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“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 [1861] 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.

Political implications

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.

Talcott Parsons

[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.

Hume, David (1741-1742)1912 Essays Moral, Political and Literary. Edited by T. H. Green and T. H. Grose. 2 vols. New York and London: Longmans. → First published as Essays Moral and Political; title changed in the 1758 edition.

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.

Parsons, Talcott (1961) 1965 An Outline of the Social System. Volume 1, pages 30-79 in Talcott Parsons et al. (editors), Theories of Society: Foundations of Modern Sociological Theory. New York: Free Press.

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.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1942) 1950 Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. 3d ed. New York: Harper; London: Allen & Unwin. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Harper.

Skinner, B. F. 1938 The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. New York: Appleton.

Stephen, Leslie (1900)1950 The English Utilitarians. London School of Economics and Political Science, 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 sequel to the author’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. A detailed study of Bentham and the two Mills.

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.


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"Utilitarianism" can most generally be described as the doctrine that states that the rightness or wrongness of actions is determined by the goodness and badness of their consequences. This general definition can be made more precise in various ways, according to which we get various species of utilitarianism.

Act and Rule Utilitarianism

The first important division is between "act" utilitarianism and "rule" utilitarianism. If, in the above definition, we understand actions to mean "particular actions," then we are dealing with the form of utilitarianism called act utilitarianism, according to which we assess the rightness or wrongness of each individual action directly by its consequences. If, on the other hand, we understand actions in the above definition to mean "sorts of actions," then we get some sort of rule utilitarianism. The rule utilitarian does not consider the consequences of each particular action but considers the consequences of adopting some general rule, such as "Keep promises." He adopts the rule if the consequences of its general adoption are better than those of the adoption of some alternative rule.

Since, in this context, the word rule can be interpreted in two ways, to mean either "possible rule" or "rule actually operating in society," there are actually two species of rule utilitarianism. If we interpret rule simply as "possible rule," we get an ethical doctrine strongly resembling that of Immanuel Kant. It is true that Kant is not normally regarded as a utilitarian, but nevertheless a utilitarian strain can be detected in his thought. If we interpret his categorical imperative, "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law," as meaning "Act only on that maxim which you would like to see established as a universal law," and if liking here is determined by the individual's feelings as a benevolent man, then we get a version of utilitarianism which may usefully be called Kantianism. It is true that Kant would object to this appeal to feelings of benevolence and would wish to distinguish sharply between willing and "wanting or liking. Nevertheless, it is far from clear how Kant's distinction can be defended; and when he elucidates his general principle by means of examples, he does indeed tend to think in terms of the consequences that we should like to see brought about. However, the word Kantianism is used here merely as a useful and perhaps not inappropriate label; whether Kant himself would approve of its present application is not an important issue in the present discussion.

If, in our definition of utilitarianism, we interpret the word rule as "actual rule," or "rule conventionally operative in society," we get a form of rule utilitarianism that has been propounded in recent times by Stephen Toulmin, who seems mainly concerned with the justification, and in some cases the reform, of rules of conduct that are actually operative in society.

When we think of the writers with whom the term utilitarianism is most naturally associated, namely, Jeremy Bentham, J. S. Mill, and Henry Sidgwick, we must think of utilitarianism primarily as act utilitarianism. However, controversy has developed over whether Mill should not rather be interpreted as a rule utilitarian, and there has also been much discussion of the rival claims of act and rule utilitarianism to be viable ethical theories.

R. M. Hare, in his book Freedom and Reason (Oxford, 1963), has recently argued that there is no clear distinction between act and rule utilitarianism, since if a certain action is right, it must be the case that any action just like it in relevant respects will also be right. If these respects are then specified in detail, we get a rule of the form "Do actions of this sort." A defender of the distinction between act and rule utilitarianism could reply that since the situations in which actions occur are infinitely variable, and since no two actions have quite the same sorts of consequences, the act utilitarian may not be able to describe the "relevant respects" mentioned above in any less general form than "The action is of the sort that has the best consequences." But if this is so, Hare's principle that if an action is right then any action which is like it in the relevant respects is also right does not yield a sufficiently particular form of rule to justify the assimilation of act and rule utilitarianism.

Egoistic and Universalistic Utilitarianism

Act utilitarianism, unlike rule utilitarianism, lends itself to being interpreted either in an egoistic or in a nonegoistic way. Are the good consequences that must be considered by an agent the consequences to the agent himself (his own happiness, for example), or are they the consequences to all humankind or even to all sentient beings? If we adopt the former alternative, we get egoistic utilitarianism; and if we adopt the latter alternative, we get universalistic utilitarianism. Since what is best for me is unlikely to be what is best for everyone, it is clear that there is not only a theoretical but also a practical incompatibility between egoistic and universalistic utilitarianism. This was not always seen by the early utilitarians, who sometimes seem to have confused the two doctrines. There is, in fact, even a pragmatic inconsistency in egoistic utilitarianism, since an egoist, on his own principles, would be unlikely to wish to be seen in his true colors, and so would have no motive for expressing his ethical doctrine. In this entry we shall be concerned with utilitarianism in the universalistic sense.

