Jeremy Bentham is best known as the founding father of utilitarianism, a moral philosophy that values 'happiness' more than all other goals in life. According to this creed, policies should be directed at 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number'. Besides formulating this general principle, Bentham wrote about several specific topics including the death penalty, which he passionately opposed. He did so, however, without applying his own utilitarian method. In this article the relationship between death penalty and happiness is studied empirically. Average happiness of citizens is compared in states with and without death penalty. Comparisons are made across 127 nation states in the early 2000s and among 47 federal states within the US over the years 1970-2000. The results show that Bentham, from the perspective of his own ethical philosophy, was too negative about the death penalty. It hardly undermines the happiness of nation states and it does not undermine the happiness of American states at all. If one opposes the death penalty, it should be done for non-utilititarian reasons.

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Journal of Social Research and Policy
Centre for Rotterdam Cultural Sociology (CROCUS)

Berg, M.C. (2010). Death penalty and happiness in states. Was Jeremy Bentham right?. Journal of Social Research and Policy, 1(1), 137–152. Retrieved from