Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 6. An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

III. Bentham and the Early Utilitarians

§ 6. An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation

It is to his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation that we must look for Bentham’s fullest and clearest account of the underlying principles, psychological and ethical, of his enterprise. The interests of the individual do not always agree with the interests of the community; and this divergence sets the problem for penal law. Again, the rule of right is one question, and the causes of action is another question; and it is important not to confuse the ethical with the psychological problem. This distinction is made, and ignored, in the arresting paragraph that opens the work:

  • 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. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognises this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light.
  • These sentences give the gist of Bentham’s simple philosophy. Everything rests upon pleasure and pain. They are in the first place, the causes of all human actions. Man is a pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding animal. It is true, he has many different impulses, springs of action, or motives; and, of these, the author essays some account in this book; and, in A Table of the Springs of Action, he comprehends them all in a diagram with their sources and their corresponding interests. But the strength of each impulse or motive lies entirely in the pleasure or pain connected with it; and there are only quantitative differences among pleasures themselves, or among pains themselves; and pains can be compared with pleasures, and marked on the same scale by their distance below the indifference or zero point where there is neither pleasure nor pain. To this theory, a later writer has given the name “psychological hedonism.” It still counts many psychologists among its adherents, but Bentham held it is a special form which hardly admits of defence. It is not the actual pleasure or pain experienced at the moment of action which, according to him, determines action, but the estimate formed by the agent of the probable balance of pleasure that is likely to result to him from the action. The cause, as well as the standard, of human action is thus matter of “future fact” only. Had this phrase been used by Blackstone, Bentham might have pointed out that, so long as anything is future, it is not a fact, but only an expectation of a fact; it is an estimate of probabilities. Not pleasure, therefore, but an idea of pleasure, is the actual motive. Although he thinks that pleasure is man’s only object, Bentham always treats him as pursuing this object in a deliberate and intelligent way under the guidance of ideas or opinions; he commits the philosopher’s fallacy of substituting a reason for a cause; he overlooks the fact that man was an active being before he was a rational being, that he is a creature of impulses, inherited and acquired, that it is only gradually that these impulses come to be organised and directed by reason, and that this rationalising process is never completed.