Criminology Jeremy Bentham
A. Javier Treviño, Melanie Romero
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0319


Jeremy Bentham (b. 1748–d. 1832) was an English philosopher and social and legal reformer who wrote on such subjects as moral philosophy, criminal jurisprudence, and penology. In his best-known work, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, published in 1789, Bentham proposed his theory of utilitarianism based on the principle of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” For him, any social action or piece of legislation that does not maximize the greatest happiness was morally and legally wrong. In his attempt to reform the legal and penal systems of his time, Bentham rejected their capricious application of law and their cruel application of punishment. Through the principle of utility, he proposed to create a new legal system in which the main goal was security: the protection of life and property. Bentham viewed people as rational actors who hedonistically pursue pleasure and avoid pain. For him, all behavior—criminal and noncriminal—could be assessed on the rightness or wrongness, the happiness or unhappiness that it produces. He developed the felicific (“happiness-making”) calculus to measure the ratio of pleasure to pain resulting from a given criminal act. Since potential offenders mentally appraise the pleasures and pains derived from committing a crime, the felicific calculus would determine the amount of punishment necessary to deter the crime. However, given that punishment is itself an evil, it must be imposed minimally, proportionately, and only insofar as it helps to prevent some greater evil. Applied in this way, Bentham believed that punishment could make a person’s pursuit of their own happiness commensurate with the best interests of society in general. Later in his career, Bentham proposed the Panopticon (Greek, meaning “all seeing”), a model prison design that consisted of a multi-tiered circular building with individual cells around the circumference. Its architectural construction made it so that every cell could be visible, and the inmates continually observed, from a centrally located inspection tower. Bentham’s conceptual framework concerning the utility of criminal behavior has had extensive implications in the fields of criminal justice, particularly crime reduction and prevention, and in penology. His ideas have influenced several varieties of criminological theories, especially rational choice theory, routine activities theory, and deterrence theory. The breadth of Bentham’s thought throughout his long career ranged from his moral philosophy to his rationale of punishment, from the codification of law to prison reform. His thinking also underwent transformation as in, for example, his preferred forms of legal sanctions: from corporal punishments to incarceration to banishment and fining.

General Overviews

No adequate intellectual biography on Bentham currently exists. The closest such endeavor is Schofield 2009, written by Philip Schofield, Director of the Bentham Project, General Editor of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, and Professor of the History of Legal and Political Thought at University College London. Concise presentations of Bentham’s life and work are found in several encyclopedia entries including Crimmins 2021, O’Malley 2010, Sweet and Groarke 2010, and Treviño 2005—all of which give summaries of his utilitarian principle. Wallas 1923 remains the best synopsis of Bentham’s life and work in article form. Bentham’s original writings are found in The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, currently under the general editorship of Philip Schofield; particularly revealing are the volumes containing The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham. An edited collection of several of Bentham’s essential texts, Bentham 1969 also contains a lengthy introduction that provides an intellectual biography of Bentham, particularly as concerns his views on jurisprudence. Parekh 1974 is a good collection of critical essays by prominent scholars on Bentham’s ideas. Finally, the best comparative analysis on Bentham’s proposed reforms and those of two of his contemporaries is Phillipson 1923.

  • Bentham, Jeremy. 1969. A Bentham reader. Edited by Mary Peter Mack. New York: Pegasus.

    Contains selections from Bentham’s key writings. Of particular interest to students of criminology and penology will be the excerpts from An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, The Limits of Jurisprudence Defined, Indirect Legislation, and Panopticon Papers.

  • Bentham, Jeremy. 1970–2010. The collected works of Jeremy Bentham. Gen. ed. Philip Schofield. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    To date thirty-three volumes have been published for the series, out of a projected total of seventy. These include An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; A Comment on the Commentaries and a Fragment on Government; Colonies, Commerce and Constitutional Law; and Writings on the Poor Laws, Volumes I and II.

  • Bentham, Jeremy. 1984–2017. Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    To date twelve volumes of Bentham’s correspondence have been produced, publishing all known letters from 1752 to 1828. Volumes 1 through 5 contain letters by Bentham that reveal the basis of his principle of utilitarianism. These include his attempt to create a penal code. Volume 3 details his efforts to construct a Panopticon prison in London, and the political opposition he faced. Volumes 13 and 14 are currently in preparation and will complete the series, ending with Bentham’s death in 1832.

  • Crimmins, James E. 2021. Jeremy Bentham. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ.

    Bentham is described as an instrumental contributor to the development of utilitarianism. His philosophy was geared toward social improvement and jurisprudence. This encyclopedia entry analyzes the foundational principles on which Bentham based his work.

  • O’Malley, Pat. 2010. Jeremy Bentham 1748–1832. In Fifty key thinkers in criminology. Edited by Keith Hayward, Shadd Maruna, and Jayne Mooney, 7–11. New York: Routledge.

    A short intellectual biography that touches on Bentham’s main ideas on the Panopticon, penal reform, and his view of people as rational choice actors. O’Malley describes him as only tangentially a criminologist.

  • Parekh, Bhikhu, ed. 1974. Jeremy Bentham: Ten critical essays. Abingdon, UK: Frank Cass.

    This collection of ten essays recalls Bentham as a writer who analyzed human conduct to advance social well-being. Contributing authors comment on Bentham’s political fallacies, his impact on the Victorian administrative state, and hedonistic psychology.

  • Phillipson, Coleman. 1923. Three criminal law reformers: Beccaria, Bentham, Romilly. New York: E.P. Dutton.

    This volume presents the biographical and sociohistorical contexts of Cesare Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, and Samuel Romilly. Comparisons and contrasts between the ideas of these 18th-century legal reformers can be made. The section on Bentham examines his life and literary activity; the social and cultural conditions of his time; his doctrine of utility in relation to criminal law; his views on penal law; and his achievements and influences.

  • Schofield, Philip. 2009. Bentham: A guide for the perplexed. London: Continuum.

    A brief and accessible introduction to Bentham’s life and work. Provides detailed discussions on the principle of utility, the Panopticon, the notion of political fallacies, religion, sex, and torture.

  • Sweet, William, and Paul Groarke. 2010. Bentham, Jeremy: Classical school. In Encyclopedia of criminological theory. Vol. 1. Edited by Francis T. Cullen and Pamela Wilcox, 89–94. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781412959193.n24

    Lengthy entry on several of Bentham’s themes including his theory of law, theory of punishment, and prison reform. It also discusses Bentham’s contributions to popular understanding, offers criticisms, and considers his relevance to early-21st-century criminology.

  • Treviño, A. Javier. 2005. Bentham, Jeremy. In Encyclopedia of criminology. Vol. 1. Edited by Richard A. Wright and J. Mitchell Miller, 100–102. New York: Routledge.

    A brief scholarly entry summarizing Bentham’s main ideas on criminal law, criminal behavior, punishment, and the Panopticon prison.

  • Wallas, Graham. 1923. Jeremy Bentham. Political Science Quarterly 38.1: 45–56.

    DOI: 10.2307/2142538

    Wallas describes Bentham’s precociousness at an early age. Later Bentham became critical of his teachers’ formal and stilted lectures. He developed a socio-psychological interest that led to the creation of his utilitarian principle and later to works such as A Fragment on Government and An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. His work on the Panopticon and his political draft for a parliamentary democracy were the products of his later years.

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