Hedonistic and Ideal Utilitarianism

Another distinction, which cuts across that between act and rule utilitarianism, is the distinction between hedonistic and ideal utilitarianism. Utilitarianism has been defined above as the view that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on the total goodness or badness of its consequences. A hedonistic utilitarian will hold that the goodness or badness of a consequence depends only on its pleasantness or unpleasantness. As Bentham put it, quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry. An ideal utilitarian, such as G. E. Moore, will hold that the goodness or badness of a state of consciousness can depend on things other than its pleasantness. According to him, the goodness or badness of a state of consciousness can depend, for example, on various intellectual and aesthetic qualities. In his calculations, the ideal utilitarian will be concerned not only with pleasantness and unpleasantness, but also with such things as knowledge and the contemplation of beautiful objects. He may even hold that some pleasant states of mind can be intrinsically bad, and some unpleasant ones intrinsically good. J. S. Mill took up an intermediate position. He held that although pleasantness was a necessary condition for goodness, the intrinsic goodness of a state of mind could depend on things other than its pleasantness, or, as he put it, there are higher and lower pleasures.

It should be noted that we have assumed that the only things that can be intrinsically good or bad are states of consciousness. Other things can of course be extrinsically good or bad. For example, an earthquake is normally extrinsically bad, that is, it causes a state of affairs that is on the whole intrinsically bad. Moreover, a utilitarian can hold that something that is intrinsically bad, such as the annoyance of remembering that we have forgotten to do something, is extrinsically good, for it is a means to a set of consequences that are on balance intrinsically good. G. E. Moore held that states of affairs other than states of consciousness could be intrinsically good or bad. For an ideal utilitarian, this is a theoretically possible contention, but nevertheless, few ideal utilitarians would find the contention a plausible one, and we shall therefore ignore it in this article.

Normative and Descriptive Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism may be put forward either as a system of normative ethics, that is, as a proposal about how we ought to think about conduct, or it may be put forward as a system of descriptive ethics, that is, an analysis of how we do think about conduct. The distinction between normative and descriptive utilitarianism has not always been observed. It is important to bear carefully in mind the distinction between normative and descriptive utilitarianism and to note that objections to descriptive utilitarianism do not necessarily constitute objections to normative utilitarianism.

Historical Remarks

Properly speaking, utilitarianism began with Jeremy Bentham (17481832), who was a universalistic hedonistic act utilitarian. He put forward his view essentially as normative ethics, but he was unclear about the distinction between normative and factual utterances and may justly be accused of committing what Moore later called the naturalistic fallacythe fallacy of claiming to deduce ethical principles solely from matters of fact. (David Hume had in effect pointed out this fallacy before Bentham's time.)

precursors of utilitarianism

Anticipations of Bentham are to be found in the history of ethics. In ancient times Aristippus of Cyrene and Epicurus propounded hedonistic theories. However, their doctrines approximate egoistic rather than universalistic utilitarianism, despite the fact that they were unclear about the difficulty of reconciling the two doctrines and hence tried to have it both ways. The same might be said of Abraham Tucker and William Paley, the more immediate precursors of Bentham, who also injected certain theological conceptions into their systems. The tension between egoistic and universalistic hedonism can also be detected in the eighteenth-century French writer Claude-Adrien Helvétius, who appears to have influenced Bentham; also, the political philosopher William Godwin should be mentioned. David Hume is often classified as a utilitarian, but he used utility not as a normative or even as a descriptive principle, but as an explanatory one: When asked why we approve of certain traits of character, he would point out that they are traits which either are useful or are immediately agreeable. Both because he used the principle of utility in an explanatory way and because he was primarily concerned with the evaluation of traits of character (virtues and vices and the like) rather than with the question of what actions ought to be done, it is not advisable to regard Hume as a utilitarian.

j. s. mill

As was mentioned above, there has been some controversy over whether J. S. Mill (18061873) ought to be regarded as an act utilitarian or as a rule utilitarian. Mill does not make his position on this issue very clear. Probably he was not very well aware of the distinction, and in any case he would probably have thought it a fairly unimportant one, since he was mainly concerned with the opposition between utilitarianism in general and other systems of ethics that were quite nonutilitarian. Although Bentham had on at least one occasion used the word utilitarian, it was Mill who introduced it into philosophy. He appropriated it, with some change of meaning, from a passage in the Scottish novelist John Galt's Annals of the Parish (Edinburgh, 1821).


We can with some confidence classify Mill as a normative utilitarian rather than a descriptive one, but the first utilitarian philosopher who was very explicit on this issue was Henry Sidgwick (18381900). Sidgwick understood that there is a distinction between normative and factual sentences, although, like G. E. Moore (18731958), he thought that ethical principles could be the objects of intellectual intuition. Sidgwick was a universalistic hedonistic utilitarian, but he was also strongly attracted by the claims of egoism. He saw more clearly than earlier writers that there was a theoretical inconsistency in being both an egoistic and a universalistic utilitarian, and he considered the possibility that there might be theological sanctions that would reconcile the two views, if not in theory, then at least in practice.

later utilitarians

Moore and Hastings Rashdall were ideal universalistic utilitarians, although Moore, with his principle of organic unities, and Rashdall, with his importation into the utilitarian calculations of the moral worth of the actions themselves, introduced considerations which, if taken seriously, would seem to vitiate the truly utilitarian character of their theories.

