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Bentham is often accused of having framed a dangerous cold-blooded utilitarianism apt to encourage indifference to human suffering. On the contrary, this paper shows that sympathy plays an important part in his philosophy: to him, it is an unquestionable psychological fact, a precious tool for social education, and the fundamental aim of his ethics. Even if Bentham considers that men are self-centered and admits that they are not all capable of feeling the same amount of concern for others, he views sympathy as a natural cause of action, which cannot be reduced to any other form of interest, whereas antipathy is only produced by accidental circumstances. However, when confined to a limited number of persons, sympathy can lead to harmful actions. It is only when benevolence is universal that it is likely to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Thus, to make men more sociable, it is necessary to count on a more potent and constant motivation than natural or spontaneous sympathy: the moralist should induce people to cooperate with others by helping them to calculate their best interest correctly. Thus, Bentham’s claim that egoism is a stronger motive than sympathy proceeds from a strategic choice designed to make him successful in his ethical and political project.

Marie-Laure Leroy
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