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Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility: that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all people. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome.

Utilitarianism is often described by the phrase "the greatest good for the greatest number of people", and is also known as "the greatest happiness principle". Utility, the good to be maximized, has been defined by various thinkers as happiness or pleasure (versus suffering or pain), although preference utilitarians define it as the satisfaction of preferences. It may be described as a life stance, with happiness or pleasure being of ultimate importance.

Utilitarianism can be characterised as a quantitative and reductionist approach to ethics. It can be contrasted with deontological ethics (which do not regard the consequences of an act as the sole determinant of its moral worth) and virtue ethics (which focuses on character), as well as with other varieties of consequentialism.

In general usage, the term utilitarian refers to a somewhat narrow economic or pragmatic viewpoint. Philosophical utilitarianism, however, is a much broader view that encompasses all aspects of people's lives.


Jeremy Bentham
The origins of utilitarianism are often traced as far back as the Greek philosopher Epicurus, but, as a specific school of thought, it is generally credited to Jeremy Bentham. Bentham found pain and pleasure to be the only intrinsic values in the world: "nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure." From this, he derived the rule of utility: the good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.

Bentham's foremost proponent was James Mill, a significant philosopher in his day and the father of John Stuart Mill. The younger Mill was educated according to Bentham's principles, including transcribing and summarizing much of his father's work while still in his teens.

In his famous short work, Utilitarianism, the younger Mill argues that cultural, intellectual and spiritual pleasures are of greater value than mere physical pleasure because the former would be valued higher than the latter by competent judges. A competent judge, according to Mill, is anyone who has experienced both the lower pleasures and the higher. His famous quote found in Utilitarianism was, "it is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied" demonstrating Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures. He justified this distinction by the thought that "few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures."

Like Bentham's formulation, Mill's utilitarianism deals with pleasure and happiness. However John Stuart Mill made a clear distinction between happiness and pleasure; and made it evident that Weak Rule Utilitarianism was focused on maximising happiness rather than pleasure; for the naturalistic fallacy made it clear that what one desires and what is good are not always the same thing. For example a pleasure/desire may be to bully a lonely child, which may produce pleasure, however happiness comes from following virtues rather than desires.

John Stuart Mill
The classic utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill influenced many other philosophers as well as the development of the broader concept of consequentialism. As a result, there now exist many different accounts of the good, and, therefore, many different types of consequentialism besides utilitarianism. Some philosophers reject the sole importance of well-being, arguing that there are intrinsic values other than happiness or pleasure, such as knowledge and autonomy.

Other past advocates of utilitarianism include William Godwin, David Hume and Henry Sidgwick; modern-day advocates include R. M. Hare, Peter Singer and Torbjörn Tännsjö.

Up to and including John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism was mainly the province of practical reformers. The publication of Henry Sidgwick's The Methods of Ethics in 1874 can be viewed as the date utilitarianism began to be more commonly associated with academic philosophy.

Utilitarianism has been used as an argument for many different political views. In his essay On Liberty, as well as in other works, John Stuart Mill argues that utilitarianism requires that political arrangements satisfy the "liberty principle" (or harm principle), according to which "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Prevention of self-harm by other persons was considered expressly forbidden. Instead, Mill states that only persuasion can be rightfully used to prevent self-harm.

Ludwig von Mises advocated libertarianism using utilitarian arguments. Likewise, some Marxist philosophers have used utilitarianism as arguments for communism and socialism.


Act v rule

Act utilitarianism states that, when faced with a choice, we must first consider the likely consequences of potential actions and, from that, choose to do what we believe will generate most pleasure. The rule utilitarian, on the other hand, begins by looking at potential rules of action. To determine whether a rule should be followed, he looks at what would happen if it were constantly followed. If adherence to the rule produces more happiness than otherwise, it is a rule that morally must be followed at all times. The distinction between act and rule utilitarianism is therefore based on a difference about the proper object of consequentialist calculation — specific to a case or generalized to rules.

Rule utilitarianism has been criticized for advocating general rules that will in some specific circumstances clearly decrease happiness if followed. Never to kill another human being may seem to be a good rule, but it could make self-defence against malevolent aggressors very difficult. Rule utilitarians add, however, that there are general exception rules that allow the breaking of other rules if such rule-breaking increases happiness, one example being self-defence. Critics argue that this reduces rule utilitarianism to act utilitarianism and makes rules meaningless. Rule utilitarians retort that rules in the legal system (i.e. laws) that regulate such situations are not meaningless. Self-defense is legally justified, while murder is not.

