What is utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory that places the locus of right and wrong solely on the outcomes (consequences) of choosing one action/policy over other actions/policies. As such, it moves beyond the scope of one’s own interests and takes into account the interests of others. Utilitarian’s believe that the purpose of morality is to make life better by increasing the amount of good things (such as pleasure and happiness) in the world and decreasing the amount of bad things (such as pain and unhappiness). They reject moral codes or systems that consist of commands or taboos that are based on customs, traditions, or orders given by leaders or supernatural beings. Instead, utilitarian’s think that what makes a morality be true or justifiable is its positive contribution to human (and perhaps non-human) beings.


Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) developed the principles of utility by defining it as a measure of maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain. Bentham wrote that everyone prefers pleasure over pain. It is with this belief that utilitarian moral principles are founded (Sandel, 2010). In developing the theory of utilitarianism, Bentham may have meant pleasure as in “happiness” and pain as in “sadness”; however, Bentham’s rendering of utilitarianism sounded hedonistic, as if sensuality was the measure Bentham associated with pleasure (Hinman, 2013).

John Stuart Mill reconsidered the principles of utilitarianism and suggested that pleasure should not merely refer to sensual pleasure but also to mental pleasure, such as music, literature, and friendship. Mill sought to make intellectual pleasures preferable to sensual ones.

We can apply the principle of utility to either PARTICULAR ACTIONS or GENERAL RULES. The former is called “act-utilitarianism” and the latter is called “rule-utilitarianism.”
Act-utilitarianism — The principle of utility is applied directly to each alternative act in a situation of choice. The right act is then defined as the one which brings about the best results (or the least amount of bad results).
Rule-utilitarianism — The principle of utility is used to determine the validity of rules of conduct (moral principles). A rule like promise-keeping is established by looking at the consequences of a world in which people broke promises at will and a world in which promises were binding. Right and wrong are then defined as following or breaking those rules.

The Problems with Utilitarianism 
1. Measuring happiness is difficult.
2. Utilitarian ethics is concerned about the consequences of our actions, regardless of the action itself. 
3. Desired ethical consequences that actually result from our actions do not always happen immediately.
4. Happiness should not be the only consequence or goal that matters in some ethical dilemmas.
5. When utilitarian decisions benefit the majority at the expense of the minority, the minority’s rights may not be taken into account. 

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