A subtle form of rule utilitarianism of the sort we have called Kantianism was propounded in 1936 by R. F. Harrod. Contemporary writers such as Stephen Toulmin, P. H. Nowell-Smith, John Rawls, K. E. M. Baier, and M. G. Singer have propounded views that either are or approximate rule utilitarianism. R. B. Brandt has been sympathetic to rule utilitarianism and has recently defended a rather subtle and complex version of it.

Analysis and Critique

utilitarianism as a descriptive ethics

It is fairly easy to show that both act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism are inconsistent with usual ideas about ethics, or what can be called the common moral consciousness. For the principles of both systems will in some cases lead us to advocate courses of action that the plain man would regard as wrong. Consider, for example, the case of a secret promise to a dying man. To ease his dying moments, I promise him that I will deliver a hoard of money, which he entrusts to me, to a rich and profligate relative of his. No one else knows either about the promise or the hoard. On utilitarian principles, it would appear that I should not carry out my promise. I can surely put the money to much better use by giving it, say, to a needy hospital. In this way I would do a lot of good and no harm. I do not disappoint the man to whom I made the promise, because he is dead. Nor, by breaking the promise, do I do indirect harm by weakening men's faith in the socially useful institution of promise making and promise keeping, for on this occasion no one knows about the promise. Normally, of course, an act utilitarian will keep a promise even when the direct results are not beneficial, because the indirect effects of sowing mistrust are so harmful. This consideration clearly does not apply in the present instance. The plain man, however, would be quite sure that the promise to the dying man should be kept. In this instance, therefore, we have a clear case in which utilitarianism is inconsistent with the way in which, for the most part, people in fact think about morality.

The rule utilitarian, on the other hand, would probably agree with the plain man in the above case, because he would appeal to the utility of the rule of promise keeping in general, not to the utility of the particular act of promise keeping. Nevertheless, cases can be brought up that will show the incompatibility of even rule utilitarianism with the common moral consciousness. For example, a riot involving hundreds of deaths may be averted only by punishing some innocent scapegoat and calling it punishment. Given certain empirical assumptions, which may perhaps not in fact be true, but which in a certain sort of society might be true, it is hard to see how a rule utilitarian could object to such a practice of punishing the innocent in these circumstances, and yet most people would regard such a practice as unjust. They would hold that a practice of sometimes punishing the innocent would be wrong, despite the fact that in certain circumstances its consequences would be good or that the consequences of any alternative practice would be bad. In this instance, then, there is a conflict between even the rule utilitarian and the plain man. (This is not, of course, to say that in fact, in the world as it is, the rule utilitarian will be in favor of a practice of punishing the innocent, but it can be shown that in a certain sort of world he would have to be.)

act utilitarianism as a system of normative ethics

Both act and rule utilitarianism fail, then, as systems of descriptive ethics. But act utilitarianism as a system of normative ethics would seem to have certain advantages over both rule utilitarianism and nonutilitarian, or deontological, systems of ethics (a deontological system of ethics is one that holds that an action can be right or wrong in itself, quite apart from consequences). Moreover, the failure of act utilitarianism as a descriptive system is the source of its interest as a possible normative system: If it had been correct as a descriptive system, then the acceptance of it as a normative system would have left most men's conduct unchanged.

No proof of utilitarianism

A system of normative ethics cannot be proved intellectually. Any such "proof" of utilitarianism as was attempted by Bentham or Mill can be shown to be fallacious. (Mill disclaimed the possibility of proof and spoke more vaguely of "considerations capable of determining the intellect," but he presented an attempted proof nonetheless.) Sidgwick and Moore were clearer on this point and saw that ethical principles cannot be deduced from anything else. They appealed instead to intellectual intuition, but recent developments in epistemology and other fields of philosophy have made the notion of intellectual intuition a disreputable one. The tendency among some more recent writers, such as C. L. Stevenson, R. M. Hare, and P. H. Nowell-Smith, has been to regard assertions of ultimate ethical principles and valuations as expressions of feeling or attitude, or as akin to imperatives rather than to statements of fact. In this respect, they develop further the position held much earlier by Hume. Now if we abandon a cognitivist theory about the nature of moral judgments, such as was held by Sidgwick or Moore, and adopt the view that ultimate ethical principles depend only on our attitudes, that is, on what we like or dislike, we must give up the attempt to prove any ethical system, including the act-utilitarian system. We may nevertheless recommend such a system. We may also try to show inconsistencies or emotionally unattractive features of various possible alternative systems.

Appeal to generalized benevolence

In putting forward act utilitarianism as a normative system, we express an attitude of generalized benevolence and appeal to a similar attitude in our audience. (The attitude of generalized benevolence is not the same as altruism. Generalized benevolence is self-regarding, and other-regarding tooI count my happiness neither more nor less than yours.) Of course, we all have in addition other attitudes, self-love, and particular likes and dislikes. As far as self-love is concerned, either this will be compatible with generalized benevolence or it will not. If the former, then self-love does not conflict with act utilitarianism, and if the latter, nevertheless self-love then will be largely canceled out, as among a number of people engaged in discussion.

