Jeremy Bentham’s Theory of Moral Sanctions

Cover Page

Cite item


The study deals with the content and transformations of Jeremy Bentham’s theory of sanctions and its role in the development of the contemporary understanding of how moral regulation works. In An Introduction to the principles of morals and legislation, Bentham defines sanction as a type of pleasure and pain that gives the binding force to some law or rule and mentions four sanctions: physical, political, popular, or moral, and religious. The popular, or moral, sanction rests on such a motive as ‘the love of reputation’. Unlike the motive of ‘good-will’, ‘the love of reputation’ has some drawbacks that lessen its general efficiency and its contribution to the fulfillment of the principle of utility. Though the development of civilization makes them less dangerous. In the Deontology, two more sanctions were added: sympathetic (the pain generated by the contemplation of the pain suffered by a fellow creature) and retributive (the pain caused to a perpetrator by retaliatory actions of his/her immediate victim). The renewed typology of sanctions is discussed by Bentham in the context of the activity of a moralist, or a deontologist. There are two main interpretations of moral sanctions in the contemporary ethics: ‘the moral sanction as a public condemnation of a perpetrator’ and ‘the moral sanction as a self-condemnation of a perpetrator (his/her feeling of guilt, pricks of conscience)’. Bentham was a major figure in the development of the first interpretation. However, his extended typology contributed to the development of the second. Bentham’s sympathetic sanction in the case of ‘pains of sympathy’ that experienced by a perpetrator and caused him/her by pains of his/her victims is not identical to a guilt-feeling but can work without a public condemnation.

About the authors

Andrey V. Prokofyev

Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Author for correspondence.
ORCID iD: 0000-0001-5015-8226

PhD in Philosophy, Associate Professor, Chief Researcher, Department of Ethics

Bd. 1, 12 Goncharnaya St., 109240, Moscow, Russian Federation


  1. Prokofyev AV. Moral sanctions: two traditions of understanding. RUDN Journal of Philosophy. 2022;26(2):454-469. (In Russian).
  2. Bentham J. An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. Moscow: ROSSPEN publ.; 1998. (In Russian).
  3. Bentham J. Deontology, together with A table of the springs of action and The article on utilitarianism. Oxford: Clarendon Press; 2002.
  4. Harrison R. The sanctions of utilitarianism. Proceedings of the British academy, 2001;(109):93-116.
  5. Crisp R. Sanctions in Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick. Proceedings of the British academy. 2001;(109):117-122.
  6. Schoefild P. Utility and democracy: The political thought of Jeremy Bentham. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2006.
  7. Tarantino P. Philosophy, obligation and the law: Bentham’s ontology of normativity. London, New York: Routledge; 2018.
  8. Postema GJ. Utility, publicity, and law: Essays on Bentham’s moral and legal philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2019.
  9. Crisp R. Sacrifice regained: Morality and self-interest in British moral philosophy from Hobbes to Bentham. Oxford: Clarendon Press; 2019.
  10. Crimmins JE. Utilitarian philosophy and politics: Bentham’s later years. London: Continuum; 2011.
  11. Bentham J. An Introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. London: Athlone Press; 1970.
  12. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. In: Complete Works in 4 vols. Vol. 4. Moscow: Mysl publ.; 1984. P. 53-293. (In Russian).
  13. Harrison R. Bentham. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; 1999.
  14. Quinn M. Popular prejudices, real pains: What is the legislator to do when the people err in assigning mischief? In: Zhai X, Quinn M, editors. Bentham’s theory of law and public opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2014. P. 63-90.
  15. Goldworth A. The sympathetic sanction and sinister interest in Bentham’s utilitarianism. History of Philosophy Quarterly. 1987;4(1):67-78.
  16. Lieberman D. Economy and polity in Bentham’s science of legislation. Bentham. Rosen F, editor. New York: Routledge; 2018. P. 31-62.

Copyright (c) 2023 Prokofyev A.V.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This website uses cookies

You consent to our cookies if you continue to use our website.

About Cookies