What Is Utilitarianism?

William Bryant, Christopher Muscato, Marc Mancinelli
  • Author
    William Bryant

    William earned a PhD in American Studies from the University of Iowa. He has taught Rhetoric, American Studies, and US History and has worked for many years as a writer, editor, and educator. For nearly 10 years he developed tests for ACT, Inc., where he was Director of Writing Assessments.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

    Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

  • Expert Contributor
    Marc Mancinelli

    Marc is a long-time HS English teacher and has taught at the college level. He has a master's degree in literature and a doctorate in education.

What is utilitarianism in ethics? Learn about this philosophical theory and how it has been used over time to foster government reform. Updated: 07/22/2021

What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a system of thought that holds that the best actions are those that create the most happiness for the greatest number of people. As societies, organizations and individuals consider which laws to enact, which regulations to adopt, and which actions to take. Utilitarianism offers a standard for making choices that are ethically right and that promote the common good. The utilitarian point of view is justified in the following way:

  • An action is ethically good when it makes people happy;
  • People are happier when they have more pleasure and less pain;
  • Therefore, if an action increases pleasure and/or reduces pain, it is good;
  • More happiness is better than less happiness, and it is better to have more happy people than fewer;
  • Thus, societies, organizations, and individuals should strive to take actions that will result in the most happiness for the most people, because that's the ethically right way to do things.

Example: In deciding whether to go to war, a society, from a utilitarian perspective, should first consider the likely outcomes. A war will undoubtedly result in a loss of life for some people, but will the choice to avoid war result in even greater losses? If so, then the choice to go to war is ethically justified.

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The Concept of Utility in Ethics

Ethics is the area of philosophy concerned with determining good from bad, and right from wrong. Utility, in discussions of ethics, refers to the capacity of decisions and actions to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. In utilitarian theory, this is known as "the greatest happiness principle." An action is understood to be good when it promotes happiness rather than unhappiness.

Example: A society might provide free healthcare for its citizens, it might provide no publicly supported health care at all, or it might choose from any number of options in-between these two extremes. Utilitarianism offers a way to begin evaluating the options on ethical grounds by asking, which has the most utility? That is, which will lead to the greatest happiness for the most people?

The Pleasures

In utilitarian theory, happiness results when people experience pleasure. However, not all pleasures are the same. There are "lower" pleasures that people and other creatures derive by virtue of being embodied. Sleeping and eating, for example, are pleasures, since embodied creatures need rest and nourishment in order to be happy.

Human beings are exceptional among creatures in that they also experience "higher" pleasures. These might include art and culture, an appreciation for the beauty of nature, rewarding work -- pleasures that (presumably) only humans experience, above and beyond their animalistic needs. Higher pleasures in utilitarian thought are broadly conceived: they include feelings such as contentment, delight, gratitude, and love.

In utilitarian theory, higher pleasures are preferable to lower pleasures; they have more "utility." Therefore, policies, actions, decisions that promote higher pleasures are preferable to those that generate only lower pleasures.

Example: A policy that protects a spectacularly beautiful natural area, such as the Grand Canyon, for the aesthetic benefit of the whole population is superior to a policy that would allow that area to be mined for the economic benefit of a few private interests.

The Origin and History of Utilitarianism

Utilitarian ideas trace back at least to the ancient Greeks. The "hedonist" philosophy of Epicurus, for example, held that pleasure is the source of happiness and pain the source of unhappiness. A number of British thinkers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries likewise recognized the value of happiness. Richard Cumberland (1631-1718), John Gay (1699-1745), Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), and others argued on religious grounds for the moral rightness of policies and actions that relieve suffering and contribute to well-being.

Building on the work of these earlier writers, the eminent Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76) developed the idea that human happiness depends not only on the satisfaction of our individual self-interests but also on the happiness of others. Thus, we value the application of justice, generosity, kindness, and other virtues across the whole of society. Hume's understanding formed the seeds of arguments for social reform developed in the work of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the founders of Classical Utilitarianism.

