Philosophy 170 - 9.2.2 Utilitarianism

The term utility means “useful” or “a useful thing.” Utilitarians argue that what is right is whatever produces the most utility, the most usefulness. The question, then, is how do we define usefulness? The utilitarian’s answer is that something is useful when it promotes happiness (or pleasure). According to utilitarians, we have a moral obligation or responsibility to choose the action that produces the most happiness.

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was the first philosopher to articulate the principle of utility. James Mill (1773–1836), an economist, political philosopher, and historian, was Bentham’s friend and a follower of utilitarianism. James Mill naturally raised his son to be a utilitarian as well. John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) received a rigorous homeschooling under his father’s tutelage. Scholars in the fields of philosophy, political science, and economics continue to apply the insights of Bentham and Mill to this day.

A portrait of Jeremy Bentham who was an English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism. This oil portrait was painted by Henry William Pickersgill.
Figure 9.3 Portrait of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) by Henry William Pickersgill, 1838. (credit: "Jeremy Bentham. Line engraving by C. Fox, 1838, after H. W. Pickersgill." by C. Fox/Wellcome Collection)

The Principle of Utility

The principle of utility states that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mill [1861] 2001, 7). Utilitarians argue that moral conduct is conduct that maximizes the good (or produces the most value). In economics, for example, utility is defined as the amount of enjoyment a consumer receives from a good or a service. You might, for example, choose between buying an oatmeal raisin cookie and a chocolate chip cookie. If you like them both equally, the right action would be to compare the prices and buy the cheaper one. Utility, however, is not always so easy to determine, particularly in more complex situations.


The chapter on Value Theory covers the topic of well-being in greater detail.

The Trolley Problem

Trolley problems are classic thought experiments first invented by Philippa Foot and widely employed by ethicists to explore moral reasoning (Foot 2002). Consider one such trolley problem, referred to as the bystander case. Imagine you are standing by trolley tracks observing the trolley cars in action. To your horror, you realize that one of the trolley cars is out of control. If nothing is done, the trolley will continue down the track, killing five workers who are performing track maintenance. You happen to be standing near a lever you can pull that will divert the trolley. If you divert the trolley, you will change its path so that it takes a different track where only one worker is performing maintenance. Is it morally permissible to pull the lever?

A scenario shows an onlooker who has a choice to save 5 people in danger of being hit by a trolley by diverting the trolley to kill just 1 person. This ‘Trolley Problem’ thought-based case study is often used more loosely about any choice that has a trade-off between what is good and what rejections are “acceptable,” if at all.
Figure 9.4 Trolley problems are thought experiments that use a difficult ethical dilemma to explore moral reasoning and deliberation. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The simplest utilitarian response would be “yes.” You would save the lives of four workers. The right decision involves making a simple quantitative calculation: five workers minus one worker is four workers. So the right, moral decision is to divert the trolley. Yet, John Stuart Mill recognized that not all questions of utility can be answered quantitatively.

Higher and Lower Pleasures

Raised to continue in the footsteps of Bentham and his father, John Stuart Mill had a nervous breakdown as a young man. Mill emerged from the crisis with new ideas about utilitarianism, including the realization that Bentham’s characterization of pleasure could be improved upon (Durham 1963). He realized that pleasures differ both quantitatively and qualitatively. Mill identified what he calls higher and lower pleasures to distinguish between different qualities of pleasure. With his revised and more nuanced account of pleasure, Mill set out to develop Bentham’s earlier formulation of utilitarianism. He refined the calculus and assigned a greater significance or preference to higher-quality pleasures (e.g., mental pleasures).

Mill distinguished between different (higher and lower) qualities of pleasure in his formulation of utilitarianism. What he called higher pleasures are those pleasures associated with the exercise of our higher faculties. For example, higher pleasures are often associated with the use of our higher cognitive faculties and/or participation in social/cultural life. Lower pleasures, in contrast, are those pleasures associated with the exercise of our lower faculties. For example, lower pleasures are (basic) sensory pleasures like those experienced when we satisfy our hunger or relax after difficult physical activity. As Mill saw it, we have higher cognitive faculties (e.g., reason, imagination, moral sense) that distinguish us from other living things. Our higher cognitive faculties give us access to higher pleasures, and these pleasures are a defining feature of human life.

