From Academic Kids


Opposed as being contrary to common sense

Utilitarianism has been opposed for leading to a number of conclusions contrary to common sense morality. For example, if one was given the choice of saving one's child or two strangers, utilitarianism suggests saving the strangers instead of one's child, since two people will have more total future happiness than one. This seems contrary to common sense, especially to the feelings on duty towards those who they are close that humans have.

I find this a curious example (quite apart from the prose lapse in the last sentence). Yes, the result is counter to "common sense", but if common sense were sufficient, we wouldn't need ethics! I would be deeply suspicious of any system of ethics that came to the opposite conclusion. Can anyone name a philosopher who has made this particular argument against utilitarianism? -- Tim Goodwin

I would argue that the position that I should treat my child's life as equal in value to a stranger is plain silly, for several reasons:

1) Any philosophical position that tries to go counter to millions of years of evolution is simply a non-starter.

2) Valuing all humans equally, regardless of their relationship to me, would make it difficult, if not impossible to focus my efforts, and maintain any kind of normal human relationships.

3) I would rather my family did not become strict utilitarians.

Was it St. Thomas Aquinas who suggested that rather than being responsible for everyone, it makes more sense for us to be responsible for a small number of people, and being responsoble for one's family is as good as random selection? -- Michael Voytinsky

Are your proposing a change to the article, or do you just want to chat about philosophy? Markalexander100 22:40, 13 Apr 2004 (UTC)

So, suppose that some situation allows Jill to either lie, deceive, or be honest. Suppose further that lying would yield the most utility of the three possible acts. Suppose further still that Jill's adhering to the policy of honesty would yield more utility than her adhering to any other available policy. Then act utilitarianism would recommend lying and rule utilitarianism would recommend being honest.

Hmm... Not necessarily. Rules can be more complicated than just, "Thou shalt not lie"... A rule could specify circumstances in which it was all right to lie, and circumstances in which it wasn't. As one makes the rules more complex, they could take more of the possible consequences into account, and so (I think) rule utilitarianism would tend to act utilitarianism in the limit of complexity of rules... Does that make sense? But of course as the complexity of the rules increased, people's ability to understand and follow them would decrease, so a rule utilitarianist might argue that there has to be a trade-off, and that rule utilitarianism is better because (a) it approximates act utilitarianism (an unattainable ideal, because no-one can predict the consequences of every action) and (b) is actually humanly attainable (because people can forumlate rules). What? You mean Wikipedia is not a philosophy discussion forum? ;) -- Oliver P. 15:35 Mar 28, 2003 (UTC)
If is is assumed that "Jill's adhering to the policy of honesty would yield more utility than her adhering to any other available policy", then the article's statement is correct. Markalexander100 05:03, 22 Feb 2004 (UTC)

Relation to liberalism

Utilitarianism, as developed by philosophers like John Stuart Mill, is a source of inspiration for liberal thought. In that way it is related to liberalism. Gangulf 13:51, 24 Jul 2004 (UTC)

I see. Sorry about the revert from before - it just looked very random to me. Raistlinjones 16:18, Jul 24, 2004 (UTC)


Under See also it is claimed that Kantianism is the opposite of utilitarianism. I beg to differ. There are three "classic" theoretical frameworks utilitarianism, deontology (which kantianism is a part of) and virtue ethics. The two first mentioned both focus on actions while the last focus on how one should be as a person. So couldn't one claim that virtue ethics is the opposite of utilitarianism? I'm not making that claim just pointing out it seems fairly arbitrary to call kantianism the opposite of utilitarianism.

It is by the way also claimed on the bottom of the page that utilitarianism could be compatible with kantianism, it's alleged opposite... // Doldis of the swedish wikipedia ;-)

Yes, indeed, I have read the works of that guy also who claims kantian moral and utilitarianism are two sides of the same coin. --Lussmu 19:59, 8 Aug 2004 (UTC)
"Kantian Consequentialism"? I've heard of that, and it makes sense to me. Lucidish 05:43, 12 Aug 2004 (UTC)
It's the title of a book from the 1990s by David Cummiskey. Sorry I don't have time to write more. 19 Dec 2004

Satisficing and Optimific Utilitarianisms

I don't have the time or expertise at present to write up a little bit on satisficing and optimific utilitarianisms, but I just wanted to drop a note in case anyone wanted to do that. Lucidish 05:43, 12 Aug 2004 (UTC)


What about the criticism that utilitarianism doesn't protect the interests of minority groups? I'd add it, but I really wouldn't be able to say much about it. Would anyone be willing to add any counter arguments by utilitarians to the criticisms? sars 16:53, Jan 23, 2005 (UTC)

