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 maximisation of happiness for society or humanity. It is a form of consequentialism. 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, although it 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. While Bentham can be considered the father of act utilitarianism, Mill is often considered the father of rule utilitarianism. Mill differs from many current rule utilitarians in that he considered cultural and spiritual happiness to be of greater value than mere physical pleasure.

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 efficacious 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-defence. Critics would then argue that this reduces rule utilitarianism to act utilitarianism, the rules become meaningless. Rule utilitarians respond that the rules (=laws) in the legal system which regulate such situations are not meaningless. For instance, claimed self-defence 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 utility in terms of preference satisfaction. So, like any utilitarian theory, preference utilitarians claim that the right thing to do is that which produces the best consequences, but defining the best consequences in terms of "preference satisfaction", which may include concepts such as "reputation" rather than pure hedonism.

Happiness of other species

Some animal rights activists 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". See the Categorical Imperative article.

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

Using arguments from sociobiology, it has been argued that the principle of rule utilitarianism is commonly used in society and not for theoretical ethical reasons. Individuals are mostly seen as egoistic. However, the egoistic individuals have to compromise with each other. The result of that compromise is a social contract with rule utilitarianism as the guiding principle. Since utilitarianism increase the average happiness, there is a good chance that the happiness of the egoistic individual will also increase if society implement this contract. Thus the individual will publicly argue that society and other individuals should follow this contract, but may himself break the contract if this increases his own happiness and other individuals do not know of or cannot punish this.

Criticism of utilitarianism

Critics of utilitarianism claim that this view 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 may continue to be so until the regress argument 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.

One other 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 schools.

Utilitarianism has been criticized for only looking at the results, not at the desires or intentions. An action intended to cause harm but that inadvertently cause 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. 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 these pleasures do not have the same importance if also considering the happiness of the victims and beneficiaries.

Some critics rejects 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 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.

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


fr:Utilitarisme he:תועלתנות ja:功利主義 pl:Utylitaryzm simple:Utilitarianism fi:Klassinen utilitarismi nl:Utilisme sv:Utilitarism tr:Faydacılık zh:功利主义


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