7: Utilitarianism


  • Define and appropriately use important terms such as hedonism, consequentialism
  • Demonstrate knowledge of major arguments for and problems with utilitarianism
  • Apply ethical concepts and principles to address moral concerns.

J. S. Mill

I. Consequentialism

Key Terms

Intrinsic good


Bentham’s Principle of Utility

that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question


  • Consequentialism - making moral decisions based on the end result of an action rather than the action itself
  • Machiavellianism - the ends justify the means (the positive result of an action makes it morally acceptable)
  • Ethical Egoism - if it’s good for me, it’s good
  • State Consequentialism - if it's good for the state, it's good
  • Rule consequentialism - reconciles consequentialism with deontology
  • Negative consequentialism - how many negative consequences are avoided

Flash Philosophy

Jeremy Bentham

The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.

II. Act Utilitarianism

  • Intrinsic good is the greatest well-being to the greatest number of people
  • Starts with Jeremy Bentham and the Principle of Utility
    • Morality is about making the world happy
    • Hedonism - Ancient Greek idea
  • Formalized as an ethical theory by John Stuart Mill
    • Long-term happiness is more important than short-term happiness

John Stuart Mill

The creed which accepts...the Greatest Happiness Principle… holds that actions are right...as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

III. Advantages of Utilitarianism

  • Focus on happiness by maximizing value - Wireless Philosophy
  • Impartiality
  • Moral flexibility
  • Broadening the scope of the moral community

IV. Disadvantages of Utilitarianism

  • Concerns about valuing happiness - Wireless Philosophy
  • Quantifying the good
  • Bentham's Hedonistic Calculus
    1. Intensity – How intense is the happiness?
    2. Duration – How long will it last?
    3. Certainty – How certain are you that the results will be what you predict?
    4. Propinquity – How soon will happiness be achieved?
    5. Fecundity – Will it lead to additional opportunities for happiness in the future?
    6. Purity – How much pain comes with the anticipated happiness?
    7. Extent – How many other people will be affected by the happiness?
    • Quantitative Utilitarianism - people quantify responses to make ethical decisions
    • Mill's alternative
      • Qualitative utilitarianism
      • Differences between higher and lower desires
  • Impartiality
  • Incompatibility with justice and individual rights
  • Importance of the past

V. Addressing the Disadvantages

Mill vs. Kant Review

  • Contesting the Consequences
    • Hypothetical situations can be interpreted in a variety of ways
    • Not a very effective defense
    • Ethical theories should apply to all situations and sometimes the ends simply don’t justify the means because of other moral factors
  • Refining the Principle of Utility 
    • The Principle of Utility is a guide for choosing rules, not acts
    • This is Rule Utilitarianism
    • Instead of judging right and wrong based on the consequences of an action (Act Utilitarianism), right and wrong is judge based on the consequences of following a moral rule
    • Changes the theory significantly and sometimes there are exceptions 

VI. Applying Moral Philosophy