest good of the greatest number on the basis of the identity of interests between the ruler and the ruled. Bentham was in favour of the government adopting the policy of free trade and laissez faire.


Bentham held that punishment should be preventive and corrective rather than retaliatory. It should be calculated to prevent the extension of evil and to secure the extension of good. It, should, therefore, not be inflicted where it was groundless, needless, ineffective or unprofitable. It should be obviously justifiable and proportionate to the offence committed but it must be sufficient to secure its ends. It ought to be able to prevent the offender from committing it. It should be individualized, qualitatively and quantatively, to suit the individual offender. The basic principles of punishment are that it should be equable, proportionate to other punishments in simi­lar cases, characteristic of the offence, exemplary, 'frugal' of pain, reformatory, compensatory, popular and remissible.

Bentham made many suggestions for improvement in the laws and the administration of laws in England. He was for giving publicity to laws and was jn.favour ofthe freedom of the press. He prepared codes of international law, constitu­tional law, civil law and criminal law. He began the system of separating jurisprudence from politics, a process completed later on by his disciple, John Austin. To Bentham, the only valid test of the adequacy of a punishment was its ability to secure public welfare. He believed that the English criminal law was inhuman. He was in favour of the reform of the criminal and the prisons, and suggested the building of his novel Panopticon a wheel-shaped building, for the housing and proper observation of the criminals. He had great faith in education as an instrument of reform. Bentham wanted universal suffrage, representative parliament, a responsible executive and universal education in the programme of 19th century British Liberalism.

Criticism of Utilitarianism:

Bentham’s utilitarianism has been criticized on various grounds. It has been denounced for its materialism and for its neglect of the moral sense. What Bentham wanted to do was to establish a standard of right or wrong, good and evil, related to calculable values. His attitude towards rights of the individual, law and government was based on this consideration. It must be said, however, that his psychological appreciation of human nature was inadequate. Many factors besides pleasure and pain motivate individual and communal action. Besides, Bentham did not properly coordinate and correlate individual and community utility. This is because Bentham viewed the community as a ‘fictitious’ entity which has no interest apart from that of the individuals composing it. State policies have to be general and generally take into account the happiness of the ruling class. To Bentham, a thing is good if it brings pleasure to an individual. But individual pleasure differs with different tastes and desires and therefore ‘good’ differs from individual to individual. This precludes the possibility as also desirability of a uniform code of action in a community.

Utilitarianism takes an atomistic view of society which is a mere collection of individuals motivated to action by consideration of their own pleasures. But man is both altruistic and selfish. Rational and emotional elements play an important part in his life. Utilitarianism stands for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But there is no logical connection between happiness of the greatest number and greatest happiness. Happiness is something subjective and is considerably independent of state legislation and state action. There is no such thing as universal happiness. The utilitarian conception of universalistic Hedonism is unsound. Pleasures are individualistic. Utilitarianism has been condemned as materialistic. It ultimately stands for utility conceived in terms of material property. It lacks idealism and debases human nature.

The important of Bentham lies in the fact that discarding the theory of social contract, he gave a new basis to the state and obligation to it i.e. the basis of utility. A government, therefore, must justify itself on the calculus of its utility. We follow Bentham in so far as we value a law not because it is morally ‘right’ but because it is ‘good’ i.e. because of its tendency to produce more happiness than obtained before it. Bentham’s main contribution to political philosophy lies in his applying an empirical and critical method of investigation to concrete problems of law and government’ and in his extending the experimental method of reasoning from the physical branch to the moral.

Estimate of Bentham:

Bentham’s influence spread rapidly both in England and abroad. In England, the Free Trade and the Humanitarian movements owed much of their inspiration to Benthamism. Bentham’s writings on legislation were translated into French and he was made a citizen of French in 1792. His ideas and theories were very popular in Russia, Iberian Peninsula and South American republics.

Back to Top

Copyright © 2015 All Rights Reserved