Jeremy Bentham, the first philosopher to formalize utilitarian ideas.

Portrait of Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill

Jeremy Bentham

The British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) formalized utilitarian ideas into a system of thought aimed at reforming society through legal, political, and social improvement. He developed utilitarianism into a rational, systematic process for determining what is right and good in social policy and law.

Bentham first articulated the greatest happiness principle in Fragment on Government, published in 1776. He defined "utility" as a property that produces happiness a few years later in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. These two concepts together formed the core of what has come to be known as Classical Utilitarianism.

In his many subsequent works, Bentham extended utilitarian theory into areas of prison reform, economics, government, and elsewhere, always with the intention of demonstrating how society might be organized on a more rational and ethical basis.

John Stuart Mill

Bentham's protege, John Stuart Mill (1806-73), became one of the most influential thinkers of the nineteenth century. He expanded Bentham's ideas into a philosophy of practical reason, with "utility" serving as the sole standard by which the outcomes of human actions might be judged good or bad. People, by nature, desire happiness, according to Mill, and no one's happiness is more or less valuable than anyone else's. The logical implication, then, is that human conduct is moral when it promotes greater happiness for more people.

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Utilitarianism and Idealism: Philosophical Exercises

There is often tension between the idealist view of a situation and the utilitarian view. Look at these definitions:

Idealist (eye-deal-ist): a person who acts according to a certain belief, such as "Lying is always wrong," or "stealing is always wrong." The ideal, or value, is what determines their behavior.

Utilitarian (you-till-it-arian): a person who acts so that the most people (including themselves) benefit from their actions, even if it means doing something considered "wrong."

For the following situations, state which action you'd choose, then whether your choice is the utilitarian choice or the idealist choice, and why. Note that these are hypothetical situations for exercising philosophies—don't worry about how the situation might play out or be unlikely in the real world.

Scenario 1

You are the neighbor of an infant who is dying of a treatable disease. The parents of the infant have no money, and so cannot afford the available medicine. They have no insurance, and only they can buy the medicine—no one is allowed to buy it for them, according to law. The father asks you to break into the drug store and steal the prescription for his infant. He can't do it, because if he is caught, his infant will die and his wife will be evicted, since he is their sole provider. If the baby gets the medicine, he will live and grow up healthy. Will you do it? Which are you acting as? How?

Scenario 2

You're on a ship with only two other things. The first thing is a huge supercomputer that controls the lives of 100,000 people. The machine has school records, banking records, medical and prescription info, etc. that is not backed up anywhere else. To lose this machine would be a huge inconvenience, and a lot of people would have their lives disrupted. It's not a guarantee that anyone would die, though. The second thing onboard is a monk who lives in a mountain somewhere in Tibet, and does nothing but pray and meditate all day. He does not talk to anyone or do anything outside the monastery, and the only reason he is on the ship is to go to another monastery. The ship sinks. There is no way to save both; you can only save one. Which do you save? Why? Which are you in this case?

Scenario 3

You are standing on a subway platform. You know that there are five (5) people tied to the tracks down the road. If the subway continues, they will certainly be killed. There is one other person standing near the tracks. The train is coming. You know that if you push the person into the oncoming train, the train will stop and not hit the five people tied to the tracks. However, the person you push will certainly die. There is no way that you would be caught or be arrested for your connection to any actions. What do you do?

What are key features of utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism holds that people naturally desire happiness; that happiness derives from pleasure; that actions that generate pleasure and reduce pain are ethically good and right; that the ethical aim of human conduct therefore should be to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

What is utilitarianism in simple terms?

Utilitarianism is a philosophy that states that the ethical aim of human conduct should be to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

What are some examples of utilitarianism today?

Governmental bodies in a representative democracy apply principles of utilitarianism as they draft laws and consider policies. Their standard for doing what's best is derived from the "greatest happiness principle," that is, whether or not their actions will promote the common good.

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