Arguments against deontological systems

As to particular likes and dislikes, an important case concerns our liking for obeying the rules of some deontological ethics in which we have been raised. However, the following persuasive considerations can be brought up as arguments against the adherent of a deontological system of ethics. It can be urged that although the dictates of a generalized benevolence might quite often coincide with those of an act-utilitarian ethics, there must be cases in which the two would conflict with one another. Would the benevolent and sympathetic persons to whom we conceive ourselves to be appealing be happy about preferring abstract conformity with an ethical rule, such as "Keep promises," to preventing avoidable misery of his fellow creatures?

It will be noticed that the above defense of utilitarianism against deontology is purely persuasive, an appeal to the heart and not to the intellect. It is based on the metaethical view that ultimate ethical principles are expressions of our attitudes and not the findings of some sort of intuition of ethical fact. An intellectualist in metaethics, such as W. D. Ross, could well resist our appeal to feeling by saying that it is possible to see that his deontological principles are correct, and that whether we like them or not is beside the point.

Weakness of rule utilitarianism

In defending act utilitarianism, then, we appeal to feelings, namely, those of generalized benevolence. Since people possess other attitudes too, such as loyalty to a code of morals in which they have brought up, the possession of feelings of generalized benevolence is not a sufficient condition of agreement with the act utilitarian. But it is a necessary condition. Now the rule utilitarian also appeals ultimately to feelings of generalized benevolence. Like the deontologist, however, he is open to the charge of preferring conformity with a rule to the prevention of unhappiness. He is indeed more obviously open to such a charge, since he presumably advocates his rule utilitarian principle because he thinks that these rules conduce to human happiness. He is then inconsistent if he prescribes that we should obey a rule (even a generally beneficial rule) in those cases in which he knows that it will not be most beneficial to obey it. It will not do to reply that in most cases it is most beneficial to obey the rule. It is still true that in some cases it is not most beneficial to obey the rule, and if we are solely concerned with beneficence, in these cases we ought not to obey the rule. Nor is it relevant that it may be better that everybody should obey the rule than that nobody should. That the rule should always be obeyed and that it should never be obeyed are not the only two possibilities. There is the third possibility that sometimes it should be obeyed and sometimes it should not be obeyed.

Hedonistic act utilitarianism

We shall therefore neglect rule utilitarianism as a system of normative ethics, and consider only act utilitarianism, which will be conveniently put forward in a hedonistic form. The reader will easily be able to adapt most of what is said to cover the case of ideal utilitarianism. Indeed, in many cases the differences between hedonistic and ideal utilitarianism are not usually of much practical importance, since the hedonist will usually agree that the states of mind the ideal utilitarian regards as intrinsically good, but which he does not, are nevertheless extrinsically good. Bentham would say that Mill's higher pleasures, if not intrinsically better than the lower ones, are usually more "fecund" of further pleasures. This is not to say, however, that there are no cases in which there would not be a significant difference between hedonistic and ideal utilitarianism.

The act-utilitarian principle can now be put in the following form: "The only reason for performing some action A, rather than various alternative actions, is that A results in more happiness (or more generally, in better consequences) for all humankind (or perhaps all sentient beings) than will any of these alternative actions." Since this principle expresses an attitude of generalized benevolence, we can expect to find a good deal of sympathy for it among the sort of people with whom it would be profitable to carry on a discussion about ethics. It may therefore be possible to obtain wide assent to the principle, provided that we can develop its implications in a clear and consistent manner and that we can show that certain common objections to utilitarianism are not as valid as they are supposed to be. We have already seen that certain objections, based on "the common moral consciousness," fail because they are valid only against descriptive utilitarianism and not against normative utilitarianism.

Determining consequences

Utilitarianism would be an easier doctrine to state if we could assume that we could always tell with certainty what all the consequences of various possible actions would be, and if we could assume that very remote consequences need not be taken into account. In applying the utilitarian principle, we would simply have to envisage two or more sets of consequences extending into the future, and ask ourselves, as sympathetic and benevolent men, which of these we would prefer. There would be no need for any calculation or for any summation of pleasures. We would simply have to compare two or more possible total situations. Sometimes, indeed, the postulate that we need not consider very remote situations will not be necessary. For example, if it be admitted that, on the whole, people are more happy than not, a man and woman who are left alive as sole representatives of the human race after some atomic holocaust could, as utilitarians, decide to have children in the hope that the world would once more be populated indefinitely far into the future. This is because although the generations will extend indefinitely far into the future, there is reason to believe that each generation will be happy rather than unhappy, while if no children are had, there will be no succeeding generations at all, and so no possibility of happiness accruing in the future. In normal cases, however, we do need to assume that remote consequences can be left out of account. Surely, however, this is a plausible assumption, for on the whole, the goodness and badness of very remote consequences are likely to cancel out. In any case, if this assumption cannot be made, also difficulties will arise for many deontological systems (for example, the system of W. D. Ross), which allow beneficence as one principle among others.

