5.3 Normative Theories: Utilitarianism

Normative theories that hold that the outcomes or results produced by an action determine its moral worth are generally called “consequentialist” theories. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory; it is the view that an action is morally right if it produces at least as much good (utility) for all people affected by the action as any alternative action that could be done instead.

Recalling what we know about conceptions of “good,” we see that for a utilitarian, moral actions have instrumental good. A moral action is not good in and of itself, but is valued because it leads to something else that has intrinsic good. The nature of the “something else” — the intrinsically good consequence of the action — is one of the significant factors that characterize and differentiate the views of particular utilitarian philosophers. A belief that all utilitarian philosophies share is that the action leading to that intrinsic good is not good in itself, it is instrumentally good.

A supplemental reading (bottom of page) describes some complexities that become apparent as we examine some specific utilitarian philosophies.

Note: Portions of the following material on Bentham and Mill are adapted from information in The Philosophy Pages by Garth Kemerling and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

5.3.1 Bentham: The Value of Happiness

Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1842) was a British utilitarian philosopher as well as a social and legal reformer, who proposed a morality of quantification by assigning value to outcomes that maximize good. In his work An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Bentham offered this basic description of his utilitarian doctrine:

  1. It is the consequences of human actions that count in evaluating their merit.
  2. Consequences that matters are those that promote human happiness: namely, achieving pleasure and avoiding pain.

Achieving pleasure and avoiding pain are intrinsically good. Recall our look at psychological characterizations of human nature in the section on “Concepts and Distinctions.” Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the highest or only good worth seeking; Bentham’s philosophy exemplifies this view.

In the opening paragraphs of An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham introduces his principle of utility.

1.Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. They alone point out what we ought to do and determine what we shall do; the standard of right and wrong, and the chain of causes and effects, are both fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, all we say, all we think; every effort we can make to throw off our subjection ·to pain and pleasure· will only serve to demonstrate and confirm it. A man may claim to reject their rule but in reality he will remain subject to it.…

2. The principle of utility is the foundation of the present work, so I should start by giving an explicit and determinate account of what it is. By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the part whose interest is in question: or was it the same thing in other words, to promote or oppose that happiness.

As originally articulated by Bentham, the principle of utility (a term borrowed from David Hume) held that the morally better alternative is that which produces the greater net utility, where utility is defined in terms of pleasure/happiness. Because the word “utility” does not sufficiently emphasize the notion of pleasure and pain, Bentham, in 1822, revised and renamed his central principle , calling it the greatest happiness principle, that actions are right only insofar as they tend to produce the greatest balance of pleasure over pain for the largest number of people.

In the following excerpt from An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham presents his method for calculating the value of the pleasure (or pain) to be avoided.

1. Pleasures, then and the avoidance of pains, are the ends which the legislator has in view: it behoves him therefore to understand their value. Pleasures and pains are the instruments he has to work with: it behoves him therefore to understand their force, which is again, in other words, their value.

2. To a person considered by himself, the value of a pleasure or pain considered by itself, will be greater or less according to the four following circumstances:

(1) Its intensity.

(2) Its duration.

(3) Its certainty or uncertainty.

(4) Its propinquity or remoteness.

3. These are the circumstances which are to be considered in estimating a pleasure or a pain considered each of them by itself.. But when the value of any pleasure or pain is considered for the purpose of estimating the tendency of any act by which it is produced, there are two other circumstances to be taken into the account; these are.

(5) Its fecundity, or the chance it has of being followed by sensations of the same kind: that is, pleasures if it be pleasure: pains if it be pain by pain.

(6) Its purity, or the chance it has of not being followed by sensations of the opposite kind: that is, pains, if it be a pleasure: pleasures, if it be a pain.

These last two, however, are in strictness scarcely to be deemed properties of the pleasure or the pain itself; they are not, therefore, in strictness to be taken into the account of the value of that pleasure or pain. They are in strictness to be deemed properties only of the act, or other event, by which such pleasure or pain has been produced; and accordingly are only to be taken into the account of the tendency of such act or such event.

4. To a number of persons, with reference to each of whom the value of a pleasure or a pain is considered, it will be greater or less according to seven circumstances: to wit, the six preceding one….And one other, to wit:—

(7) Its extent; that is, .the number of persons to whom it extends or (in other words) who are affected by it.

Taking such matters into account, one arrives at a net value of each action for any human being affected by it. To critics who found application of this calculus overly complicated, Bentham replied that we need not actually carry out this process of measuring pain versus pleasure; we need only to keep it in mind as a guideline, and consider everyone effected by an action. To his critics who believed that other factors besides the consequences should be considered in determining moral rightness, Bentham remained firmly consequentialist and replied that we only care about motives and intentions because of their consequences.

An additional and notable feature of Bentham’s utilitarianism sets him apart from other later utilitarians. He believed there to be no hierarchy of pleasures, no qualitative differences among them. In The Rationale of Reward (1830), Jeremy Bentham wrote :

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.

5.3.2 Mill: Some Kinds of Happiness Are Better

John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) was British a utilitarian philosopher and advocate of social ideals. His father, also a philosopher, was an ardent believer in Jeremy Bentham’s principles, to which John was introduced at an early age. (John Stuart Mill was a child prodigy who took charge of his siblings’ education at age eight!) A generation after Bentham, Mill became an influential and committed champion of Bentham’s utilitarian principles.

Mill’s work Utilitarianism (1861) is an extended explanation of utilitarian moral theory. In responding to criticisms of the doctrine, Mill argued in favor of the basic principles of Jeremy Bentham, and he also offered several significant improvements to its structure, meaning, and application.

Despite endless and longstanding disputes within moral philosophy over the reality and nature of intrinsic good, Mill believed that everyone could at least agree that consequences of human actions contribute importantly to moral value as instrumental goods. Instrumental good can be demonstrated and understood, but intrinsic good is mystifying. From Utilitarianism, chapter 1:

Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof. The medical art is proved to be good, by its conducing to health; but how is it possible to prove that health is good? The art of music is good, for the reason, among others, that it produces pleasure; but what proof is it possible to give that pleasure is good?

Mill fully accepted Bentham’s devotion to the greatest happiness principle as the basic statement of utilitarian value. From Utilitarianism, chapter 2:

…actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.

The Relative Quality of Pleasures

Mill did not agree that all kinds of pleasure experienced by human beings are qualitatively equal. (Recall Bentham’s pronouncement that “the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.”) This is one area in which Mill refined Bentham’s utilitarianism.

With regard to qualitative differentiation among pleasures, Mill believed that:

  • Different sorts of pleasure differ from each other in qualitative ways.
  • Only those who have experienced pleasure of both sorts are competent judges of the relative qualities of two pleasures.
  • The “competent judges test” establishes higher moral worth of largely intellectual pleasures among sentient beings, even when their momentary intensity may be less than that of alternative lower (largely bodily) pleasures.

From Utilitarianism, chapter 2:

Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.

Mill granted that the positive achievement of happiness is often difficult. Thus we are often justified morally in seeking primarily to reduce the total amount of pain experienced by those beings affected by our actions. Pain—or even the sacrifice of pleasure—is warranted in Mill’s view only when it results directly in the greater good of all.

Rules to Ease the Quantification Task

A primary argument against utilitarian theory is that it unreasonably demands that individuals devote primary energy to cold-hearted and tedious calculation of the anticipated effects of their actions. A significant qualification offered by Mill is that precisely because we do not have the time to calculate accurately in every instance, most of the time, we allow our everyday actions to be guided by moral rules (presumably rules valued by the worth of their demonstrated consequences.) Perhaps anticipating the later distinction between act and rule utilitarianism, Mill pointed out that secondary moral principles, at the very least, perform an important service by providing ample guidance for every-day moral life. However, he emphasized that the value of each action — especially in difficult or controversial cases — is to be determined by reference to the principle of utility itself.

Motives for Moral Actions

What inspires people to do the right thing? Mill believed there was universal agreement on the role of moral sanctions in eliciting proper conduct. Unlike Bentham, however, he did not restrict motives for doing the right thing to socially-imposed external sanctions like punishment and blame, which make the consequences of improper action more obviously painful. In Mill’s view of human nature, moral agents are also motivated by internal sanctions such as self-esteem, guilt, and conscience. Because we all have social feelings on behalf of others, the unselfish wish for the good of all is often enough to move us to act morally. From Utilitarianism, chapter 3

The ultimate sanction, therefore, of all morality (external motives apart) being a subjective feeling in our own minds, I see nothing embarrassing to those whose standard is utility, in the question, what is the sanction of that particular standard? We may answer, the same as of all other moral standards—the conscientious feelings of mankind.

Even if others do not blame or punish them for doing wrong, humans can be guided by natural moral sentiment for the well being of all concerned. In other words, I am likely to blame myself, if I do not chose the best action for all concerned, and the discomfort of self blame is another of the consequent pains to consider when deciding what to do.

Besides self-interested internal sanctions (living with the pain of guilty conscience, for example), empathy is another aspect of human nature entailed in Mill’s utilitarianism:

But there is this basis of powerful natural sentiment; and this it is which, when once the general happiness is recognized as the ethical standard, will constitute the strength of the utilitarian morality. This firm foundation is that of the social feelings of mankind; the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures, which is already a powerful principle in human nature.…

5.3.3 Singer: Altruism and the Greatest Happiness

The last point considered about John Stuart Mill, his depiction of the human desire “to be in unity with our fellow creatures, ” is a fitting context for introducing Peter Singer (1946 – ). a contemporary Australian utilitarian philosopher and bioethicist.

Whose well-being or best interests should be considered? While utilitarian reasoning is often used to serve self-interest or the best interests of a particular group, utilitarian moral principles demand that when we tally the utility for possible actions, we consider the interests of all parties affected. The utilitarian moral philosophy of both Bentham and Mill express this sentiment — that the interests of everyone affected be considered. Bentham described ethics as “the art of directing men’s actions to the production of the greatest possible quantity of happiness for those whose interests are in view.”

In the two centuries that have elapsed between the time of Jeremy Bentham and that of Peter Singer, technological progress has significantly expanded the breadth of who and what is ‘in view.” Indeed, the scope of Peter Singer’s utilitarian reasoning, includes all those we know to be in need. In his 1971 essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (published in 1972 in Philosophy and Public Affairs) Singer argues that affluent people have a greater moral obligation to donate resources to humanitarian causes than we typically consider to be the norm in Western cultural practices. The article was prompted by the starvation of refugees during the Bangladesh Liberation War; that specific situation provides an example for applying Singer’s wider view that moral obligations require us to “look beyond the interests of our own society.”

…if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally to do it.

Singer views our acting in the interests of others as a moral obligation, and “others” include those outside our own society. Expanding the answer to the question of “whose well-being?” even further, Singer makes no moral distinction among species of sentient beings. In his book Animal Liberation (1975), Singer argued that because non-human animals experience pleasure and pain and can suffer, it is wrong to mistreat them. It follows that animal experimentation and the eating of animal flesh are morally indefensible.

Singer supports what is known as “effective altruism.” In his book The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically (2015), Singer explains effective altruism as not just a set of ideas but also as an emerging movement. Leading a life that is wholly ethical entails doing as much as we possibly can. To discover what will do the most good (for example, helping others, or contributing to organizations that help others), we need to use reason and find supporting evidence that the actions we take are the best possible actions we can afford. People motivated by images that play on their emotions often do not really understand how and if their contributions will be used effectively. Effective altruism works toward maximizing the total good that can come from an action. Peter Singer explains effective altruism in the the following TED talk:


The why and how of effective altruism[CC-BY-NC-ND]

In additional supplemental resources (bottom of page) Peter Singer explains his position on animals rights and other issues.


Reconsider this scenario: Suppose that instead of doing last evening’s homework, your usually compliant 12-year-old stayed up late playing video games. The next morning the child is distraught because the homework is not finished and asks you to call school and report that she (or he) is ill.

Suspend your personal values (how you might respond to this request,) and provide a utilitarian response to the child’s request, explaining why your action provides a greater amount of good than other possible actions. (100-150 words)

Note: Submit your response to the appropriate Assignments folder.

5.3.4 Utilitarianism: Objections and Criticisms

Before leaving the topic of utilitarianism, it is important to understand some of the objections from its critics:

  1. It can be difficult and time-consuming to calculate the net benefits prior to deciding on the most moral (utility-yielding) action. Bentham did respond to this by saying his hedonist calculation factors are just a guideline, and Mill replied by suggesting that utility-based rules serve as shortcuts (except for difficult or controversial cases.)
  2. Since it can be difficult to predict an outcome in advance, consequences are uncertain grounds for conferring moral value on an action. (This was among Kant’s objections to utilitarianism.)
  3. Another argument against utilitarianism from the Kantian perspective is that utilitarianism lacks serious respect for individuals.
  4. Utilitarianism conflicts with principles of justice. This criticism usually refers to inflicting undue punishment in order to discourage future “crimes” of a similar nature. For example, a whistleblower may be fired in order to discourage future occurrences of such actions by other employees.
  5. If one values only consequences. it is not possible to rule out an activity that is inhumane. For example, water-boarding and other forms of torture might be inflicted on prisoners for the purpose of acquiring useful information. This expected end may not may result. (The utilitarian argument for such action might entail that useful information, if gained, could preserve lives.)

Supplemental Resources


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) Act and Rule Utilitarianism. Read section 1, Utilitarianism – Overall View., parts a, b, and c.

Act vs Rule Utilitarianism

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) Act and Rule Utilitarianism. Read section 2. How Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism Differ

More Peter Singer in-person

Peter Singer: Animal Equality. (3 minutes) Singer’s brief explanation of animal equality
Let’s Talk About Your Hedonism. (2 minutes) On the hedonistic paradox
Peter Singer ’07: Animal Rights. (28 minutes) Singer explains some of his views to an interviewer.