Book Review: Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham

by ketchupduck11 min read17th Jun 2021No comments


History of effective altruismJeremy BenthamClassical utilitarianismBooks

Epistemic status: More “dilettante reading complicated texts he is bound to misunderstand,” less “learned philosopher providing nuanced overview.”

Disclaimer: I refer to the Early Modern Texts (EMT) version of Principles. This is a version that has been “translated” into present-day English. As the version itself states, “the present version of this work aims to make its content more easily accessible, at the cost of losing much of the colour and energy of Bentham’s writing.”

Last time I was here, I wrote a review of Bentham’s Deontology. I’m back with another review, this time of his better known work, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. How much better known? Enough that three of the four prominent quotes attributed to Bentham on are from Principles (the remaining one is from “Bentham’s advice to a young girl,” and I don’t know if I’ll ever review that).

Write: way too much

If Jeremy Bentham was alive today, he would fail at NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is an occasion for writers to start and finish a 50,000 word novel draft. The idea is that writers, by forcing themselves to write so much so fast, will write without inhibition. Only, in present-day Bentham’s case, he would scoff at the idea of 50,000 words being “a lot,” end up writing 150,000, and still not make it through the first act of his book.

He wrote a lot, and based on what I have read so far, most of his output was digressions he couldn’t stop himself from making.

Take, for instance, the present book. As Bentham recounts in his preface, it began as a single-volume discussion of criminal law. As he revised his work, he found himself “unexpectedly entangled in an unsuspected corner of the metaphysical maze” and realized that making his way out would require him to broaden his scope from criminal law to “nearly the whole field of legislation.” Bentham then spent eight years researching this new, broader work, only to realize that he would need to write a foundational work expressing its underlying basic principles first. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, this present work, is that foundational work.

But wait, there’s more! Principles ends abruptly before Bentham can complete even his truncated efforts. One second, Bentham is promising to discuss criminal law in upcoming sections, and the next, readers are in an epilogue added nine years later where he apologizes that “the third, fourth and fifth sections that were to have been added to this chapter will not be given here, because to give them in a reasonably complete and satisfactory way might require a considerable volume.”

The above behavior is typical for Bentham. Another work of his, A Fragment on Government, started as a response to Blackstone's Commentaries, a ~1500 page work on laws. Bentham got sidetracked by a very small portion of Blackstone’s introduction that briefly defined government, and ended up devoting the entirety of Fragment to tearing it apart.

In NaNoWriMo terms, it’s as if he started writing a fantasy book, got sidetracked into writing a prequel for his still-unfinished fantasy book, and then left the prequel unfinished so he could write a dictionary for the language he constructed for his fantasy world.

Bentham’s ambition remains vast and unsated. In the introduction to Principles, he lists all the topics he wished the work included. If he had more time, it would include everything from an analysis of the concept of “emotion” to how citizens respond to political changes. This, even though he acknowledges that “most readers are sure to find [Principles] dry and tedious” already!

Right: how could he not be right?

When I picked up Principles, I was looking forward to reading the book where, as Wikipedia promises, “Bentham develops his theory of utilitarianism.” Instead, I found a book where Bentham presents an already-developed theory of utilitarianism.

In the first paragraph of the first chapter, Bentham states that pleasure and pain are "the standard of right and wrong." In the second paragraph, he states the principle of utility: it is the principle that approves of actions that increase the happiness (i.e., pleasure) of people. That's the bulk of the development of utilitarianism we get in this book.

In his defense, Bentham couldn’t have predicted that he would end up being regarded as the father of modern utilitarianism, or that Principles would be his magnum opus. He saw himself as the latest in a line of utilitarian thinkers, building upon the work of philosophers like David Hume, William Paley, and Joseph Priestly. He probably figured that his readers were familiar with what earlier philosophers had said, so he didn't need to justify all of utilitarianism from ground up in Principles. Unfortunately, that means that this book is not helpful as an "Intro to Utilitarianism" guide.

Where Bentham does talk about utilitarianism, he summarily assumes that it is correct. For example, he claims that the principle of utility is such an elemental axiom that, much like quarks, it cannot be broken down or simplified any further. To prove such an axiom is “as impossible as it is needless.” The only concession he makes to laypeople who need more convincing is to acknowledge that the principle of utility is confusingly named (not confusing, period). If only people would follow him in renaming the “principle of utility” to the “greatest happiness principle” (spoiler: they didn’t), the inherent correctness of his idea would become obvious to everyone (spoiler: it didn’t).

After all, “greatest happiness,” prima facie, is a simpler and more understandable phrase than “utility.” Bentham seems to think that people who contest the principle of utility simply don’t understand it. Once they realize that the principle of utility refers to achieving the “greatest happiness,” so that pleasures outweigh pains, they’ll accept it.

If, perchance, his readers do run into that rare unicorn opponent who isn’t convinced by the principle of utility greatest happiness principle, Bentham provides a 10-step argument for convincing anyone of the correctness of the principle of utility. (For a taste, step 7 reads “If he answers all that by saying ‘No, because the sentiment that I propose as a standard must be based on reflection’, let him say what facts the reflection is to turn on.”) The crux of his argument is making any opponent realize that he can’t oppose the principle of utility without resorting to the principle of utility itself. After all, what possible reason could he have to oppose the principle of utility but that it would cause more pain than pleasure?

If the opponent still isn’t convinced, well, then, maybe he is just a dunce. Or as Bentham puts it, those who question the principle of utility “deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light,” which I’m pretty sure is a nice way of saying “dunce.”