Unfortunately, however, we do not know with certainty what the various possible consequences of our actions will be. This uncertainty would not be so bad provided we could assign numerical probabilities to the various consequences. We could then still employ a method similar to that of envisaging total consequences. A very simplified example may make this clear. Suppose that the only relevant consequences are, on the one hand, a 3/5 probability of Smith's being in some state S, and on the other hand, if we do an alternative action, a 2/7 probability of Jones's being in some state T. We simply envisage 21 people just like Smith in state S as against 10 people just like Jones in state T. It should be evident how, in theory at least, this method could be extended to more complex cases. However, numerical probabilities can rarely be assigned to possible future events, and the utilitarian is reduced to an intuitive weighting of various consequences with their probabilities. It is impossible to justify such intuitions rationally, and we have here a serious weakness in utilitarianism. It is true that this weakness also extends to prudential decisions, and most people think that they can make prudential decisions with some rationality. But this is not of much help, since in propounding a normative system we are concerned with what we ought to think, not with how we do think. Utilitarianism is therefore badly in need of support from a theory whereby, at least roughly or in principle, numerical probabilities could be assigned to all types of events.

the place of rules in act utilitarianism

Even the act utilitarian cannot always be weighing up consequences. He must often act habitually or in accordance with rough rules of thumb. However, this does not affect the value of the act-utilitarian principle, which is put forward as a criterion of rational choice. When we act habitually we do not exercise a rational choice, and the utilitarian criterion is not operative. It is, of course, operative when we are deciding, on act-utilitarian principles, the habits or rules of thumb to which we should or should not school ourselves. The act utilitarian knows that he would go mad if he deliberated on every trivial issue, and that if he did not go mad he would at least slow up his responses so much that he would miss many opportunities for probably doing good. He may also school himself to act habitually because he may think that if he deliberated in various concrete situations, his reasoning would be distorted by a selfish bias.


utilitarianism and game theory

The act utilitarian will of course use as some of his premises propositions about how other members of the community are likely to act. For example, if certain individuals are adherents of a deontological morality, their actions will tend to be made predictable and their behavior will constitute valuable information for the act utilitarian when he is planning his own actions. Thus, an act utilitarian who has something important to do with his time may be wise to abstain from voting in an election (assuming that there is no legal compulsion to vote), for he will reflect that most people will in fact go to vote and that elections are very rarely decided by a single vote.

But how should the act utilitarian reason if he lives in a society in which everyone else is an act utilitarian? He needs information about what other people will do, but since they reason as he does, what they will do depends on what they think he will do. There is a circularity in the situation that can be resolved only by the technique of the theory of games.

Moral philosophers have commonly failed to give the correct solution to this sort of question. In the case in which the act utilitarian is asking whether he should do an action A or not do it, moral philosophers have commonly envisaged only two possibilities: Either everyone does A or no one does A. They have failed to notice the possibility of what, in the theory of games, is called a mixed strategy. Each act utilitarian can give himself a probability p of doing A. Thus, in the case of the voting, each act utilitarian might toss pennies or dice in such a way as to give himself a certain probability p of voting, so that the best possible proportion of people will turn up to vote and a small proportion will be free to do other things. The calculation of p is a simple maximization problem, provided that we know numerical values of the probabilities and numerical values of the various consequences of alternative actions. Of course, this is unlikely to be the case, and the question of a mixed strategy is usually more of theoretical than of practical importance. Moreover, in very many important cases the effect of even a few people acting in a certain way is, in practice, so disastrous that the probability we should give ourselves of acting in this way may be so small that we may as well say, like the rule utilitarians, that we would never do it.

utilitarianism and praise and blame

Not only do we use moral language to deliberate about what we should do, but we also use moral language to praise people and blame them. Suppose that we use the words "good action" and "bad action" to convey praise and blame, and "right action" and "wrong action" to evaluate what ought to be done. On act-utilitarian principles, then, a right action is one that produces the best consequences. A good action is one that should be praised. Normally we will wish to praise right actions and blame wrong ones, but this is not invariably the case. As Sidgwick has pointed out very clearly, when, as utilitarians, we assess agents and motives as good or bad, the question at issue is not the utility of the actions but the utility of praise or blame of them. Suppose that the only way in which a soldier can save the lives of half a dozen companions is by throwing himself upon a grenade that is about to explode, thus taking upon himself the full impact of the blast and inevitably being killed. The act utilitarian would have to say that the soldier ought to sacrifice himself in this way. Nevertheless, he would not censure the soldier or say that he had acted from a bad motive if he had refrained from this heroic act and his companions had been killed. There is nothing to be gained by censuring someone for lack of extraordinary heroism, and probably much harm in doing so. The act utilitarian should say that the soldier's motive was not a bad one, although his action was as a matter of fact a wrong one.

Consider a case in which an action, normally of trivial import, happens to have very unfortunate consequences. A man with a head cold goes to the office, instead of nursing his illness at home. He is visited by an eminent statesman, who catches the cold and, in consequence, is not quite at his best in carrying out some delicate negotiations. These negotiations fail just by a hairsbreadth, whereas if the statesman had been fully fit they would have succeeded. In consequence, thousands of people die from starvation, a misfortune that would have been avoided if the negotiations had succeeded. These deaths from starvation would therefore not have occurred if the man with a head cold had not gone to his office in an infectious state. Someone may be tempted to argue as follows: "Surely it is not a very wrong action to go to the office suffering from a head cold. In some cases, where important work has to be done, it may even be praiseworthy. But in this case the action had very bad consequences, and so the utilitarian must say that it is very wrong. There must therefore be something wrong with utilitarianism." The utilitarian must reply that the objector is confusing two things, the rightness or wrongness of an action and the praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of it. The action, he can consistently say, was very wrong, but it was not very bad: That is, it ought not to be blamed very much, if at all. If we blame it, we are concerned with the utility of discouraging similar actions on the part of other people, and since going to the office with a head cold is not normally productive of very bad consequences, this action, although in fact very wrong, was not a very bad or blameworthy one.

Another reason why utility (or rightness) of an action does not always coincide with utility of praise or blame of it, and hence with its goodness or badness, is that, as Sidgwick pointed out, although universal benevolence, from the act-utilitarian view, is the ultimate standard of right and wrong, it is not necessarily the best or most useful motive for action. For example, although family affection may not always act in the same direction as generalized benevolence, it very frequently does so, and is a much more powerful motive than the latter. The act utilitarian may well think it useful to praise an action done from family affection in order to strengthen and encourage this motive, even when in fact the action was not generally beneficial.

Similarly, members of a community may act according to some traditional code of rules and may be likely to become simply amoral if a premature attempt is made to convert them to utilitarianism. A utilitarian may well think, therefore, that he ought to support this traditional nonutilitarian code of morals, if its general tendency is at all beneficent. He may therefore apportion praise and blame among members of this community according to whether their actions are in conformity with this code, and not according to whether they are right or wrong from the utilitarian standpoint. The relations between act utilitarianism and the traditional morality of a community in which an act utilitarian may find himself are very complex, and have been quite thoroughly investigated by Sidgwick.

See also Aristippus of Cyrene; Baier, Kurt; Bentham, Jeremy; Brandt, R. B.; Consequentialism; Deontological Ethics; Egoism and Altruism; Epicurus; Game Theory; Godwin, William; Good, The; Happiness; Hare, Richard M.; Hedonism; Helvétius, Claude-Adrien; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Metaethics; Mill, John Stuart; Moore, George Edward; Paley, William; Pleasure; Punishment; Rashdall, Hastings; Rawls, John; Ross, William David; Sidgwick, Henry; Stevenson, Charles L.


history of utilitarianism

For the history of utilitarianism, see especially H. Sidgwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics (London, 1946), with an additional chapter by Alban G. Widgery; Ernest Albee, A History of English Utilitarianism (New York: Macmillan, 1902); and Leslie Stephen, The English Utilitarians (London: Duckworth, 1900), which contains references to the works of Tucker and Paley. The works of Helvétius are not readily accessible, but a list of various editions can be found in the bibliography of Ian Cumming, Helvétius, His Life and Place in the History of Educational Thought (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955).

major utilitarians

For works by Bentham, see especially his Fragment on Government and Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, edited by Wilfred Harrison (Oxford, 1948), and his Deontology, edited by John Bowring (London and Edinburgh, 1843). A very scholarly modern work on Bentham is David Baumgardt, Bentham and the Ethics of Today, with Bentham ManuscriptsHitherto Unpublished (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952). For works by J. S. Mill, see Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Essay on Bentham, Together with Selected Writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin, edited with an introduction by Mary Warnock (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003). M. St. J. Packe, The Life of John Stuart Mill (London: Secker and Warburg, 1954), gives evidence on p. 53 (footnote) that Bentham used the word utilitarian before Mill. An interesting discussion of Mill's ethical principles is given in Karl Britton, "Utilitarianism: the Appeal to a First Principle," in PAS 60 (19591960): 141154. Britton is also the author of an account of Mill's philosophy, John Stuart Mill (London: Penguin, 1953). A nineteenth-century criticism of utilitarianism is J. Grote, An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (Cambridge, U.K., 1870). For Sidgwick, see his Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (London, 1907), which is discussed by C. D. Broad in Five Types of Ethical Theory (London: Kegan Paul, 1930). Godwin's moral philosophy is critically expounded by D. H. Monro in his Godwin's Moral Philosophy (London: Oxford University Press, 1953). Ideal utilitarianism may be studied in G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1903) and Ethics (London: Williams and Norgate, 1912), and in H. Rashdall, Theory of Good and Evil (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907). A sympathetic discussion of utilitarianism will be found in A. J. Ayer's essay "The Principle of Utility," in his Philosophical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1954).

rule and act utilitarianism

Many modern writers have espoused views that can be described as rule utilitarianism. See especially Stephen Toulmin, The Place of Reason in Ethics (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1951); P. H. Nowell-Smith, Ethics (London: Penguin, 1954); J. Rawls, "Two Concepts of Rules," in Philosophical Review 64 (1955): 332; K. E. M. Baier, The Moral Point of View (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1958); M. G. Singer, Generalization in Ethics (New York: Knopf, 1961). J. O. Urmson, "The Interpretation of the Philosophy of J. S. Mill," in Philosophical Quarterly 3 (1953): 3339, interprets Mill as a rule utilitarian. His view is contested by J. D. Mabbott, "Interpretation of Mill's Utilitarianism, " in Philosophical Quarterly 6 (1956): 115120. The issue between act and rule utilitarianism is in effect discussed by A. C. Ewing, "What Would Happen If Everyone Acted Like Me?" in Philosophy 28 (1953): 1629, and by A. K. Stout, "But Suppose Everybody Did the Same?" in Australasian Journal of Philosophy 32 (1954): 129. J. J. C. Smart, "Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism," in Philosophical Quarterly 6 (1956): 344354, is a defense of act as against rule utilitarianism. The terms extreme and restricted are used here instead of the more appropriate words act and rule. These last were introduced by R. B. Brandt in his Ethical Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1959), which contains good discussions of act and rule utilitarianism. Brandt has also developed a complex and subtle form of rule utilitarianism in his paper "In Search of a Credible Form of Rule Utilitarianism," in Morality and the Language of Conduct, edited by George Nakhnikian and Héctor-Neri Castañeda (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1953). See also H. D. Aiken, "The Levels of Moral Discourse," in Ethics 62 (1952): 235248. Rule utilitarianism is criticized by H. J. McCloskey, "An Examination of Restricted Utilitarianism," in Philosophical Review 66 (1957): 466485. A Kantian type of rule utilitarianism is presented by R. F. Harrod, "Utilitarianism Revised," in Mind 45 (1936): 137156, and J. C. Harsanyi, "Ethics in Terms of Hypothetical Imperatives," in Mind 67 (1958): 305316. Jonathan Harrison's article "Utilitarianism, Universalisation and Our Duty to Be Just," in PAS 53 (19521953): 105134, discusses important issues and includes a criticism of Harrod.

negative utilitarianism

K. R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 3rd ed., Vol. 1 (London, 1957), Ch. 5, note 6, has put forward some considerations that suggest the possibility of expressing utilitarianism in terms of the prevention of misery rather than in terms of the promotion of happiness, although Popper himself does not seem to be a utilitarian. Such a "negative utilitarianism" has been criticized by R. N. Smart, "Negative Utilitarianism," in Mind 67 (1958): 542543.

expositions and criticisms

An exposition of act utilitarianism as a normative system is given by J. J. C. Smart, An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press and University of Adelaide, 1961). An introductory textbook from an act-utilitarian point of view is C. A. Baylis, Ethics, the Principles of Wise Choice (New York: Holt, 1958). There are useful chapters on utilitarianism in John Hospers, Human Conduct (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1961). The inconsistency of an egoistic utilitarianism is pointed out by B. H. Medlin, "Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism," in Australasian Journal of Philosophy 35 (1957): 111118. J. Rawls, in his article "Justice as Fairness," in Philosophical Review 67 (1958): 164194, holds that one must never act solely to increase the general happiness if in so doing one makes any particular person unhappy. I. M. Crombie, in his article "Social Clockwork and Utilitarian Morality" in Christian Faith and Communist Faith, edited by D. M. Mackinnon (London: Macmillan, 1953), suggests that a utilitarian could accuse the deontologist of a sort of idolatrous attitude toward rules. Another valuable point made in this article is that utilitarianism is in a certain way a self-correcting doctrine. See also A. I. Melden, "Two Comments on Utilitarianism," in Philosophical Review 60 (1951): 508524; H. W. Schneider, "Obligations and the Pursuit of Happiness," in Philosophical Review 61 (1952): 312319; and S. M. Brown Jr., "Utilitarianism and Moral Obligation," ibid., 299311, which led to comments by C. A. Baylis and John Ladd, ibid., 320330. J. O. Urmson, "Saints and Heroes," in Essays in Moral Philosophy, edited by A. I. Melden (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1958), makes some distinctions that he tentatively suggests may be accommodated more easily by a utilitarian than by a nonutilitarian ethics. A pioneering application of the theory of games to problems of moral philosophy is to be found in R. B. Braithwaite, Theory of Games as a Tool for the Moral Philosopher (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1955).

metaethical theories

For the noncognitivist theories of metaethics of C. L. Stevenson, R. M. Hare, and P. H. Nowell-Smith, see C. L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1944); R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952); and P. H. Nowell-Smith, Ethics (London: Penguin, 1954). Hare's sequel, Freedom and Reason (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), contains an interesting chapter on utilitarianism.

J. J. C. Smart (1967)


views updated May 11 2018


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 consequencesthat 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 (17481832), James Mill (17731836), and John Stuart Mill (18061873); with Henry Sidgwick (18381900) and G. E. (George Edward) Moore (18731958); more recently, with J. J. C. Smart (b. 1920) and Richard Mervyn Hare (19192002); 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 (16941746), David Hume (17111776), and William Godwin (17561836). This classical version of the theory is also the view that contemporary critics, such as Amartya Sen (b. 1933), Bernard Williams (19292003), 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 (18011890) and Charles Kingsley (18011890). 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 (19192002), 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 (18441900) 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 desiresthat 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 ladderas 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 .


Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. 1789. Reprint, New York: Hafner, 1948.

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): 134171.

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): 463489.