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. (Mill [1861] 2001, 10)

Mill’s claim that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied” suggests that it is better to be dissatisfied and aware that you are capable of experiencing different qualities of pleasure than to forfeit the higher pleasures merely for the sake of basic satisfaction.

Some Mill scholars have even suggested that our dissatisfaction is a potential source of higher pleasures. In Mill and Edward on Higher Pleasures, Susan Feagin (1983) points out that dissatisfaction stems from a recognition that our situation could be improved. Feagin argues that our ability to formulate plans to improve our situation is a source of higher pleasure. Dissatisfaction motivates us to improve things and pursue a better world and life.

The Greatest Happiness Principle

To apply the principle of utility in broad social and political contexts, Mill formulated the greatest happiness principle, which stipulates that those actions are right that produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. When agents (individual decision makers) approach a decision, they review and evaluate their possible actions and should choose the action that will promote the most happiness for the most people. It is not simply the agent’s own happiness that matters, but the happiness of all individuals involved or affected by the consequences produced. The “happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned” (Mill [1861] 2001, 17). Mill argued that the right action is the one that maximizes happiness or produces the most net happiness.

Mill emphasizes the importance of putting personal interests aside. Mill writes that if an individual is faced with a decision “between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator” (Mill [1861] 2001, 17). Impartiality makes us able to assess possible consequences without giving preference to how they might impact us or those we are biased toward (e.g., friends, family, or institutions we are affiliated with). Utilitarians, therefore, strive to apply the principle in an informed, rational, and unbiased way.

Write Like a Philosopher

A Utilitarian Approach

Choose a moral dilemma you are facing or that you have faced. Devise and implement a method of calculating the greatest happiness, such as identifying all the individuals affected by your decision and estimating the impact of your decision on their happiness. Then examine and explain the assumptions that are inherent in the method you are using to calculate happiness.

Act vs. Rule Utilitarianism

Within this moral theory, there is a major division between act and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarians argue that we should apply the greatest happiness principle on a case-by-case basis. Factors may vary from one situation to the next making it possible that different actions are morally right even in two seemingly similar situations. Act utilitarians believe morality requires us to maximize the good every time we act.

Some have argued that act utilitarianism is problematic because it seems to justify doing actions that go well beyond ordinary moral standards. For instance, act utilitarianism could justify a vigilante killing a person, an action that is contrary to our normal sense of right conduct, if it saves lives and so maximizes happiness. However, if many people were to take the law into their own hands, the long-term consequence would be to undermine the security of all individuals within society. Consider also the case in which a jury or a judge were to find an innocent person guilty and sentence them to prison in order to avoid widespread riots. In this particular case, such an act would increase happiness but reduce the overall level of trust in the judicial system.

To avoid such problems, rule utilitarians argue that we should apply the greatest happiness principle not to each act, but instead as a means of establishing a set of moral rules. We can test possible moral rules to determine whether a given rule would produce greater happiness if it were followed. Assuming the rules pass the test, they argue that following such rules will maximize happiness and should be followed. Rule utilitarians think this list of rules can be modified as needed by reexamining each one through application of the greatest happiness principle. However, it is not easy and may not be possible to formulate all the exceptions to each rule.

Character and Intent in Utilitarianism

For utilitarians, the only intrinsic value is happiness. Utilitarians believe that no action in itself is right or wrong, nor is it right or wrong based on an agent’s character or intent. Only the scope of consequences should be considered when assessing the rightness of an action. An agent might intend to produce certain consequences when they act, but what they intend may not come about or their action might produce other unintended consequences. If an action produces consequences a person didn’t intend or foresee and so does harm, they are still morally at fault, even if at the time it seemed reasonable to assume those outcomes wouldn’t happen. For utilitarians, an agent’s intent and character are not morally relevant factors. In this, utilitarianism differs from the other normative ethical theories that will be considered in the remainder of this chapter.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax