Ethics - Utilitarianism


Bentham - Overview

Classical Utility

*teleological & consequentialist

1)    Moral goodness = pleasure/happiness [telos=pleasure]

2)    Utility Principle = “The greatest good for the greatest number.”

“Nature has placed us under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” [Psychological Hedonist]. Pleasure > pain for majority = morally good.

3)    Hedonic Calculus [quantitative]

4)    Equality of all pleasures

"prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.”

5)    Act Utility [has flexibility and looks at the consequences, seeing if the max. pleasure exerted, and is particular to a situation.]

1 of 19

Hedonic Calculus

  • Method introduced by Bentham in order to help us assess and estimate the quantity of the pleasure and pain involved.
  • Help decide whether an action max. pleasure for all individuals involved (max. pleasure and min. pain)
  • Pleasures are of equal worth --> calculation helps decide if it is pleasure or pain that is produced overall.
  • If more pleasure is produced overall for all parties involved, than it is a morally good action and should be done and vice versa for pain.
  • Bentham was quite ready to admit that experiences of pleasure are usually complex and that only a few pleasures were completely ‘pure’ (since most pleasures are mixed with some pain.)

To use the hedonic calculus, it is up for the person to consider by themselves.

1)      Intensity – how intense the sensation is
2)      Duration – how long the sensation lasts
3)      Certainty – the probability that the sensation will occur
4)      Propinquity (remoteness/nearness) – how far off in the future it may occur
5)      Fecundity – to what extent it will lead to other pleasures
6)      Purity – How free from pain it is
7)      Extent – the number of people affected by it

IDC Petes Fang's Pretty Epic

2 of 19

Bentham - Advantages

1.       Simplicity

Easy to use Utility Principle – easy to remember as well.

2.       Democratical

Utilitarian principle is clearly democratic and fits witht he way many would rather choose to be governed.

3.        Considers consequences – compared to other theorists such as Kant

E.g. murder may be wrong yet considering the consequences, the means could be justified as if an state were to kill a dictator, a truly despicable regime could collapse which initially made many suffer. 

3 of 19

Bentham - Disadvantages

 1.       Too simplistic

Theory is reductionist as it tries to simplify a very complex situation/idea

2.       Tyranny of the Majory

Oppresses the minority

3.       What we preceive as good can be subjective

Cannot calculate efficiently with hedonic calculus

4.       Theory has logical consequence of allowing what common sense might regard as evil as good.

e.g. Bentham supported William Wilberforce and others in their opposition to slavery and the slave trade. Yet Bentham’s view of the max. of happiness would make voluntary slavery a moral good.

5.       Naturalistic fallacy

The idea that just because nature acts in a certain way it does not follow that this is how things ought to be.

4 of 19

Act Utilitarianism

>Can figure out basic rules of thumb for morality (e.g. never kill.) This is only a guideline, therefore, it can be discarded if it does not give the max. expected utility.

→ E.g. killing a dictator to stop a corrupt, immoral state from gaining more power.


>Acts may be moral and immoral at different times - Sidgwick solution to the first criticism listed below. In the present time, you make moral decisions based on the immediate consequences of your actions and with the basic knowledge. This allows exceptions to a particular rule/law if the exception appears to max. moral human welfare.


>Cannot predict future consequences - may be able to predict short-term consequences but the foreseeable long-term consequences may lead to an act which brings about more pain than pleasure → immoral act according to the utility principle.

>May use the utility principle for personal advantages - can allow people to lie, steal etc. and therefore people may lie to avoid looking bad rather than to bring genuine better consequences.

>Opens to acts of injustice and abuse to bring out the max. happiness.

5 of 19

Mill - Overview

Classical Utility

telological & consequentialist

1)    Happiness = moral goodness [telos]

2)    Utility Principle = “The greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

[Pleasure > pain = morally good.]

3)    Higher & Lower Pleasures

“Better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied...”

[Higher ability to gain knowledge and intelligence therefore need more to make them contempt.]

4)      Competent Judges [qualitative].

5)    Liberty and the harm principle.

[Link to Rule Utilitarianism].

