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This article discusses utilitarian ethical theory. For a discussion of John Stuart Mill's essay Utilitarianism (1861), see Utilitarianism (book).

Utilitarianism (from the Latin utilis, useful) is a theory of ethicsthat prescribes the quantitativemaximization of good consequences for a population. It is a single value system and a form of consequentialismand absolutism. This good is often happinessor pleasure, though some utilitarian theories might seek to maximize other consequences.


  • 1 History of utilitarianism
  • 2 Types of utilitarianism
    • 2.1 Negative utilitarianism
    • 2.2 Act utilitarianism vs. rule utilitarianism
    • 2.3 Preference utilitarianism
    • 2.4 Quality utilitarianism
    • 2.5 Happiness of other species
    • 2.6 Combinations with other ethical schools
  • 3 Biological explanation for utilitarianism
  • 4 Criticism of utilitarianism
  • 5 Utilitarian criticism of other schools
  • 6 See also
  • 7 References
  • 8 External links

History of utilitarianism

Utilitarianism was originally proposed by David Hume but later given a definitive formulation in 18th centuryEnglandby Jeremy Benthamand others such as John Stuart Mill. Bentham was born at a time of great scientific and social change, and there were many demands for greater democracy. He worked on legal reform and wrote "Principles of Morals and Legislation" in which he set out his ethical theory. It can be divided into 3 parts: Views on what motivated human beings, the principle of utility, and the Felicific calculus. From the principle of utility, he found pain and pleasure to be the only absolutes in the world: "nature has put man under the governance of two sovereign masters: pleasure and pain." From this he derived the rule of utility: that the good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Later, after realizing that the formulation recognized two different and potentially conflicting principles, he dropped the second part and talked simply about "the greatest happiness principle."

John Stuart Millwrote a famous (and short) book titled Utilitarianism. Mill differs from many current utilitarians in that he considered cultural and spiritual happiness to be of greater value than mere physical pleasure. In this work, Mill argued that utilitarianism requires that political arrangements satisfy the "liberty principle", where each person would be guaranteed the greatest possible liberty that would not interfere with the liberty of others, so that each person may maximize his or her happiness.

The classic utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill influenced many other philosophers and the development of the broader concept of consequentialism. As a result, the correct definitions of utilitarianism and consequentialism and the exact difference between these two schools are not always entirely clear, even among philosophers.

Utilitarianism has been used as an argument for many different political views. Ludwig von Misesadvocated libertarianismusing utilitarian arguments. In contrast, Marxist philosophers have also used these principles but instead advocate socialism.

Utilitarianism influenced economics, in particular utilitytheory, where the concept of utility is also used, although with quite different effect.

Types of utilitarianism

Negative utilitarianism

Most utilitarian theories deal with producing the greatest amount of good for the greatest number. Negative utilitarianism requires us to promote the least amount of evil or harm, or to prevent the greatest amount of harm for the greatest number. Proponents argue that this is a more effective ethical formula, since, they contend, there are many more ways to do harm than to do good, and the greatest harms are more consequential than the greatest goods.

However, some advocates of the utilitarian principle (including Miller) were quick to suggest that the ultimate aim of negative utilitarianism would be to engender the quickest and least painful method of killing the entirety of humanity, as this ultimately would effectively minimize pain. Negative utilitarianism would seem to call for the destruction of the world even if only to avoid the pain of a pinprick. Yet the 'pinprick argument'[1]or the notion that negative utilitarianism calls for world destruction is not accepted by all philosophers.

