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"Utilitarianism is one of the most powerful and pursuasive approaches to normative ethics in the history of philosophy..."¹

Utilitarianism was not fully articulated until the 19th century, but can be discerned throughout the history of ethical theory. Generally, it is held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good.¹ In general, utilitarianism is an ethical theory that dictates that the best and only course of action that should be taken is the one that has the most useful consequence.

Utilitarianism, in regards to punishment, is a general theoretical base that justifies all punishment that serves its purpose. This is a consequentialist point of view that only supports punishment that has the most positive consequence.

Jeremy Bentham, as pictured to the right, is known as the founder of utilitarianism.

Most utilitarians would argue that the only factors to take into account when creating and enforcing punishment are the good and bad consequences. This can leave a lot of room for interpretation. When do the the good consequences outweigh the bad? How do we give weight to these different consequences? These questions lead to disagreements between utilitarians on what uses and values are enough to justify specific punishments.

Utilitarians point to three ways to reduce crime:

  1. Incapacitation
  2. Deterrence
  3. Reform

The following are the two types of prevention:

  1. Specific: this prevention is directly used on the offender with the goal of any of the aforementioned three reduction techniques.
  2. General: this prevention is aimed towards society to further deter members of that society from breaking the law. This also exemplifies what is against the law and creates conscious subconscious inhibitions against crime known as habitual lawfulness. This type of prevention sometimes allows for innocents to be punished if it will contribute to the ‘greater good.’




1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The History of Utilitarianism. Retrieved May 8, 2014, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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