Thomas Ash

Utilitarianism is a particularly comprehensive and simple ethical theory. Its central principle - its only principle - is that the right action to perform is the one which creates most happiness. This welfarist consequentialism is concisely expressed by utilitarianism's most famous founder, Jeremy Bentham: "the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation."[1] There are widespread disagreements over how this end should be understood and achieved, but all utilitarians believe that it is the basis of ethics, not just one consideration among many[2]. In other words, it is a 'monistic' rather than 'pluralistic' ethical theory. It thus holds out the prospect of a great clarification and simplification of ethics - to decide knotty issues, all we need to do is consider how to maximise the balance of happiness. But it also runs the risk of missing something important.

First, let us examine the various forms utilitarianism can take. Jeremy Bentham's version was the simplest possible, and was for this reason the one I chose for my initial definition of utilitarianism. It is known as 'act utilitarianism'. To repeat, it holds that we should decide how to act in any given situation by considering what course of action will cause the most pleasure and the least pain for all involved. Bentham came up with a hedonistic calculus for such decisions, and attempted to popularise it with a memorable rhyme:

Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure -
Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.
Such pleasures seek if private be thy end:
If it be public, wide let them extend.
Such pains avoid, whichever be thy view:
If pains must come, let them extend to few.

Many contemporaries found Bentham's view of the good too narrow; he seemed concerned only with maximising animal-like pleasure, saying "all things being equal, pushpin is equal to poetry.' John Stuart Mill, though deeply influenced by Bentham (who helped devise his ambitious education with his father James, a friend and fellow thinker), was concerned to defend 'higher pleasures.' He argued that even a utilitarian could think it 'better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied', because those who properly experience the pleasures of Pushkin and pushpin prefer the former. This won't be because Pushkin is more pleasurable, narrowly understood; he might be said to give more happiness in the long term, but this only shows how vague a term 'happiness' is, and how it cannot be understood hedonistically.

Mill is open to criticism as elitist, assuming everyone would discount 'lower pleasures' as much as he himself does. Modern utilitarians, like R.M. Hare and J.J.C. Smart, have moved away from Bentham's calculus towards the view that we should maximise the achievement of people's priorities. Smart argues that happiness is partly evaluative; it is for each person to decide what he counts as his being happy, and there would be something wrong-headed about picking a quarrel with him on this subject. Mill correctly identified sources of happiness without which life would be much the poorer, but a pure utilitarian can only argue that pleasures like Pushkin are more 'fruitful, pure' and so on than pushpin (which, for the most part, they are). Mill contradicted himself with his hedonistic definition of happiness as 'pleasure, and the absence of pain.'[5]

Rule utilitarianism is a more radical departure. It is often phrased as advocating the rules that will maximise happiness, but David Lyons has rightly pointed out that these will automatically collapse to act utilitarianism. For rule utilitarianism to offer an alternative, it must sanction, for instance, keeping promises that do more harm than good, clearly worse in terms of utility than allowing lying that aids the greater good. Justifying this must rely on an appeal to an external standard, such as justice, which rule utilitarianism is better at achieving. The same criticism applies to motive utilitarianism, which asks 'What if everyone thought like that?' rather than 'What if everyone did that?' Theoretically, the best motive and rule might be the act utilitarian one, but this may be unrealistically ethereal.

Any practicable utilitarianism has to acknowledge peoples tendency to use general rules. A world where we calculated every action would be less happy, less spontaneous, time-consuming, and diminish human affection. This has led to indirect utilitarianism: the suggestion that we shouldn't think like utilitarians, so long as our actions turn out right. But this is practically self-defeating. Where we see that a good rule compels bad total consequences, there can be no utilitarian reason for following it.

Karl Popper has suggested 'negative utilitarianism' (oddly, as he is not a utilitarian.) We should only minimise harm, he suggests, even if it serves a greater good. But R.N. Smart points out that by this token, we should put humankind out of its misery[6].

So the plethora of utilitarianisms developed after Bentham is unsatisfactory, either collapsing into act utilitarianism or implicitly recognising some non-utilitarian standard. Why were they developed? In large part because there were felt to be difficulties with utilitarianism itself.

One is that it is hugely demanding. You would become a cog, striving to make more and more money to feed the starving (remember that if everyone were an act utilitarian, this problem might not arise.) Most moralities, taken to the full, expect this, but with utilitarianism everything you do is morally inadequate. J.L. Mackie thinks it a 'fatal objection' that utilitarianism is 'wholly impracticable', and ends up rejecting Kantianism and all other traditional alternatives in favour of an easier, subjective morality. But if there is an objectively correct morality, we can't assume it will be easy. Most of the problems with putting act utilitarianism into practice disappear if everyone follows it; no one would make malevolent demands and the burden of charity would be shared.