Act utilitarianism vs. rule utilitarianism

Bentham?s Act utilitarianism states that we must first consider the consequences of our actions, and from that, make an appropriate choice that would then generate the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people involved. Mill?s Rule utilitarianism states that we must consider the consequences of a rule instead then follow the rule which would best yield the most happiness for the most amount of people involved. To illustrate, consider the following scenario: A surgeon has five terminal patients: one needs a liver, one needs a pancreas, one needs a heart, and two need kidneys. A sixth, non-terminal patient just came in to have his appendix removed. Should the surgeon kill the sixth man and pass his organs around to the others? Or, indeed, what would stop him from simply hunting down and slaughtering the first healthy man (the seventh) he comes across on the street, patient or non-patient? These actions would obviously violate the rights of the sixth/seventh man, but utilitarianism seems to imply that, given a purely binary choice between (1) killing one man and distributing his organs or (2) not doing so and thus allowing the five terminal patients to die, violating one man's rights is exactly what we ought to do. This choice would be reasoned as a choice of outcomes, either having one dead or five dead, the implementation of which is ignored and the outcomes strictly focused upon. A rule utilitarian, however, would look at the rule, rather than the act, that would be instituted by cutting up the sixth man. The rule in this case would be: "whenever a surgeon could kill one relatively healthy person in order to transplant his organs to more than one other person who needs them, he ought to do so." This rule, if instituted in society, would obviously lead to bad consequences. Relatively healthy people would stop going to the hospital, we'd end up performing many risky transplant operations, etc., etc. So a rule utilitarian would also say we should implement the opposite rule: "don't harvest healthy people's organs to give them to sick people." Therefore, if the surgeon killed the sixth/seventh man, then he would be doing the wrong thing. Rule utilitarianism has been criticized for advocating general rules that will in some specific circumstances clearly decrease happiness if followed. To never kill a human might seem to be a good rule, but this could make defence against aggressors very difficult. Rule utilitarians would then add that there are general exception rules that allows the breaking of other rules if this increases happiness, one example being self-defense. Critics would then argue that this reduces rule utilitarianism to act utilitarianism, the rules become meaningless. Rule utilitarians respond that the rules in the legal system (i.e., laws) which regulate such situations are not meaningless. For instance, claimed self-defense might shift the burden of proof. Generally, the rules can be seen as rules of thumb which should be followed in situations where the consequences are difficult, costly, or time-consuming to calculate exactly. If all the consequences can clearly and without doubt be calculated and the general rule is proved to reduce happiness in this particular situation, then the general rule can be ignored.

Preference utilitarianism

Preference utilitarianismis a particular type of utilitarianism which defines the good to be maximized as the fulfillment of persons' preferences. Like any utilitarian theory, preference utilitarianism claims that the right thing to do is that which produces the best consequences; when defined in terms of preference satisfaction, the best consequences can include things other than pure hedonism, like reputation or rationality.

Preference utilitarianism is favored by utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer.

Quality utilitarianism

Quality utilitarianismis a particular type of utilitarianism which defines the good to be the maximization of quality of life. Quality utilitarianism definitionally differs from standard utilitarianism if one considers feelings such as satisfaction, physical pleasure, contentment, awe, and others, to be at least somewhat distinct from happiness. However, quality utilitarians often differ from other utilitarians in their application of the principle of maximization, most notably by

  • Factoring in the quality of life of non-humans
  • Specifying that the maximization of quality of life is to be performed over all time
  • Stressing precision and the consideration of long-term consequences in the process of maximization

Quality utilitarianism significantly differsfrom preference utilitarianism.

Happiness of other species

Some animal rightsactivists, such as Peter Singer, have argued that the happiness of all specieswho can feel pain and pleasure should count, not only the feelings of humans. Even those utilitarians arguing otherwise note that the happiness should count of those humans who suffer if animals suffer (thus giving animal suffering an instrumental effect on human suffering).

Arguing that animal suffering in the food sector is most severe (over that in laboratories or nature), Singer accepts the idea that "in order to justify eating animals, we would have to show that the pleasure gained from consuming them minus the pleasure gained from eating a vegetarian meal is greater than the pain caused by eating animals." (Matheny, Gaverick. Utilitarianism and Animals.)

Combinations with other ethical schools

Several attempts have been made to combine utilitarianism with Kant's categorical imperative, in order to overcome perceived shortcomings of both systems. For instance, James Cornmanproposes that in any situation we should (a) treat as mere means as few people as possible, and (b) treat as ends as many people as is consistent with (a). He refers to this as the "Utilitarian Kantian Principle".

Other consequentialists may consider happiness an important consequence, but in addition argue that consequences such as justiceor equalityshould also be valued, regardless if they increase happiness or not.

Biological explanation for utilitarianism

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 Singerargues 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:

If I have seen that from an ethical point of view I am just one person among the many in my society, and my interests are no more important, from the point of view of the whole, than the similar interests of others within my society, I am ready to see that, from a still larger point of view, my society is just one among other societies, and the interests of members of my society are no more important, from that larger perspective, than the similar interests of members of other societies? Taking the impartial element in ethical reasoning to its logical conclusion means, first, accepting that we ought to have equal concern for all human beings.

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 socities 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 socities 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 of utilitarianism

Critics of utilitarianism claim that it suffers from a number of problems. One is that utilitarianism is not proved by science or logic to be the correct ethical system. However, supporters claim that this is common to all ethical schools (and indeed the system of logic itself) and will remain so until the problem of the regress argumentor at least the is-ought problemis satisfactorily solved. 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 most. Some degree of utilitarianism might very well be genetically hard-coded into humans.

