I. THE PHILOSOPHYJ. O. Urmson
II. SOCIOLOGICAL THOUGHTTalcott Parsons
“Utilitarianism” is a term that has no precise or even unequivocal meaning. It is used both as a name for any ethical theory that seeks to determine the Tightness and wrongness of actions by reference to the goodness and badness of their consequences and as a name for the whole body of philosophical and political doctrines that was accepted by Bentham and the philosophical radicals of the nineteenth century. The word “utilitarianism” was invented casually by Bentham and reinvented by J. S. Mill to apply specifically to their own doctrines, but a wider use is now very common. Thus, it is common to refer to Hume, who lived well before Bentham, and G. E. Moore, who had no political interests and rejected the doctrine that pleasure is the sole good, as utilitarians.
The basic philosophical position that the merit of actions must be determined by reference to their consequences may be taken as having either of two incompatible aims. It may be interpreted as a manifesto for moral reform, advocating a better and more enlightened method for settling moral issues to replace less satisfactory ways of moral thinking; or it may be interpreted as an analytic doctrine whose aim is to make explicit those canons of sound moral thinking which are always implicitly followed in any sound moral reflection. In this second interpretation, it stands in relation to the practice of moral thinkers in general as a philosophical exposition of scientific method stands to the practice of scientists in general, whereas the first interpretation would be more like the advocacy of a new and “improved” scientific method. Although advocates of utilitarianism have not always been as clear as one could wish about how they should be interpreted, it is better to interpret the most philosophical among them, including Hume, J. S. Mill, and Moore, in the latter, analytical way. Thus, Mill says that, to all moralists who deem it necessary to argue at all, utilitarian arguments are indispensable, and he proceeds to criticize Kant, not for failing to be a utilitarian but for failing to realize that he was one.
There are two basic questions that a philosophical utilitarian has to answer. First, he must tell us exactly how we are to determine the Tightness and wrongness of actions in terms of their good and bad consequences; second, he must give us a principle for determining what are good and bad consequences. To put it more simply, he has to tell us both how to determine the right in terms of the good and how to determine the good. The various answers that may be given to these two questions are relatively independent of each other, so that we may consider each question in relative isolation.
Determination of the right
Act utilitarianism. The best-known answer to the question of how to determine the Tightness of actions by reference to the value of their consequences is that an action is right if, and only if, the value of its total consequences is at least as great as the value of the total consequences of any alternative course of action; an action will be the (only) right one to perform if its total consequences are more valuable than those of any possible alternative course of action. In this view the correct decision about how to act on a particular occasion is ultimately governed by the facts of the particular situation: it will be wrong to kill on one occasion if the killing will have inferior consequences and right to kill on another occasion if the killing will have the best possible consequences.
This, the best-known answer, is commonly dubbed “act utilitarianism” or “extreme utilitarianism” by philosophers. It is popularly thought to be the utilitarian answer. But, although they occasionally gave it as an answer, it was certainly not the answer of Hume, Bentham, Austin, and J. S. Mill, and however formulated and however supplemented, it is subject to the gravest difficulties. A sustained attack on it would be out of place here, but a few of these difficulties may be very briefly mentioned.
First, the concept of the total consequences of an action is of little value; there is no satisfactory way of delimiting the consequences of any given action. Second, even if the concept can be used, there is clearly no possibility of ever knowing the value of the total consequences of all the possible courses of action on a particular occasion. To meet these two objections, it is sometimes said that appeal should be made to the total foreseeable consequences only; but this modification makes it impossible to recognize the proper distinction between correct moral decisions and honest errors of moral judgment arising from ignorance of fact. We may surely be justified, but mistaken, in acting on the basis of foreseeable consequences only. Third, this famous answer gives us no means of distinguishing moral from other practical issues: it is hard to see how, in this view, I would not be making a moral mistake if I took a party of friends to a less interesting entertainment than I might have chosen for them. Fourth, this answer is quite at variance with ordinary moral thinking: if I give as a reason for acting in a certain way that I have promised to do so, it is absurd either to insist that I am being irrelevant or that I am giving a reason for thinking that acting in that way will have the best consequences.
This last objection leads us to an alternative answer to the question of how the rightness of actions is to be determined with reference to consequences. The point of the objection was that in sound moral thinking we do in fact appeal to principles other than that of producing the best total consequences. We also appeal to principles of promise keeping and truthtelling, the kind of principles that are found in the Ten Commandments. The act utilitarian must either reject appeal to all such principles as improper, which is grossly implausible, or more commonly and more plausibly, give them a rule-of-thumb status. Thus, if promise keeping has in past experience nearly always had better results than promise breaking, we may sum up this experience in the generalization “Promise breaking is wrong.” It will be wise to keep promises in obscure situations in the light of this generalization, but it will have no more authority than the bridge player’s adage, “Second player plays low” an appeal to the actual consequences will always override the adage, which has no independent authority. The alternative answer discussed next attempts to do more justice to the role of such moral principles.
Rule utilitarianism. Another answer to the question of how to determine the rightness of actions by reference to the goodness of their consequences is called rule utilitarianism. J. S. Mill in his Utilitarianism (1861) accepted what he took to be the received opinion that the morality of an individual action is not a question of direct perception but of the application of a law to an individual case. The laws Mill had in mind are the ordinary moral principles of truthfulness, honesty, and the like. Such laws Mill called “secondary principles.” However, Mill held that moralists do not commonly give us a satisfactory supreme principle for determining which secondary principles it is proper to accept. Mill therefore produced the utilitarian supreme principle that a secondary principle should be accepted and obeyed if, and only if, the consequences of our accepting that principle will be better than those of our either having no principle at all or having some alternative principle. A secondary principle—“Always do X in circumstances Y”—will be justified if our experience shows that, in an overwhelming majority of cases, actions of the kind X have the best consequences in circumstances Y; that is, if the action X in circumstances Y tends to promote the best consequences.
Calm reflection on our secondary principles is always desirable, but so long as such a secondary principle is accepted, it should be followed in all cases of action to which it is applicable, without further reference to consequences. But two qualifications must be made. First, it may so happen that two secondary principles conflict on a particular occasion (e.g., the duty of truthtelling and the duty of respecting confidences), in which case we must fall back on the supreme principle and appeal directly to consequences. Second, while in general to “see a utility in the breach of a rule, greater than … in its observance …[is] to furnish us with excuses for evil-doing and means of cheating our own conscience” (Mill  1957, p. 32), secondary principles are the crude handiwork of fallible men subject to “peculiarities of circumstances.” Occasions may arise when, with an eye to consequences, we must break a moral principle—perhaps to avoid causing great and unmerited hardship. However, the general principle remains: “We must remember that only in these cases of conflict between secondary principles is it requisite that first principles should be appealed to. There is no case of moral obligation in which some secondary principle is not involved …” (ibid., p. 33).
Hume was also a “rule utilitarian” thus he recognized that the repayment of a debt by a poor man with a sick family to a wealthy miser was in itself repugnant but held it justified by the necessary rules of the artificial virtue of justice. Austin, in his lectures on the province of jurisprudence, which Mill had heard, was quite explicit:
The probable specific consequences of doing that single act, of forbearing from that single act, or of omitting that single act, are not the objects of the inquiry. The question to be solved is this: —If acts of the class were generally done, or generally forborne or omitted, what would be the probable effect on the general happiness or good? … In the tenth, or the hundredth case, the act might be useful: in the nine, or the ninety and nine, the act would be pernicious. If the act were permitted or tolerated in the rare and anomalous case, the motives to forbear in the others would be weakened or destroyed. (Austin [1832-1863] 1954, pp. 38, 41)
The need for Bentham to be a rule utilitarian is surely obvious. His main interest was to bring an enlightened legislation into line with morality. His laws were to be defended as very special cases of moral secondary principles. Once it is grasped that in speaking of the “tendencies of actions,” Bentham is, like the other utilitarians, speaking of kinds of actions (for particular actions either do or do not have certain consequences, only kinds of actions can tend to have them), then a reading of his work shows him clearly to be a rule utilitarian.
To claim that rule utilitarianism as thus presented is free from difficulties would be very optimistic. Without further qualifications it surely gives at least an overly rigid and simple account of moral thinking. But it does at least avoid some of the obvious objections discussed above to which act utilitarianism is liable, and much recent moral philosophy makes (or criticizes) the attempt to present some viable version of it.
The nature of the good
We must now turn to the second major question to which utilitarianism is committed to giving an answer: What is the nature of the good, the production of which makes right actions right? On this topic utilitarian exegesis has commonly been both confused and confusing. Bentham’s own view (1789) is, no doubt, superficially plain and clear: the only good is pleasure, the only bad is pain. Anything that gives a quantitatively greater balance of pleasure over pain is better than anything giving a lesser balance—the quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry. He devised an elaborate calculus for the measurement of pleasure and pain. Thus, he argued, if we mean by “happiness” pleasure and the absence of pain, the good which determines the Tightness of actions will be the greatest happiness of the greatest number. This famous formula was, it appears, coined by Francis Hutcheson and used by Joseph Priestley in his Essay on the First Principles of Government (1768), where Bentham found it. But this formula is much less clear than it seems. If we could somehow measure units of happiness, it is not clear whether on this principle it is better for ten men each to to have a favorable balance of ten units and one an unfavorable balance of one hundred units or for all eleven to have an even balance of pleasure and pain, as Bentham himself came to see.