6 of 19

Higher and Lower Pleasures

  • Believed in idea of human progress and that some pleasures are satisfying but do not improve the person.
  • Never listed what he considers to be higher or lower pleasures but made it clear:
    • Higher Pleasures - pleasures which make people happy as they are progressive. Involving the mind -> [includes philosophical insight, educational development, self-improvement, empathy towards others, listening to music, generosity etc.]
    • Lower Pleasures - pleasures which make the individual happy but does not gain anything for the person's progressive nature. Involving only the body --> [includes eating a meal, drinking, sexual intercourse and so on.]
  • "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied." 
    • Attack on Bentham's simple hedonism, but is also an assault to those who look to lower pleasures as a source of happiness.
    • This quote establishes that only a fool, or a pig, will be satisfied with what it has already got as they do not have any experience to both sides of the question. 
    • Believed that the fool/pig is not living to their full potential in life and are only set to their limitations as 'ignoarance is bliss'. --> Would want to become more if they had experience to it.
7 of 19

Competent Judges

  • Believed that people who have experienced both higher and lower pleasures should be the ones to decide. 
    • As a person who has only experienced lower pleasures cannot judge on how good higher pleasures may be. If they do decide/judge, it would be biased. Vice versa for a person who has only experienced higher pleasures.
  • However, a person who has experienced both higher and lower pleasures can decide/judge on a certain topic since they know how pleasurable the pleasure was.
8 of 19

Mill - Advantages

1.       More sophisticated way of tackling the problem than Bentham

Considers more principles e.g. harm principle and competent judges.

2.       Gives high status for human life

Supports Sanctity of Life – Harm principle --> protection of the vulnerable

3.       Does not oppress the minority

Freedom , harm principle

9 of 19

Mill - Disadvantages

1.       Mill’s notion of the teleology of happiness, suggesting higher pleasures = human progress, is weak.

Progress can be made equally by lower pleasures as well as higher ones.

2.       Arrogance in Mill’s ideas of higher and lower pleasures.

Lower pleasures = ‘worthy only of swine’ suggesting intellectual arrogance.

3.       Too complex to calculate

Some people may not have the intellect to calculate morality in the terms of Mill’s and it takes more time to resolve.

4.       How do we calculate the quality of pleasure?

Deciding quality is very relative to the experience and personal opinion of an individual – may not be most moral action to undertake.

10 of 19

Rule Utilitarianism

Some general principles are formulated and the principle of utility is therefore applied to a rule. The rule will only hold if, in general, follows to lead to greater happiness. Meaning in individual cases, even if an injustice (that goes against a general rules) may bring about greatest happiness for the greatest number, it is deemed wrong - as that injustice tends to lead to misery and a reduction in happiness in general.

Mill clearly thinks certain rules have a Utilitarian justification which is contrasting Bentham. Therefore, the more vulnerable can be protected since there are basic rules to be followed.

→ Although, he can be described as a ‘soft’ Rule Utilitarian as in his book Utilitarianism he states: “ save a life, it may not only be allowable, but a duty to steal, or take by force, the necessary food or medicine, or to kidnap, and compel to officiate, the only qualified medical practitioner.”

→ ‘Hard’ Rule Utilitarians would disagree with this by stating that breaking any rule, even if it’s to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number, is an immoral act in itself.

Mill believed that the individual is sovereign over himself. He believed that the individual’s sovereignty could be justified by a Rule Utilitarian.

11 of 19

The differences

Bentham’s View

Quantity of pleasure that is important.

Pleasures are all of equal worth.

System of Hedonic calculus based on experience.

Considered human rights to be of nonsense.

Dependent on the situation only

Focused on the individuals

Mill’s View

Quality of happiness that is important.

There are higher and lower pleasures.

System based on competent judges.

Believes that society’s happiness is not possible if individual liberty was not there.

Dependent of the situation and the influence of liberty and the harm principle.

Emphasis on the aggregate of individual happiness

12 of 19

Preference Utility

Seeks to max. people's preferences satisfaction, taking into acc of the consquences of someone's choice on everyone else's preferences and interests who are affected.

  • Unlike classical utilitarianism - no intrinsic good (like happiness and pleasure).
    • A good action is one that freely acts on the individual's choice but does not interfere with the free choice of others.
  • Questions of motives are irrelevant.
  • Consequentialistconsequences for other free beings and their choices must be considered.
  • Teloscreate a situation where preferences and interests of all parties involves in ethical situations are balanced against each other and satisfied where possible.


  • that freedom to choose what everyone wants in their life should be universal.
13 of 19

Persons and Personhood

  • Of a morally significant being.
  • beings of which cannot see themselves as entities with a future cannot be given the status of 'persons'. - cannot have preferences about their own.
  • beings that have, e.g less capacity for memory, therefore cannot see a clear past or future - still can have some moral status.

Singers' Utilitarian ethics has two levels: 

1) Level 1: Preference utilitarianism (PU): for those who can demostrate preferences e.g         humans from 4 weeks+ and higher primates.

2) Level 2: Act utilitarianism (AU): for humans under 4wks, disabled and lower ordered           animals who are sentient - but whom higher beings can impose their choice upon them (e.g infantcide).

  • babies below 4weeks old are believed, by Singer, inable to express preferences or show their understanding of their future existence (nor foetuses and the extremely disabled.
    • process a lower moral status.
  • still can feel pleasure and pain, as they are sentient so Singer put them upon a lesser act utilitarianism. 
    • interests count less than more advanced beings' preferences as they cannot hold the knowledge of own preferences (bc less developed mental faculties).
14 of 19


·         No one should deliberately cause pain to another sentient being – if a chicken is killed painlessly and replaced and replaced by a happier chicken, it is a moral good.

o   Replacing a sick child with a healthy one (under 4 weeks) is also a moral good.

·         Over 4 weeks – preferences shoudl be taken into acc in the utilitarian calculation.

o   4 weeks as parents and doctors can consider the new-borns’ future (consideration of interests) before termination.

15 of 19

The Expanding Circle

·         Singer believes that all wealth and income (over a certain level) should be redistributed to maximise the pleasure and ability to choose for the max. number of people.

o   Well known for work on poverty.

Illustrated idea with an example of a drowning child who fell in a pond.  

->  compulsion to save the child is no different with starving chilren thousands of miles away. – morally corrupt to ignore their plight.

16 of 19

Animal Rights

Book: Animal Liberation, 1975.

·         Central argument of book = an expansion on whom the Utility Principle should apply to.

·         Singer believed that it should be applied to animals too.

o   Specialism – the practice of privileging humans over other animals bc they were from a different species.

·         Argued that all sentient creatures have a right of protec tion from harm/pain.

o   Cannot express preferences therefore they have more limited interests.

17 of 19

Singer - Advantages

1.       Realistic and merciful approach by opposing Sanctity of Life

Principle of Sanctity of Life is very old and therefore cannot be efficiently applied to present day situations such as euthanasia and abortion in extreme cases.

2.       Selfishness

We are then made to consider what we should care for in the world by the Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Expanding Circle Analogy – challenges us with difficult questions about our position as welathy westerns and our attitude to poverty.

3.       Specialism

The Expanding Circle and hierarchy of characteristics (e.g. persons) can be seen as progressive – promotes animal rights by challenging us on the way we treat them.

4.       Equality and freedom

Idea of universalisation of our right to hold and express preferences = just. Singer defends in liberal political freedoms yet his idea is more advance as we can prioritse preferences after they have been heard.

Realises that people’s idea of happiness are varied but this is focused on preferences not maximising happiness/pleasure.

18 of 19

Singer - Disadvantages

1.       Too complicated (time exhausting) compared to Bentham’s.

>If you don’t take full consideration in all parties involved and circumstances they’re in, cannot be the most moral choice and may be selfish.

2.       Diminishing Marginal Utility – What preferences to prioritise

>Some may say it’s in our human nature to dertermine it, e.g. most life threatening choice. However, we must take an impartial standpoint to avoid being biased.

3.       Predicting the future

Limiting ability as preferences may change.

4.       Offending the Sanctity of Life

The idea of replaceability of a severly disabled child under 4 weeks = offensive to many and distruction of the idea of The Sanctity of Life -> grading lives and is very unethical.

19 of 19


No comments have yet been made

Similar Ethics resources:

See all Ethics resources »See all Utilitarianism resources »