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Utilitarianism is a suggested theoretical framework for morality, law and politics, based on quantitative maximisation of some definition of "utility" for society or humanity.

Utilitarianism: "The greatest good for the greatest number." or: "The greatest good over the least pain." A theory that the morality of any action or law is defined by its utility.


A Theory of 'Good' and 'Right'

Utilitarianism is both a theory of the good and a theory of the right.

  • As a theory of the good, utilitarianism is welfarist, holding that the good is whatever yields the greatest utility --'utility' being defined as pleasure, preference-satisfaction, or in reference to an objective list of values.
  • As a theory of the right, utilitarianism is consequentialist, holding that the right act is that which yields the greatest net utility. People have an innate moral sensitivity to others.

Francis Hutcheson said it is "based on the principle of utility which proposes that if in a situation where one is faced with a moral choice one should do that which results in the greatest number's happiness". The principle of utility he speaks of morally determines every action depending on how much it has increased or decreased the amount of pleasure or happiness to the party being affected.

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 minimise pain.

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, especially since there had been Revolutions in France and America. 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 maximanda, he dropped the second part and talked simply about "the greatest happiness principle".

Both Bentham's formulation and the philosophy of Epicurus can be considered different types of hedonistic consequentialism, since they judge the rightness of actions from the happiness that they lead to, and they identify happiness with pleasure. Note, however, that Bentham's formulation is a selfless hedonism. Where Epicurus recommended doing whatever made you happiest, Bentham would have you do what makes everyone happiest.

John Stuart Mill wrote a famous (and short) book called Utilitarianism. Although Mill was a utilitarian, he argued that not all forms of pleasure are of equal value, using his famous saying "It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied, than a fool satisfied." He disagreed with Bentham's felicific calculus, holding that quality is better than quantity.

Utilitarianism influenced economics, in particular utility theory, where the concept of utility is also used, although with quite different effect. See also Utilitarian ethics and Utilitarian Bioethics for further consequences of its influence.

Act Utilitarianism vs. Rule Utilitarianism

Other varieties of utilitarianism have also been proposed.

The traditional form of utilitarianism states that the best act is whichever act would yield the most utility. A common alternative form is rule utilitarianism, which states that the best act is the one that would be enjoined by whichever rule would yield the most utility.

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 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.

Many utilitarians would argue that utilitarianism applies not only to acts, but also to desires and dispositions, praise and blame, rules, institutions and punishment. Once this is recognized, utilitarianism becomes a much more complex, and rich, moral theory, and may align much more closely with our moral intuitions.

It was Bentham who originally proposed Utilitarianism, and his was what we would now call Act Utilitarianism. Mill expanded and proposed what we now call Rule Utilitarianism.

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.

Criticism of Utilitarianism

Critics of utilitarianism claim that this view suffers from a number of problems, one of which is the difficulty of comparing utility among different people. Many of the early utilitarians hoped that happiness could somehow be measured quantitively and compared between people through felicific calculus, although no one has ever managed to construct 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.

Utilitarianism has also been criticized for leading to a number of conclusions contrary to 'common sense' morality. For example, if forced to choose between saving one's child or saving two children of strangers, most people will choose to save their own child. However, utilitarianism would support saving the other two instead, since two people have more total potential for future happiness than one. Utilitarian anarchist William Godwin famously observed that if the life of the Archbishop of Cambray is preferable to the life of his chambermaid, the fact that the latter is my mother "would not alter the truth of the proposition". 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.

Daniel Dennett uses the example of Three Mile Island to explore the limits of utilitarianism for guiding decisions. 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 believe this is actually a criticism of consequentialism as the 'goodness' or 'badness' of the meltdown depends on the alternative scenario envisaged.

John Rawls rejects utilitarianism, both rule and act, on the basis that it makes rights depend on the good consequences of their recognition, and thus he argues that it is incompatible with liberalism. For example, if slavery or torture is beneficial for the population as a whole, it could theoretically be justified by utilitarianism. He instead argues that political ethics must be drawn from the original position. Utilitarians argue that justification of either slavery or torture would require improbably large benefits to outweigh the direct suffering to the victims and that Rawl's analysis excludes the indirect impact of social acceptance of inhumane policies. (The issue in particular rests on who is included in the evaluation: animal welfare activists may argue that the suffering of farm animals is immoral on utilitarian grounds if including other species in the overall assessment.)

It is noteworthy that most of the criticism espoused are specifically critical of act utilitarianism and that it is possible for a rule utilitarian philosophy to render conclusions that are compatible with the criticism. In fact, John Stuart Mill considered Immanuel Kant a rule utilitarian disguised as a deontological moralist. The reason for his view is that according to Mill, Kant's categorical imperative only makes sense for cases of, say, violence, if we consider the consequences of the action. Thus, Kant states that living selfishly cannot be universalised because we all need someone's help/affection at one time or another. According to Mill, this argument is based on consequences. It can be seen that some forms of rule utilitarianism are therefore potentially compatible with Kantianism and other moral philosophies.

R. M. Hare is another example of a utilitarian who has adapted his philosophy to Kantianism. While he does not base his theory on a principle of utility, he believes we can take utilitarian considerations, consequences, into account in formulating universal judgments. He calls his philosophy universal prescriptivism.

There are also some specific criticisms of rule utilitarianism:

  • Why should one follow the rule? If a certain concrete action causes more utility than the compliance with the rule, why should one follow the rule? It is argued that this cannot be answered inside Utilitarianism.
  • Which rule? Taking the above example about the medical patients, we could think of instituting the rule to kill persons in order to transplant their organs only when those persons were already injured, they could not choose to go to the hospital, the transplant operations are not too risky, etc. It is always possible to formulate the rule as an exception so it will only apply to the case we are considering and to identical cases, where it is useful to act against the general rule.
  • What are the consequences of the rule? One of the most difficult jobs in political decision is the assessment of the consequences of a rule. Should we base our moral judgments in such difficult assessments?
  • Rule Utilitarianism seems to mix up morality and law. Legal rules are or can be instituted in societies (by legislators), moral rules cannot. What is the moral point of following a rule that will not be instituted as if it would, i.e., pretending that it would? Or does Rule Utilitarianism claim that we should only follow the already instituted rules, i.e. do as the others do?

Some would argue that the principle of rule utilitarianism is commonly used in society and not for ethical reasons. They would argue that individuals are mostly egoistic using arguments from sociobiology. But that 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.

Attempts to combine with Kantian ethics

James Cornman holds that one may overcome the shortcomings of Utilitarianism by combining it with Kantian ethics. The basic rule is that in any situation we must (a) treat as mere means as few people as possible, and (b) treat as ends as many people as is consistent with (a).

"He suggests that a Kantian ethic does not have to be nonconsequentialist, and that a utilitarian ethic does not have to reject the notion of a categorical imperative - in other words, that it makes sense to propose Ďa utilitarian Kantian principleí. This will involve grafting the utilitarian principle onto Kantís second formulation." (The Quest for an Ultimate Standard 2: Kantian Ethics)

Cornman describes the Utilitarian Kantian Principle in this way:

An action ought to be done in a situation if and only if:
1. Doing the action:
(a) treats as mere means as few people as possible in the situation, and
(b) treats as ends as many people as is consistent with (a).
2. Doing the action in the situation brings about as much overall happiness as is consistent with (1).
(Cornman, p. 346-347, 1992)

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 Cornmanís Utilitarian Kantian Principle, Philosophical Studies (Dordrecht u.a.) 23, 212-215. 1972


Last updated: 10-09-2005 21:47:27
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