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Jeremy Bentham: War is mischief upon the largest scale


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

Jeremy Bentham: A Plan for an Universal and Perpetual Peace


Jeremy Bentham
From The Principles of International Law

Of War, Considered in Respect of its Causes and Consequences

War is mischief upon the largest scale. It might seem at first sight, that to inquire into the causes of war would be the same thing as to inquire into the causes of criminality, and that in the one case as in the other, the source of it is to be looked for in the nature of man, – in the self-regarding, the dissocial, and now and then, in some measure, in the social affections. A nearer view, however, will show in several points considerable difference, – these differences turn on the magnitude of the scale. The same motives will certainly be found operating in the one case as in the other; but in tracing the process from the original cause to the ultimate effect a variety of intermediate considerations will present themselves in the instance of war, which have no place in the quarrels of individuals.

Incentives to war will be found in the war admiring turn of histories, particularly ancient histories, in the prejudices of men, the notion of natural rivalry and repugnancy of interests, confusion between meum and tuum between private ownership and public sovereignty, and the notion of punishment, which, in case of war, can never be other than vicarious.


There may arise difficulty in maintaining an army; there can arise none in not doing so.

It must be allowed that the matter would be a delicate one: there might be some difficulty in persuading one lion to cut his claws; but if the lion, or rather the enormous condor which holds him fast by the head, should agree to cut his talons also, there would be no disgrace in the stipulation: the advantage or inconvenience would be reciprocal.

Let the cost of the attempt be what it would, it would be amply repaid by success. What tranquillity for all sovereigns! – what relief for every people! What a spring would not the commerce, the population, the wealth of all nations take, which are at present confined, when set free from the fetters in which they are now held by the care of their defence.


The utility with regard to the state which looks upon itself as aggrieved – the reasonableness in a word, of going to war with the aggressors depends partly upon his relative force, partly upon what appears to have been the state of his mind with relation to the injury. If it be evident that there was no mala fides on his part, it can never lie for the advantage of the aggrieved state to have recourse to war, whether it be stronger or weaker than the aggressor, and that in whatever degree; – in that case, be the injury what it will, it may be pronounced impossible that the value of it should ever amount to the expense of war, be it ever so short, and carried on upon ever so frugal a scale.


Lastly, if the aggression, how unjust soever it may appear, when viewed in the point of view in which it is contemplated by the state which is the object of it, does not appear accompanied with mala fides on the part of the aggressor, nothing can be more incontestable than the prudence of submitting to it, rather than encountering the calamities of war. The sacrifice is seen at once in its utmost extent, and it must be singular, indeed, if the amount of it can approach to that of the expense of a single campaign.

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