What is Utilitarianism?

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What type of ethical theory?


it aims to bring about a greater good. It looks at what your ethical action is aimed at bringing about, rather than deontological ethics which focuses on the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of actions.


 it looks at the consequences of actions, not the actions themselves. An action is deemed ‘good’ if it brings about good consequences.


goodness of actions depend on the circumstances; there are no fixed moral principles.


 the goodness of an action is defined in terms of natural properties i.e. pleasure, something that occurs naturally.  

Bentham’s Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) first envisioned the concept of Utilitarianism when he came across the expression ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’ in Priestley’s ‘Essay on Government’.

He took this principle, naming it the ‘principle of utility’, and applied it in order to determine, he felt, the most moral outcome to situations, i.e. the one that would produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people .

Bentham created this philosophy in response to the feudal and highly stratified society of 18th Century England.

The lower classes suffered terribly from exploitation and lack of significant rights whilst the upper classes enjoyed luxury.

The 18th Century was also paradoxically the Age of Enlightenment and an era of political and ideological revolution throughout the world, such as shown in both the American and French revolutions.

Bentham’s creation of utilitarianism reflects this social context, his teleological ethical theory being overtly simple, and thus accessible, in its foundation, enabling intellectuals and the uneducated alike to follow and benefit from it.

 Bentham’s theory of Utilitarianism purposely excludes religion due to its inherently enigmatic qualities

 The intrinsic value of happiness and pleasure feature with equal importance at the heart of his theory. 

Bentham was a hedonist and believed human beings were psychological egoists, solely motivated by attempting to achieve pleasure and avoid pain.

Believed, like Epicurus before him, that pleasure is sole good and pain sole evil

He published this principle of human nature in The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) in conjunction with his full theory of Utilitarianism, claiming: ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.’

He furthered this, not arguing that we should fight our desires, see them as sinful or hold ourselves to a higher value as would have been typical of his pious contemporaries. Instead Bentham wrote that ‘It is for them [pain and pleasure] alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.’ Indeed, Bentham saw pleasure as the highest form of goodness and pain the sole evil.

Through this belief Bentham conceived the utility principle, colloquially known as the greatest happiness principle, as a teleological and consequentialist theory to aid the judgement of the morality of an action.

It simply states that ‘An action is right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number’ – the ‘greatest good’ translating to greatest pleasure combined with the least pain.

The principle is based on Bentham’s egalitarian belief that all human beings are intrinsically equal and equally deserving of happiness.

Whilst this is somewhat contradictory of the self-serving aspects of his hedonistic beliefs, Bentham argued that treating others as we wish to be treated aids utility and is more beneficial than purely acting hedonistically. Indeed, he openly acknowledges that ‘in every human breast … self-regarding interest is predominant over social interest’ and that it is illogical to expect people to suppression their own innate human nature. He then counters his own argument through the logic that aiding, and thus improving, society will eventually be beneficial to the individual.

It is important however to note that hedonism and utilitarianism are two different and, at times, contrary principles.

L-> A utilitarian is expected to be self-sacrificing if their pain is outweighed by the resultant pleasure of others and thus, whilst a hedonist can indulge purely in egoism, the utilitarian must exercise altruism and self control.

L-> Another key difference between the two ideologies is that whilst hedonism is purely motivated by one’s own happiness, resulting in simple, clear and often impulsive decisions, utilitarian decisions are often very unclear as outcomes can never be precisely predicted.

 To aid the difficult decisions required, Bentham developed the ‘felicific calculus’, now known as the ‘hedonic calculus’.

The calculus judges the quantities of pain and pleasure produced by each possible action by consulting seven factors: the action’s intensity; its duration; its certainty/uncertainty; its propinquity/remoteness; its fecundity; its purity and its extent.

All seven of these measures must be considered in their entirety for each possible action; the action resulting in the most happiness combined with least unhappiness is deemed the most moral and thus is the action the Utilitarian must take. 

It is commonly thought that Bentham, having developed the classic example of Act Utilitarianism, believed that the hedonic calculus must be consulted not only for every decision made, but every time this decision is considered. This however is a common misconception; in actuality he wrote ‘It is not to be expected that this process should be strictly pursued previously to every moral judgement, or to every legislative or judicial operation. It may, however, always be kept in view’ in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Chapter 4:6.

Mill’s Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill’s (1806-1873) version of utilitarianism differed to Bentham’s

Typically known as Rule utilitarian, but the terms ‘Act’ and ‘Rule’ Utilitarianism only became prominent during the mid twentieth century, not the eighteenth or nineteenth.

Different due to concluding Bentham’s comfortable life (Mill: ‘He never knew poverty and adversity … never … even … sickness’)had given him a non-real basis on which to assess what was really important

Believed other feelings (as well as happiness) necessary for good life: dignity, honour, generosity. Argued justice, truth and love were intrinsically good regardless of if they were desired of made people happy – Mill saw happiness as intrinsically related to the whole sum of human experiences

Critical of 18th C utilitarianism in that it didn’t appreciate how important it is for humans to work together in a stable social framework and placed no value of justice

Believed happiness is ‘much too complex and indefinite’ to be the measure of the moral worth of an action

Instead Mill suggested humans have worked out through trial and error those action that lead best to human happiness, which they promote through moral rules, which he termed secondary principles: ‘do not lie’, ‘protect the weak’, keep your promises’

Mill believed that rules and education should be incorporated in order to enable people to make capable and logical ethical decisions, an ideological trait similar to Rule Utilitarianism, which focuses on everybody following general rules at all times unless in exceptional circumstances.

