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chapter seven: On the Principle of Utility Substituted for the Idea of Individual Rights - Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments 
Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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On the Principle of Utility Substituted for the Idea of Individual Rights
A writer much to be recommended for the depth, precision, and originality of his thinking, Jeremy Bentham, has recently protested5  against the idea of rights and above all of natural, inalienable, and imprescriptible rights. He has claimed that this idea is liable only to mislead us, and that in its place should be put the idea of utility, which he sees as simpler and more intelligible. Since this preferred route of his has led him to conclusions just the same as mine, I would rather not dispute his terminology. I must take issue with it, however, because the principle of utility, in the way Bentham presents it to us, seems to me to have the drawbacks common to all vague locutions, and moreover to have its own special dangers.
No doubt by defining the word “utility” appropriately, one can contrive to base on this notion exactly the same rules as those which flow from the idea of natural right and justice. A careful examination of all the questions which seem to put what is useful in opposition to what is just, leads one always to the finding that what is not just is never useful. It is nonetheless true, however, that the word “utility,” in its common meaning, summons up a different notion from that conveyed by justice or right. Now, when usage and common reason attach a fixed meaning to a word, it is dangerous to change that meaning. In vain you go on to explain what you meant. The word stays what it was and your explanation is forgotten.
“One cannot,” says Bentham,6 “reason with fanatics armed with a natural right each one understands as he sees fit, and applies as it suits him.” But by his own admission, the utility principle is quite as susceptible to multiple interpretations and contradictory applications. Utility, he says,7 has often been misapplied. Taken in a narrow sense, it has lent its name to crimes. “But we must not cast back on the principle faults which are contrary to it and which it alone can put right.” Why should this apologia be relevant to utility and not to natural right?
The principle of utility has this further danger natural right does not, that it awakens in the human heart the hope of advantage rather than the feeling of duty. Now, the evaluation of an advantage is arbitrary: it is the imagination which settles it. But neither its errors nor its whims can change the idea of duty.
 Actions cannot be more or less just; but they can be more or less useful. In hurting my fellow men, I violate their rights. This is an incontestable truth. But if I judge this violation only by its utility, I can get the calculation wrong, and find utility in the violation. The principle of utility is thus much vaguer than the principle of natural rights.
Far from adopting Bentham’s terminology, I should like as far as is possible to separate the idea of right from the notion of utility. This may be only a difference of wording; but it is more important than one might think.
Right is a principle; utility is only a result. Right is a cause; utility is only an effect.
To wish to make right subject to utility is like making the eternal laws of arithmetic subject to our everyday interests.
It is no doubt useful for the general transactions of men between themselves that numbers involve unalterable relationships. If we claimed, however, that these relationships exist only because it is useful that this should be so, there would be lots of opportunities for proving that it would be infinitely more useful if these relationships were manipulable. We would forget that their constant utility comes from their invariant character, and ceasing to be unalterable, they would cease to be useful. Thus utility, by having been too favorably treated on superficial grounds, and turned into a cause, rather than being left properly as an effect, would soon vanish totally.
Morality and right are like that too. You destroy utility simply by placing it in the first rank. It is only when the rule has been demonstrated that it is good to bring out its utility.
I ask of the very author I am refuting. Do not the expressions he wants to forbid to us refer to better grounded and more precise ideas than those he claims should replace them? Say to a man: you have the right not to be put to death or arbitrarily plundered. You will give him quite another feeling of security and protection than you will by telling him: it is not useful for you to be put to death or arbitrarily plundered. One can show, as I have already acknowledged, that that is indeed never useful. But in speaking of right, you present an idea independent of any calculation. In speaking of utility, you seem to invite that the whole question be put in doubt, by subjecting it to a new verification.
What could be more absurd, cries Bentham’s ingenious and learned collaborator,8  than inalienable rights which have always been alienated, or imprescriptible rights which have been taken away or abandoned? But to say that such rights are inalienable or imprescriptible is only to say that they should not be alienated or taken away or abandoned. One is talking of what ought to be the case, not of what is the case.
By reducing everything to the principle of utility, Bentham condemned himself to an artificial evaluation of the results of all human actions, an evaluation which goes against the simplest and most customary ideas. When he speaks of fraud, theft, etc., he has to admit that if there is loss on one side, there is gain on the other. Then his principle, in order to reject the charge of identical actions, has to be that the benefit of the gain is not equivalent to the ill of the loss.9 The benefit and the ill being separate, however, the man who commits the theft will find that his gain matters more to him than another’s loss. Any idea of justice being now out of the question, he will henceforth calculate only his gain. He will say: for me my gain is more than equivalent to the loss by other people. He will thus be held back by nothing except fear of discovery. This theory wipes out all moral motivation.
In repudiating Bentham’s first principle, I am far from belittling that writer’s merits. His work is full of original ideas and profound perspectives. All the consequences he derives from his principle are precious truths in themselves. It is not that the principle is false; it is only the terminology which is wrong. Once he manages to detach himself from his terminology, he brings together in a most admirable structure the soundest notions on political economy, on the caution with which governments should intervene in people’s lives, on population, on religion, on commerce, on the penal laws, on the appropriateness of punishments to crimes. He happened, however, like many estimable writers, to mistake a rewording for a discovery, a rewording to which he then sacrificed everything.
On Arguments and Hypotheses in Favor of the Extension of Political Authority
[5. ]Jeremy Bentham, Traités de législation civile et pénale, précédés de principes généraux de législation, published in French by Etienne Dumont, Paris, Bossange, Masson et Besson, an X, 1802, 3 vol. The criticisms which Constant leveled at Bentham were probably drafted in the summer of 1802, hence the use of the adverb “recently,” and this chapter was to form part of a grand political treatise written at that time.
[9. ]Jeremy Bentham, Traités de législation . . . , éd. cit., t. I, pp. 94–95: “As to the motive of cupidity, in comparing the pleasure of acquiring by usurpation with the pain of losing, the one would not be equivalent to the other.”
Ed. cit., t. I, p. 136. Here is the complete sentence: “One can no longer reason with fanatics armed with natural right, which everyone understands as he likes, applies as suits him, in which he does not have to concede a thing, or take anything back, which is at once inflexible and unintelligible, which is venerated in his eyes like a dogma and from which one cannot deviate without committing a crime.”
Ed. cit., t. I, p. 27: “One can do harm thinking one is following the principle of utility. A weak and limited mind makes mistakes, by not taking into consideration more than a small number of the goods and bads. A passionate man goes wrong by attaching too much importance to a good which blinds him to all the disadvantages. What typifies the bad man is indulging in pleasures hurtful to others. And that itself supposes the absence of some kinds of pleasures. But one does not shift onto the Principle the blame for faults which are contrary to it and which it alone can rectify.”
Hofmann failed to find this quotation in Dumont’s Discours préliminaire on Bentham’s Traités de législation (éd. cit., t. I, pp. v–xxxvi). Might not Constant have transcribed once more a remark Dumont might have made orally, in discussions he had with Mme. de Staël and her friends? Dumont stayed at Coppet in 1802, and Constant could have made a note of one of his reflections. On this subject see Norman King, “‘The airy form of things forgotten’: Madame de Staël, l’utilitarisme et l’impulsion libérale,” Cahier Staëliens, No. 11, Dec. 1970, pp. 5–26.