Revision notes on Utilitarianism


The greatest happiness principle

The name utilitarianism comes from the word 'utility' which means usefulness. It concerns itself with working out how 'useful' an action is based on assessing its end result. Utilitarians argue that everyone should do the thing that produces the most 'useful' end. They apply the following reasoning:

The most useful end is seen as that which brings the maximum levels of 'happiness or pleasure'.

Therefore, actions that produce the most happiness are seen as the best course of action (i.e. good moral actions).

This way of assessing which course of action is the best one to take is known as the 'greatest happiness principle'.

Since utilitarianism is concerned about the outcome (or 'end') of an action, it is a teleological ethical theory. 

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Deontological thinking in contrast to teleological

Deontological ethical theories are concerned with the acts themselves, irrespective of the consequences of those acts.

Deontological systems have been criticised as being too intolerant by coldly calculating a moral judgement irrespective of individual circumstances.

The word teleological comes from the greek meaning 'end' or 'purpose'. Telelogical thinking considers the consequences of a particular action or the 'end' result, and it is the assessment of this 'end' that determines whether or not the action is morally good. In the case of Utilitarianism, the theory holds that the action that best results in the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number' is the right action. 

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Bentham's Utilitarianism

He argued that humans are motivated by pleasure and pain, and we seek that which gives us pleasure, and avoid that which causes pain. 

Principle of utility- people should act to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

What maximises happiness is what is right.

 The Hedonic Calculus- The intensity of the pleasure, the duration of the pleasure, the certainty of the pleasure, the fecundity of the pleasure (the more chance it will be repeated), the propinquity (nearness) of the pleasure, the purity of the pleasure (least amount of pain it involves), the extent of the pleasure (more people who experience it). 

Associated with Act Utilitarianism- considers the consequences of each individual action.

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Bentham's Utilitarianism Strengths and Weaknesses


It has method in its application of the calculus

It is a morally democratic approach that seeks the fairest result

The calculus is thorough in its consideration of measuring aspects of pleasure


It is not clear how the hedonic calculus resolves the problem of assessing the quantity of the pleasure

Listing elements of pleasure doesn't resolve the problem of quantifying the pleasure

The calculus does not prioritise or rank aspects of pleasure and so can lead to confusion

Bentham's hedonic calculus appears to justify gang ****

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Mill's Utilitarianism

He equated 'happiness' with the idea of what is good,fulfilling, virtuous, that which leads to well being. 

Higher pleasures- stimulate the mind, Lower pleasures- merely physical

Quality over quantity (qualitative theory)

Made his theory universal (can apply to anyone)

He argued that- Happiness is desireable, happiness is the only thing desirable as an end, therefore, everyone ought to aim at the happiness of everyone.

Rule utilitarianism- considers the consequences of past actions to form a rule to guide a present action.

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Mill's Utilitarianism strengths and weaknesses


It is arguably a more intelligent and thoughtful approach than Bentham's theory

It avoids the pitfalls of Bentham's basic calculus

It comes across as a more refined and nobler system of thought


Was Mill right when he argued that higher pleasures are better than lower pleasures?

It is too complex a system to calculate

Due to its complexity it is therefore of no practical use

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Arguments in support of and against ending pain an

In support of ending pain and suffering (against the increase of pleasure)

If pain is great.

If pain is to be long term and there is no sight of pleasure.

The quality of pleasure may be poor, e.g. lower, and not worth pursuing.

If someone is already content, why increase contentment at the expense of suffering? This is morally wrong. For example, just because many people are well fed doesn't mean we should leave the beggar to starve.

In support of the increase of pleasure (against the ending of pain and suffering)

Suffering of the few may lead to the happiness of the majority, e.g. a just war.

If pain is minimal and the impact of pleasure far supersedes the pain, e.g. allowing torture to save lives.

Depends upon the long term potential, which may be to allow immediate suffering for greater pleasure later

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Arguments in support of and against the pursuit of

Supporting the pursuit of happiness

Higher pleasures are noble.

Spiritual and intellectual happiness is important.

Happiness is important for complete mental health.

Life is to be enjoyed and not suffered.

All noble religious and non-religious ideals seek some form of satisfaction.

Against the pursuit of happiness

Is happiness or pleasure a valid aim?

Depends upon the nature of the happiness.

Does it seem rather self-indulgent?

Preference Utilitarianism 

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