L-> rule utilitarianism subdivided into strong (certain rules that we agree have instrumental value should always be kept) and weak rule utilitarianism (which claims these can, at times, be broken)

Another way in which Mill’s theory of Utilitarianism differs from Bentham’s classic hybrid of Hedonistic and Act Utilitarianism is through the hierarchy he opposes on various pleasures.

Mill claims that the quantity of pleasure shouldn’t be at the heart of the theory, but instead the quality, famously claiming ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’

This introduction of a hierarchy of pleasures into Utilitarianism was arguably in response to the criticism that Utilitarianism can be used to justify what appear to be intrinsically immoral and unethical actions if they bring more pleasure than pain, such as the torture of one innocent man if it brings about the sadistic pleasure of many.

Mill’s hierarchy does however classify all pleasures, claiming all intellectual gratification to be of greater value than physical gratification.

‘Competent judges’ – people who have experience both higher and lower pleasures – are able to determine which is which.

Critical of 18th C utilitarianism in that it didn’t appreciate how important it is for humans to work together in a stable social framework and placed no value of justice

Contributed the harm principle to constitute the question of how much pressure the majority is allowed to exert on the minority

L-> ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will. Is to prevent harm to others’

L-> Nin Rosenstand observes harm principle is foundation of principle of civil liberties

Further development of utilitarianism 

Whilst there are many varying forms of Utilitarianism the key idea that pleasure is intrinsically good and should be pursued is evident in each, as is the teleological idea that the moral worth of an action can be determined by its consequences.

Preference Utilitarianism

Developed by Peter Singer and R. M. Hare

The goal or ‘telos’ of ethical action should not be happiness but the satisfaction of one’s preferences.

E.g. Horner and Westacott observe: Joan of Arc wasn’t ‘motivated entirely or even mainly by the search for pleasure … [instead she] was experiencing pain for the sake of something she valued more highly than pleasure’.

Easier to manage than classical utilitarianism

Pleasure difficult to calculate, people can easily express their preferences

Also can have preference without experience (e.g. choose to not be tortured)

Some preferences may be exercised as duties = closer to deontology


Issue of duties

Negative Utilitarianism

Seeks to promote least amount of harm or pain

More effective as many more ways to do harm than to do good

Arguable greatest harms have more impact than greatest goods, so hence more valuable to seek to avoid them

Promotes reduction of pain as greater moral obligation than increasing happiness

Practical value: starving community would benefit more from reduction in its suffering (medical care) than being sent DVDs or invitations to garden party


Ultimate aim to engender quickest and least painful method of killing greatest number of people to put out of misery

How much suffering too great

Some suffering is valuable

Reduction of pain = loosing ability to show compassion

Utilitarianism and prima facie obligations

Utilitarianism demand impartial/impersonal view

Morality tends to allow for fact certain relationships tend to lead to certain obligations L-L-> individual entitled to favour themselves/family/others whom they have a prima facie relationship with (a relationship of primary importance to us)

 Everyday morality tends to be ‘agent relative’ – we can legitimately favour some over others

BUT utilitarianism demands impartial/impersonal view


Not deontological, so we do not end up with a conflict of duties; we can decide which action is best and brings the best consequences.

We are able to consider the consequences of our actions, unlike with deontological ethics.

Utilitarianism is secular: it could therefore appeal to the non-religious as an ethical system and does not depend upon God to underwrite moral norms.

Utilitarianism appeals to our inherent desire to pursue what is pleasurable in life.

Utilitarianism doesn’t make us slaves to rules and appeals to the sense of wanting to make exceptions in extraordinary circumstances.

The hedonic calculus tells us how we ought to act in any given situation: it provides a decision procedure.


Ultimately only consequences, not motives, have real effect on human being


It allows us to do evil so that good might come. For example, in a time of crisis, innocent people may be imprisoned or executed if it calms down the population (if say they are believed to be responsible for terrorist acts). The British police were guilty of this during the Northern Irish troubles.

Lack of justice (allows punishment of innocent and persecution of minority) and makes no distinction for sadistic pleasures – point made by Bernard Williams

The no-rest objection: act utilitarianism, if followed to the letter, could prevent us from doing things we enjoy.

Some would argue that we are not just motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, but that many are motivated by other things such as spiritual truth or objective moral values.

It is not always possible to predict the consequences of our actions. Because Utilitarianism depends on this, it is flawed in this respect.

It is too impartial: the burning house dilemma. If a house is burning down and it contains your Mum and a cancer specialist who is about to develop a cure for cancer, who should you save? It would have to be the cancer specialist. Utilitarianism does not take account of family ties.

Utilitarianism treats everything as a means to an end: this contradicts Kant who argues that humans should never be treated as a means to an end, but as ends in themselves. 

Act Utilitarianism could subvert justice: it could allow for the torture and imprisonment of the innocent if it serves a greater good.

Mill’s theory lacks the flexibility of Bentham’s, which means that sensible rule breaking is no longer possible (an objection pointed out by R.M. Hare).

Amelia G. Mentoring -Personal Statements- tutor, GCSE English tutor, ...

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