The core idea of utilitarianism is that we ought to act in a way that maximizes happiness for the greatest number. So, the morally right action is, according to utilitarians, the action that produces the most good.
Examples of utilitarianism include effective altruism, bulldozing someone’s home for a highway, and redistribution of excess money from the rich to the poor.
It is an ethical theory developed to determine what we morally ought to do. It is a variety of consequentialism. That is, utilitarianism takes the consequences that action produces as the only relevant factor to determining whether that action is or isn’t morally permissible.
Utilitarianism is the view that one ought to promote maximal well-being, welfare, or utility. The theory evaluates the moral rightness of actions, rules, policies, motives, virtues, social institutions, etc. in terms of what delivers the most good to the most people.
According to MacAskill, Meissner, and Chappell (2022), all utilitarian theories share four defining characteristics:
- Consequentialism: The view that one ought to act in a way that promotes good outcomes.
- Welfarism: The view that only the welfare or well-being of individuals determines the value of an outcome.
- Impartiality: The view that the identity of individuals is irrelevant to the moral value of an outcome. The interests of all individuals hold equal moral weight.
- Aggregationism: The view that the value of the world is the sum of the values of its parts. The parts are experiences, lives, societies, and so on.
Any theory that denies any of the elements above is not utilitarian. For example, a non-consequentialist might hold that actions can be inherently right or wrong regardless of the outcomes they produce.
Utilitarian Case study: Jeremy Bentham
A key feature of utilitarianism has always been its focus on practical action. Jeremy Bentham was one person who highlighted this in his writing.
He advocated for the rights of animals when there were no laws protecting animals from cruelty. He advocated for improving the conditions of prisoners and the poor.
Utilitarians advocated for broadening suffrage to extend it to women. They advocated for women’s rights more generally. Bentham advocated for homosexual rights. In these and many other areas, utilitarians supported policies that are today part of common sense (Lazari-Radek & Singer, 2017).
Other important contributors to utilitarianism include John Stuart Mill (1871), Henry Sidgwick (1874), Richard M. Hare (1993), and Peter Singer (Lazari-Radek & Singer, 2017).
- Redistributing money to the poor: Wealth and income have a diminishing marginal utility. The more wealth you have, the less well-being you get from additional money. It is, therefore, a utilitarian choice of a government to redistribute money to the poor who need it more than the rich do (MacAskill & Meissner, 2022).
- Effective altruism: Effective altruism is a research field that aims to identify the world’s most vital problems and tries to find the most effective solutions to them. This is a philosophy and social movement endorsed by many utilitarians, most notably Peter Singer and William MacAskill. Not all effective altruists are utilitarians, but many utilitarians find this movement especially appealing.
- Global health and development: This is a particularly important area for utilitarians because it has a great track record of improving overall well-being. Donating to organizations that give people access to better healthcare is one of the most important causes for utilitarians.
- Farm animal welfare: For utilitarians, animals matter and humans are the cause of a large amount of their unnecessary suffering. There are ways to reduce the suffering of farmed animals. These include campaigns to make large retailers cut caged eggs out of their supply chains, donating money to animal charities, reducing meat consumption, improving the quality of animal shelters or farms, and so on.
- Reducing existential risks: The value of our actions, according to utilitarians, depends largely on how those actions will affect the future in the long run. Existential threats such as a nuclear war, a global pandemic, extreme climate change, and so on are, therefore, of pressing concern for utilitarians.
- Career choices: Many utilitarians emphasize the importance of choosing a career path that allows you to do the most overall good in the long run. This doesn’t involve much of a personal sacrifice, since the job you find satisfying is very often the one that allows you to help the largest number of people.
- Outreach: Promoting utilitarian ideas is itself considered by many utilitarians to be a morally good action. This is because promoting utilitarian ideas is likely to increase the overall well-being of individuals. The people you inspire will do several times as much good as you could have done alone.
- Women’s suffrage: Philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued for women’s suffrage from a universalist perspective. By increasing women’s rights, benefits are distributed to a greater number of people and therefore it suits a utilitarian ethic.
- Bulldoze a house to build a highway: If a house stands in the way of a highway being built, a utilitarian perspective may argue that the house should be bulldozed. More benefit to more people will come from one person losing their house in return for millions of people getting faster access to work every day. This is called the ‘rights objection’ to utilitarianism.
- Organ transplant hypothesis: There is a hospital with five people requiring transplants – a heart, a kidney, a foot, a liver, and bone marrow. The greatest good for the most people could theoretically justify killing one person so their organs can be donated to save five people.