But there is a still more basic difficulty in Bentham’s position. At the beginning of his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) he tells us that mankind is under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think. This is for Bentham the ultimate self-evident truth. It is very hard not to interpret it as the doctrine of psychological hedonism, stating that as a matter of psychological fact men always have the aim of maximizing the balance of their own pleasure over pain. However, this doctrine, so far from being a basis for the ethical doctrine of utilitarianism, is incompatible with any ethical doctrine whatsoever. It would be idle to tell men that they ought to aim at the greatest general happiness or at anything else, even their own happiness, if as a matter of psychological fact, they will inevitably aim at their own greatest happiness. Moreover, the doctrine of psychological hedonism, though perennially attractive, is surely false: not only do men seem at times to be obviously altruistic—at least, as Hume dispassionately observes, when altruism does not thwart self-interest—but even when, for example, a stamp collector gains great pleasure from getting a rare stamp, it seems more plausible to regard his pleasure as a result of his getting what he wanted (the stamp) than to treat his collection of the stamp as a mere idiosyncratic means to his true end, which is pleasure. If he had not wanted the stamp so badly, he would not have been so pleased at obtaining it. Thus, Bentham’s doctrine of the good has an unsatisfactory basis, though as we shall see, one that was important to his more practical activities.
J. S. Mill paid lip service to the Benthamite position by claiming happiness to be the sole good and defining it as pleasure and the absence of pain. However, it is little more than lip service. First, he allowed that pleasures may differ in quality as well as in quantity, but as critics have constantly observed, this means that something other than pleasantness determines goodness. Second, he makes preference by a wise and experienced judge the criterion of superior pleasantness, but this makes vacuous the claim that we prefer things because of their greater pleasantness. Ultimately, it is hard to see that Mill said more than that happiness is the life most worth living in the judgment of the wise and that we should have as our aim the provision of such a life for as many people as possible, which is as unrevealing as it is unexceptionable.
Two other utilitarian, but non-Benthamite, answers to the question of the nature of the good deserve mention. First there is the view, held, for example, by G. E. Moore (1903), that there is no single answer to the question. In this view there are many different things, pleasure among them, that are good in themselves and which we have a duty to promote. Moore mentions, among others, love, beauty, and knowledge. Anything that is, say, both pleasant and beautiful would be superior to what was only pleasant, or only beautiful, to the same degree. Though this position is linked in Moore with a doctrine of intuition of nonnatural characteristics and the attempt to give a list of “goods” seems artificial, the view that there are many quite different things which are good independently of each other is in accord with common ways of thinking, even if repugnant to the philosopher’s desire for neat and simple answers to questions.
Second, there is the view, sometimes called negative utilitarianism, of which Karl Popper is a noted exponent. According to negative utilitarianism, it is a mistake to suppose that in order to answer the question of what consequences are relevant to the Tightness of actions it is necessary to determine what consequences of actions in general can be counted good. It maintains that there may well be many good consequences of actions which are quite irrelevant to their morality, for morality is concerned, negatively, only with the elimination of avoidable suffering. Moral norms, secondary principles, are justified by the fact that social life would be impossible, or at least to some degree intolerable, unless those norms were observed. Social life would be impossible if there were a habit of violence, so there is a generally recognized universal duty to abstain from violence; it would be intolerable if we were continually misled by our fellows, so there is a recognized universal duty of truthfulness and promise keeping. Yet, though the production of beautiful works of art and the increase of human knowledge are great goods, neither is a recognized duty, even of those who are capable of them (even if the latter is a contractual duty of university professors). To go out of our way to help our neighbors is admirable, but it is a work of supererogation —there is no recognized universal duty to do so. There is much to be said for this viewpoint. Moreover, whatever Mill may have said in Utilitarianism, it is tacitly accepted by him in his On Liberty (1859), where he denies the existence of any warrant for norms, whether legal or moral, save that of the prevention of harm to others.
Utilitarianism has so far been presented as a highly abstract philosophical doctrine, as an attempt to give a very general account of the nature of moral thinking. Some attempt has been made to sketch some of the principal answers given by various utilitarians to two of the basic questions with which they are confronted. This purely philosophical element is, indeed, of central importance in utilitarianism, and it has always been regarded by utilitarians themselves as such, but it remains to be explained how, particularly in nineteenth-century England, such an abstract doctrine could have been the basis for a practical program of political, legal, and moral reform.
It has been claimed in this article that the utilitarians regarded themselves not as proposing a new morality but as analyzing the nature of sound moral thinking in a way similar to the analysis of scientific method. However, the analyst of scientific method need not claim that there is no erroneous thinking, no superstition, on matters scientific. Certainly the utilitarians did not wish to claim that all our norms—the secondary principles of morality, our political institutions, our penal codes—were in fact based on utilitarian considerations. One has only to glance at Mill’s On Liberty to realize that he thought many of them to be founded on superstition, class interest, bigotry, and unthinking custom. Thus, there were two practical tasks for Mill as a utilitarian: he had to fight the attitude of bigotry and superstition by writing such polemical works as On Liberty and The Subjection of Women, and he had to provide knowledge of the consequences of social action by economic and sociological investigation to enable sound norms to be found by those with the desire to find them. Finally, there was the need for direct, practical action whereby the better norms discovered by enlightened utilitarians, with the aid of Bentham’s investigations of penal institutions and Ricardo’s discoveries in economics, might be brought into practical operation.
Bentham’s proposals on penal reform merit some special examination, both in their own right and because they underline certain general points already made. For Bentham the purpose and justification of penal laws were no different from those of the secondary principles of morality—they required justification by the general happiness principle. Penal laws differed from moral principles only in their provenance—being the commands of an Austinian sovereign—and in having a political sanction instead of, or in addition to, the physical, moral, and legal sanctions that other norms might have. Punishment, being the infliction of pain, is in itself a bad thing. Therefore, legislators will be justified in passing a penal law only if the general happiness it causes greatly outweighs the evil of punishment for its nonobservance. Now since the act made illegal would be done only if the doing of it would maximize the agent’s happiness, in the absence of a penal sanction, the task of the legislator in framing the penal sanction must be to impose the minimum sanction that will outweigh the advantage of performing the act; hence the importance of an accurate hedonic calculus.
There are two especially interesting features of this view. First, it is an excellent illustration of the direct application of the utilitarian principle to practical problems of legislation and penology; second, it shows well the importance of the doctrine of psychological hedonism in Bentham’s thought, for the penal sanction is clearly thought of by Bentham as a mechanism for directing self-regarding action into socially useful channels, rather as a government might try to control investment by manipulating the interest rate; criminal law is a device for making the socially useful profitable to the individual agent.
At this point our survey of utilitarian thought must end. It seems that no utilitarian account of moral thought has yet succeeded in doing justice to all the complexities of our moral thought, and yet the general utilitarian position continues to exert a strong attraction. In time a sufficiently subtle version of utilitarianism may succeed in giving a general elucidation of moral thinking. Perhaps there are both utilitarian and nonutilitarian elements in conventional ways of moral thinking and it is possible that a pure utilitarianism must be, at least in part, a moral program rather than a philosophical elucidation.
J. O. Urmson
[See also Decision making, article on Psychological Aspects; Liberalism; Penology, article on The field; Social control, article on The concept; and the biographies of Austin; Bentham; Durkheim; HalÉvy; Hobbes; Hume; Mill. Other relevant material may be found under Political theory.]
Austin, John (1832-1863)1954 The Province of Jurisprudence Determined and The Uses of the Study of Jurisprudence. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; New York: Noonday Press. → Two books bound together.
Bentham, Jeremy (1789) 1948 An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. New ed. New York: Hafner.
HalÉvy, Élie (1901-1904) 1952 The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. New ed. London: Faber. → First published in French.
Hume, David (1739-1740) 1958 A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Clarendon. → Reprinted from the original edition; contains an analytical index.
Hutcheson, Francis (1725) 1753 An Inquiry Into the Origins of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue: In Two Treatises. 5th ed., corrected. London. → The first work by the first influential English utilitarian.
Lyons, David 1965 Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism Oxford Univ. Press.
Mill, John Stuart (1859) 1963 On Liberty. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill.
Mill, John Stuart (1861)1957 Utilitarianism. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill.
Moore, G. E. (1903) 1954 Principia ethica. Cambridge Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1959.
Priestley, Joseph (1768) 1771 Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty. 2d ed., enl. London.
Stephen, Leslie (1900)1950 The English Utilitarians. Series of Reprints of Scarce Works on Political Economy, Nos. 9-11. 3 vols. London School of Economics and Political Science; Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → A detailed study of Bentham and the two Mills.
Toulmin, Stephen E. (1950)1960 An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics. Cambridge Univ. Press. → An important statement of negative utilitarianism.
The movement of thought generally known as utilitarianism, which had its center in England from the seventeenth until well into the twentieth century, provided one of the most important frames of reference in the shaping of social science theory, including sociological theory. The foundations of utilitarianism were laid above all by Hobbes and Locke, with their very different emphases; its culminating phase involved the sequence of eminent writers that extends from Adam Smith, through Bentham, Austin, Malthus, and Ricardo, to John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer.
