From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarianism)

(see article on Conseqentialism)

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 ethics based on quantitative maximization of some good for society or humanity. It is a form of consequentialism. This good is often happiness or pleasure, though some utilitarian theories might seek to maximize other consequences. Utilitarianism is sometimes summarized as "The greatest happiness for the greatest number."

History of utilitarianism

Utilitarianism was originally proposed in 18th century England by Jeremy Bentham and others. A similar concept can be found a little earlier in David Hume's Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. However, the tradition of utilitarian ideas can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophers such as Parmenides. 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, 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 Mill wrote a famous (and short) book called Utilitarianism. Mill differs from many current utilitarians in that he considered cultural and spiritual happiness to be of greater value than mere physical pleasure.

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 influenced economics, in particular utility theory, 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, advocates of the utilitarian principle (including Mill) 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.


Act utilitarianism vs. rule utilitarianism

Act utilitarianism states that the best act is whichever act would yield the most happiness. Rule utilitarianism instead states that the best act is to follow the general rule which would yield the most happiness.

To illustrate, consider the following scenario: A surgeon has six patients: one needs a liver, one needs a pancreas, one needs a gall bladder, and two need kidneys. The sixth just came in to have his appendix removed. Should the surgeon kill the sixth man and pass his organs around to the others? This would obviously violate the rights of the sixth man, but act utilitarianism seems to imply that, given a purely binary choice between (1) killing the man and distributing his organs or (2) not doing so and the other five dying, violating his rights is exactly what we ought to do.

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 say we should implement the opposite rule: don't harvest healthy people's organs to give them to sick people. If the surgeon killed the sixth 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 utilitarianism is 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.


Happiness of other species

Some animal rights activists, such as Peter Singer, have argued that the happiness of all species who can feel pain and pleasure should count, not only the feelings of humans. Even those utilitarians arguing otherwise note that the happiness of those humans who suffer if animals suffer should count.


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 Cornman proposes 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 justice or equality should also be valued, regardless if they increase happiness or not.


Biological explanation for utilitarianism

It has been suggested that 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 Singer argues 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 argument or at least the is-ought problem is 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. Triage is an example of a real world situation where utilitarianism seems to be applied successfully.

Daniel Dennett uses the example of Three Mile Island as 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. 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 police and court system 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.

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 sadist should have the same importance as the pleasure of an altruist has 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 is seems to be incompatible with human rights. For example, if slavery or torture is 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 regards 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 Shaw claimed 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 triage or if the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the right decision.


See also

List of Utilitarians

Utilitarian Bioethics

Hedonistic imperative



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



Utilitarianism resources

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 in the Marxists' dictionary

Free eBook of Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill at Project Gutenberg

The Quest For an Ultimate Standard 2: Kantian Ethics



Ethics Home Page

Department of Communication, Seton Hall University