What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a type of normative ethics*. Put simply Utilitarianism aims to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people in a given situation. For a Utilitarian an act is deemed good or bad by the outcome or consequence not by the act its self. To put this in real terms – Robin Hood stole from the rich, the act of stealing is deemed wrong in modern society, however as Robin hood gave what he stole to the poor a utilitarian would deem this a morally just act as the consequence has helped the poor and maximised happiness.

*Normative ethics – This is typically the questions you may ask ones self when trying to make a moral decision.

Types of Utilitarianism

There are two types of Utilitarianism:

Act – maintains that a good act is one that creates the greatest good or happiness.

Rule – maintains that an act is good if it conforms to the rule that leads to the greatest good.

Utilitarian Philosophers

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are the two main thinkers in Utilitarianism. Mill was Bentham’s student therefore they have the same grounding in Utilitarianism yet in practice they differ.


During the 1780s Bentham wrote the book ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’ in which he highlighted his thoughts on Utilitarianism:

‘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’.

Principle of Utility – To determine if an act is moral, Bentham believed that you should consider how much pleasure and pain resulted, he referred to this as the principle of Utility. Bentham would deem the ‘usefulness’ of an act by how much pleasure or happiness is created, such that an act is right if it creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Hedonic Calculus – Bentham created the calculus to provide a fair and consistent method of deciding whether an act maximises good or evil, seven questions were formulated:

–       Intensity – How strong is the pleasure?

–       Duration – How long will the pleasure last?

–       Certainty/uncertainty – How likely or unlikely is it that there will be pleasure?

–       Propinquity/remoteness – How long will it take for there to be pleasure?

–       Fecundity – How likely is it that the action will be followed by more pleasure?

–        Purity – Probability of the action been followed by pain?

–       Extent – Number of people affected by the action?

John Stuart Mill

Mill thought that Bentham’s method was too simplistic so developed the concept of higher and lower pleasures. Mill thought that some pleasures were more desirable than others, such that intellectual pleasures were intrinsically better than physical pleasures. In his 1861 book ‘Utilitarianism’ Mill stated that:

‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied that a fool satisfied’

Mill noted that the even those who are capable of higher intellectual pleasure often become tempted by the lower physical pleasures.