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Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy that supports actions that promote happiness or pleasure and opposes actions that result in pain or harm. It is hedonistic. When applied to social, economic, or political decisions, a utilitarian philosophy seeks to improve society as a whole. According to utilitarianism, an action is justified if it results in the greatest possible happiness for the greatest number of people in a society or group.

All utilitarian ethical theories share four distinguishing characteristics:

  1. Consequentialism

  2. Welfarism

  3. Impartiality

  4. Aggregationism

Consequentialism is the view that one morally ought to promote just good outcomes.

Welfarism is the belief that the value of an outcome is determined only by the welfare (sometimes termed well-being) of humans.

Impartiality is the belief that an individual's identity has no bearing on the merit of an outcome. More precisely, utilitarians believe that equal weight must be given to the interests of all individuals.

Aggregationism is the view that the value of the world is the sum of the values of its parts, where these parts are local phenomena such as experiences, lives, or societies.

Jeremy Bentham describes his "greatest happiness principle" in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do."

Bentham vs Mill (quantitative vs qualitative)

Bentham was concerned with the quantity of pleasure, but Mill was concerned with both the quantity and quality of pleasure. Bentham's utilitarianism was criticised for being a philosophy "worthy of only swine". This is because he did not distinguish between the pleasures of beasts and humans. "Pushpin is as good as poetry in terms of quantity of enjoyment." Mill recognized & criticized this and, to avoid criticism, evaluated both quantity and quality pleasure. Mill distinguished between higher pleasures (those that require mental faculties that only educated people possess) and lower pleasures (those that do not require mental faculties that only educated humans possess) (bodily pleasures that both animals and humans could experience). Mill believes that superior pleasures are more valuable than inferior pleasures due to their "intrinsic superiority." While Mill's theory is more sympathetic to human nature, it complicates the calculation of pleasure by requiring us to consider the unquantifiable quality of pleasure in addition to the quantity.

Bentham's theory was based on act utilitarianism, whereas Mill's theory was based on rule utilitarianism. Bentham's approach directly applied the principle of utility to particular actions and circumstances. This allowed for some heinous deeds. For instance, two tormentors may be justifiable in their actions if their pleasure outweighs the harm caused to the victim. To circumvent this, Mill proposed rule utilitarianism. Mill proposed that the idea of utilitarianism be utilised to establish moral standards governing utility. For instance, refrain from murdering people (as killing people tends to lower net utility).

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” ― John Stuart Mill

Critical Evaluation

The opponents of utilitarianism are theories that dispute one or more of the above four principles. For instance, they may believe that actions are intrinsically right or wrong regardless of their consequences. Kantian philosophy believes in the intrinsic value of an action and not in its outcome. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.”— IMMANUEL KANT. One of the major criticisms leveled at utilitarian theory is its emphasis on the happiness of the greatest number; what about the minority? For the sake of the greater number's happiness, the minority cannot be used as an instrument, even if it is for the greater number's happiness. This is predicated on the notion that the human being is an end in itself, not a means to an end.

The two essential principles of utilitarian philosophy — happiness and consequences – are problematic. Whereas deontology places moral value on something intrinsic to the act, the utilitarianism places moral value on something extrinsic to the act such as the results of the action in terms of happiness. To deontologists, the end rarely justifies the means; to utilitarians, the end justifies the means. Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy that is only as useful as the one who interprets and applies it.


This is merely a way for resolving ethical dilemmas, one that must be employed with a total understanding of the positive and bad to strike a balance. Perhaps it is a valuable but flawed rule of ethics for humans; we cannot make decisions that satisfy everyone; this is impossible. Rather than that, it is in our best interests to act for the larger good, as displeasing the majority makes no sense unless the majority is morally unpleasant and evil.


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