The prospect of being a charitable cog is off-putting partly because we all have special interests, like helping our families or pursuing our hobbies. Doesn't utilitarianism ask us to abandon these for the greater good? R.M. Hare argued that the world is a far happier place for all these things, and if we were pure charitable cogs we would soon collapse. But we probably go too far in this direction, putting sheer luxuries for our families above necessities for Africa and Asia. Human nature, with its close ties of family and friendship, is not a friend of utilitarianism. There's an old saying with some (but not complete) truth: 'You can't change human nature.'

There is a practical difficulty in working out what is right: how will we ever know all the consequences of our action, or how to sum happiness? Of course, we can't do either of these things precisely. But in comparing two real choices, giving $200 to a village in Nepal or spending it on designer jeans for a close friend, we can say that the first will probably create more happiness. When we consider fruitfulness, purity and so on, we can compare our own pleasures accurately, even if we can't put a precise numerical value on them. A.N. Prior uses the nursery rhyme of the smith whose shoddy horseshoe ultimately lost the war to argue that utilitarianism makes us responsible for the far-flung, unforeseeable results of our actions. But, as J.J.C. Smart responds, 'the notion of the responsibility is a piece of metaphysical nonsense.'[7] Many people 'lost' the war, but there is no sense in blaming them unless they could predict the consequences of not acting differently from their situation.

This illustrates how utilitarianism has no use for desert, the fundamental notion of justice. Blame, praise and punishment are only pragmatic devices for increasing happiness[8]. Yet people strongly feel justice counts for something more, so the utilitarian has some convincing to do. Mill thought that 'what is moral' in justice came from a utilitarian concern with 'the general good', and the rest could be explained by 'the natural feeling of retaliation.'[9] Some claim it is always in practice better to distribute goods evenly, and this is normally true, due to the law of diminishing returns - but not always. If Bill Gates were more delighted with a new Cadillac than ten poor people would be, total happiness would be maximised. This has led to the suggestion we should seek a minimal, 'fair' distribution, but this lacks a rationale, requires a trade-off between 'total' and 'average' happiness, and demands heavy birth control (on the other hand, overpopulation would maximise total happiness, so both conceptions seem problematic.)

What utilitarianism lacks, and what justice seems to require, is a notion of inviolable rights that everyone has, such as 'the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness' in the Declaration of Independence. From Locke and Hobbes to Rawls and Nozick, much modern philosophy has supposed natural rights, which would 'trump' (in Dworkin's words) any utilitarian considerations. The justification offered for rights is normally a social contract, perhaps made in a brutish 'State of Nature' (Hobbes) or behind a 'veil of ignorance' of your position in society (Rawls.) But a utilitarian could effectively argue that such situations are purely hypothetical, and offer counterexamples where the inviolable rights given should be violated (a remotely possible situation is a terrorist threat to release untreatable smallpox otherwise.) This provides a response to the examples I shall consider next - without an element of consequentialism, it is impossible to say when the number of lives at stake excuse harming someone. Williams denies any need for consequentialism before using it to show no action is right 'whatever the consequences.'[10]

One of the most awkward challenges for any utilitarian is to be confronted with an extreme instance where he or she seems forced to commit some spectacularly unjust or problematic crime. Most cases are hypothetical, but this cannot be an objection, as sometimes humans are put in uncomfortable situations. For example, take the Polish priest who took the place of a young father in the concentration camps. In that case, most non-Nazis approved of the utilitarian action[11]. Unfortunately, Bernard Williams comes up with some famous cases where more non-Nazis would disapprove of it. In one case, a utilitarian urges unemployed George to take work researching chemical and biological weapons (to which he is deeply opposed) because if he doesn't, an unscrupulous careerist will. In the second, a traveller, Jim, is 'invited' to unjustly kill an innocent man, as this will stop a Latin American captain from killing all twenty Indians who have protested against the government.

Now, the discomfort many feel at these conclusions could simply be a result of social and parental conditioning, as Smart suggests. 'Squeamishness' isn't fatal - if we only did the comfortable thing, our ethics would be riddled with inconsistency. And morality might well be demanding. But Williams argues that, even though a utilitarian Jim might do the right thing, his reasoning would be all wrong, thinking the 'unthinkable' and making a mockery of what it means to be a moral agent. Utilitarianism ultimately subordinates all our 'projects' (caring for our families, cherishing 'higher pleasures' like art, etc.) and 'commitments' (the concerns around which we build our lives and sense of ourselves as moral agents) to 'maximising desirable outcomes.'[12] So George can't count his commitment against horrific weapons as any more important than other factors affecting happiness. Jim can't distinguish between him killing and the captain killing, because utilitarianism makes you as responsible for what you could have prevented as for what you personally do (Williams calls this doctrine 'negative responsibility.') They are both 'alienated' from their personal desires and points beyond which they do not want to go (like killing.)

Williams thinks we need a sense of 'integrity' and 'commitments' to make sense of moral agency or justify any morality: 'Life has to have substance if anything is to have sense, including adherence to the impartial system.'[13] But we do feel (i.e. directly recognise) that health, material comfort, art and even 'commitments' (which may in practice guarantee happiness better than single-minded hedonism) have an intrinsic value simply through making life happy. This seems a possible justification of the 'substance' or life and morality, though it does move away from Bentham's simplistic hedonism. Williams would argue that it misses 'moral agency', but this seems like a hand-washing morality[14] that places egoistic weight on personal actions. It is hard to justify a belief that when you stab someone, the action on your end (stabbing), rather than the consequence (someone dying), is what makes the action wrong. Williams highlights important aspects of what it means to be human, but these are compatible with utilitarianism. Elevating the 'integrity' of an agent above human consequences, as he does, is problematic.

My justification of utilitarianism above (which was only a sketch) assumed that if the experiences, interests and commitments that make people happy have positive value for them (as we know they do), they also have value from an objective perspective. Mill's proof of utilitarianism was that 'each person ... desires his own happiness', so 'general happiness is desirable.'[15] Of course, many philosophers do not accept this. Smart, for instance, describes act-utilitarianism from a strictly non-cognitivist perspective, accepting that he cannot justify it except by appealing to people's 'generalised benevolence', an 'appeal to the heart' which an objectivist might distrust.[16] Philippa Foot rightly points out that in practice we have other values: courage, justice and so on. As an ethical theory that relies heavily on impartial balancing of others' tastes and experiences, utilitarianism is particularly vulnerable if objectivism cannot be justified.

This is just one of the ways in which utilitarianism aims high, attempting to describe what counts in life, not just what is forbidden. Williams sees this as a fault: 'utilitarianism's gross insistence on summing everything' is not sufficiently 'sophisticated.'[17] By the end of his critique, this is an explicit argument. Utilitarian attempts to accommodate justice, rights and special preferences (and, less admirably, indolence) fail. If we want to keep these in full force, our ethics can only be partly consequential. But we may decide that while they are rightly considered important, they are not so overriding as traditionally assumed, and the basis of morality is a compassionate concern with human happiness[18].


1. Bentham's Works, Vol. x. p. 142.

2. Though even non-utilitarian ethicists nowadays take into account human wellbeing, it is worth remembering that this was not always the case. For most of history, dominant 'official' moralities have focussed solely on the obeying laws or commandments, allowing no compassionate exceptions. In practice, however, ordinary people probably considered their neighbours' wellbeing as well as or in place of how they could follow these rules.

4. Smart and Williams, p114

5. Mill, chapter 2, paragraph 2

6. 'Negative utilitarianism', Mind 67 (1958) p542-3. R.N. Smart is J.J.C. Smart's brother.

7. Smart and Williams, p54

8. Smart, following Sidgwick, makes this point.

9. Mill, chapter 5, paragraph 21

10. Smart and Williams, p90

11. The priest's name was Father Maksymilian Kolbe. I am not suggesting he was a utilitarian; just that his decision is recommended by utilitarianism. It is debated whether he actually saved the man's life, but he is regarded as a hero and martyr. (Full disclosure: I'm half Polish!)

12. Smart and Williams, p114

13. 'Persons, Character and Morality', Moral Luck, 18.

14. An apt phrase, since Pontius Pilate was precisely denying 'negative responsibility' if the Jews, not him, wanted Jesus killed. Another patently bogus form of 'hand washing' is the way in which the electric chair in the USA has two buttons, only one of which works, allowing both operators to deny that they have killed someone.

15. Mill, chapter 4, paragraph 3

16. Smart and Williams, p6-7

17. Smart and Williams, p142

18. Throughout this essay I have talked about consequences for humans. Science suggests that animals a perfectly capable of experiencing pleasure, so modern utilitarians (especially Peter Singer) have accepted that they should be considered in due proportion.


All page references refer to the following editions:

Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Utilitarianism: For & Against, J.J.C. Smart (An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics) and Bernard Williams (A critique of utilitarianism) (Cambridge University Press, 1973)

The Moral Philosophers: An Introduction to Ethics (2nd edition), Richard Norman (OUP, 1998)

Utilitarianism in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Simon Blackburn (Ed.) (OUP, 1996)

Utilitarianism in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward Craig (Ed.) (Routledge, retrieved October 21, 2003, from http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/L109SECT1)

Utilitarianism in An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, 4th edition, John Hospers (Routledge, 1997)

© 2003

About the author...
Tom Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. He currently does non-profit work and freelance web development. See more information about Tom Ash.

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