Utilitarianism is a teleological (consequentialist) moral theory that in its simplest form states thatthe morally correct action is that which maximises overall utility.

Utility - happiness, so basic utilitarianism states that the morally correct action is that action that maximises overall happiness.

Different utilitarians have various ideas about how exactly utility should be defined and also about how the theory may best be implemented.

Prominent utilitarian thinkers include John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer.

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Historical context

Utilitarianism emerged as a theory in the 18th Century, an era when religious influence was declining and scientific knowledge was seen as increasingly important.

The idea that moral reasoning could be viewed as as a process of calculation was therefore very attractive.


There were also growing movements for political and social reform and utilitarianism was able to be used to justify the demands of reformers.

Utilitarianism came to be associated with the ideas of “progress” and “modern”.

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Bentham's theory

Key ideas:

1. The idea about what human beings were motivated by.

2. The principle of utility (his moral rule)

3. The hedonic calculus

From his observations, Bentham concluded that humans are motivated by pleasure and pain. We always act to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Because humans always seek pleasure, Bentham claimed that pleasure is the only moral good. Morally right actions are those that bring about pleasure. The view that seeking pleasure is good is known as hedonism and Bentham is regarded as a hedonistic utilitarian.

The Principle of Utility

Bentham’s moral theory, expressed opposite, can be summed up as:

‘An action is right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number’,

Where the greatest good is the greatest pleasure or happiness and the least pain or sadness, and the greatest number are the majority of people.


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The Hedonic Calculas

The hedonic calculus is a way of calculating the pleasure generated by the options available to a moral agent in order to determine which is the best.

Seven factors are considered:

1. Its intensity. (How intense is it?)

2. Its duration. (How long does the sensation last?)

3. Its certainty or uncertainty. (How likely is to happen?)

4. Its propinquity or remoteness. (How near is it?)

5. Its fecundity. (What is the chance of it being followed by sensations of the same kind?)

6. Its purity. (How free is it from pain?) And one other; to wit:

7. Its extent; that is, the number of persons to whom it extends; or (in other words) who are affected by it. (How wide are its effects?) Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side, and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole.

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Act Utilitarianism

Bentham’s approach here can be described as Act Utilitarianism.

Act utilitarianism requires the moral agent to apply the principle of utility to each moral decision. There are no general rules to be followed, such as ‘do not steal’ etc.

If there are situations in which stealing maximises overall utility then stealing is morally good. However, in situations in which stealing does not maximise utility, it is morally bad.

Actions themselves are not inherently good or bad. They are judged to be good or bad by their consequences.

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Advantages of Utilitarianism

- The theory is grounded in human experience. It seems that most people do seek pleasure and avoid pain.


- There is no need to appeal to God in order to decide what is good. This is very appealing in an era in which belief in God is less common.


- It’s quest to maximise utility for the greatest number can be seen to be democratic. No one person’s happiness (including that of the agent) carries more weight than any others.


- Morality can be seen to be objective in that decisions are based on impartial calculations. Our individual preferences should not cloud our judgement.

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Problems- counterintuitive implications

a.   Act Utilitarianism may condone the brutal torture of a prisoner by sadistic guards. If the torture gave the guards a great deal of pleasure, this may outweigh the suffering of the prisoner. (This problem is explained by John Stuart Mill).


b.   The  actions  of  a  “peeping  tom”  may be  condoned  if  the  victims  are unaware that they are being watched and the perpetrator is made happy by his actions.  We feel that the actions of the peeping tom are wrong but it seems that utilitarianism is unable to condemn them.

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Problems- consequences

The consequences of an action are difficult to calculate. 

It is often claimed that it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict the consequences of an action with any real degree of accuracy.  Can I be sure that my actions will have the effect that I believe they will?  Should we base something as important as morality on consequences that are difficult to predict?

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Problems- happiness

Can  happiness  be  quantified?   

Bentham believed that pleasure and pain could be measured (remember the hedonic calculus), but is he correct? Is  pleasure  the  kind  of  thing  that  can  be measured with any precision?  Can I really compare different levels of pleasure in the way that I can compare a physical property of something, such as temperature?

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Problems- the importance of happiness

Is happiness/pleasure really that important?

Is happiness the only thing that we value as important?   Are there some things that are more important (e.g. human rights, truthfulness…)? Think of Nozick’s ‘happiness machine’.

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Problems- morality

Morality should look backwards as well as forwards. 

When making moral decisions, should we only look to the future (i.e. the consequences)?  What about promises we have made in the past?   Shouldn’t these past actions have some bearing on how we ought to act?

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Mill's Utilitarianism

Unlike Bentham, Mill believed that some pleasures were superior to others.

Bentham is concerned with the quantity of pleasure produced whereas Mill is concerned with the quality of the pleasure produced.

Mill argued that utilitarianism should not be viewed as a crude theory that did not distinguish between the differing types of happiness.   He argued that Utilitarianism should  be concerned with the quality of pleasure experienced, rather than merely its quantity.  He claimed that there were two types of pleasures, the higher pleasures and the lower pleasures.

Mill claimed that the higher pleasures, the pleasures that result from intellectual activities (e.g. reading and writing poetry, philosophical analysis) are far superior to the lower pleasures, those pleasures that result from bodily activities (e.g. eating, drinking, having sex).

The job of the utilitarian agent is to maximize the higher pleasures wherever possible. This would avoid the counterintuitive implications that arise from simple Act Utilitarianism.

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Rule Uliltarianism

In contrast to Act utilitarianism, Rule utilitarianism states that morality should involve following rules (e.g. always tell the truth, don’t punish innocent people etc.) and that these rules should be chosen because of their tendency to maximise happiness.

Although lying in some situations does maximise happiness, it is probably true that lying in general decreases overall happiness (imagine a world where everybody lied).  A rule utilitarian may suggest that everybody follow the rule “do not lie” because if everybody followed this rule, overall happiness would be maximised.

Note the important difference here.   The moral agent no longer has to calculate the possible consequences of each option available to her.  She now has to simply follow a rule that has been decided because of its overall tendency to promote happiness.

Rule utilitarianism can be seen as combining the absolute rules of the deontological approach to ethics with the utilitarian emphasis on maximising happiness.

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Rule Uliltarianism (2)

John Stuart Mill was a great social reformer and arguably one of the most influential political philosophers of his day. His ‘Harm Principle’ can be viewed as an example of a rule that exists in order to promote utility.

Mill believed that every individual should be allowed to do whatever she or he wanted so long as they did not harm others. In this way, the higher pleasures could be maximised overall. This is a clear example of Rule utilitarianism and one that has been hugely important. Mill’s Harm Principle provides the foundation to many liberal societies’ beliefs today.

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Singer- Preference Utilitarianism

One prominent utilitarian, Peter Singer (1946 - present), argues that utilitarians should not seek to maximise happiness, or pleasure. Instead they should seek to further the best interests (or preferences) of those affected

Singer argues that this avoids some of the more counterintuitive consequences of traditional utilitarianism such as killing a person to satisfy the majority.

This other version of utilitarianism judges actions, not by their tendency to maximise pleasure or minimise pain, but by the extent to which they accord with the preference of any beings affected by the action or its consequences.

According to preference utilitarianism, an action contrary to the preference of any being is, unless this preference is outweighed by contrary preferences, wrong. Killing a person who prefers to continue living is therefore wrong, other things being equal.

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Negative Utilitarism

Although there are many varieties of negative utilitarianism, the general idea is that the emphasis should be on reducing suffering, rather than  maximising happiness. 

It might seem at first sight that negative utilitarianism is very similar to traditional utilitarianism. It soon becomes clear, however, that the two theories may sanction radically different actions.

Ninian Smart famously argued that if all we intended to do was to eliminate suffering, the most effective way to do this would be to find a way to instantly and painlessly destroy the human race!

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Ideal Utilitarianism

This is a form of utilitarianism that claims that we should not seek pleasure or happiness. Instead, we should aim to promote aesthetic experiences and relations of friendship because these things are intrinsically good. 


We should also not promote things that are not intrinsically good, such as consciousness of pain, hatred or contempt of what is good or beautiful, and the love admiration or enjoyment of what is evil or ugly.


This form of utilitarianism is often associated with the philosopher G. E Moore (1873 - 1958).

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Absolutist or relativist?

Utilitarianism can be viewed as both absolutist and relativist

It is absolutist in that there is one principle (maximise utility) that holds at all times in all places and in every situation.

Rule utilitarianism may also be viewed as absolutist in that there are definite rules that the moral agent is required to obey at all times

Act utilitarianism may, however, also be viewed as relativist in that the correct course of action in each situation will depend on the amount of utility it will generate. E.g. in some situations, lying may maximise utility and in others it won’t.

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Many religions express absolutes in terms of what can be done whereas utilitarianism seems to offer a greater degree of flexibility.

Many religions also express ideas that self sacrifice, suffering and struggle  are part of the spiritual life and not evils to be avoided as utilitarianism might seem to suggest.

The teleology of religious approaches tends to be concerned with the end goal of an afterlife/eternal state whereas the teleology of utilitarianism is very much concerned with worldly matters such as happiness, preference satisfaction etc.

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The general concern that utilitarians have to improve the welfare of everybody is shared with many religious people.

Although not a religious believer, Mill claimed that utilitarianism may well be  compatible with belief in a God who desires that his creatures are happy:

If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other.

Mill, Utilitarianism

Another thinker, Austin (1790-1859), believed that in circumstances where there was no obvious (or revealed) law or command from God, utilitarian principles were what God wished us to follow.

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