However there is within rule utilitarianism a distinction between the strictness and absolutism of this particular branch of utilitarianism. There is Strong Rule Utilitarianism which is an absolutist theory which frames strict rules which apply for all people and all time and may never be broken. Weak Rule utilitarianism however was the branch of utilitarianism that was proposed by John Stuart Mill and entailed that although rules should be framed on previous examples that benefit society; such as do not lie, it is possible under specific circumstances to do that which produces the greatest happiness and to break that rule. An example would be the Gestapo asking where your Jewish neighbours were... A strong rule utilitarian might say that the rule "Do not lie" can never be broken, whereas a weak rule utilitarian would argue that to lie would be the result that would produce the most happiness

Rule utilitarianism should not be confused with heuristics (rules of thumb), but many act utilitarians agree that it makes sense to formulate certain rules of thumb to follow if they find themselves in a situation whose consequences are difficult, costly or time-consuming to calculate exactly. If the consequences can be calculated relatively clearly and without much doubt, however, the rules of thumb can be ignored.

Collapse of rule utilitarianism into act utilitarianism

It has been argued that rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism, because for any given rule, in the case where breaking the rule produces more utility, the rule can be sophisticated by the addition of a sub-rule that handles cases like the exception. This process holds for all cases of exceptions, and so the 'rules' will have as many 'sub-rules' as there are exceptional cases, which, in the end, makes an agent seek out whatever outcome produces the maximum utility.


Two-level utilitarianism states that one should normally use 'intuitive' moral thinking, in the form of rule utilitarianism, because it usually maximizes happiness. However there are some times when we must ascend to a higher 'critical' level of reflection in order to decide what to do, and must think as an act utilitarian would. Richard Hare supported this theory with his concept of the Archangel, which holds that if we were all 'archangels' we could be act utilitarians all the time as we would be able to perfectly predict consequences. However we are closer to 'proles' in that we are frequently biased and unable to foresee all possible consequence of our actions, and thus we require moral guidelines. When these principles clash we must attempt to think like an archangel in order to choose the right course of action.


Most utilitarian theories deal with producing the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. Negative utilitarianism (NU) requires us to promote the least amount of evil or harm, or to prevent the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest number. Proponents like Karl Popper, Christoph Fehige and Clark Wolf argue that this is a more effective ethical formula, since, they contend, the greatest harms are more consequential than the greatest goods. Karl Popper also referred to an epistemological argument: “It adds to clarity in the fields of ethics, if we formulate our demands negatively, i.e. if we demand the elimination of suffering rather than the promotion of happiness.” . In the practical implementation of this idea the following versions can be distinguished:

1. R.N.Smart, an advocate of the utilitarian principle, was quick to suggest that the ultimate aim of NU would be to engender the quickest and least painful method of killing the entirety of humanity, as this ultimately would effectively minimize suffering. NU would seem to call for the destruction of the world even if only to avoid the pain of a pinprick .

2. Newer, moderate versions of NU do not attempt to minimize all kinds of suffering but only those kinds that are created by the frustration of preferences. In most supporters of moderate NU the preference to survive is stronger than the wish to be freed from suffering, so that they refuse the idea of a quick and painless destruction of life. Some of them believe that, in time, the worst cases of suffering will be defeated and a world of minor suffering can be realized. The principal agents of this direction can be found in the environment of transhumanism and abolitionism .

Supporters of moderate NU who do not believe in the promises of technology would prefer a reduction of the world population (and in the extreme case an empty world). This seems to come down to the position of radical NU, but in moderate NU the world could only be sacrificed to prevent extreme suffering and not to avoid the pain of a pinprick. And from the claim that an empty world would be a preferable state of affairs, it does not follow that a political movement should be formed with the aim of achieving such a state of affairs. The latter would definitely (and in analogy to radical NU) be counterproductive. Pessimistic supporters of moderate NU therefore tend towards a retreat oriented way of living.

3. Finally there are theoreticians who see NU as a branch within classical utilitarianism, rather than an independent theory. This interpretation overlooks Derek Parfit's “Repugnant Conclusion” . NU is precisely characterized by overcoming this theoretical weakness of classical utilitarianism.

Average v total

Total utilitarianism advocates measuring the utility of a population based on the total utility of its members. According to Derek Parfit, this type of utilitarianism falls victim to the Repugnant Conclusion, whereby large numbers of people with very low but non-negative utility values can be seen as a better goal than a population of a less extreme size living in comfort. In other words, according to the theory, it is a moral good to breed more people on the world for as long as total happiness rises.