Another difficulty with utilitarianism is that of comparing happiness among different people. Many of the early utilitarians hoped that happiness could somehow be measured quantitatively and compared between people through felicific calculus, although no one has ever managed to construct a detailed one in practice. It has been argued that the happiness of different people is incommensurable, and thus felicific calculus is impossible, not only in practice, but even in principle. Defenders of utilitarianism reply that this problem is faced by anyone who has to choose between two alternative states of affairs where both impose burdens to the people involved. If happiness were incommensurable, the death of a hundred people would be no worse than the death of one. Triageis an example of a real world situation where utilitarianism seems to be applied successfully.

Daniel Dennettuses the example of Three Mile Islandas another 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 (20 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 is frequently resolved with further advancements.

Utilitarianism has also been criticized for leading to a number of conclusions contrary to 'common sense' morality. For example, it might be argued that it is 'common sense' that one should never sacrifice some humans for the happiness of other humans (an ethical position famously explored in Le Guin'smodern fable "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas"). Utilitarians, however, argue that 'common sense' has been used to justify many positions on both sides of controversial issues and varies greatly from individual to individual, making it an unsuitable basis for a 'common' morality. Regarding the example, it is equally 'common sense' that one must sacrifice some soldiers and civilians in a defensive war.

Critics have also asked why one should follow utilitarianism instead of egoism. One solution for rule utilitarianism is to have a policeand courtsystem that punishes breaking the rules. However, this does not answer why one should follow a rule in a situation where one can personally gain by breaking it and others cannot punish this. Supporters argue that this is a problem for all ethical theories.

Ethical egoists and rational egoists, construct their normative ethics by determining what maximizes good consequences for the self. For them, to accept an meta-ethical system that is not aimed at maximizing self-interest is a perversion of the very purpose of devising an ethical system. However, one egoist may propose means to maximize self-interest that conflicts with the means proposed by another egoist. As a result, they are behooved to compromise with one another to avoid conflict, out of self-interest. The means proposed may incidently coincide with those prescribed by utilitarianism, though the foundational ethical imperative would not, of course, be utilitarian.

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

That the pleasure of a sadistshould have the same importance as the pleasure of an altruisthas been criticized. Supporters note that, in practice, altruistic acts help many more people and hurt many fewer than do sadistic ones, so that in practice utilitarianism almost always condemns sadism and sanctions altruism.

Some critics reject utilitarianism, both rule and act, on the basis that it seems to be incompatible with human rights. For example, if slaveryor tortureis beneficial for the population as a whole, it could theoretically be justified by utilitarianism. Utilitarian theory thus seems to overlook the rights of minority groups. It might also ignore the rights of the majority. A man might achieve such pure ecstasy from killing 100 people so that his positive utility outweighs the negative utility of the 100 people he murdered. Utilitarians argue that justification of either slavery, torture or murder would require improbably large benefits to outweigh the direct and extreme suffering to the victims and excludes the indirect impact of social acceptance of inhumane policies. For example, general anxiety and fear might increase for all if human rights are commonly ignored. Human rights can thus be considered a rule compatible with rule utilitarianism.

A further criticism is in regard to Utilitarianism's judgement of right and wrong. Utilitarianism holds that in any given situation the 'right' act is that which produced the greatest good, while all other acts are wrong. Therefore even charitable actions could be considered wrong under this theory. For example, if a person donated $1,000 to a charity that provided starving children with food when they could have donated $1,050 and in doing so created even more good, their action would be judged as wrong by Utilitarianism. In response to criticism of this nature the contemporary philosopher and utilitarian William Shawclaimed that, although Utilitarianism would clearly dictate the above conclusion, a good utilitarian would still praise the wrongdoer for their charitable donation even though it is wrong. This is because punishing such a person would likely push them to no longer make any charitable contributions, so praising the wrongdoer would better serve the greater good than punishing them.

Utilitarian criticism of other schools

One is that many are contrary to human nature and are thus unlikely to be followed in practice. Another is that many cannot even in theory solve real world complex ethical problems when various inviolable principles collide, like triageor if the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasakiwas the right decision.

See also

  • List of Utilitarians
  • Utilitarian Bioethics
  • Hedonistic imperative
  • Gross National Happiness
  • Altruism (ethical doctrine)


  • Cornman, James, et al. 1992 Philosophical Problems and Arguments - An Introduction, 4th edition Indianapolis: Hackett
  • Michael Martin, "A Utilitarian Kantian Principle," Philosophical Studies, (with H. Ruf), 21, 1970, pp. 90-91.
  • Silverstein, Harry S. A Defence of Cornman’s Utilitarian Kantian Principle, Philosophical Studies (Dordrecht u.a.) 23, 212-215. 1972

External links

  • Utilitarian Philosophers. Large compendium of writings by and about the major utilitarian philosophers, both classic and contemporary.
  • Utilitarian Resources. Good collection of definitions, articles and links.
  • Utilitarianism. A quick look at Utilitarianism.


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