Utilitarianism Research Paper Example

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Utilitarianism is an intellectual movement in the social sciences and in philosophy. It is founded on the principle that individual actions, as well as laws, economic decisions, and social policies should promote the “greatest happiness.” Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), an English legal theorist and political reformer, first outlined the utilitarian theory in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). Human beings are governed, according to Bentham, by “two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” Actions are to be judged by their utility— that is, by a “felicific calculus,” or reckoning of the benefits and harms they produce. Bentham held that such a calculus must take into account the number of persons whose interests are affected, as well as the intensity, duration, and degree of certainty of the expected pleasure or pain. In addition, one should take into account the nearness or remoteness in time, as well as the likelihood that an initial pleasure will be followed by pain, or a pain by pleasure. Whether an action or the adoption of a social policy is judged to be “good” or “bad” depends on the result of this calculation.

Bentham built on the work of thinkers such as John Locke (1632-1704), Claude-Adrien Helvtius (17151771), and Adam Smith (1723-1790), and himself became the center of a group of intellectuals and social reformers that included James Mill (1773-1836), William Godwin (1756-1836), and the economists David Ricardo (1722-1823) and Thomas Malthus (1776-1834). On the grounds of social benefit, “radical” utilitarian reformers called for changes to the laws governing parliamentary elections, the prison system, treatment of the poor, and other matters. Early utilitarians aimed at abolishing unnecessary suffering and promoting individual happiness through the rational study of the long-term consequences of policies and actions. For example, they believed it necessary to control the procreative impulses that can lead to rampant population growth. Because of their unsentimental approach to questions of moral and social life, utilitarians gained a popular reputation as lacking spontaneity, emotion, and artistic sensitivity. Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) includes a memorable portrayal of utilitarianism in the character of Thomas Gradgrind, whose insistence on educating his children only in “facts” rather than “fancy” (imagination) leads to unhappiness for all concerned.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was the son of Bentham’s associate James Mill. J. S. Mill’s early education was based on Benthamite principles, and in his Autobiography (1873) he criticized his upbringing for its overemphasis on developing the analytic powers at the expense of educating the emotions. Despite these reservations about his own education, Mill adopted utilitarian principles and became the movement’s most articulate spokesperson, developing the theory in works such as the Principles of Political Economy (1848). In On Liberty (1859) Mill defended the importance of individual freedom of thought and action, arguing that the individual is the best judge of his or her own good and that society benefits from the experimentation that occurs in an atmosphere of liberty. In Utilitarianism (1863) he went beyond Bentham’s famous statement in The Rationale of Reward (1825) that “Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either” (p. 253). In contrast to Bentham, Mill argued that there are qualitative differences among pleasures that affect their value. In The Subjection of Women (1869) Mill evidenced the radical bent of utilitarianism, challenging deeply held prejudices against women’s capacity for intellectual development and self-governance. He argued that it is impossible to know whether women are innately less capable than men without giving women the same educational opportunities that men have.

Among the well-known later defenders of utilitarian philosophy were the English philosophers Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) and George Edward Moore (1873-1958). In the late twentieth century utilitarian ethics was further developed by philosophers including J. J. C. Smart (b. 1920) and Peter Singer (b. 1946). Singer’s contributions include highlighting the utilitarian concern for the interests of nonhuman animals. He used the term speciesism to refer to the view (which he opposes) that nonhuman animals deserve less consideration than human beings solely on the basis of species membership.

Varieties Of Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is still the most prominent form of consequentialism, the view that actions should be morally judged on the basis of their good or bad results, rather than on their intrinsic rightness or wrongness. Within utilitarianism, different schools of thought have arisen in response to debates over the implications of the basic theory. Act utilitarians argue that each individual action should be judged by its beneficial or harmful results, so, for example, it may be morally permissible or even morally necessary to tell a lie in order to save an innocent life. Rule utilitarians, in contrast, evaluate not individual actions but social rules or types of actions. For a rule utilitarian, because telling lies generally results in more harm than benefit, lying is generally prohibited. In addition to the act versus rule debate, utilitarians have disagreed over whether utilitarianism is based on an empirical description of human motivation or a vision of how individuals ought to be motivated, and also over the question of how far the interests of individuals and those of social groups can and should be harmonized. The various versions of utilitarianism agree, however, on the need for impartial and equal consideration of the interests of all those affected by any decision.