Average utilitarianism, on the other hand, advocates measuring the utility of a population based on the average utility of that population. It avoids Parfit's repugnant conclusion, but causes other problems like the Mere Addition Paradox. For example, bringing a moderately happy person in a very happy world would be seen as an immoral act; aside from this, the theory implies that it would be a moral good to eliminate all people whose happiness is below average, as this would raise the average happiness. This could however be circumvented by assigning a low utility score to dead people, and taking them into account in the average.

Other species

Peter Singer, along with many animal rights activists, has argued that the well-being of all sentient beings (conscious ones who feel pain, including some non-humans) deserves equal consideration to that given human beings; otherwise, it would be a case of speciesism. Bentham made a similar argument. Even those utilitarians arguing to the contrary have noted that suffering in animals often causes humans to suffer, often making it immoral to harm an animal, even if the animal itself is not given a moral status.

This view may be contrasted with deep ecology, which holds that an intrinsic value is attached to all forms of life and nature. According to utilitarianism, most forms of life are unable to experience anything akin to pleasure or discomfort, and are therefore denied moral status. Thus, the moral value of organisms that do not experience pleasure or discomfort, or natural entities like a river, is only in the benefit they provide to sentient beings. Similarly, utilitarianism places no intrinsic value on biodiversity.

Combinations with other ethical schools

In order to overcome the perceived shortcomings of both systems, several attempts have been made to reconcile utilitarianism with Kant's categorical imperative. James Cornman proposes that, in any given situation, we should treat as "means" as few people as possible and as "ends" as many as are consistent with those "means". He refers to this as the "Utilitarian Kantian Principle".

Other consequentialists may consider happiness an important consequence but argue in addition that consequences such as justice or equality should also be valued, regardless of whether or not they increase happiness.

Biological explanation

It has been suggested that sociobiology, the study of the evolution of human society, provides support for the utilitarian point of view. For example, in The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer argues that fundamentally utilitarian ethical reasoning has existed from the time primitive foraging bands had to cooperate, compromise, and make group decisions to survive. He elaborates: "In a dispute between members of a cohesive group of reasoning beings, the demand for a reason is a demand for a justification that can be accepted by the group as a whole." Thus, consideration of others' interests has long been a necessary part of the human experience. Singer believes that reason now compels the equal consideration of all people's interests:

This conclusion that everybody's interests should be considered equally when making decisions is a core tenet of utilitarianism.

Singer elaborates that viewing oneself as equal to others in one's society and at the same time viewing one's society as fundamentally superior to other societies may cause an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. This is the sense in which he means that reason may push people to accept a broader utilitarian stance. Critics (e.g., Binmore 2005) point out that this cognitive dissonance is apparently not very strong, since people often knowingly ignore the interests of faraway societies quite similar to their own. They also note that the "ought" of the quoted paragraph applies only to someone who has already accepted the premise that all societies are equally important. Singer has responded that his argument in Expanding the Circle wasn't intended to provide a complete philosophical justification for a utilitarian categorical imperative, but merely to provide a plausible explanation for how some people come to accept utilitarianism.

Criticism and defence

Aggregating utility

John Rawls gives a critique of Utilitarianism in A Theory Of Justice that rejects the idea that the happiness of two distinct persons could be meaningfully counted together. He argues that this entails treating a group of many as if it were a single sentient entity, mistakenly ignoring the separation of consciousness. Animal Rights advocate Richard Ryder calls this the 'boundary of the individual', through which neither pain nor pleasure may pass. Thus the aggregation of utility becomes futile as both pain and happiness are intrinsic to and inseparable from the consciousness in which they are felt, rendering impossible the task of adding up the various pleasures of multiple individuals.

However, it should be noted that the apparent separation and consistency of individual consciousness, which is both a strong human intuition and an implicit premise in this critique, is itself a subject of debate and criticism in the Philosophy of Mind.

Predicting consequences

Daniel Dennett uses the case of the Three Mile Island accidentmarker as an example of the difficulty in calculating happiness. Was the near-meltdown that occurred at this nuclear power plant a good or a bad thing (according to utilitarianism)? He points out that its long-term effects on nuclear policy would be considered beneficial by many and might outweigh the negative consequences. His conclusion is that it is still too early, years after the event, for utilitarianism to weigh all the evidence and reach a definite conclusion. Utilitarians note that utilitarianism seems to be the unspoken principle used by both advocates and critics of nuclear power. That something cannot be determined at the moment is common in science and frequently resolved with later advancements.

