Prison or Payment? Benthamism, the Modern Debtors’ Prison, and Its Historical Roots


This Note focuses on relating Benthamist thought to the modern debtors’ prison system in the United States. It first traces the historical development of the traditional debtors’ prison system through England and the United States leading to the development of the modern debtors’ prison system. Then, this Note examines Benthamist thought, focusing on the Pannomion and Greatest Happiness Principle. The modern debtors’ prison system is detailed and applied to these Benthamist ideals. The conclusion is that the advantages of a Pannomion over the common law are clearly seen in the debtors’ prison context, and Bentham’s Greatest Happiness Principle does not support the continued existence of the modern debtors’ prison system.


Benthamism, Greatest happiness principle, Pannomion, Debtor's prison system, Bankruptcy law, Constitutional rights, Classical utilitarianism, Common law system



Tyler B. Myers (Washington University School of Law)


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