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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 that prescribes the quantitative maximization of good consequences for a population. It is a single value system and a form of consequentialism and absolutism. This good to be maximized is usually happiness, pleasure, or preference satisfaction. Though some utilitarian theories might seek to maximize other consequences, these consequences generally have something to do with the welfare of people (or of people and animals). For this reason, utilitarianism is often associated with the term welfarist consequentialism.

History of utilitarianism[]

Utilitarianism was originally proposed by David Hume but later given a definitive formulation in 18th century England by Jeremy Bentham and others such as John Stuart Mill. From the principle of utility, Bentham 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 titled Utilitarianism. Mill differs from many current utilitarians in that he considered cultural and spiritual happiness to be of greater value than mere physical pleasure. In his essay On Liberty and other works, Mill argued that utilitarianism requires that political arrangements satisfy the "liberty principle", according to which each person must be guaranteed the greatest possible liberty that would not interfere with the liberty of others, so that each person may maximize his or her happiness.

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 principles are not always entirely clear, even among philosophers.

Other past advocates of utilitarianism include William Godwin, James Mill, and Henry Sidgwick; modern-day advocates utilitarianism include R.M. Hare and Peter Singer.

Utilitarianism has been used as an argument for many different political views. Ludwig von Mises advocated liberalism using utilitarian arguments. In contrast, some Marxist philosophers have also used these principles but instead advocate socialism.

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, some advocates of the utilitarian principle 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. Negative utilitarianism would seem to call for the destruction of the world even if only to avoid the pain of a pinprick. Yet the "pinprick argument" [1] or the notion that negative utilitarianism calls for world destruction is not accepted by all philosophers.

Act utilitarianism vs. rule utilitarianism[]

Act utilitarianism states that we must first consider the consequences of our actions, and from that, make an appropriate choice that would then generate the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people involved. Rule utilitarianism states that we must consider the consequences of a rule instead then follow the rule which would best yield the most happiness for the most amount of people involved.

To illustrate, consider the following scenario: A surgeon has five terminal patients: one needs a liver, one needs a pancreas, one needs a heart, and two need kidneys. A sixth, non-terminal patient just came in to have his appendix removed. Should the surgeon kill the sixth man and pass his organs around to the others? Or, indeed, what would stop him from simply hunting down and slaughtering the first healthy man (the seventh) he comes across on the street, patient or non-patient? Many people would feel that these actions violate the rights of the sixth/seventh man, but utilitarianism initially seems to imply that, given a purely binary choice between (1) killing one man and distributing his organs or (2) not doing so and thus allowing the five terminal patients to die, violating one man's rights is exactly what we ought to do. Of course, there might be reasons for the act utilitarian to refrain from killing the sixth/seventh man, but most would agree that rule utilitarianism can provide more unconditional reasons not to kill him.

A rule utilitarian decides ahead of time that following certain rules is good, and following other rules is bad. To determine whether a rule is good or bad, he looks at what would happen if it was constantly followed. If the encounters the situation described above, one potential rule that might apply 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. So a rule utilitarian would also say we should implement the opposite rule: "don't harvest healthy people's organs to give them to sick people." Therefore, if the surgeon killed the sixth/seventh man, then he would be doing the wrong thing. (However, the system of organ harvesting described in the survival lottery might fit with rule utilitarianism).

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.

Rule utilitarianism should not be confused with rules of thumb. Many act utilitarians agree that it makes sense to decide ahead of time on certain rules to follow if they find themselves in a situation in which the consequences are difficult, costly, or time-consuming to calculate exactly. If the consequences calculated relatively clearly and without much doubt, and then the general rules can be ignored. If two rules of thumb seem to be in conflict, one might first look to rules which might have been made detailing when the first rules might not apply. If this doesn't provide a solution, it makes sense to look beyond the rules and do a more complete calculation.

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.

Preference utilitarianism is favored by utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer.

Happiness, or well-being, of other species[]

Peter Singer, among other animal rights activists, has argued that the well-being of all animal species deserves equal consideration with that given to human beings. Utilitarians who argue otherwise do admit this issue deserves consideration in those situations where animals that are produced and/or harvested for human consumption are caused to suffer without just reason.

Singer believes that animal suffering in the food production industry is more severe than that in laboratories or nature. Focusing on this point, he argues that "in order to justify eating animals, we would have to show that the pleasure gained from consuming them minus the pleasure gained from eating a vegetarian meal is greater than the pain caused by eating animals." (Matheny, Gaverick. Utilitarianism and Animals.)