Utilitarians, however, are not required to have perfect knowledge; indeed, certain knowledge of consequences is impossible because consequences are in the unexperienced future. Utilitarians simply try their best to maximise happiness (or other forms of utility) and, to do this, make their best estimates of the consequences. If the consequences of a decision are particularly unclear, it may make sense to follow an ethical rule which has promoted the most utility in the past. Utilitarians also note that people trying to further their own interests frequently run into situations in which the consequences of their decisions are very unclear. This does not mean, however, that they are unable to make a decision; much the same applies to utilitarianism.

Anthony Kenny argues against utilitarianism on the grounds that determinism is either true or false: if it is true, we have no choice over our actions; if it is false, the consequences of our actions are unpredictable, not least because they depend upon the actions of others whom we cannot predict.

Importance of intentions

Utilitarianism has been criticised for looking only at the results of actions, not at the desires or intentions that motivate them, which many consider important, too. An action intended to cause harm but which inadvertently causes good would be judged equal to the good result of an action done with the best intentions. Many utilitarians argue that utilitarianism applies not only to results but also to desires and dispositions, praise and blame, and rules, institutions and punishment. Bad intentions may cause harm (to the agent and to others) even if they do not result in bad acts. Once this is recognised, supporters argue that utilitarianism becomes a much more complex, and rich, moral theory, and may align far more closely with our moral intuitions.

Furthermore, many utilitarians view morality as a personal guide rather than a means to judge the actions of other people, or actions which have already been performed: morality is something to be looked at when deciding what to do. In this sense, intentions are all that matter, because the consequences cannot be known with certainty until the decision has been made.

One philosopher to take this view is Henry Sidgwick, in his main work The Methods of Ethics (1874).

Human rights

Utilitarians argue that justification of slavery, torture or mass murder would require unrealistically large benefits to outweigh the direct and extreme suffering to victims. Utilitarianism would also require the indirect impact of social acceptance of inhumane policies to be taken into consideration, and general anxiety and fear could increase for all if human rights are commonly ignored.

Act and rule utilitarians differ in how they treat human rights themselves. Under rule utilitarianism, a human right can easily be considered a moral rule. Act utilitarians, on the other hand, do not accept human rights as moral principles in and of themselves, but that does not mean that they reject them altogether: first, most act utilitarians, as explained above, would agree that acts such as enslavement and genocide always cause great unhappiness and very little happiness; second, human rights could be considered rules of thumb so that, although torture might be acceptable under some circumstances, as a rule it is immoral; and, finally, act utilitarians often support human rights in a legal sense because utilitarians support laws that cause more good than harm.

Lack of convincing proof

Another criticism of utilitarianism is that it is not proven, either by science or by logic, to be the correct ethical system. Supporters claim that this is common to all ethical schools, and indeed the system of logic itself, and will always remain so unless the problem of the regress argument, or at least the is-ought problem, is satisfactorily resolved. It might instead be argued that almost all political arguments about a future society use an unspoken utilitarian principle, all sides claiming that their proposed solution is the one that increases human happiness the most.

Mill's argument for utilitarianism holds that pleasure is the only thing desired and that, therefore, pleasure is the only thing desirable. Critics argue that this is like saying that things visible are things seen, or that the only things audible are things heard. A thing is "visible" if it can be seen and "desirable" if it ought to be desired. Thus the word "desirable" presupposes an ethical theory: we cannot infer what is desirable from what is desired. This criticism, however, reads the word "desirable" as "able to be desired" rather than "worth being desired", and does not take into account the moral assessment that must take place in order to categorise something as "desirable", which does not occur when categorising the same thing as "visible" or "audible".

Individual interests vs. a greater sum of lesser interests

Critics have also asked why one should follow utilitarianism instead of ethical egoism. The legal system might punish behavior that harms others, but this incentive is not active in a situation where one can personally gain by breaking it without punishment. One egoist, however, may propose means to maximise self-interest that conflict with the means proposed by another egoist. As a result, it behooves them to compromise with one another in order to avoid conflict, out of self-interest. The means proposed may incidentally coincide with those prescribed by utilitarianism, but the foundational ethical imperative would not, of course, be utilitarian.

Another reason for an egoist to become a utilitarian was proposed by Peter Singer in Practical Ethics. He presents the paradox of hedonism, which holds that, if your only goal in life is personal happiness, you will never be happy: you need something to be happy about. One goal that Singer feels is likely to bring about personal happiness is the desire to improve the lives of others; that is, to make others happy. This argument is similar to the one for virtue ethics.

Infinitarian paralysis

According to this argument, the universe is infinite, and there is also an infinite number of people and therefore an infinite amount of pain and pleasure. However, we can affect only finite amount of pain and pleasure. Yet an infinite quantity can not be changed by adding or subtracting a finite quantity.

