What is Utilitarianism?

Michael Anissimov

Utilitarianism is an ethical framework for effective moral action. Fundamentally, it is based quantifying good in terms of utility and attempting to maximize that quantity. Utility is often defined as happiness or pleasure, although there are other variants, such as the satisfaction of preferences, or preference utilitarianism. This framework is often defined as an effort to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. There are also numerous sub-strands of utilitarianism with various caveats and footnotes on the basic theme. It is a form of consequentialism, where the ends justify the means: if an interim valley of negative utility must be traversed to reach a peak of greater utility, then this doctrine advocates it.

Jeremy Bentham's "greatest happiness principle" is considered the foundation of modern utilitarianism.
Jeremy Bentham's "greatest happiness principle" is considered the foundation of modern utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism has been used as a framework to argue for the value of different actions or political philosophies since it was first formulated. People have probably had utilitarian thoughts for a very long time, but in written records it originates with the Greek philosopher Epicurus. The origins of modern utilitarianism can be traced to the 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He called his formulation “the greatest happiness principle.” Following Bentham was John Stuart Mill, who greatly admired Bentham, and published the famous short work Utilitarianism. Today, John Stuart Mill is the name most often associated with this doctrine.

Utilitarianism is often seen as the principle of providing the most happiness for the most people.
Utilitarianism is often seen as the principle of providing the most happiness for the most people.

In his writing, Mill argued that cultural, intellectual, or spiritual pleasures had a deeper meaning than mere physical pleasure, because someone who had experienced both would value the former more highly. In his other works, such as the essay On Liberty, Mill used utilitarianism to argue for his “liberty principle,” which states “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

There have been multiple variations of utilitarianism developed since the days of Mill. The overarching framework is compatible with a number of different philosophies. The first notable division is that between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Under act utilitarianism, each action is examined on a case-by-case basis and selected according to which is predicted to lead to the highest utility. Under rule utilitarianism, the moral agent looks to formulate and act under guidance of rules which maximize utility if they were to be consistently followed.

In negative utilitarianism, the goal is to minimize negative utility — pain and suffering — rather than maximize positive utility, as it is argued that the negativity of negative utility is greater than the positivity of positive utility. However, it has been pointed out that an implication of this is that we should act to radically decrease the population or even eliminate it entirely, as a subgoal of eliminating negative utility. For this reason, this variation is controversial.

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Discussion Comments


Another, much different treatment of utilitarians in literature is through satire, such as Jonathan Swift's famous essay "A Modest Proposal". While originally written to specifically mock the English government, Swift's 1729 work forces us to truly look at the limits of the mantra "for the greater good"- and more importantly, look at how close civilization might be to going past these limits.


The struggle against utilitarianism ethics is often the conflict in modern literature. From Narnia to Harry Potter, many heroes and heroines must struggle with the question of whether the loss of one important person is acceptable to benefit the entire community. At the same time, many 20th and 21st century writers, including the vampire novelist Anne Rice, have given us characters who argue that killing one bad person in cold blood is acceptable to protect a community; Rice's famous vampire Lestat justifies his killing of humans in this way, by seeking out the criminals in the places he hunts. While neither of these questions are utilitarian in an economical sense, they are somewhat inspired by philosophical utilitarianism.

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