Combinations with other ethical schools[]

In order to overcome perceived shortcomings of both systems, several attempts have been made to combine utilitarianism with Kant's categorical imperative. For instance, James Cornman proposes that in any given situation we should treat as "means" as few people as possible, and treat as "ends" as many people as are thus then consistent with those "means". 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 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[]

Utilitarianism and "common sense" morality[]

Utilitarianism has 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 (an ethical position famously explored in Le Guin's modern fable "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas"). 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.

Comparing happiness[]

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.

That the pleasure of a sadist should have the same importance as the pleasure of an altruist has also been criticized. Supporters note that in practice almost no decisions will be made to cater to the sadist. While creating pleasure for an altruist simultaneously helps other people, creating pleasure for a sadist simultaneously hurts other people. Furthermore, many utilitarians feel that sadist pleasure is superficial and temporary, and thus it is detrimental to the sadist in the long run. In practice, therefore, the pleasure of a sadist almost never has a weight of any significance in a utilitarian calculation.

Karl Marx criticized the concept of utility offered by Bentham as too simplistic, "With the driest naiveté he takes the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man. Whatever is useful to this queer normal man, and to his world, is absolutely useful."[2] Marx argues that human nature is dynamic, so the concept of a single utility for all humans is simplistic and not useful.

Predicting consequences[]

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. A utilitarian is not required to have perfect knowledge; indeed, certain knowledge of consequences is impossible because consequences are in the unexperienced future. A utilitarian simply tries his best to maximize happiness (or another form of utility), and to do this, makes his best estimate of the consequences. If the consequences of a decision are particularly unclear, it might make sense to follow an ethical rule which has promoted the most utility in the past. Utilitarians will also note that someone trying to further his own interests runs into situations in which the consequences of his decisions are very unclear. This does not mean that he is unable to make a decision.

The importance of intentions[]

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.

Furthermore, many utilitarians view morality as a personal guide rather as a means to judge the actions of other people or actions which have already been performed. In other words, morality is something to be looked at when deciding what to do. In this sense, intentions are the only thing that matter, because the consequences cannot be known with certainty until the decision has already been made.

Human rights[]

Some critics reject utilitarianism, both rule and act, on the basis that it 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 unrealistically large benefits to outweigh the direct and extreme suffering to the victims. It also 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.

Act and rule utilitarianisms differ in how they treat human rights themselves. Under rule utilitarianism, a human right can easily be considered a moral rule. Act utilitarians, on the other hand, do not accept human rights as moral principles in and of themselves, but that does not mean they are rejected altogether. First, most act utilitarians, as explained above, would agree that acts such as enslavement and genocide always cause great unhappiness and little happiness. Second, human rights could be considered rules of thumb; although torture might be acceptable under some circumstances, as a rule it is immoral. Finally, act utilitarians often support human rights in a legal sense, because utilitarians support laws that cause more good than harm.

Right and wrong dichotomy[]

A further criticism is in regard 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 the money to charity that does the same thing, but is more efficient, 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.

Furthermore, the decision to donate to charity was still morally good, even if the decision to ignore efficiency was immoral.


Another criticism of utilitarianism is that it 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. Indeed, utilitarians are some of the first to recognise this problem. 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.

Why be moral?[]

Critics have also asked why one should follow utilitarianism instead of egoism. A legal system might punish behavior which hurts others, but this incentive is not active in a situation where one can personally gain by breaking it and others cannot punish this. However, one egoist may propose means to maximize self-interest that conflicts with the means proposed by another egoist. As a result, they are behooved to compromise with one another to avoid conflict, out of self-interest. The means proposed may incidentally coincide with those prescribed by utilitarianism, though the foundational ethical imperative would not, of course, be utilitarian.

Another reason for an egoist to become a utilitarian was proposed by Peter Singer in Practical Ethics. He presents the paradox of hedonism, which says that if your only goal in life is personal happiness, you will never be happy; you need something to be happy about. One goal which Singer feels is likely to bring personal happiness is the desire to improve the lives of others. This argument is similar to the one for virtue ethics.

Utilitarian criticism of other schools[]

One criticism is that many other schools 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.

A criticism of Kantianism is leveled by R. M. Hare in Could Kant Have Been a Utilitarian?. He argues that a number of different ethical positions could fit with Kant's description of his Categorical Imperative, and although Kant did not agree with this assessment, utilitarianism could be among them.

See also[]


  • 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
  • Shaw, William. Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. [ISBN 0631202935]
  • Singer, Peter. The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, New York : Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981. [ISBN 0374151121]
  • Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics, 2nd edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. [ISBN 052143971X]

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