Theory of Utility

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance 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 we shall do.”

Jeremy Bentham uses the Principle of Utility to provide a foundation for his system of moral philosophy.  The utilitarian theory proposed by Bentham seeks to establish that human behavior can be said to be motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. While this consequentialist theory appears to be akin to common sense, when scrutinized carefully the framework of utilitarianism begins to breakdown and succumbs to the challenges put forth by subjectivity. Furthermore, when applied to the criminal justice system as a theory of state punishment it neglects a core element of human nature, retribution based on desert. However, after recognizing the crevices of Bentham’s utilitarian system, one thing remains, the foundation of his system is firmly grounded and his simple maxim can be universalized and used in any sociological system to promote the greatest amount of happiness.

        Jeremy Bentham is often cited as the father of utilitarianism. The principle of Utility as proposed by Bentham is not only applicable as a system of social governance but also as a universalizable maxim which should dictate the actions of all human beings based on their outcomes. According to The principle of Utility the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people should be the consequence of any action. Any action, which conforms to the principle of utility, is that when “the tendency to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.” At this point one may argue that happiness varies from person to person; it is a subjective quality. Although this is a valid criticism of utilitarianism as a whole we shall first examine how this consequentialist theory is applied to the criminal justice system.

        Jeremy Bentham proceeds to apply the utility principle to the legal system and provides a justification for punishment. For Bentham, “all punishment in itself is evil” since punishment in itself does not promote happiness but suffering for the punished. It is however admitted on grounds that it promotes greater overall happiness to community than the suffering endured by the person being punished. This overall happiness is not found in revenge for the crime committed although that would conform to the principle of utility but is justified on the grounds of deterrence.  It is a forward-looking theory that seeks to deter future crimes of the same nature and consequently prevent and reduce crime. Bentham asserts that the “the immediate principle end of punishment is to control action” through reformation or incapacitation but recognizes that it has a “natural tendency…of affording a pleasure or satisfaction to the party injured.”  According to Bentham no pleasure derived from punishment can ever outweigh the pain endured by the offender and consequently punishment can only be justified on grounds of deterrence through example. Punishment then is a forward-looking action that aims to promote happiness in the community by a reducing crime and securing public safety.

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        After having given a justifying aim for punitive action, the next step for Bentham is to provide a comprehensive framework for penal distribution. At the level of distribution Bentham classifies cases in which doling out punishment is groundless, inefficacious, unprofitable or needless. Reiterating each of these cases is not only an exhaustive task but maybe regarded as punishment on utilitarian grounds. Therefore this paper will avoid delving in each case and shall instead provide examples of each category so that the reader has a general idea of Bentham’s “Cases Unmeet for Punishment.” The first of these categories where punishment ought ...

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