Rule utilitarianism might place a moral imperitive to protect minority groups if it recognised that in the majority of cases attacking a minority was bad. A strict rule-utilitarian would then still recognise the rule even when it involved a much-maligned minority where an attack may increase overall utility. Act-utilitarianism doesn't really provide any protection of that kind harsheh 31st Jan 2005

Someone needs to bring up the criticisms with respect to punishment and promising, as well as Richard G. Henson's arguments in his "Utilitarianism and the Wrongness of Killing"

Hedonic Calculus

I can see the Hedonic calculus in the text when I go to edit, under "History of Utilitarianism" but it's not appearing in the article?! - sars 17:38, Feb 1, 2005 (UTC)

There is a good which is greater then all other goods. Good is a state that exists outside of good action. The state of good is a state inwhich all that have the capibility of choice mantian that capibility and that is the greatest good. so i think it is choice which is the greatest good that right to choose good or the other not actual good

There is a good which is greater then all other goods. Good is a state that exists outside of good action. The state of good is a state inwhich all that have the capibility of choice mantian that capibility and that is the greatest good.

this good would be balanced with virtues as well, so you do your best to allow one to be comfortable to make choices and hope they do the same for others

this theory does not allow of anything that causes some one to force uncomfortablilty on another

such as fighting for freedom the goal of this could is world good or a connected feeling of good

its not done, it will be soon i will post the rest

any concerns or any plugs you want to make into the theory i would be more then happy to talk to you

Someone needs to bring up the criticisms with respect to punishment and promising, as well as Richard G. Henson's arguments in his "Utilitarianism and the Wrongness of Killing"

Negative Utilitarianism

"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 minimise pain."

Where does Mill say this? I would guess that it would be in Utilitarianism, but I have not read that. LavosBacons

Recent edits

Ultramarine, I really appreciate all the hard work you have put into this article, and the article on the Categorical Imperative. I made a slight edit, adding back three lines to this article, to guide interested readers to a fuller discussion of an interesting topic, but I made no changes to your work. RK 01:46, Apr 29, 2005 (UTC)

Mill the father of rule utilitarianism?

John Stuart Mill wrote a famous (and short) book called Utilitarianism. While Bentham can be considered the father of act utilitarianism, Mill is often considered the father of rule utilitarianism.

By whom is Mill so considered and on what grounds? My understanding is that the distinction between act and rule utilitarianism postdates both Bentham and Mill; this seems at best anachronistic without a further explanation of who made the claim and on what grounds.

Mill, for his part, defines what he believes in Utilitarianism ( in terms of the direct judgment of actions in light of the Greatest Happiness Principle:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. (Ch. 2 ¶2 (

The closest that he comes to advocating rule utilitarianism as opposed to act utilitarianism, as far as I can tell, is in Ch. 2 ¶¶23-24 ( For example, he suggests that it is almost always wrong to lie, even if momentary gains can be achieved, because sustaining the principle of honesty is more productive of happiness than whatever the benefits of any individual lie could be:

Thus, it would often be expedient, for the purpose of getting over some momentary embarrassment, or attaining some object immediately useful to ourselves or others, to tell a lie. But inasmuch as the cultivation in ourselves of a sensitive feeling on the subject of veracity, is one of the most useful, and the enfeeblement of that feeling one of the most hurtful, things to which our conduct can be instrumental; and inasmuch as any, even unintentional, deviation from truth, does that much towards weakening the trustworthiness of human assertion, which is not only the principal support of all present social well-being, but the insufficiency of which does more than any one thing that can be named to keep back civilisation, virtue, everything on which human happiness on the largest scale depends; we feel that the violation, for a present advantage, of a rule of such transcendent expediency, is not expedient, and that he who, for the sake of a convenience to himself or to some other individual, does what depends on him to deprive mankind of the good, and inflict upon them the evil, involved in the greater or less reliance which they can place in each other's word, acts the part of one of their worst enemies. (Ch. 2 ¶23 (

But this passage actually provides absolutely no evidence at all either for or against the claim that Mill is a rule utilitarian. He makes it clear that he thinks that principled honesty is better than opportunistic lying in almost every case, but you can believe that whether you are a rule or an act utilitarian. Mill actually compares the effects of a keeping or betraying a rule here with the direct effects of an act, which is something that you're really not supposed to do in rule utilitarianism at the first place (since it requires you to directly appeal to the Greatest Happiness Principle to judge the rewards of not just a rule, but also a particular act of lying in a particular instance, in order to make the comparison). He also immediately goes on to claim that there are undeniable exceptions to the rule, and to claim that the question of where the exceptions are to be made ought to be answered by direct appeal to the Greatest Happiness Principle:

Yet that even this rule, sacred as it is, admits of possible exceptions, is acknowledged by all moralists; the chief of which is when the withholding of some fact (as of information from a malefactor, or of bad news from a person dangerously ill) would save an individual (especially an individual other than oneself) from great and unmerited evil, and when the withholding can only be effected by denial. But in order that the exception may not extend itself beyond the need, and may have the least possible effect in weakening reliance on veracity, it ought to be recognised, and, if possible, its limits defined; and if the principle of utility is good for anything, it must be good for weighing these conflicting utilities against one another, and marking out the region within which one or the other preponderates. (Ch. 2 ¶23 (

Now, he could be claiming that the appeal to the Greatest Happiness Principle "for weighing these conflicting utilities against one another" is a matter of appealing to the Greatest Happiness Principle to judge further rules for when it is licit to make an exception to the virtue of honesty. The suggestion that "limits" should be "defined" and "the region within which one or the other preponderates" should be "mark[ed] out" suggests this reading. But given what has gone before, and what has gone after, and the fact that the distinction post-dates Mill's work anyway, the most likely reading is just that he isn't aware of, or isn't concerned with, the distinction at all.

He objects to those critics of utilitarianism who claim "that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness", by saying:

This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. ... People talk as if the commencement of this course of experience had hitherto been put off, and as if, at the moment when some man feels tempted to meddle with the property or life of another, he had to begin considering for the first time whether murder and theft are injurious to human happiness. Even then I do not think that he would find the question very puzzling; but, at all events, the matter is now done to his hand. It is truly a whimsical supposition that, if mankind were agreed in considering utility to be the test of morality, they would remain without any agreement as to what is useful, and would take no measures for having their notions on the subject taught to the young, and enforced by law and opinion. There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it; but on any hypothesis short of that, mankind must by this time have acquired positive beliefs as to the effects of some actions on their happiness; and the beliefs which have thus come down are the rules of morality for the multitude, and for the philosopher until he has succeeded in finding better.

But again, this does not commit him to rule utilitarianism as against act utilitarianism; in (¶24 ( he makes it clear that his concern is epistemological rather than ethical:

But to consider the rules of morality as improvable, is one thing; to pass over the intermediate generalisations entirely, and endeavour to test each individual action directly by the first principle, is another. It is a strange notion that the acknowledgment of a first principle is inconsistent with the admission of secondary ones. To inform a traveller respecting the place of his ultimate destination, is not to forbid the use of landmarks and direction-posts on the way. The proposition that happiness is the end and aim of morality, does not mean that no road ought to be laid down to that goal, or that persons going thither should not be advised to take one direction rather than another. Men really ought to leave off talking a kind of nonsense on this subject, which they would neither talk nor listen to on other matters of practical concernment. ... Whatever we adopt as the fundamental principle of morality, we require subordinate principles to apply it by; the impossibility of doing without them, being common to all systems, can afford no argument against any one in particular; but gravely to argue as if no such secondary principles could be had, and as if mankind had remained till now, and always must remain, without drawing any general conclusions from the experience of human life, is as high a pitch, I think, as absurdity has ever reached in philosophical controversy. (Ch. 2 ¶24 (

The issue at hand here doesn't have anything directly to do with the controversy between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism; the issue at hand is the usefulness of general rules in discovering what's good and applying the Greatest Happiness Principle. Mill nowhere states whether he means that what you in fact discover by means of these general rules, and what you apply the Greatest Happiness Principle to with their help, are (a) general principles of conduct, or (b) individual acts.

The point of all this is not to claim that Mill is an act utilitarian rather than a rule utilitarian. Rather, what I want to know is what grounds there are for saying that he's a rule utilitarian rather than an act utilitarian. If rule utilitarians have claimed his arguments as influential, then we ought to mention them by name, since they are at the most imposing a distinction made after Mill was dead and claiming that if you make his position more precise than he in fact made it, you might have some good arguments for their preferred side of the distinction. If we're going to indulge in anachronism it should be acknowledged anachronism. If, on the other hand, there aren't later writers to mention by name, then I can't see any grounds for making the claim at all, and the sentence just ought to be struck from the article.

Radgeek 06:10, 20 Jun 2005 (UTC)

We can certainly change the statement. I just vaguely remember seeing in one philosophical encyclopedias that some consider him the be the father and other do not. But that is not very strong evidence. :) Ultramarine 18:14, 21 Jun 2005 (UTC)

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