Bentham and the Problem with Pardons
45 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2010 Last revised: 31 Mar 2010
Modernity's two most influential systems of moral philosophy, utilitarianism and deontology, agree on almost nothing at the level of core principles. But their respective founders, Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant, did concur on one rather surprising policy preference- their hostility to the public exercise of mercy. In this paper, we explore the roots of that hostility in the writings of Jeremy Bentham. Reviewing also the writings on punishment of Bentham's proto-utilitarian predecessors including William Paley, Abraham Tucker, and Cesare Beccaria, we find that Bentham was faced with two diverging paths of utilitarian thought. He chose Beccaria's path with its emphasis on the certainty of punishment as the crucial factor motivating human behavior. Bentham also views divine punishment in terms very similar to the way he views human punishment. In doing so, he set aside Paley's version of utilitarianism which was more amenable to Christianity and which thought that harsh sentences frequently mitigated by pardons were a very effective punishment scheme. The perceived utilitarian critique of pardons is thus not inherent in utilitarianism per se, but reflects opposition to arbitrary power, whether by God or human beings.
Keywords: Bentham, Paley, Beccaria, Punishment, Pardons, Mercy
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation