Revue d'Études Benthamiennes (2013)
It is clear enough that utilitarianism contributed to the softening of many penal systems in the world by arguing that very cruel punishments should be excluded every time a less cruel one would be just as effective. But does utilitarianism as such oppose the death penalty ? It is well known that Beccaria and Bentham criticized capital punishment on utilitarian grounds. But the fact that John Stuart Mill held a speech in favour of the death penalty at the House of Commons in 1868 suggests that there is no necessity for a utilitarian thinker to oppose it. Otherwise, it would be possible to claim that John Stuart Mill betrayed, so to speak, the principle of utility by defending such a punishment. But nothing, it seems, allows us to say so. On the contrary, we would like to suggest that Mill’s disagreement with Bentham and Beccaria originates from his own empirical judgement on the following question : is death penalty the most cruel punishment for murder ? In other words, whether we like it or not, there is no way we can hold that Mill was less faithful than Beccaria and Bentham to the principle of utility when supporting the death penalty.