Utilitarianism Revision Cards

These revision cards cover all you need to know about utilitarianism to help prepare you for a question that may be on the exam! It is advised that you also study situation ethics alongside this topic because although you can choose what topics you answer in the exam, it is possible that the exam board will combine both utilitarianism and situation ethics into one question.

  • Created by: GeorgeB16
  • Created on: 30-12-15 11:48


Principle of utility - Measure of usefulness that an action may have.

For utilitarianism, the principle of utility - The greatest happiness for the greatest number.

Teleological ethical theory - The basis for judging the morality of a action is the results or consequencies it is likely to yield. 

Remember teleological by imagining a telescope and looking through it at the consequences.

1 of 13


Bentham had a desire to establish a universal theory to be applied to all ethical situations. He sought one that would iron out the deep inequalities of his time.

Robert E. Goodwin - "Utilitarianism... is, first and foremost, a standard for judging public action".

18th Century England was experiencing radical social changes such as the industrial revolution and appalling living and working conditions. Bentham's act utilitarianism met the needs of working classes and encouraged social reforms such as within prisons, the abolition of slavery, and the factory acts.

2 of 13

Act Utilitarianism

  • We should always perform the action that promotes the greatest happiness.
  • This was very influential at its time: the approach targeted the real social needs of the time and cannot be dismissed as having failed in this respect.
3 of 13


  • Equated utility with happiness/pleasure or the avoidance of pain. 
  • In 1789, in "Principles of Morals and Legislation", he wrote "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do as well as what we shall do".
  • Bentham rejected religion because at the time, Evangelical Christians were preaching that poverty was a God-ordained state.
4 of 13

Prima Facie Obligations

One key feature of utilitarianism is that it demands an impartial or impersonal view.

A Prima Facie relationship is one of primary importance to us and takes precedence over our relationships with strangers.

For utilitiarianism, this means that if we can bring about the greater benefit for strangers than for those close to us, we should do so. This however is unlikely in reality.

5 of 13

Hedonic Calculus

  • Bentham believed that the likelihood of an action bringing about the greatest happiness could be calculated: adding up the amount of pleasure and subtracting the amount of pain.
  • Seven factors had to be measured such as the intensity, duration and certainty.

This was FLAWED:

  • It is impossible for human goodness to be reduced to a sensation.
  • It leaves room for immoral acts to be justified in the cause of maximising pleasure of the majority.
  • Philip Pettit said: "So long as they promised the best consequences...it would forbid absolutely nothing: not ****, not torture, not even murder".
6 of 13

J.S. Mill

  • A breakdown led him to reassess Bentham's theory.
  • He concluded that Bentham's life had given him a non-real basis on which to assess what was really important to humans.
  • He was as committed as Bentham had been to the progress of humanity and the improvement of society through maximising what is good and increases well being.
7 of 13

Rule Utilitarianism

  • Proposed by Mill who believed it was unnecessary to apply a calculus.
  • He suggested that humans have worked out through trial and error those actions that lead best to human happiness, which they promote through moral rules. He termed these secondary principles: "do not lie", "protect the weak", "keep your promises". 
  • Rule utilitarians suggest our actions should be guided by rules that, if everyone followed them, would lead to the greatest overall happiness.
  • Pratical consequences of an action should be considered before carrying it out, and to follow rules when considering situations that have been established according to the principle of utilityrather than treating each situation as if it is new.
  • Subdivisions - Strong and weak rule utilitarianism:
  •      Strong - Certain rules that we agree have instrumental value should always be kept.
  •      Weak - There will be circumstances where it would be better to allow for exceptions.
  • Rule utilitarianism does seem to satisfy human intuitions about morality more than act utilitarianism because it can never justify an action purely on the grounds that it produces more pleasure for more people.
8 of 13

Quality over Quantity

  • The pleasure factor failed to recognise the deeper levels of human experience.
  • Feelings other than happiness were necessary for the good life: honor, dignity and generosity. Some ideals such as justice, truth and love were good whether or not people desired them or were made happy by them.
  • Once the physical needs of humans were met then they would surely prefer a higher pleasure over a lower one, so people should choose quality of happiness over quantity.
  • Humans should acheive their highest potential: "it is better to be a man dissatisfied than a pig satisfied". 
9 of 13

Harm Principle

Mill was concerned with maintaining the human freedom that is essential for humans to develop those talents and interests that are the hallmark of higher pleasures. The rule of the majority can frustrate this so:

  • Harm principle = The majority have no right to interfere with the minority unless they are causing harm to others.

Nina Rosenstand observes that the harm principle is at the foundation of the principle of civil liberties: that citizens have their right to privacy, to do whatever they wish as long as it does no harm.

10 of 13

Modern Utilitarianism

Preference utilitarianism - Satisfaction of people's preferences rather than aiming to achieve the greatest balance of pleasure over pain (Peter Singer and R.M. Hare). This is easier to manage than classical utilitarianism because pleasure is difficult to calculate but people can express their preferences. Preferences/ideals can be more important than happiness such as a marathon runner. It also does not require any experience.

Negative utilitarianism - Seeks to promote the least amount of harm or pain, or to prevent the greatest harm to the greatest number. This is more effective because there are more ways to do harm than good. It promotes a reduction of pain as a greater moral obligation than increasing happiness. It is a practical value, for example, giving a starving community food rather than DVDs. 

11 of 13

Strengths/Successes of Utilitarianism

  • Allows the evalutation of moral choices to be more reliable as it considers the consequences.
  • Motives can be good or bad but only consequences have a real effect on human well-being.
  • Encourages a democratic approach to decision making as the majority's interest is always considered and a dangerous minority is not allowed to dominate.
  • Present circumstances can be judged without reference to precedents.
  • Asks to consider no more than the greatest good for the greatest number and does not rest on any controversial or unverifiable theological or metaphysical claims or principles.
  • Overall, it served to formulate an approach to ethical decision making that was unified, systematic and simple to understand and apply.
12 of 13

Weaknesses/Failures of Utilitarianism

  • It requires the ability to predict the long term consequences of an action with unfailing accuracy.
  • People may suffer second or third hand, even if the immediate consequences of an action fulfilled the conditions of the principle.
  • It gives no credit to motivation. Not all actions done out of good will are going to result in good consequences but the attitude with which it is performed should be worthy of some credit.
  • The theory relies on a single principle which is too simplistic. Mill believed happiness is "much too complex and indefinite" to be the measure of the moral worth of an action.
  • Not all dilemmas can be solved by reference to one ethical theory because all ethical dilemmas are multifaceted and unique in some way.
  • Does it really reflect the reality of our moral choices?
13 of 13


No comments have yet been made

Similar Religious Studies resources:

See all Religious Studies resources »See all Ethics resources »