It was a frame of reference based on the action of the individual, but was extended, in ways that led directly to the conception of “social system,” to include the interaction of an indefinite plurality of individuals. The individual of the utilitarians, unlike his counterpart in the Cartesian scheme, was an actor, not a knower. That he had goals (which Hobbes called “passions” and the economists called “wants") was a basic assumption. In the main utilitarian tradition, however, little attention was paid to the interconnections between the different wants actuating the same individual or to the origins of these wants. To be sure, the associationist psychologists, building largely on Locke’s epistemology, developed a rudimentary theory in this area which has remained continuously influential, especially in the modern behaviorist movement. But since behaviorism has not strongly emphasized the organization of an individual’s wants into a personality system, it has not had the same degree of impact on sociological theory as has psychoanalysis, for instance, or the type of social psychology deriving from Cooley and Mead, or even that deriving from Durkheim and his school.
The major utilitarian premises
The primary focus of utilitarianism was on the process of action designed to satisfy given wants of individuals—that is, on goal-attainment, or want-satisfaction, whichever way it was put. The process was understood to be one of choosing means that would effectively gain the end. Since this conception was inherently “teleological,” in the sense that the behavior was conceived as purposive, it required some normative reference beyond the mere desirability of being satisfied. This was the origin of the famous concept of rationality in the restricted sense of choosing those means and concrete behaviors that are “best adapted” to attainment of the end. Eventually it became clear that the relations among multiple ends had to be considered in a double sense: as the various ends of the same individual actor, and as the ends of different participants in an interactive system. The most obvious way of introducing the consideration of multiple ends was through some conception of cost. Accordingly, to the conception of rational adaptation of means to ends was added the conception of scarcity, or the fact that the same means can be appropriate to the attainment of more than one end and that their utilization for one end may entail sacrificing their potential for attaining alternative ends (this eventually came to be understood as the economic conception of cost). However, the process of goal-attainment can be impeded by other obstacles, in addition to the sacrifice of alternative uses of means. For instance, there may be factors in the situation that cannot be overcome or consequences of the line of action that are noxious to the actor.
These considerations constitute the essential conceptual setting of the famous utilitarian doctrine of hedonism—a doctrine which found its classic expression in the works of Bentham. Here, pleasure is regarded essentially as the gratifying consequence of successful rational action and pain as the subjective cost of encountering noxious consequences, some of which would not have been “chosen” if means and ends had been rationally considered. Hedonism at the utilitarian level of its development was surely not a scientific psychological theory so much as a specialized language, to be used for formulating the balance between advantage and disadvantage in the attempt at rational satisfaction of wants. Nevertheless, the allegation that it was a definite theory of motivation has figured very prominently in this whole tradition of thought, especially perhaps through the claim that economic theory rested on hedonistic psychological postulates that rendered it vulnerable to refutation on psychological grounds. It turns out, however, that neither economics nor the sociological problems associated with utilitarianism depend basically on a single narrowly defined set of psychological assumptions. As aspects of the theory of social systems they are interdependent with the theory of personality and that of the behavioral organism, but this relationship is very different from that envisaged in the older discussions about psychological hedonism [see Systems Analysis, article on Social Systems, and compare Parsons 1961, part 2]. The concept of rationality, as developed in the utilitarian tradition, is not so much a psychological theory—as it has often been held to be—as a value premise. Particularly as used by the classical economists, the concept defined a pattern of behavior which was expected to be recognized as the optimum by men engaged in economic activity. The extent to which actual behavior met these criteria was a distinct problem (see, for instance, the discussion in Parsons & Smelser 1956).
The model of action introduced and developed by the utilitarians was thus exceedingly simple; above all, it was not psychologically sophisticated. Its very simplicity, however, not only enabled it to serve as the vehicle for certain very important positive developments in social theory, but also facilitated the posing of sharp questions about its limits which eventually led to its being transcended. Including the conception of rationality as just characterized, utilitarianism can be said to have constituted, in its individual reference, a theory of the rational pursuit of self-interest. But the more significant developments for which utilitarianism was responsible concerned “interests” in the utilitarian sense. At this level the utilitarian scheme implied a conception of what we now call the social system.
Hobbes versus Locke
Halévy (1901-1904), in his virtually definitive analysis of utilitarianism, dealt with its first basic cleavage, which arose in its founding generation as the difference between Hobbes and Locke. This difference centered on attitudes toward the problem of social order and its basis. In Hobbes’s account, the consequence of generalizing the rational pursuit of self-interest in a social system was progressive intensification of the elements of interindividual conflict which were inherent in the utilitarian assumptions. Though Hobbes certainly understood the factor of economic scarcity, he regarded the fundamental source of conflict to be the fact that any individual’s pursuit of his own interests can eventuate only in injury to the interests of others. Since, Hobbes contended, “there is no common rule of good and evil to be taken from the objects themselves,” the process will result in every man becoming the enemy of every other, so that all will “endeavor to destroy or subdue one another.” The outcome is the famous Hobbesian state of nature, the “war of all against all,” in which the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes 1651).
The resort to mutual hostility, destruction, and subjection is motivated by one element of order which Hobbes assumed to be present in the want-system of the individual, namely the primacy of the “passion for self-preservation.” It is the presence of this primacy in everyone that generates the vicious circle of a deepening conflict that operates through fraud and force. But unless individual men are to limit the possibilities of their existence to such conditions, there must be some collective equivalent of individual self-interest and of its ultimate form, the interest in self-preservation. Hobbes found this equivalent in the generalization of the interest in social order (a higher level of rationality than the strictly utilitarian), which he thought could be attributed to the act of the social contract by which a sovereign authority was set up to impose order. Having limited his “psychology” to the level of individual self-interest, and having implied that only punitive sanctions could effectively restrain the war of all against all, Hobbes had to postulate a rigorously authoritarian sovereign to whom men forfeit their “natural rights” to pursue their own self-interest to the point of conflict with others.
Hobbes’s conception of sovereignty, with its sharp dichotomization between the mass of individual men—subjects, we may say—and the single, undivided source of authority, remained a continuing theme in utilitarian thought. Probably its most important later appearance was in the jurisprudence of Austin, with its conception that legal legitimacy may be derived through a series of deductions from the conception of sovereignty itself. Indeed, since Marxian theory also tended to adopt uncritically the utilitarian model of action in the interest of individual want-satisfaction, especially as this model was mediated by Ricardian economics, it seems that the rigorous conception of the sovereignty of the Communist party may well owe much to the heritage of Hobbes. The use of the concept of power in Western political theory also derives mainly from the Hobbesian tradition.
The other main trend of utilitarian thought, stemming from Locke, set the tone that predominated during the culminating age of utilitarianism. Here a key concept, presented in Locke but greatly developed by Adam Smith and his successors, was the division of labor, which, on utilitarian assumptions, was made possible by the existence of mutual advantage in exchange. Such mutual advantage, however, presupposed the existence of an order which somehow constituted a solution of the Hobbesian problem, the more so the more extended the system of exchange relationships. As Halévy showed, this solution in Locke’s case rested entirely on an assumption of the natural identity of interests (Halévy 1901-1904). Locke assumed that, instead of being impelled, because of scarcity and a consequent interest in mutual obstruction, to “destroy or subdue one another,” men are so attracted by the possibilities of mutually furthering each other’s interests through the division of labor and exchange that they need not resort to the strategies of conflict.
Locke (1690), like Hobbes, grounded social order in a social contract, but gave it a directly obverse emphasis. Whereas Hobbes conceived of his contracting parties as surrendering their “natural rights” to the sovereign, Locke conceived of his as mutually contracting to protect each other’s rights to “life, liberty and property” and as setting up a minimal government for that purpose. Locke’s version of the utilitarian conception of the social system had critical consequences in two main directions. First, his conception of the direct and immediate rational pursuit of self-interest by individuals within the context of the division of labor and exchange provided the frame of reference within which the classical economics developed. Its most distinguished theorist, David Ricardo (1817), developed by far the most sophisticated theoretical analysis of an abstracted aspect of human social action which had yet appeared. To a large degree, it then dominated not only technical economics but the general economic liberalism of so much of the Western world in the nineteenth century. Second, Locke also greatly influenced social science through his analysis of the grounding of political democracy; he provided a basis that differed sharply from that of the French analysis, which stemmed above all from Rousseau and which contained more of the heritage of Hobbes than of Locke (though still more of the heritage of Descartes).
Order again a problem: Malthus and Marx
Utilitarian thought, however, had left the basic problem of order unsolved; Locke did not answer Hobbes, but only bypassed him. These chickens came home to roost, before the full emergence of sociology, at two primary points: in the works of Malthus, and in those of Marx, who was in part a utilitarian.
Malthus presented what was, in part, a synthesis of Hobbes and Locke. He did not question the existence of social order, the division of labor, or the process of exchange. Nor was he preoccupied with political authority. Rather, he focused on a set of conditions of economic life which were antecedent to any natural identity of interests, namely the numbers of the population which had to share the resources available to a society. He postulated a general tendency for human beings to reproduce beyond the means of subsistence, generating pressure on those means. This pressure was held to lead, unless counteracted, to the “positive checks,” especially famine, which were to form such an important model in the more popular versions of the principle of natural selection. Malthus also saw the pressure of population as responsible for another dimension of the division of labor. He called this dimension the “division of society into classes,” notably into the landowners, “capitalists,” and laborers who figured so prominently in classical economics. If the idea of the positive checks fed directly into Darwinism and especially into social Darwinism, the class doctrine, which Malthus did not originate but to which he gave a new rationale, fed very directly into socialist thought, especially that of Marx and his followers. Thus Marx, under Malthus’ influence, reintroduced a Hobbesian element by holding that productive efficiency adequate to mitigate the pressure of population was dependent on an inequality of economic resources which, at the level of the firm, became the focus of a power relation (compare Hobbes 1651, chapter 10). This relation was the structural focus of the Marxian theory of capitalistic exploitation.