- Simplicity: The core of utilitarianism is easy to understand and apply. The fundamental question of ethics is: “What should I do?” Utilitarianism gives a very straightforward answer: The right thing to do is to bring about the greatest possible net increase in the surplus of happiness over suffering. This short answer gives everything one might need, at least in principle, to analyze what one ought to do in any possible situation (Lazari-Radek & Singer, 2017, p. xix).
- Intuitiveness: It is impossible to prove all claims within a given theory. As Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, “at the foundation of well-founded belief lies belief that is not founded” (Wittgenstein, 1969, p. 33). Intuitiveness is, therefore, a vital aspect of any moral theory. The axiomatic parts of any ethical theory must be intuitive for the theory to be successful or convincing. Acting to promote the greatest good for the greatest number intuitively seems like an aim worth pursuing. This is because almost everyone agrees that happiness is good and suffering is bad.
- Practicality: Utilitarian theory is immediately practical. The historical record shows that the causes utilitarians advocated for, such as universal suffrage, animal rights, gay rights, global health, and so on have become more and more important for the world. Utilitarianism seems to be effective because it can be easily applied.
- Impartiality: The moral atrocities of the past were often sanctioned by the dominant societal norms of the time. A theory that is impartial and expands the moral circle as much as possible is, therefore, more appealing to us today. Utilitarianism, because of its commitment to giving equal weight to the interests of every individual, is impartial (Chappell & Meissner, 2022).
There are many objections to utilitarianism. Most of these are based on the idea that utilitarianism often leads to counterintuitive claims and conclusions about action (MacAskill et al., 2022).
The following list is incomplete, but it covers the most common objections raised against utilitarianism:
- The alienation objection claims that utilitarianism is cold and impersonal, thereby alienating us from the particular people and projects that truly matter to us.
- The demandingness objection claims that utilitarianism is too demanding because it requires excessive self-sacrifice.
- The equality objection claims that utilitarianism ignores, or doesn’t give enough value to equality and distributive justice.
- The mere means objection claims that utilitarianism treats people merely as means to the greater good. This objection is particularly popular with the followers of Kant (Kant, 1785/1993, p. 36).
- The rights objection charges utilitarianism with being overly permissive, claiming that utilitarianism might allow infringing upon the rights of others to maximize overall well-being.
- The separateness of persons objection claims that utilitarianism neglects the boundaries between individuals to maximize overall well-being.
- The special obligations objection holds that utilitarianism is too impartial and does not account for the special obligations we have to our friends or family members.
Utilitarianism is one of the most widespread and intuitive approaches to ethics. It gives straightforward answers and actionable advice to those who subscribe to it.
Like any moral theory, it has many arguments for and against it. It was first fully articulated in the nineteenth century and is still an important and controversial ethical theory.
Bentham, J. (1879). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Clarendon Press.
Brink, D. (2022). Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy. In E. N. Zalta & U. Nodelman (Eds.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2022/entries/mill-moral-political/
Chappell, R.Y. and Meissner, D. (2022). Arguments for Utilitarianism. In R.Y. Chappell, D. Meissner, and W. MacAskill (eds.), An Introduction to Utilitarianism. https://www.utilitarianism.net/arguments-for-utilitarianism, accessed 11/18/2022.
Driver, J. (2022). The History of Utilitarianism. In E. N. Zalta & U. Nodelman (Eds.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2022/entries/utilitarianism-history/
Hare, R. M. (1993). Essays in Ethical Theory. Clarendon Press.
Kant, I. (1993). Grounding for the metaphysics of morals ; with, On a supposed right to lie because of philanthropic concerns. Indianapolis : Hackett Pub. Co. (Original work published 1785) http://archive.org/details/groundingformet000kant
Lazari-Radek, K. de, & Singer, P. (2017). Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
MacAskill, W. and Meissner, D. (2022). Acting on Utilitarianism. In R.Y. Chappell, D. Meissner, and W. MacAskill (eds.), An Introduction to Utilitarianism. https://www.utilitarianism.net/acting-on-utilitarianism, accessed 11/18/2022.
MacAskill, W., Meissner, D., and Chappell, R.Y. (2022). Introduction to Utilitarianism. In R.Y. Chappell, D. Meissner, and W. MacAskill (eds.), An Introduction to Utilitarianism. https://www.utilitarianism.net/introduction-to-utilitarianism, accessed 11/18/2022.
MacAskill, W., Meissner, D., and Chappell, R.Y. (2022). Objections to Utilitarianism and Responses. In R.Y. Chappell, D. Meissner, and W. MacAskill (eds.), An Introduction to Utilitarianism. https://www.utilitarianism.net/objections-to-utilitarianism, accessed 11/18/2022.
Mill, J. S. (1871). Utilitarianism. Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer.
Sidgwick, H. (1874). The Methods of Ethics. Macmillan.
Wittgenstein, L. (1969). On Certainty. Basil Blackwell.