Bentham’s attitude towards his opponents struck me, a modern reader, as bizarre. In modern times, authors signal their confidence in their arguments by being (or at least pretending to be) charitable towards opposing viewpoints, and it was weird to me to see a smart and renowned author not doing that.

For the sake of being charitable myself, I tried to think of situations in which I, too, would act like Bentham and came up with a few. For example, if someone asked me to argue for a proposition that I thought was obviously correct, say, that sons and daughters have equal inheritance rights. I know that there are places in the world where this is a controversial, even incorrect, opinion. And yet, I have a hard time even imagining the arguments against it, let alone formulating counterpoints to those arguments. If I ever came across someone who wanted me to defend my opinion on this, my entire argument would sound like, “Ah… well… duh? Of course sons and daughters should have equal inheritance rights.” Maybe, to Bentham, not believing in the principle of utility was as confusing as discriminatory inheritance rights are to me. We both know we have opponents out there in the world, but their views are so foreign to us as to be impossible to argue against.

Bentham, for his part, is so enamored of the principle of utility that, not only is he unable to argue for its advantages, he also seems unaware of its disadvantages. One of the most common arguments against utilitarianism is that, in its eagerness to tally up pleasures and pains, it ignores other important values, for example, justice. Bentham walks right up to these arguments when he discusses how crimes should be punished. He says the goal of punishment is firstly to deter others from committing the same crime, and only secondly to reform or restrain the offender. Therefore, even if a criminal reforms, his sentence should not be modified. A punishment that was deemed necessary to deter others remains necessary even if the punishee reforms. In other words, there is no parole in Benthamland. This is an unpopular opinion, but Bentham doesn’t address the fact that many people find continuing to punish reformed criminals unjust and even unethical.

Wright: of categories and lists

John Wilkins, a polymath born a century before Bentham, embarked upon many audacious projects: making transparent beehives, planning a trip to the moon, and relevant to our discussion here, categorizing everything in the universe. He hoped that someday, his categories could be used to overcome language barriers. In my language, I say “monkey” and in your language, you say “mono,” but we can both understand each other if we realize that we are referring to the animal that Wilkins categorized under “Beasts > Viviparous > Clawed > Not rapacious > Man-like > Lesser kind.”

An image from Wilkins' book, categorizing 'diameter'

Wilkins wrote a 700-page book where he categorized every word he could think of in this manner. The above example from his book shows how Wilkins categorized “diameter” under “Magnitude > Mutual relations > Line to Plain > Round > Intern > Central.” I was reminded of Wilkins’ project when reading Principles.

You see, there is a puzzle hiding in what I’ve said about Principles so far. I’ve told you Bentham writes a lot, but I’ve also told you that Bentham doesn’t really justify the idea of utilitarianism. So what does he fill all those pages with? Wilkins-style categorizations of a lot of legal concepts.

Take, for example, circumstances that influence how much pain or pleasure an individual feels when something happens to her. These circumstances include anything from “firmness of mind” to “religious sensibility.” Bentham divides these as follows:

  • Circumstances can be primary or secondary. Most circumstances are primary, but those few (e.g., age, sex, education) that operate through primary circumstances are secondary.
  • Primary circumstances divide into innate, those that people are born with, and adventitious, those that come into being during life
  • Adventitious circumstances divide into exterior circumstances, those concerning the outside world, and personal circumstances, those internal to one’s self
  • Personal circumstances divide into actions and dispositions
  • Dispositions divide into those that concern one’s understanding of the world and those that concern affections or one’s biases about the world.

Bentham repeats this exercise over and over for a whole host of concepts. Most of Principles is analysis of this kind, breaking down concepts into sub-concepts, and then sub-sub-concepts, sub-sub-sub-concepts, and so on until we’re so deep into the weeds that the weeds have turned into mile-high skyscrapers. In the second-last chapter of Principles, even the EMT translator, who up until now has been quite patient, editorializes that “this chapter [is] driven by [Bentham’s] interest in classification (‘method’) as such. It makes for wearisome reading.” Not only is the categorization wearisome, it is also dubious at points. For example, Bentham claims of mental illness that “there can’t be as many varieties of [insanity as of bodily imperfections] because as far as we can see the soul [here = ‘the mind’] is one indivisible thing, not distinguishable into parts as the body is.”

Bentham also follows Wilkins’ footsteps in making long lists that try to carve up the whole universe. For example, Bentham has a chapter where he discusses the different kinds of pleasures and pains. And I don’t mean that figuratively. Bentham literally lists all the different kinds of pleasures and pains in the world (examples of pleasures include wealth, skill, and friendship). He then pulls a Fermat and mentions offhandedly in a footnote that proof that his list is indeed comprehensive would take up too much space. In another spot, he talks about malevolence and says, “In a bad sense it is called, in different cases, ‘wrath’, ‘spleen’, ‘ill-humour’, ‘hatred’, ‘malice’, ‘rancour’, ‘rage’, ‘fury’, ‘cruelty’, ‘tyranny’, ‘envy’, ‘jealousy’, ‘revenge’, ‘misanthropy’, and by other names that it’s hardly worthwhile to try to collect.” Well! I’m glad he decided the other names are not worth collecting after listing fourteen of them. Some thesauruses are less thorough.

TL;DR: My advice to those who want to read Principles for what it says about utilitarianism would be to read the first two chapters of this book. Even in the first two chapters, Bentham barely justifies his views, so if you are not already a believer, he won’t convince you, but at least you will hear him talk about utilitarianism. The further into the book you get, the more it strays from utilitarianism to categorization that is only going to be useful if you anticipate going to a philosophy-themed pub trivia quiz where you might be asked to name the fourteen kinds of pleasures in the world.


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