Malthus thus reactivated the Hobbesian themes by raising serious questions about the “harmonistic” implications of the Lockean conceptions. A notable instance of the interplay of ideological and theoretical conceptions was Ricardo’s use of the Malthusian “principle of population” to ground the famous “iron law of wages.” On the one hand, this served to solve Ricardo’s central theoretical problem of the distribution of wealth by anchoring the share of wages in an extraeconomic explanation. But on the other hand, it also set the stage for the Marxian theory of exploitation. The distinctiveness of Marx in this respect lies in the fact that he constructed the first major bridge between the social thought of German idealism, in which he was reared, and that of English utilitarianism.
From utilitarianism to social Darwinism
Among English utilitarians, and for the most part their American affiliates, it was scarcely until the time of Keynes that the disturbing implications of the Malthusian episode began to be taken adequately into account. What I have called the “harmonistic” themes again prevailed, certainly in intimate connection with the atmosphere of social and political reform which gathered force in the early to middle nineteenth century in Great Britain. We may perhaps say that Austin and Bentham conceived the Hobbesian problem to have been solved, perhaps by the British constitution, which could be construed as a latter-day embodiment of Locke’s natural identity of interests. Though in ways which now appear theoretically dubious, Austin gave a very important intellectual basis for the legitimation of legal order, which was so essential to British society, and, through the sovereign as then conceived, for the rather special symbiosis of social groups which characterized nineteenth-century Britain, notably of the aristocracy and the middle class.
Bentham may be said to have represented the more democratic wing of utilitarianism. Perhaps more than any other figure he is the intellectual father of British socialism, the proponent of the use of public authority as an instrumentality of social reform (see especially Bentham 1789). A strong egalitarian underpinning was expressed in the Benthamite formula of “the greatest good of the greatest number,” though until the advent of marginal utility theory late in the nineteenth century it was difficult to say what even the economic aspect of the greatest good for a single individual might be. As for the “greatest number”: from an ethical point of view it remained sheer assumption that all persons had equal claims to whatever the greatest good might be, though this did not detract from the logic of Bentham’s argument. Bentham’s “philosophy,” with its hedonistic formulae, remained the most immediate broader background of economic thinking and policy and of reform politics for a long time. It also underlay the tendency, still present among economists, to consider the wants of different individuals to be in principle incommensurable; the assumption was challenged by Pareto (1916) for the conception of the utility of a society in a sense broader than the economic (compare Arrow 1951).
John Stuart Mill was the great synthesizer of the utilitarian tradition over the whole range of its concerns in ethics, economics, and political theory. He was also in many ways highly conscious of its difficulties and attempted to solve what seems to be the most formidable of these from the present point of view, the problem of order, by developing the new formula of social utility, i.e., the conception that through his own intelligent insight the individual could come to understand that his self-interest was bound up with the common interest, and to act upon that understanding.
Probably the most important break with the harmonistic themes of English utilitarianism came through the influence of Darwinism and through the attempt to extend Darwinian principles to the human social world. There were relatively obvious connections between the processes of natural selection and of economic competition, reinforced by the Malthusian heritage, though Keynes (1919-1947) certainly exaggerated in saying that Darwinism could be considered one grand generalization of the Ricardian economics. Furthermore, the conception of evolution came to be applied in the social field by a whole series of writers, among whom Herbert Spencer was the most prominent.
The conception of “nature red in tooth and claw” certainly again raised acutely the problem of order; but perhaps equally serious for the utilitarian framework was a challenge to the postulate of the givenness of wants. Hard on the heels of Darwinism came the instinct theory in biology and psychology, attempting to introduce order into human motivation within the utilitarian framework—McDougall’s Social Psychology, first published in 1908, being perhaps the most influential work. A broadened theory of social action could not evade this problem and there was clearly no solution to be derived from strict utilitarian premises.
Simple assimilation to general biological theory also failed to survive as the most acceptable solution. On the broad base of Darwinian biology, and in terms of the heredity-environment distinction, increasing attention was given to the conception of the importance of the learned content of transmissible experience—a conception which came to be formulated in the anthropological concept of culture.
The break with utilitarian premises
Both the tension in the utilitarian position and one of the ways in which this tension could be resolved can be illustrated by two major incidents. The first was the relation between John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte. The two developed an exceedingly close personal friendship. It proved, however, that the intellectual differences between them were too deep for it to endure and they eventually broke with each other. Mill documented the break with the exceedingly interesting little book, Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865). Basically the issue was that Mill was what I have called an “analytical individualist” and could not stomach the collective emphasis of Comte.
The second incident was the intrusion into the economics of Alfred Marshall, the main founder of fully modern British economics, of an element which, in retrospect, can be seen clearly to be anomalous in a utilitarian system. This was his refusal to endorse wholeheartedly the reliance of economic theory on the theory of “want-satisfaction” as newly refined by the principle of marginal utility. Instead, he insisted on the importance of what he called “activities,” which he himself referred to the Ricardian labor theory of value, but which turned out to involve internalized values on a level incompatible with the utilitarian assumption of the givenness of wants (Marshall 1890; compare Parsons 1937, chapter 3).
In the sociological as distinct from the economic direction, there is an important line which runs from Mill through Spencer to Hobhouse. Spencer was the one who stressed the individualistic side, with special reference to social policy, while Hobhouse was in the tradition of Mill, as perhaps the last major social utilitarian.
But the theoretically specific solutions to the problem of social order derived primarily from contact with other main traditions of thought. The earliest of these solutions was proposed in Marxian theory; as already noted, Marx was both German idealist—in inverted form, of course—and utilitarian. Yet Marxism did not take hold strongly in Britain, so that the importance of Marx probably lay more in exporting utilitarianism to continental Europe than in bringing historical materialism to Britain. However, Marx’s conception of the constraining system of competitive and power relations did have a fruitful affinity with Durkheim’s later formulation of society as a “reality sui generis” (1895). Durkheim oriented his analysis directly to the system of economic individualism. He issued a fundamental challenge to the utilitarian analysis of it, couching his argument explicitly in terms of the problem of order. The crucial factor, ignored in the utilitarian scheme, was that of an institutionalized normative order, of which the institution of contract was the key element in the economic context. This institution could not be derived from the interests of the contracting parties, but presupposed an independent source in what Durkheim called the conscience collective (1893).
Major alternatives to utilitarianism
Two crucial developments, which owed much to the Cartesian tradition of French thought, arose from the interpretation of the implications of this break with the utilitarian scheme. One of these was the articulation of the basis of social order with legal tradition, as anchored in turn in cultural factors, not simply in the interests of individuals. This view was closer to Hobbes and Austin than to Locke, but came to emphasize values held in common by the participants in a social system, and eventually the grounding of these values in religious tradition.
This outcome, which was reached by Durkheim late in his career, did not radically cut social institutions off from the biological realm. Rather it introduced a whole series of distinctions among factors intermediate between the manifestations of the genetic constitution of a species, such as instincts, and a variety of socially and culturally ordered entities, among which religion comprised the highest set of components. This paved the way for a new and much more sophisticated attempt to fit society and its evolutionary development into the general world of biological life.
The second major direction of innovation was into the realm of utilitarian wants, which we now consider that of personality. In Durkheim’s work this took the form of the conception of the internalization of social norms and objects in the personality of the individual, so that the primary sanctions lay in their moral authority (1893). This was an extreme antithesis of the Hobbesian position. The same applies to sociocultural values, a complex that Durkheim saw as basically accounting for societal integration, that is, as providing the solution of the problem of social order. Here Durkheim converged with Freud, and with the social psychology of Cooley (1902) and Mead (1934) which was developing in the United States.
Starting from a base in German idealism, and with a polemical attitude toward both idealism and Marxism, Max Weber had independently been developing similar conceptions. His initial empirical insight was that a major component in the motivation for profit-making economic activity—the paradigmatic case for the utilitarian conception of the rational pursuit of self-interest—lay in the religiously derived values of the “Protestant ethic” (Weber 1904-1905). If Weber’s thesis were empirically correct, this effect of the Protestant ethic could only be explained by the internalization of its values in the personality. Such an explanation constituted a basic divergence with Durkheim, Freud, and others. Weber generalized this insight immensely in his comparative analyses of economic, political, legal, and religious structures and their processes of historical development.
Utilitarianism and sociological theory
With both Marx and the anthropological tradition in the background, these theoretically specific breaks with the limitations of the utilitarian frame of reference constituted the main step in the emergence of sociological theory, a process in which the two most important figures were undoubtedly Durkheim and Weber. They brought to bear on the utilitarian scheme critical points of view derived from other major intellectual traditions and achieved original syntheses which were not derivable from any of their antecedent heritages.
Indeed, it can be said that anything like a satisfactory sociological theory could not have been developed at all within the utilitarian framework. Mill and Spencer probably came the closest to such a theory, yet Durkheim’s critique of Spencer cannot but be regarded as definitive (Durkheim 1893, book 1, chapter 3). But this consideration, important as it is, should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the utilitarians made enormous contributions toward establishing sociological theory. They introduced the most sophisticated conception of a system of social interaction which had yet appeared, one which was developed most impressively by the classical economists and their successors [see Interaction, article on Social Interaction]. Second, they defined, in terms of a coherent frame of reference, a systematically ordered set of boundaries for the economic aspect of the social system, most importantly vis-à-vis the political system. Though the basic problem posed by Hobbes could not be solved in utilitarian terms, Locke, Bentham, Austin, and Mill, acting on the assumption that they had partly solved it, were able to make major contributions to the analysis of how political systems function. These contributions have remained essential to the development of both legal and political theory, the latter especially in the field of democratic processes. Very important generalizations in the field of social stratification came from the work of Malthus, Ricardo, and Marx [see Stratification, social, article on social class]. The utilitarian assumption of the givenness of wants posed essential problems for psychology which modern personality theory is perhaps only now beginning to resolve.
The utilitarian strain in economic theory has been somewhat accentuated in the last generation in connection with the development of highly technical, particularly mathematical, economic theory. The very simplicity of the utilitarian framework favors its use in this context because it makes certain mathematical manipulations possible. The problem of the broader social relevance of these assumptions was sharply raised as long ago as the 1920s by persons much involved in that tradition, notably Pareto and Schumpeter, but a major segment of contemporary economics continues to operate in these terms.
This segment is matched by the behavioristic movement in psychology, which also had Locke as its founding father. Its more immediate origin, however, was more Darwinian than it was economic. With a Lockean environmentalist emphasis, it went behind the givenness of wants to study the process of their acquisition through learning mechanisms; indeed for a time it was claimed that learning theory constituted the whole of psychology. Even though concerned to explain the genesis of wants, rather than the behavior following from them once established, behavioristic psychology on the whole has the same basic theoretical structure as did the classical utilitarian schemes.
It is not surprising that behavioristic psychology and the more rigorous kind of economic theory have tended to form certain alliances, and that these have tended to be projected into the realm of sociology. The most prominent representative of the latter trend is George Homans (1961), who claims that behavioristic psychology and the economic theory of exchange are virtually identical and can constitute the common basis of a general theory of social processes [see Interaction, article on Social Exchange].
These trends of thought stand today in dialectic tension with the more “holistic” trends deriving from Durkheim, Weber, Mead, and their forebears. The general economic-behavioristic theme is a version of the “elementarism” that would deny the independent significance of systemic properties by reducing all of them to elementary components. These trends are also intimately associated with many of the concerns for quantification, greatly reinforced by the recent resource of the use of computers, which are so prominent in the social sciences of the late 1960s.
The broad conflict between elementarism and holism seems to be general to the whole range of modern science. Utilitarianism was intimately connected with the early frame of reference of the physical sciences, and has served to connect social science both with these and with the emerging biological sciences. Above all, utilitarianism contributed the concept of an abstractly defined system of interaction in the human social field. This is a platform on which sociology as well as economics and psychology must stand. It seems to me, however, that a purely utilitarian sociology will not prove to be viable, but that a synthesis of the utilitarian contribution and those contributions deriving above all from German idealism and from French collectivistic positivism will prove to shape the theoretical future of the sciences of human behavior, society, and culture more than any one of these traditions taken alone.
[See also Conflict; Cooperation; Decision making, article on Economic Aspects; Duty; Legitimacy; Liberalism; Moral development; Penology, article On The field; Social contract; Social Darwinism; Sovereignty; Systems analysis, article on Social Systems; Utility; and the biographies of Austin; Bentham; Comte; Durkheim; HalÉvy; Hobbes; Hobhouse; Locke; McDougall; Marshall; Marx; Mill; Ricardo; Schumpeter; Smith, Adam; Spencer; Weber, Max.]
Arrow, Kenneth J. (1951)1963 Social Choice and Individual Values. 2d ed. New York: Wiley.
Austin, John (1832-1863) 1954 The Province of Jurisprudence Determined and The Uses of the Study of Jurisprudence. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; New York: Noonday.
Bentham, Jeremy (1789) 1948 An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. New York: Hafner.
Brinton, Clarence Crane (1933)1949 English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Harper.
Cooley, Charles H. (1902) 1956 Human Nature and the Social Order. Rev. ed. In Charles H. Cooley, Two Major Works: Social Organization and Human Nature and the Social Order. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → With individual title page and pagination. Published separately in paperback in 1964 by Schocken.
Durkheim, Émile (1893) 1960 The Division of Labor in Society. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published as De la division du travail social.
Durkheim, Émile (1895)1958 The Rules of Sociological Method. 8th ed. Edited by George E. G. Catlin. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published as Les régies de la méthode sociologique.
Durkheim, Émile (1898-1911) 1953 Sociology and Philosophy. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → Written between 1898-1911. First published posthumously in French.
HalÉvy, Élie (1901-1904)1952 The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. New ed. London: Faber. → First published in French.
Hobbes, Thomas (1651) 1946 Leviathan: Or, the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil. Edited with an introduction by Michael Oakeshctt. Oxford: Blackwell.
Homans, George C. 1961 Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms. New York: Harcourt.
Hull, Clark L. 1943 Principles of Behavior: An Introduction to Behavior Theory. New York: Appleton.
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Keynes, John Maynard (1919-1947) 1951 Essays in Biography. New ed. Edited by Geoffrey Keynes. New York: Horizon. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Norton.
Locke, John (1690) 1960 Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge Univ. Press.
McDougall, William (1908) 1950 An Introduction to Social Psychology. 30th ed. London: Methuen. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Barnes and Noble.
Malthus, Thomas R. (1798) 1958 An Essay on Population. 2 vols. New York: Dutton. → First published as An Essay on the Principle of Population. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Irwin.
Marshall, Alfred (1890) 1961 Principles of Economics. 9th ed. 2 vols. New York and London: Macmillan. → A variorum edition. The eighth edition is preferable for normal use.
Mead, George H. (1934) 1963 Mind, Self and Society From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Edited by Charles W. Morris. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Published posthumously.
Mill, John Stuart (1848) 1961 Principles of Political Economy, With Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy. 7th ed. Edited by W. J. Ashley. New York: Kelley.
Mill, John Stuart (1859) 1963 On Liberty. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill.
Mill, John Stuart (1861)1962 Considerations on Representative Government. Chicago: Regnery. → Reprint of the original edition.
Mill, John Stuart (1865) 1961 Auguste Comte and Positivism. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press. → First published in two parts in Volume 83 of the Westminster Review.
Pareto, Vilfredo (1916) 1963 The Mind and Society: A Treatise on General Sociology. 4 vols. New York: Dover. → First published as Trattato di sociologia generale. Volume 1: Non-logical Conduct. Volume 2: Theory of Residues. Volume 3: Theory of Derivations. Volume 4: The General Form of Society.
Parsons, Talcott (1937)1949 The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory With Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.
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Parsons, Talcott; and Smelser, Neil J. 1956 Economy and Society: A Study in the Integration of Economic and Social Theory. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.
Ricardo, David (1817) 1962 Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. London: Dent; New York: Dutton. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Irwin.
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Taylor, Overton H. 1960 A History of Economic Thought: Social Ideals and Economic Theories From Quesnay to Keynes. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Weber, Max (1904-1905) 1930 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons, with a foreword by R. H. Tawney. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Scribner. → First published in German. The 1930 edition has been reprinted frequently. A paperback edition was published in 1958 by Scribner.
"Utilitarianism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3045001293.html
"Utilitarianism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. Retrieved June 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3045001293.html
Utilitarianism is the name of a group of ethical theories that judges the rightness of acts, choices, decisions, and policies by their consequences for human (and possibly animal) welfare. These theories have been widely influential among philosophers, economists, and political and social scientists, and, in the early twenty-first century, in the general area of applied or practical ethics. It would not be too much to say that utilitarian thinking undergirds one of the contending positions on virtually each of the issues in debate, whether to do with animal rights, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, health care coverage, or punishment. This is so, moreover, even as critics of utilitarianism as a normative ethical theory have become more numerous.
Classically, utilitarianism is the view that acts are right or wrong if they produce best consequences—that is, consequences with regard to human welfare that are at least as good as those of any alternative. This is the view normally associated with Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), James Mill (1773–1836), and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873); with Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900) and G. E. (George Edward) Moore (1873–1958); more recently, with J. J. C. Smart (b. 1920) and Richard Mervyn Hare (1919–2002); and, more recently still, Peter Singer (b. 1946). It began, thus, in the nineteenth century in Britain, though traces of it can be found in earlier thinkers there, such as Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), David Hume (1711–1776), and William Godwin (1756–1836). This classical version of the theory is also the view that contemporary critics, such as Amartya Sen (b. 1933), Bernard Williams (1929–2003), and Samuel Scheffler, attack. In fact, different versions of utilitarianism have been distinguished from classical-or act-utilitarianism, such as rule-utilitarianism, utilitarian generalization, motive utilitarianism, and so on, though it remains hotly debated how far these versions are ultimately distinct from the utilitarianism (and, to critics, from the objections directed against it).
Act-utilitarianism as it has come down to the present has three main components, and each has generated discussion in its own right. These are the consequence component, the value component, and the range component.
