There is a strain of thought that is common to many: the right thing to do in any circumstance is to maximize utility for the greatest number of people. Of course, not many people use the umbrella term utility, but rather they tend to say “happiness” or “pleasures.” Utility is a placeholder for some good that one wants to maximize. The theory that the moral, or right, thing to do in any situation is to maximize utility for the greatest number of people is known as utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism was first developed and taken to its logical and political extremes by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who thought that the only thing of value in life was pleasure, and the only thing of disvalue was pain. In this way, Bentham identified “utility” with pleasure, and “negative utility” with pain. For Bentham, we should always seek to maximize utility for the greatest number of people. Of course, for him, we should also minimize pain.

The way this looks is something like this. Suppose that you have only $5 to spare and are deciding who to give it to. You have two options: the first is Jeff Bezos, and the second is the homeless man whom you pass by each day on your street corner. Who should you give it to? On Bentham’s view, you should give it to the homeless man, because it will bring him more utility (pleasure), than it would Jeff Bezos. When you have millions of dollars, $5 just doesn’t make much of a difference. When you have nothing, it means the world to you.


Bentham’s view has three features. It is consequentialist, hedonistic, and impartial. A consequentialist theory of what one ought to do holds that the right thing to do is determined by the consequences of one’s actions and only that. So if you are trying to decide what to do, morally speaking, the consequentialist says that you should try and figure out what the consequences of your actions will be. What state of affairs will your action bring about? In the homeless case, your action would bring about a state of affairs where the most pleasure arises in the world, and so on Bentham’s view, it is the right thing to do. Can you think of what a non-consequentialist theory might say? In other words, what else matters morally speaking, do you think, other than consequences?

The theory is hedonistic because it says that the only things that matter when it comes to what we value as human beings is pleasure and avoidance of pain. A good question to begin asking yourself is, is that true? Can you think of anything that is of value which isn’t pleasure and pain avoidance?

The theory is impartial because it says that everyone’s interests count the same. Often held to be a virtue of utilitarianism, the claim is that your pleasure, my pleasure, and your friend’s pleasure all count equally. Suppose that you have to decide whether to give $5 to a stranger or your friend, and the stranger has $4 in his bank account and your friend $5. On the utilitarian view, you should give the money to the stranger, not your friend, since it maximizes utility. You might have thought that the fact that your friend is your friend would make it permissible for you to give the money to him (imagine we switch the case and its your mother or brother, if you don’t find the case compelling), but the utilitarian says that everyone’s interest in pleasure counts equally, and so you can’t give in a partial manner. You can’t prefer one person’s pleasure over another’s because of your relationships with them. Everyone’s interests count the same. Do you think that impartiality is a the best way to think about moral decision-making?


As mentioned at the beginning, there are many ways of hashing out what counts as utility, and these reflect different utilitarian views. For example, Bentham’s pupil John Stuart Mill was another famous utilitarian, and he drew a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. For Mill, there is a difference between quantity of pleasure, and quality of pleasure. He thought you should maximize the latter.

Mill thought that some kinds of pleasures were just better than others, in a distinctive way. Take for example how a McDonalds cheeseburger will bring you some pleasure (I assume).For him, no amount of Mickey D’s burgers will ever bring you the pleasure you can get from creating art, reacting to art, or perhaps winning an olympic championship. The cheeseburgers are a lower kind of pleasure, and creating art a higher kind. Mill thought we should maximize higher level pleasures. So, while Mill was also a hedonist in the sense outlined above, he differed from Bentham is what he took utility to mean. If you were a utilitarian, what would you want to maximize? What would you take “utility” to be?

The last thing to remember about utilitarian is that there are generally two kinds, known as act and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism says that what would maximize utility is if everyone considered the consequences of their particular actions, while the rule utilitarian thinks that what would maximize utility would be to follow a certain rule all the time. 

