Framed: Utilitarianism and Punishment of the Innocent

Rutgers Law Journal, Vol. 32, pp. 115-224, 2000

91 Pages Posted: 10 Aug 2008

See all articles by Guyora Binder

Guyora Binder

University at Buffalo Law School

Nick Smith

University of New Hampshire

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: August 8, 2008


The most widely repeated retributivist argument against the utilitarian theory of punishment is that utilitarianism permits punishment of the innocent. While defenders of utilitarianism have shown that a publicly announced policy of punishing the innocent is unlikely to serve utility, critics have insisted that utilitarianism morally obliges officials to deceive the public by framing the innocent. Yet philosophers and legal scholars have heretofore failed to test this claim against the writings of the theory's originators.

We directly examine the writings of Jeremy Bentham and other eighteenth and nineteenth century utilitarians and demonstrate that the originators of utilitarian penology clearly opposed both punishment of the innocent and deception of the public. We argue that utilitarianism originated as a legal theory that emphasized several institutional conditions for the public pursuit of utility, including security of person and property, legality, legislative supremacy, democratic accountability, publicity and transparency. These institutional conditions would preclude both systematic and ad hoc framing of the innocent.

We show that the original utilitarians considered individuals incompetent to determine and pursue the public welfare, and that the contemporary conception of utilitarianism as an ethical standard governing individuals is a modern innovation. Bentham's theory of punishment did not derive from any general ethical theory. Bentham, like his chief forebears Hume, Helvetius and Beccaria, thought of public utility as a standard of value for public action, such as legislation. He assumed that private action was ruled by self-interest (i.e. private utility) so that there was little point in directing arguments about the general welfare to individual ethical actors. In assessing public action, Bentham was far less concerned about consequences than has generally been supposed and far more concerned about process. He identified utility with security of expectations and the rule of law. As a consequence, he endorsed public actions that could be seen to have emerged from a rational and well-informed debate about their consequences for the public welfare. Utility was not a definition of the good or a guide to conscience, but a standard designed for use in public, deliberative debate. Utilitarianism was not so much a philosophical theory as a rhetorical practice, understood as a transparent language of analysis and argument for use in political deliberation.

We elaborate the procedural conditions presupposed by utilitarian discourse, beginning with Bentham's commitment to a conception of legality involving legislative promulgation of formal rules faithfully applied by rigidly constrained bureaucrats and judges. Next, we demonstrate Bentham's commitment to democratic representation of the public in devising legislation. Finally, we emphasize Bentham's commitment to publicity in government decisionmaking. Utilitarian policy required public scrutiny of all decisions and the information and reasons considered in making them.

In sum, Bentham's utilitarianism was primarily concerned with the problem of how to design government so that it could accurately identify and faithfully pursue the public good while being openly seen to do so. It follows that Bentham's utility principle does not require him to endorse deceiving the public and framing an innocent person.

Suggested Citation

Binder, Guyora and Smith, Nick, Framed: Utilitarianism and Punishment of the Innocent (August 8, 2008). Rutgers Law Journal, Vol. 32, pp. 115-224, 2000 , Available at SSRN:

Guyora Binder

University at Buffalo Law School ( email )

528 O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States
716-645-2673 (Phone)
716-645-2640 (Fax)

Nick Smith (Contact Author)

University of New Hampshire ( email )

United States

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