Objections To Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism has met with numerous objections. First, some object that utilitarianism is unconcerned with how benefits and harms are to be distributed, as long as the maximum amount of total satisfaction is achieved and as long as no individual’s interests are weighed more heavily than anyone else’s. Utilitarianism seems more concerned with how the aggregate of individuals fares, even if a minority must suffer undeservedly in order to provide satisfaction to the majority. A related criticism was made by economist Amartya Sen in On Economic Inequality (1973). Sen argued that, despite the fact that utilitarianism is often believed to lead to economic egalitarianism, or an equal distribution of income, under certain circumstances it leads to just the opposite. If person A, for example, derives greater utility than person B from the same amount of income (perhaps because person B suffers from a chronic illness or a disability and person A does not), utilitarianism seems to lead to the paradoxical conclusion that person A should be given more resources than person B, in order to increase the amount of utility of the group as a whole. It is because utilitarianism concerns itself with the good of the aggregate, also known as sum-ranking, that it leads to paradoxical results in this and similar cases.

The utilitarian commitment to equal consideration of individuals’ interests thus appears to be in tension with its practice of judging the goodness of a particular situation by measuring the aggregate of individual utilities.

A second objection is that utilitarians make ethical decisions based on the satisfaction of human preferences. Preferences are notoriously subjective and malleable, and they differ according to the circumstances to which individuals are accustomed. For example, someone who is used to great wealth may experience a sense of deprivation under circumstances that would seem acceptable or even luxurious to someone accustomed to severe poverty. Moreover, because preferences are of many different types, it may not be possible or appropriate to treat them as commensurable (measurable by a single standard). For example, it may not be possible to weigh the happiness gained from friendship against the happiness gained from having good health. Third, some object that utilitarianism demands excessive sacrifices from its adherents. For example, it appears that in order to bring about the greatest happiness for all people, those who are relatively well-off would be obliged to sacrifice their own material well-being, and that of their dependents, to the point at which they attain a level of satisfaction equal to that of the least well-off person who could be assisted by such a sacrifice. A fourth objection is that utilitarianism allows or even requires the performance of certain actions that are ordinarily considered unethical, such as breaking a promise, making a false accusation, or even killing an innocent person, if that action could bring about a benefit sufficiently great to outweigh its harmful effects.

Despite these and other criticisms, utilitarianism continues to exert an influence on ethics and social policy. Whenever a cost-benefit analysis is performed in order to assess the worth of a particular course of action, utilitarian thinking is at work. The appeal of utilitarianism lies in its affirmation of individual equality and its view that the goal of both personal ethics and public policy is to bring about a preponderance of benefit over harm to all who are affected by human actions.


  1. Bentham, Jeremy. [1789] 1996. Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, eds. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Bentham, Jeremy. [1825] 1962. The Rationale of Reward. In The Works of Jeremy Bentham. Vol. 2, ed. John Bowring. New York: Russell & Russell.
  3. Halévy, Elie. 1966. The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. Trans. Mary Morris. Boston: Beacon Press.
  4. Mill, John Stuart. [1863] 2002. Utilitarianism. 2nd ed. Ed. George Sher. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
  5. Mill, John Stuart. [1873] 1957. Autobiography. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
  6. Sen, Amartya. 1997. On Economic Inequality. Expanded ed. Eds. James E. Foster and Amartya Sen. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  7. Stephen, Leslie. [1900] 1997. The English Utilitarians. London: Thoemmes Continuum.

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