The consequence component maintains that rightness is tied to the production of good consequences (specifically, to consequences better than those of any alternative or best consequences). It may be argued that something in addition to consequences helps to determine an act's rightness, but consequentialism is the view that consequences alone determine this; act-utilitarians are consequentialists. Consequentialism in the early 2000s is the object of a good deal of criticism, though even in the nineteenth century it was sometimes controversial, as in the debates between Cardinal Newman (1801–1890) and Charles Kingsley (1801–1890). To some it is self-defeating, in that an effort to produce best consequences on each occasion may fail to produce best consequences overall. To others it seems inherently evil because it cannot exclude certain acts as intrinsically wrong or wrong independently of consequences (for example, lying). More recent criticisms have been equally strong. To John Rawls (b. 1921) impersonal accounts of rightness, such as best consequences, fail to take seriously the separateness of persons and so fail to treat people as autonomous individuals with their own individuality, plans, and worth. To Bernard Williams impersonal accounts of rightness run the risk of severing one from one's integrity, in the sense that pursuit of best consequences may not be compatible with pursuit of one's own projects, commitments, and relationships. Of course, some act-utilitarians, such as R. M. Hare (1919–2002), have resisted the Rawls-Williams objections, but others influenced by the theory, such as L. Wayne Sumner, have responded by trying to build a scheme of individual moral rights into the theory on the ground that doing so gives one the best chance of producing best consequences. (See indirect utilitarianism below.) Still more recent criticisms move in an epistemological direction. One cannot know at the time of acting, it is said, what (all) the consequences of one's proposed act will be. Some have seen this as demanding a role for rules as a guide; others, such as Peter Railton, have viewed it as a reason for not trying to act upon consequentialism in the first place and so for not using this account of rightness as if it were a decision procedure. He suggests a role for the concept of (good) character in determining how individuals shall act.
The value component has from Bentham onward spurred debate. It maintains that consequences are to be assessed by some standard of intrinsic goodness, the presence of which in the world is to be maximized. In the early twenty-first century this good in the case of act-utilitarianism is construed to be human welfare, but how "welfare" is to be understood is contentious. Thus, Bentham is a hedonist, maintaining that all and only pleasure (which his felicific calculus was supposed to be able to calculate) is intrinsically good; not surprisingly, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) referred to utilitarianism as a pig philosophy. John Stuart Mill spoke of happiness and pleasure and tried to introduce a distinction between higher and lower pleasures, and the mentor of the Bloomsbury Group, G. E. Moore, maintained that other things, such as beauty and friendship, as well as pleasure and/or happiness, were good in themselves. Most actutilitarians have followed Moore in moving away from hedonism and from the emphasis upon happiness.
Three types of issues have dominated recent critical discussion of the value component. First, there has been a movement away from the old mental-state accounts of goodness (e.g., pleasure) to desire-or preference-satisfaction accounts. Economists have helped spur this development. It is unclear, however, upon which desires one is to focus. Problems to do with present or future desires have led theorists to an emphasis upon informed desires—that is, those desires one would have if one were fully informed, detached, free from bias and pressure, and so on. The thought seems to be that, in the appropriate circumstances, informed desires become actual, and so those desires upon which one (rightly) acts. (This thought, so construed, can then be wedded, in economics, to "revealed preference" accounts of goodness, which are widespread.) Second, there has been a movement away from agent-neutral values toward agent-relative ones. Values, it is said, are subjective, in the sense of being agent-relative; they are the values of agents. Utilitarianism, however, requires that desires be aggregated, weighed, and balanced in terms of, for example, agent-neutral concerns to do with the amount of desire-satisfaction produced, irrespective of which individual agents obtain that satisfaction. The question then arises whether any particular agent has reason to value pursuit of overall desire-satisfaction, in addition to or in place of his or her own. Third, if one focuses upon desires, then a question about moral filtering devices obviously arises. If one takes into account the desires of all those party to a situation, does one filter out the desires of evildoers? This seems contrary to the spirit of utilitarianism and its emphasis upon agent-neutral values. But if one does not filter out the desires of evildoers, does this mean that the utilitarian weighs and balances their desires, according to strength, with the desires of those against whom evildoers act?
The range component maintains that all those affected by the act are to have their desires taken into account. This has led notoriously, from the nineteenth century onward, to the problem of interpersonal comparisons of (pains and pleasures) or desire-satisfaction. One can only maximize desire-satisfaction across all those affected by the act if one can compare the effect of the act upon the desire sets of each individual involved, judge the strength and extent of that effect, and then compare the different results. How one does this, what measures or scales of comparison are used, is not obvious. Another problem with the range component that stirs debate in the early twenty-first century has been whether to include animals within the scope of utilitarianism. Bentham did, on the grounds that animals could suffer. But if informed desires are the focus of the value component, can animals have informed desires? The point is not obvious (just as it is not obvious that all humans can have informed desires). Some utilitarians want to keep a pain/pleasure standard of goodness for animals, but endorse desire-satisfaction accounts for humans. Still another problem for the range component has to do with the emphasis in utilitarianism upon maximization of what is deemed to be intrinsically good. Something short of this, of increasing the amount of good to some extent less than the greatest extent possible, is both possible and less problematic, at least if one treats Derek Parfit's "repugnant conclusion"—that one can increase the greatest total happiness (or desire-satisfaction) in the world by eliminating those at the bottom of the happiness ladder—as tied to the general thrust of maximization of the good.
To a large extent, discussion of utilitarianism in the late twentieth to early twenty-first century has moved away from earlier concerns. It has centered around three developments. First, R. M. Hare and others have urged a kind of indirect utilitarianism, wherein one does not employ consequentialism at the level of practice, in order to decide what it would be right to do. Hare urges a two-level account of moral thinking, which is rule-utilitarian at the level of practice but actutilitarian at the level of theory or rule/institutional design. In his hands, act-utilitarian thinking at the critical level will select as guides at the intuitive or practical level those rules whose general acceptance will give one the best chance of producing best consequences. In this way, it is only in exceptional circumstances that one's practical guides are exposed to consequentialist thinking. Thus, Hare hopes to avoid many of the problems that are held to beset the act-utilitarian, through the employment of consequentialism as a way of deciding what it would be right to do. Hare's two-level account of moral thinking can seem, then, a way of developing a further case for actutilitarianism; other two-level theorists, it should be noted, do not see the split-level innovation as furthering this particular case. In fact, on Hare's account, since the focus of his theory is no longer acts, on a case-by-case basis, the name actutilitarianism is something of a misnomer.
Second, because so many of the objections to act-utilitarianism (and consequentialism) have always centered around clashes with "ordinary moral convictions" or "commonsense morality," the question has arisen of whether our ordinary moral intuitions have probative force in ethics. To those who feel that they do have probative force, the problem has been to make it appear that certain of one's intuitions are more secure than others, so that they are believed to be more "true" or "correct" than the dictates of any normative ethical theory. Accordingly, one needs to identify which these crucial intuitions are. Different ways of doing this have been suggested, including Rawls's reflective equilibrium method. But it is clear, even in Rawls, that some intuitions survive intact, such as the wrongness of slavery. This intuition of his needs no revision. Other theorists privilege other of their intuitions about particular acts or classes of acts. Over privileging in this way, serious doubts can arise, no matter how secure one feels one's intuitions to be. Yet, it is from this very privileging that condemnations of act-utilitarianism typically begin. It is wrong to lie, and the act-utilitarian mounts a case for lying on this occasion; it is wrong to kill, but the act-utilitarian mounts a case in favor of active euthanasia or abortion or suicide. In this way, arguments about the probative force of certain of one's intuitions have taken on a life of their own and are often used in moral debate in the early twenty-first century. This is especially true in medical ethics, where some want to draw a distinction between killing and letting die and where act-utilitarians on the whole deny that such a distinction is morally significant or where some want to distinguish, say, between giving someone a pill which, if they take it, will kill them and giving someone an injection of a sufficiently large dose of morphine to hasten their death while intending only to relieve their pain.
Third, the enormous growth of applied or practical ethics, especially medical ethics, has brought act-utilitarianism and consequentialism into the public domain. Almost without exception, virtually every issue, whether to do with killing, the allocation of resources, or the case for animal experimentation, features a utilitarian line of argument, and this line of argument is also, typically, act-utilitarian in character. This in a way is odd: while theorists are developing more and different types of indirect utilitarianisms, most of the examples of applied ethics feature the direct application of consequentialism on a case-by-case basis, with, it is held, morally shocking results. To be sure, not everyone will be shocked any longer by a case in support of a doctor assisting a competent patient who voluntarily requests assistance in dying, but the case can be discussed from the level of rule or institutional design, as well as from the consequentialist realities of the situation in question. Moreover, there are more general questions that arise in the various areas of applied ethics, where act-utilitarians are taken to adopt a particular kind of stand. Thus, one can intentionally kill a patient or one can knowingly bring about or cause a patient's death: are these morally different? One can directly bring about a person's death or one can indirectly bring it about: are these morally different? One can bring about a person's death by action or one can bring it about by omission: are these morally different? One can bring about a person's death actively or passively: are these morally different? If the consequences appear the same or very similar, the actutilitarian will be held to think there is no difference among these things. Because Hare and others favor an indirect form of utilitarianism, it is not uncommon in the early 2000s to treat these practical issues as if they involved direct consequentialists and leave until another occasion whether these consequentialists are also act-utiliarians. In this way, applied ethics has helped consequentialism to come to dwarf the other components of act-utilitarianism.
For Hare, moral education plays an important role in one's moral thinking. He rejects the employment of consequentialism on a case-by-case basis for deciding what to do and rejects as well the thought that consequentialism indicates the kind of thinking one should do at the intuitive or practical level. Instead, he emphasizes the role of character and character development: by education, individuals turn themselves into people whose actions flow from their character, in which the traits and dispositions that comprise character are inculcated in them overseen by the utilitarian goal of maximizing human welfare. This further reduces clashes with certain privileged moral intuitions, but it does not require that one treat those intuitions as having probative force. In this way, the moral thinking for Hare is much more intimately connected with one making one's self into the sort of creature who behaves out of certain dispositions than into the sort of creature who acts only out of consequentialist concerns.
Utilitarianism, then, has in latter years undergone a significant transformation at the hands of theorists. It is no longer the relatively simple, straightforward rubric that Bentham and John Stuart Mill took it to be; its statement, even by those who remain sympathetic to it, such as Hare and those influenced by him, is complicated and layered. An account of its historical development in terms of ideas, as can be seen here, shows that it has become sufficiently encumbered with distinctions and technicalities that it no longer really resembles the earlier view. Yet, in the twenty-first century, it is still common to find thinkers objecting to some particular view in moral, political, or social policy as "utilitarian," where the view they have in mind is the direct application of consequentialist thinking to decisions on how to behave. Thus, in modern medical ethics, there is little concern to get right the niceties of utilitarian theory; rather, the point is to protest about the "shocking" results that the direct application of consequentialist thinking can appear to produce in some instances.
See also Happiness and Pleasure in European Thought ; Hedonism in European Thought ; Liberalism ; Rational Choice ; Virtue Ethics .
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Hare, Richard Mervyn. Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method and Point. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. 1861. Reprint, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1957.
Moore, George Edward. Ethics. 1912. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. 1886. Reprint, Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin, 1990.
Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.
Railton, Peter. "Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality." Philosophy and Public Affairs 13 (1984): 134–171.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, U.K.: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Scheffler, Samuel. The Rejection of Consequentialism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982.
Sen, Amartya K. "Utilitarianism and Welfarism." Journal of Philosophy 76, no. 9 (September 1979): 463–489.
Sidgwick, Henry. Methods of Ethics. 7th ed. 1874. Reprint, London: Macmillan, 1907.
Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Smart, John Jameison Carswell. "An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics." In Utilitarianism: For and Against, by J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
Sumner, L. Wayne. The Moral Foundations of Rights. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.
Williams, Bernard. "A Critique of Utilitarianism." In Utilitarianism: For and Against, by J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
R. G. Frey
Frey, R.. "Utilitarianism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3424300798.html
Frey, R.. "Utilitarianism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 2005. Retrieved June 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3424300798.html
Utilitarianism is an intellectual movement in the social sciences and in philosophy. It is founded on the principle that individual actions, as well as laws, economic decisions, and social policies should promote the “greatest happiness.” Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), an English legal theorist and political reformer, first outlined the utilitarian theory in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). Human beings are governed, according to Bentham, by “two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” Actions are to be judged by their utility—that is, by a “felicific calculus,” or reckoning of the benefits and harms they produce. Bentham held that such a calculus must take into account the number of persons whose interests are affected, as well as the intensity, duration, and degree of certainty of the expected pleasure or pain. In addition, one should take into account the nearness or remoteness in time, as well as the likelihood that an initial pleasure will be followed by pain, or a pain by pleasure. Whether an action or the adoption of a social policy is judged to be “good” or “bad” depends on the result of this calculation.
Bentham built on the work of thinkers such as John Locke (1632–1704), Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771), and Adam Smith (1723–1790), and himself became the center of a group of intellectuals and social reformers that included James Mill (1773–1836), William Godwin (1756–1836), and the economists David Ricardo (1722–1823) and Thomas Malthus (1776–1834). On the grounds of social benefit, “radical” utilitarian reformers called for changes to the laws governing parliamentary elections, the prison system, treatment of the poor, and other matters. Early utilitarians aimed at abolishing unnecessary suffering and promoting individual happiness through the rational study of the long-term consequences of policies and actions. For example, they believed it necessary to control the procreative impulses that can lead to rampant population growth. Because of their unsentimental approach to questions of moral and social life, utilitarians gained a popular reputation as lacking spontaneity, emotion, and artistic sensitivity. Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) includes a memorable portrayal of utilitarianism in the character of Thomas Gradgrind, whose insistence on educating his children only in “facts” rather than “fancy” (imagination) leads to unhappiness for all concerned.
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was the son of Bentham’s associate James Mill. J. S. Mill’s early education was based on Benthamite principles, and in his Autobiography (1873) he criticized his upbringing for its overemphasis on developing the analytic powers at the expense of educating the emotions. Despite these reservations about his own education, Mill adopted utilitarian principles and became the movement’s most articulate spokesperson, developing the theory in works such as the Principles of Political Economy (1848). In On Liberty (1859) Mill defended the importance of individual freedom of thought and action, arguing that the individual is the best judge of his or her own good and that society benefits from the experimentation that occurs in an atmosphere of liberty. In Utilitarianism (1863) he went beyond Bentham’s famous statement in The Rationale of Reward (1825) that “Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either” (p. 253). In contrast to Bentham, Mill argued that there are qualitative differences among pleasures that affect their value. In The Subjection of Women (1869) Mill evidenced the radical bent of utilitarianism, challenging deeply held prejudices against women’s capacity for intellectual development and self-governance. He argued that it is impossible to know whether women are innately less capable than men without giving women the same educational opportunities that men have.
Among the well-known later defenders of utilitarian philosophy were the English philosophers Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900) and George Edward Moore (1873–1958). In the late twentieth century utilitarian ethics was further developed by philosophers including J. J. C. Smart (b. 1920) and Peter Singer (b. 1946). Singer’s contributions include highlighting the utilitarian concern for the interests of nonhuman animals. He used the term speciesism to refer to the view (which he opposes) that nonhuman animals deserve less consideration than human beings solely on the basis of species membership.
Utilitarianism is still the most prominent form of consequentialism, the view that actions should be morally judged on the basis of their good or bad results, rather than on their intrinsic rightness or wrongness. Within utilitarianism, different schools of thought have arisen in response to debates over the implications of the basic theory. Act utilitarians argue that each individual action should be judged by its beneficial or harmful results, so, for example, it may be morally permissible or even morally necessary to tell a lie in order to save an innocent life. Rule utilitarians, in contrast, evaluate not individual actions but social rules or types of actions. For a rule utilitarian, because telling lies generally results in more harm than benefit, lying is generally prohibited. In addition to the act versus rule debate, utilitarians have disagreed over whether utilitarianism is based on an empirical description of human motivation or a vision of how individuals ought to be motivated, and also over the question of how far the interests of individuals and those of social groups can and should be harmonized. The various versions of utilitarianism agree, however, on the need for impartial and equal consideration of the interests of all those affected by any decision.
Utilitarianism has met with numerous objections. First, some object that utilitarianism is unconcerned with how benefits and harms are to be distributed, as long as the maximum amount of total satisfaction is achieved and as long as no individual’s interests are weighed more heavily than anyone else’s. Utilitarianism seems more concerned with how the aggregate of individuals fares, even if a minority must suffer undeservedly in order to provide satisfaction to the majority. A related criticism was made by economist Amartya Sen in On Economic Inequality (1973). Sen argued that, despite the fact that utilitarianism is often believed to lead to economic egalitarianism, or an equal distribution of income, under certain circumstances it leads to just the opposite. If person A, for example, derives greater utility than person B from the same amount of income (perhaps because person B suffers from a chronic illness or a disability and person A does not), utilitarianism seems to lead to the paradoxical conclusion that person A should be given more resources than person B, in order to increase the amount of utility of the group as a whole. It is because utilitarianism concerns itself with the good of the aggregate, also known as sum-ranking, that it leads to paradoxical results in this and similar cases. The utilitarian commitment to equal consideration of individuals’ interests thus appears to be in tension with its practice of judging the goodness of a particular situation by measuring the aggregate of individual utilities.
A second objection is that utilitarians make ethical decisions based on the satisfaction of human preferences. Preferences are notoriously subjective and malleable, and they differ according to the circumstances to which individuals are accustomed. For example, someone who is used to great wealth may experience a sense of deprivation under circumstances that would seem acceptable or even luxurious to someone accustomed to severe poverty. Moreover, because preferences are of many different types, it may not be possible or appropriate to treat them as commensurable (measurable by a single standard). For example, it may not be possible to weigh the happiness gained from friendship against the happiness gained from having good health. Third, some object that utilitarianism demands excessive sacrifices from its adherents. For example, it appears that in order to bring about the greatest happiness for all people, those who are relatively well-off would be obliged to sacrifice their own material well-being, and that of their dependents, to the point at which they attain a level of satisfaction equal to that of the least well-off person who could be assisted by such a sacrifice. A fourth objection is that utilitarianism allows or even requires the performance of certain actions that are ordinarily considered unethical, such as breaking a promise, making a false accusation, or even killing an innocent person, if that action could bring about a benefit sufficiently great to outweigh its harmful effects.
Despite these and other criticisms, utilitarianism continues to exert an influence on ethics and social policy. Whenever a cost-benefit analysis is performed in order to assess the worth of a particular course of action, utilitarian thinking is at work. The appeal of utilitarianism lies in its affirmation of individual equality and its view that the goal of both personal ethics and public policy is to bring about a preponderance of benefit over harm to all who are affected by human actions.
SEE ALSO Democracy; Social Contract
Bentham, Jeremy.  1996. Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, eds. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bentham, Jeremy.  1962. The Rationale of Reward. In The Works of Jeremy Bentham. Vol. 2, ed. John Bowring. New York: Russell & Russell.
Halévy, Elie. 1966. The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. Trans. Mary Morris. Boston: Beacon Press.
Mill, John Stuart.  2002. Utilitarianism. 2nd ed. Ed. George Sher. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Mill, John Stuart.  1957. Autobiography. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
Sen, Amartya. 1997. On Economic Inequality. Expanded ed. Eds. James E. Foster and Amartya Sen. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Stephen, Leslie.  1997. The English Utilitarians. London: Thoemmes Continuum.
"Utilitarianism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3045302864.html
"Utilitarianism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008. Retrieved June 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3045302864.html
Injurisprudence, a philosophy whose adherents believe that law must be made to conform to its most socially useful purpose. Although utilitarians differ as to the meaning of the word useful, most agree that a law's utility may be defined as its ability to increase happiness, wealth, or justice. Conversely, some utilitarians measure a law's usefulness by its ability to decrease unhappiness, poverty, or injustice.
The utilitarianism movement originated in Great Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when philosophers jeremy bentham, john austin, john stuart mill, and Henry Sidgwick began criticizing various aspects of the common law. Bentham, the progenitor of the movement, criticized the law for being written in dense and unintelligible prose. He sought to cut through the thicket of legal verbiage by reducing law to what he thought were its most basic elements—pain and pleasure.
Bentham believed that all human behavior is motivated by a desire to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. Yet he observed that law is often written in vague terms of rights and obligations. For example, a law might say that a person has a right to take action under one set of circumstances but an obligation to refrain from action under different circumstances. Bentham thought that law could be simplified by translating the language of rights and obligations into a pain-pleasure calculation.
Utilitarians have tried to apply Bentham's hedonistic calculus to criminal law. They assert that punishment is a form of government imposed pain. At the same time, utilitarians believe that criminals break the law only because they do not fully comprehend the confusing language of rights and obligations. Accordingly, utilitarians conclude that law must be stripped of such confusing terms and redrafted in language that equates socially undesirable conduct with pain and socially desirable conduct with pleasure.
Utilitarians measure the desirability of human conduct by the amount of happiness it generates in society. They maintain that the ultimate aim of any law should be to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Utilitarians would permit conduct that produces more happiness in society than unhappiness and would proscribe conduct that results in more unhappiness than happiness. Some utilitarians envision a democratic society where the happiness and unhappiness produced by a particular measure would be determined precisely by giving everyone the right to vote on the issue. Thus, those in power would know exactly how the citizenry felt about every issue.
Although the application of utilitarian principles may strengthen majority rule, unfettered democracy can lead to tyranny. Utilitarians are frequently criticized for sacrificing the interests of minorities to achieve majoritarian satisfaction. In a pure utilitarian form of government, a voting majority could pass laws to enslave minority groups as long as the institution of slavery continued to satisfy a preponderance of the population. Concepts such as equal protection, human dignity, and individual liberty would be recognized only to the extent that a majority of the population valued them.
Modern utilitarians have attempted to soften the harshness of their philosophy by expanding the definition of social utility. Law and economics is a school of modern utilitarianism that has achieved prominence in legal circles. Proponents of law and economics believe that all law should be based on a cost-benefit analysis in which judges and lawmakers seek to maximize societal wealth in the most efficient fashion. Here the term wealth possesses both pecuniary and nonpecuniary qualities. The non-pecuniary qualities of wealth may include the right to self-determination and other fundamental freedoms that society deems important, including freedom of speech and religion. Under such an analysis, institutions like slavery that deny basic individual liberties would be declared illegal because they decrease society's overall nonpecuniary wealth.
Economic analysis of law has more practical applications as well. richard a. posner, chief judge for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals from 1993 to 2000, is a pioneer in the law and economics movement. He advocates applying economic analysis of law to most legal disputes. For example, in negligence actions Posner believes that liability should be imposed only after a court weighs three factors: the pecuniary injury suffered by the plaintiff, the cost to the defendant in taking precautions against injurious behavior, and the probability that a particular injury could have been avoided by the defendant. This cost-benefit analysis is widely accepted and is applied in negligence actions by both state and federal courts. Thus, through economic analysis of law, utilitarianism and its permutations continue to influence legal thinking in the United States.
Bentham, Jeremy. 1990. A Fragment on Government. Edited by H.L.A. Hart and J.H. Burns. Cambridge: Univ. of Cambridge Press.
Binder, Guyora, and Nicholas J. Smith. 2000. "Framed: Utilitarianism and Punishment of the Innocent." Rutgers Law Journal 32 (fall).
Honderich, Ted, ed. 1995. Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Univ. of Oxford Press.
Mintoff, Joe. 2003. "Can Utilitarianism Justify Legal Rights with Moral Force?" University of Pennsylvania Law Review 151 (January).
Posner, Richard A. 2003. Economic Analysis of Law. 6th ed. New York: Aspen Publishers.
"Utilitarianism." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3437704543.html
"Utilitarianism." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. 2005. Retrieved June 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3437704543.html
Bentham presented utilitarianism as a practical guide to both individual and collective decision-making, developing a ‘felicific calculus’ to measure the net amount of happiness producible by alternative courses of action. The practical influence of utilitarianism in shaping social policy in Britain from the mid-19th cent. has been considerable. It became the ideological driving force behind the reform movement known as philosophical radicalism, which tested all institutions by the principle of utility. Many far-reaching changes in the social security system, the treatment of employees and tenants, and the regulation of public health owed their origin in large part to the spirit of utilitarian ideas. This influence remains strong today: the theory of welfare economics, the concepts of marginal utility and cost–benefit analysis, and the modern preoccupation with obtaining value for money in the public services all exemplify the utilitarian interpretation of ‘is it right?’ in terms of ‘will it work better?’
However, utilitarianism has been much criticized. It has been objected that it is impossible to reduce complex moral issues to a simple mathematical formula, however elegant, and that no rational criterion exists for balancing the great harm done to an individual by taking away his property, against the potential happiness which could be derived by 200 other persons to whom it might be distributed. Critics argue, also, that justice demands protection of basic human rights such as life and liberty irrespective of calculations of utility. On the utilitarian principle, it is possible to justify the execution or imprisonment of an innocent person in order to defuse a revolutionary situation or even to placate an angry mob. But such an act would violate justice, according to those who, like Kant and Hegel, argue that the right is prior to the good, and that it is immoral to commit wrong for the purpose of promoting utility. John Stuart Mill sought to answer this criticism by pointing out that the principle of justice promoted social utility in the long term, if not always in the immediate short term. Mill's position later became known as ‘rule-utilitarianism’ or indirect utilitarianism. Overall utility is best served by adherence to secondary rules such as justice, even though in a particular case, taken in itself, an act of injustice could have more good than evil consequences.
The critics also point out that utilitarianism is essentially an aggregative principle, and lacks a defensible distributive criterion. Whatever distribution of goods maximizes social utility is endorsed by utilitarianism irrespective of who gets what. Critics find this distributive arbitrariness unacceptable; for them justice demands that good should be distributed on the basis of some non-arbitrary criterion, such as desert, entitlement, or need.
Tim S. Gray
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Utilitarians often erroneously justified both their moral doctrines and their advocacy of laissez-faire politics by means of an embryonic rational exchange theory of society, which goes back at least as far as the writings of Thomas Hobbes, and which is sometimes known as egoistic hedonism. It asserts that individual action is always the product of the pursuit of (implicitly selfish or self-referencing) pleasure and avoidance of pain. Later utilitarians include Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill himself, whose father James Mill had been a leading representative of the school in its heyday. John Stuart Mill struggled to retrieve some of the ambiguities and banalities to which the moral and social theory led, and because of his writings both on method and on substantive issues, he is sometimes considered as an early sociologist. However, most of the acknowledged founders of sociology were critical of the tradition of liberal political economy within which utilitarianism emerged, and which it helped to develop. As a result the label utilitarian is often somewhat indiscriminately applied (for example by Talcott Parsons in The Structure of Social Action) to the whole tradition of economistic methods and theories in social science.
GORDON MARSHALL. "utilitarianism." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O88-utilitarianism.html
GORDON MARSHALL. "utilitarianism." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. Retrieved June 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O88-utilitarianism.html
utilitarianism (yōō´tĬlĬtr´ēənĬzəm, yōōtĬ´–), in ethics, the theory that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its usefulness in bringing about the most happiness of all those affected by it. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, which advocates that those actions are right which bring about the most good overall. Jeremy Bentham identified good consequences with pleasure, which is measured in terms of intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent. John Stuart Mill argued that pleasures differ in quality as well as quantity and that the highest good involves the highest quality as well as quantity of pleasure. Herbert Spencer developed an evolutionary utilitarian ethics in which the principles of ethical living are based on the evolutionary changes of organic development. G. E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica (1903), presented a version of utilitarianism in which he rejected the traditional equating of good with pleasure. Later in the 20th cent., versions of utilitarianism have been propounded by J. J. C. Smart and R. M. Hare.
See J. J. C. Smart and B. Williams, Utilitarianism (1973); A. Sen and B. Williams, ed., Utilitarianism and Beyond (1982).
"utilitarianism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-utilitar.html
"utilitarianism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved June 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-utilitar.html
u·til·i·tar·i·an·ism / yoōˌtiləˈte(ə)rēəˌnizəm/ • n. the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority. ∎ the doctrine that an action is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct.
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u·til·i·tar·i·an / yoōˌtiliˈte(ə)rēən/ • adj. 1. designed to be useful or practical rather than attractive. 2. Philos. of, relating to, or adhering to the doctrine of utilitarianism: a utilitarian theorist. • n. Philos. an adherent of utilitarianism.
"utilitarian." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O999-utilitarian.html
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