For example, suppose that it were just true that if everyone followed the golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — it would maximize overall utility in the long run. In this way, even though some particular actions might not maximize utility — you might follow the golden rule when someone doesn’t want you to (e.g you like cheeseburgers and want one as a gift, but your friend doesn’t, and you buy one for him anyway) — the overall utility that would be aggregated from following the rule would be best. 

The act utilitarian says, “no, that isn’t right! What would maximize overall utility would be to always consider what would maximize happiness for each particular action you take.” Act utilitarnism is a bit more difficult, then, because it requires more effort in your moral decision-making process. Following a rule is easier than deciding what to do on every occasion to act.


The most common objection to utilitarianism is that it permits that some few people be treated horribly in order to maximize the happiness of others. For example, suppose utility would be maximized if a third of the population were enslaved? Or suppose that if you tortured someone for their entire life, it would cure cancer. On the utilitarian view, these actions wouldn’t just be permissible, they would be obligatory. The core of these objections, then, is this: Utilitarianism allows for someone to do anything to you so long as it maximizes the utility of the greatest number of people. Does this implication sit well with you? If you were a utilitarian, how would you reply to these objections?

As we go through the different moral theories, you’ll notice that there are three questions that every theory purports to answer:

(1) what is the important good that we human beings seek (or should seek) to obtain.

(2) What makes an action right or wrong?

(3) What is the moral target of concern?

For the utilitarian, what are the answer to these questions? (See below for answers)

Further readings:

On the History of Utilitarianism:

Jeremy Bentham’s work:

John Stuart Mill’s work:


(1) Pleasure

(2) When the action maximizes pleasure for the greatest number of people

(3) The consequences of an action

One thought on “Utilitarianism

  1. This is a nice essay that succintly outlines the main strands of thought in utilitarianism.

    The first thing an infant learns is that it lives in a world of cause and effect. Shake the rattle and a satisfying sound is produced. As it gets older it discovers an increasingly complex world of cause and effect. It learns that every action has consequences. Wet my bed and I will be punished, tell a lie and I might be slapped, if I am sly enough to steal my playmate’s chocolate and get away with it I will have some serious enjoyment, etc.

    Thus from earliest childhood we are natural consequentialists. This is the moral prism through which we start to view the world. For many, and perhaps even most, this remains their dominant moral prism.

    Then rules are introduced to restrain my natural self-interested consequentialism and thus deontology is born. My infant world becomes regulated by rules that are given the force of right and wrong, but I am crafty and look for the gaps between the rules and exploit them.

    As this infant grows through the stages of childhood into young adulthood it becomes deeply socialized. The process of socialization is enabled by embedding in the mind an implicit set of dispositions that we call the virtues. These regulate the young person’s response to the complex demands of a socialized world. And thus virtue ethics is the natural outcome of socialization.

    The young adult now has three toolsets which he acquired during his growth and he uses them to address the moral demands imposed by choice and society.

    He is a natural consequentialist so he automatically appeals to consequentialism in the first place but he does so in a world infused with deontology. There are rules that have consequences. Should he do the right thing and obey the rules or should he exploit any leeway they provide if the consequences are to his advantage? Then we have the large class of choices not dictated by deontology but might have favourable consuences for ourselves and perhaps unfavourable consequences for others.

    The mature person that has developed the right character dispositions will mediate these processes by appealing to an inner sense that we call the virtues, and that he acquired during socialization. The virtues become the directive and mediating force for choice in a cause and effect world of consequentialism and the regulatory world of deontology.

    Our moral world can be seen as a three layered pyramid. At its base is consequentialism, deriving its force from our immersion in a world of cause and effect and motivated by self interest. It is the most durable layer that we appeal to first. Above it is the regulatory world of deontology that derives its force from social needs and motivated by the consequentialism layer below. The top layer of the pyramid is virtue ethics and this is the highest level of ethical choice that should have the final say, mediating the choices that filter up to it from the layers below. It derives its force from a sensitivity to the needs of others. It is motivated by an instinctive drive for excellence in personal development.


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