Ethics – Utilitarianism

Hi again – I hope you’re all well! Here is my next ethics post, all about Utilitarianism. This is one of the more complicated theories, so read it thoroughly!


Bentham and Mill

This is all based off of Principle of Utility – actions or behaviours that promote happiness or pleasure are good to do, and wrong when they produce unhappiness or pain.


Created the Hedonic Calculus and Utilitarianism, specifically Act Utilitarianism.

Strengths Bentham’s Ideas Weaknesses
Strong Utilitarianism – remains a teleological theory. The Hedonic Calculus should be applied to every action to assess its moral content. (Act Utilitarianism) Not practical to apply to every situation. Assumes unlimited time.
Attempts to be clear and practical. Pleasure can be measured by applying the Hedonic Calculus. This has 7 criteria’s: purity, remoteness, richness, intensity, certainty, extent, duration. Very difficult to apply in reality. What are we measuring pleasure in? Who does the measuring?
Minority needs sometimes needs to be compromised for the peace of all.
Timeless principle – used by governments all over the world.
Principle of Utility – what is the most useful thing to do in a situation; i.e. weighing up which path will lead to the greatest amount of pleasure. “Greatest good for the greatest number.” Disregards Human Rights – could lead to the justification of evil acts.
Problems of Integrity: humans are just pleasure seeking machines, with no integrity (loyalty).
Happiness is important.
Operates without God.
Pleasure is the chief good – Hedonism – “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.”
Happiness = pleasure without pain.
quality of pleasure is what matters.
Views all pleasure as equal.
Hedonism is not enough to make people moral.
Happiness is not the only intrinsic good e.g. love, freedom, charity.
Combats problems with absolute systems. Morality not about the act itself but is about the results of an action – Teleological and Consequential. Ends do not always justify means.
How can we determine the consequences? What about unintended consequences?


Creator of Rule Utilitarianism, based off of Bentham’s work.

Strengths Mills ideas Weaknesses
Gives more time to people since there is no H.C.

Easier to apply in reality due to logical problem solving.

We should apply logic to practical situations to deduce general rules to live by to enable society to function (although these can be broken if necessary). (weak Rule Utilitarianism) Rejected Bentham’s simplicity but now too complex?
The cause of happiness is casually complex. It is not simply about individual actions. We need the right conditions for happiness, such as liberty. Without individual liberty, happiness is impossible. Complexity means issues cannot be easily/quickly resolved.
Looks out for the minorities and so helps everyone to raise everyone’s happiness. Happiness is based on the aggregate of individual happiness – we cannot supress minorities for the “greater good” because we must consider happiness at an individual level. What is good for one, is good for all – principle of universalization. Jump in logic to say what is good for one is good for everyone.
Views all pleasure as having different intensities. Pleasure is the chief good but there are different types of pleasure – higher and lower pleasures, and the lower pleasures are “worthy only of swine”. It is the quality of the pleasure that matters, not the quantity. Progress can be made by higher and lower pleasures, not just higher.
Is it just snobbery? Either gives pleasure or not.
  Morality is not about the action itself but is about the results of an action – Teleological (?) and Consequential.

Act and Rule Utilitarianism

  • Act – principle utility applied directly to a particular action in a particular circumstance.
  • Rule – principle of utility is applied to a selection of a set of rules which are in turn used to determine what to do in particular situations.

Act Utilitarianism

  • Bentham’s form of Utilitarianism although he never called it this, the term was given by more modern philosophers.
  • It is all about the particular situation – you must decide what action will lead to the greatest good in every situation, since each situation is different.
  • It is teleological (about the goal of maximisation of pleasure); relative (no notion of absolute right/wrong, no external source of truth); consequential (consequences of an act alone determines its rightness/wrongness).
  • Strengths: flexibility. Allows moral rules to change from age to age, situation to situation.
  • Weaknesses: difficult to predict the consequences; has the potential to justify any act; difficult in defying pleasure; no defence for the minorities; impractical to say that we should calculate the morality of each choice.

Rule Utilitarianism

  • Mill’s form of Utilitarianism, although he didn’t call it “Act Util.”
  • View that rules should be formed by using Utilitarian principles for the benefit of society. “You must then stick to the rules when deciding which course of action to take in a particular situation”.
  • It is deontological (rules are the priority); relative (what is right/wrong is established as the maximisation of pleasure for the particular society within which it operates); consequential (overall consequences determine its rightness/wrongness).
  • Strong Rule utilitarian’s – these derived rules must never be disobeyed.
  • Weak Rule utilitarian’s – rules should generally be stuck to, but there may be situations where the better consequence might be achieved by disregarding the rules.
  • Strengths: allows us to establish rules which will promote the happiness of humanity and will generally be right in more circumstances.
  • Weaknesses: to invoke rules means that the approach becomes deontological not teleological; strict rule obeyers can be irrational; rule-modifiers can end up being no different than Act Utilitarianism.

Preference Utilitarianism

Peter Singer created Preference Utilitarianism. He is a modern day philosopher and has heavy opinions is animal and human rights.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Strengths Preference Util. Ideas Weaknesses
Every human being aspires to happiness (agrees with Bentham). This desire is inbuilt into the evolutionary process and transcends society. Optimistic view of humanity may be unfounded.
Not fully blown Hedonism – recognises issues with understanding what causes pleasure. Pleasure and pains and important but we have far greater agreement about what causes pain than what causes pleasure. Also people care about more than just pleasure and pain: e.g. achievement, knowledge. Not assumption – not necessarily correct.
Not properly Hedonistic – misses the point of seeking pleasure.
“Preferences” is perhaps a more measured term. Humans are rational and self-conscious creatures. Every individual has preferences (largely based upon minimalizing pain) which relate to the desire for happiness. But there is difference between manifest and true preference. At what stage do you judge people’s preferences?
No way to criticise people’s preferences – could justify irrational preferences.
Who decides whether a preference is manifest or true? Paternal features.
Preferences are not static. They are a consequence of what is available than what people really prefer or want.
Human beings do not necessarily live a life of preferences – perhaps just go with the flow.
Could lead to more reasonable outcomes than out and out pleasure seekers.
Concern, like Mill, for minorities. Could not be used to justify slavery.
All ethical decisions are based on ‘trade-offs’, so the utilitarian “greatest good for the greatest number” is good for providing a means of approaching ethical issues. However, everyone’s individual preferences must be considered when deciding what is the best interests of a group. Only a problem in consequentialist theories. An absolutist would disagree.
This applies to all sentient beings and so animals too have preferences. Not against any specie. Principle of equal consideration of interests: individual preferences must be rooted in the notion that what I prefer needs to be considered in others decisions and vice versa (universalisation). Love and relationships are absent.
Link between individual preferences and general welfare has been challenged (what is good for one may not be good for all – error in logic).
Trade-offs have to be made for the general welfare; some preferences have to be rejected or deterred so that the general good is maintained. The good is maximised through the maximisation of individual preferences.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Utilitarianism


  1. The principle of Hedonism (happiness) is more important than ever.
    • Both Bentham and Mill argue that this is the only intrinsic good (the only thing that is god in itself) is happiness or pleasure. This seems to be reflected in current education, where ‘happiness’ has become a taught subject in many schools.
    • Western culture is very materialist but many people are not happy, so it seems more important than ever to ask questions about what makes us and others happy.
    • Although Bentham focuses on the quantity of happiness we achieve through our actions, he is careful to balance pleasure with pain. In this way, Bentham’s Utilitarianism discourages selfish actions whilst promoting selfless actions.
    • Mill’s Utilitarianism pays special attention to the quality of happiness. It encourages us to strive for higher pleasures that will help maximise our unique human abilities through the practice of intellect, friendship, music, art, etc. These values are still encouraged today showing this has a place in modern society.
  1. Operates without God.
    • Many regard the 21st century as a secular (non-religious) era. The principle of utility/Hedonism is used for those who reject religious authority.
    • It is self-contained so far that if you followed Act or Rule Utilitarianism you should know how to act.
  1. The principle of Hedonism/utility is a timeless principle.
    • The principle of Hedonism reminds us that humankind should be geared towards achieving happiness whilst avoiding pain where possible. These objectives are a part of humanity as they always have been and will continue to be.
    • This principle fosters a sense of humanity (oneness amongst humans) that is much needed in modern times (war, intolerance, ignorance). We need to work towards the “greater good” and overlook individual differences.
    • “The greatest good for the greatest number is being put into place by governments all around the world. It is arguably the most appropriate way to run a country as it will always strive to satisfy the needs of as many people as possible.
  1. For there to be peace for all, sometimes minority’s needs must be compromised.
    • Following a Utilitarian ethic may not always be fair as sometimes minorities are overlooked or compromised.
    • However, it is fairer for everyone in the long run. If governments and society constantly try and make everyone happy, it is more likely that no one will end up happy. In this way Utilitarianism brings about more happiness than more other ethical systems.


  1. Happiness in not the only intrinsic good.
    • Many (e.g. religious believers) argue that Utilitarianism looks over the many intrinsic goods that exist, such as human life, charity, love freedom. These values are what makes humans unique. This is partially addressed by Mill but not by Bentham.
    • By promoting happiness over other goods, Utilitarianism reduces morality to simple formulas and mottos. In reality, morality is complex.
  1. Hedonism is not enough to make people be moral.
    • Happiness may not be powerful enough to make people to act nowadays. People know that there may be more pain than pleasure in an action and yet they do it anyways and often (i.e. rape, child abuse, not recycling).
    • To say that something only has short term pleasure is one thing, but there also needs to be deterrents and punishments to discourage these acts.
  1. The ends do not always justify the means.
    • Utilitarianism seems to leave itself wide open to one powerful blow, a criticism that it perhaps cannot defend itself against: it asserts any action as being just as long as the pleasure is greater than the pain.
  1. People must be treated as ends in themselves if there is to be peace.
    • Following Kantian ethics be fairer in the modern day as people are used as means to an end. Many political systems and cultures overlook minorities in favour of the majority.

Comparing Bentham and Mill

  Bentham Mill
Strengths: Act Util. assesses individual situations, one by one, and therefore produces a truly unique answer that is fitting for the complexity of human life. More consistent than Bentham, due to rule making. Less vulnerable to individual interpretations of evens and their consequences.
  The HC discourages monstrous behaviour, by ensuring that the likelihood of pain is always considered in any decision. Argues for quality over quantity of pleasure. Higher pleasures enrich our lives and develop our unique human abilities (“better to be Socrates dissatisfied… than a pig satisfied”).
  With this system, everyone is a competent judge and everyone’s happiness is worth as much as everyone else’s. Not just about consequences, also about improving as people. You could use Bentham’s HC many times but never become morally good.
Weaknesses: It is time-consuming and life cannot be stopped while we run the question of whether we should kill someone to protect ourselves through this complex calculus. The problem of competent judges: Who is a competent judge? Does experiencing higher pleasures for 2 days and lower pleasures for 40 days make you a completely judge as one being better than the other? Seems elitist.
  Reduces morality to a mathematical formula, ignoring the other values which should still be strived for, such as compassion, equality and love. No clear guidance on how to decide between two possible actions where both could potentially produce higher pleasure in people.
  The HC seems unreliable – it is likely that two people will apply it to the same situation and produce different results. Higher and lower pleasures hard to define i.e. why should friendship be a higher pleasure than sexual proximity when they both cause the same happiness?
  Rule Util. is too rigid – fails to take into account the complexity of individual situations.

And there you have it! This is a very wordy one and I really do suggest you take it, put it in word and give the tables some colour as I don’t think I could revise it without colour. Regardless, this is all the notes I have for this and this is a massive topic so I’m sure there is more information to add, but this is the bulk I would say. So, please comment anything you can think of below, it does help both myself and others. Thank you for reading 🙂

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