According to Nick Bostrom, this means that "every possible act of ours therefore has the same net effect on the total amount of good and bad in a canonically infinite world: none whatsoever." He further states that we can not use an ethical theory which combined with our current best scientific guesses means that it is always ethically indifferent what we do.

Karl Marx's criticisms

Karl Marx, in Das Kapital, writes:

Marx's accusation is twofold. In the first place, he says that the theory of utility is true by definition and thus does not really add anything meaningful. For Marx, a productive inquiry would have to investigate what sorts of things are good for people; that is, what our nature (which he believes is alienated under capitalism) really is. Second, he says that Bentham fails to take account of the changing character of people, and hence the changing character of what is good for them. This criticism is especially important for Marx, because he believed that all important statements were contingent upon particular historical conditions.

Marx argues that human nature is dynamic, so the concept of a single utility for all humans is one-dimensional and not useful. When he decries Bentham's application of the 'yard measure' of now to 'the past, present and future', he decries the implication that society, and people, have always been, and will always be, as they are now; that is, he criticizes essentialism. As he sees it, this implication is conservatively used to reinforce institutions he regarded as reactionary. Just because in this moment religion has some positive consequences, says Marx, doesn't mean that viewed historically it isn't a regressive institution that should be abolished.

Marx's criticism is more a criticism of Bentham's views (or similar views) of utility, than utilitarianism itself. Utilitarians would not deny that different things make different people happy, and that what promotes happiness changes over time. Neither would utilitarians deny the importance of investigations into what promotes utility.

Marx's criticism applies to all philosophy which does not take explicit account of the movement of history (against dialectics). While he's right that all things change, and that it is necessary to take account of this when making practical judgements, this doesn't mean that it isn't useful to have a theory which gives some means to evaluate those changes themselves.

Also, utilitarianism was originally developed as a challenge to the status quo. The demand that everyone count for one, and one only, was anathema to the elitist society of Victorian Britain.

Although Marx criticized utilitarianism, some Marxist philosophers have used utilitarian principles as arguments for political socialism.

The Wittgensteinian Critique

Contemporary philosophers such as Matthew Ostrow have critiqued utilitarianism from a distinctly Wittgensteinian perspective. According to these philosophers, utilitarians have expanded the very meaning of pleasure to the point of linguistic incoherence. The utilitarian groundlessly places pleasure as his or her first principle, and in doing so subordinates the value of asceticism, self-sacrifice or any other "secondary" desire. Of course, the utilitarian will deny this contention altogether, claiming that ascetics also seek pleasure, but have merely chosen an alternative path in which to achieve it.

Yet such an argument is implicitly tautological ("What is it that people want? Pleasure. But what is pleasure? What people want."). The utilitarian therefore has no ultimate justification for primarily valuing pleasure, other than to say that "this is the way it should be." In this critique, utilitarianism is thus ultimately reduced to a form of dishonest ethical intuitionism, unable to recognize or acknowledge its own groundlessness.

Criticism of other schools

One utilitarian criticism of other schools is that many of them cannot even in theory solve real-world ethical problems when various inviolable principles collide, like triage or the rightness or otherwise of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A criticism of Kantianism is levelled by R. M. Hare in Could Kant Have Been a Utilitarian? Hare argues that a number of different ethical positions could fit with Kant's description of his Categorical Imperative.

See also


References and further reading

  • Cornman, James, et al. Philosophical Problems and Arguments - An Introduction, 4th edition Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1992.
  • Harwood, Sterling, "Eleven Objections to Utilitarianism," in Louis P. Pojman, ed., Moral Philosophy: A Reader, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 2003), and in Sterling Harwood, ed., Business as Ethical and Business as Usual, Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1996, Chapter 7.
  • Lyons, David, "Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism". Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965.
  • Martin, Michael, "A Utilitarian Kantian Principle," Philosophical Studies, (with H. Ruf), 21, 1970, pp. 90–91.
  • Rosen, Frederick (2003). Classical Utilitarianism from Hume to Mill. Routledge, p. 28. ISBN 0415220947
  • Silverstein, Harry S. A Defence of Cornman’s Utilitarian Kantian Principle, Philosophical Studies (Dordrecht u.a.) 23, 212–215. 1972
  • Singer, Peter. The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981. [ISBN 0-374-15112-1]
  • Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics, 2nd edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. [ISBN 0-521-43971-X]
  • Stokes, Eric. The English Utilitarians and India, Clarendon Press, 1963. [ASIN B0026QQ5GE]
  • Sumner, L. Wayne, Abortion: A Third Way, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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