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Bentham's Law: A Critical Exploration of Coercion in Legal Systems


The study of jurisprudence, the philosophical examination of the nature of law, has a rich history with contributions from renowned thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. However, the modern analytic tradition of jurisprudence found its roots in the work of Jeremy Bentham. Bentham's relentless critique of the English legal system and his desire for comprehensive reform led him to develop a distinctive perspective on the nature of law, focusing particularly on its coercive power.

Bentham's Contempt for the Legal System

Jeremy Bentham, a radical reformer with a deep-seated disdain for the English legal system of his time, embarked on a mission to deconstruct and reconstruct the legal framework. His critique extended to the common law, which he perceived as a complex and obscure collaboration between lawyers and judges, serving their interests rather than the public good. Bentham's vehement opposition to the prevailing legal system propelled him to separate the descriptive identification of law from its normative moral evaluation.

Legal Positivism: Distinguishing Description from Evaluation

Bentham's contribution to modern legal positivism lies in his insistence on separating the descriptive analysis of law from its moral evaluation. In contrast to the natural law tradition, which tied moral acceptability to the definition of law, Bentham argued that law's existence and its moral value were distinct concepts. This foundational idea gave rise to legal positivism, challenging the prevailing view that unjust law is no law at all. Bentham's approach aimed at providing a clear and objective understanding of law, free from emotional bias or empathy.

Coercion as the Essence of Law

Bentham's contempt for the English legal system led him to a crucial aspect of his jurisprudential philosophy—the emphasis on coercion as the essence of law. In his work on the limits of penal jurisprudence, Bentham developed the "command theory" of law. According to this theory, law is a form of command or mandate that distinguishes itself through its ability to enforce compliance with the threat of sanctions, including fines, imprisonment, or even death.

The Psychological Basis of Coercion

Bentham's emphasis on coercion in understanding law was rooted in his psychological theories of human motivation. While recognizing that individuals could be motivated by benevolence or semi-social interests, Bentham argued that self-regarding motivations were predominant. He contended that external force, in the form of legal sanctions, was necessary to prevent individuals from pursuing their self-interest at the expense of the common good.


Jeremy Bentham's exploration of law as coercion, rooted in his dissatisfaction with the English legal system, laid the foundation for modern legal positivism. By separating the descriptive identification of law from its normative evaluation, Bentham provided a framework for objective analysis. The emphasis on coercion as a fundamental aspect of law highlighted its role in ensuring compliance with legal commands. While Bentham's ideas have sparked debates and interpretations over the years, his influence on the philosophy of law remains significant, shaping discussions about the nature and function of legal systems.

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