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


views updated May 21 2018





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 (17481832), 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 utilitythat 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 (16321704), Claude-Adrien Helvétius (17151771), and Adam Smith (17231790), and himself became the center of a group of intellectuals and social reformers that included James Mill (17731836), William Godwin (17561836), and the economists David Ricardo (17221823) and Thomas Malthus (17761834). 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 Dickenss 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 (18061873) was the son of Benthams associate James Mill. J. S. Mills 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 movements 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 Benthams 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 womens 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 (18381900) and George Edward Moore (18731958). In the late twentieth century utilitarian ethics was further developed by philosophers including J. J. C. Smart (b. 1920) and Peter Singer (b. 1946). Singers 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 individuals interests are weighed more heavily than anyone elses. 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. [1789] 1996. Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, eds. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bentham, Jeremy. [1825] 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. [1863] 2002. Utilitarianism. 2nd ed. Ed. George Sher. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Mill, John Stuart. [1873] 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. [1900] 1997. The English Utilitarians. London: Thoemmes Continuum.

Paulette Kidder


views updated Jun 27 2018


eighteenth-century origins
nineteenth-century utilitarianism

One of the foundational doctrines of modern ethics in relation to political philosophy and public administration, utilitarianism has since the late eighteenth century pursued the implications of a number of interconnected ideas. These include the claim that the promotion of pleasure and avoidance of pain are the chief springs of human action, from which it was thought to follow, allowing for considerable complexities of measurement, that the concept of utility could be defined for each individual as the maximization of his or her happiness. The function of governments aiming to enhance public utility, it was argued, thus consisted in promoting "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." Since such propositions were believed to accord with psychology, utilitarians contended that their doctrine was superior to classical, Christian, and natural law conceptions of virtue or duty, which were articulated only as abstract ideals. In putting forward policies they held to be beneficial and expedient, utilitarians judged that what should be done required assessments of human conduct's tangible consequences and less attention than had been given by other thinkers to its arcane motives. Their ethics therefore placed greater emphasis on manifest standards of the good than on presumed notions of what was intrinsically right.

eighteenth-century origins

These beliefs, as articulated by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), James Mill (1773–1836), and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), owed much to both ancient and modern sources, including Greek sophists' denial of the existence of moral absolutes on the grounds that man is the measure of all things, as well as Epicurean portraits of our species' hedonism, Hobbesian conceptions of felicity, and French empiricist and materialist accounts of human nature's malleability. It was only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, however, that utilitarianism came to be developed as a systematic doctrine amenable to implementation by progressive rulers and radical political movements alike. This was partly because it was in this period of European intellectual history that admirers of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution undertook to extend its scope from natural phenomena to human affairs, endeavoring to formulate a science of man that also included a science of ethics and government. Utilitarianism served that purpose admirably. It was designed to promote strategies of public policy based on an empirical understanding of human nature, to derive values from facts and to dispose of all prescriptions that masqueraded prejudice and intuition as truth. To define both individual and public utility it required no strictures of Christian altruism nor, apparently, any suppression of men's and women's actual ambitions.

If in these respects it seemed to provide a more democratic ethos than any competing philosophy and was hence suitable for an age of self-government, it in fact took root in the public domain in the late eighteenth century largely because progressively minded kings and queens embraced it. Although utilitarianism was to achieve its apotheosis in England in the course of the nineteenth century, many of its principles, and especially its commitment to legislative reforms designed to promote public happiness, were first adopted in regimes already at the time portrayed as examples of enlightened despotism. Frederick II of Prussia's (r. 1740–1786) prohibition of torture and Joseph II's (Holy Roman emperor, 1765–1790; and Habsburg ruler of Austria, 1780–1790) abolition of serfdom were each inspired by utilitarian doctrines as interpreted by German and Austrian proponents of cameralism who, like Bentham and his followers in England, sought to reorganize government's structures and functions to make it more rational and accountable to the public interest. In France physiocratic ministers and advisors of King Louis XVI (r. 1774–1792) likewise set themselves the task of reforming feudal systems of agriculture and trade, to avert an already perceptible crisis of the old regime that would in time provoke the French Revolution of 1789.

In both theory and practice eighteenth-century utilitarianism was perhaps more concerned with alleviating suffering than with securing happiness in a positive way, its chief proponents of the period addressing their attention above all to the criminal law. Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) made the distinction between crime and sin and the insusceptibility of religious beliefs to political enforcement central pillars of his tract of 1764, On Crimes and Punishment, where the expression "the greatest happiness of the greatest number," makes its first printed appearance (in Italian) in a work of political theory, although it had been anticipated by Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) in 1725 in his Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. Torture, argued Beccaria, served no rational purpose in the affairs of a civilized state, since it could not deter future crimes and only managed to brutalize its victims, propositions soon taken to heart by Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet; 1694–1778) in his own denunciations of the violence of religious bigotry sanctioned against Protestants by the Catholic Church in France.

In his Fragment on Government of 1776 Bentham invoked Hutcheson's and Beccaria's formulation of the expression that would come to be regarded as his legacy and to encapsulate utilitarianism's meaning, by this time given currency as well in Joseph Priestley's Essay on the First Principles of Government of 1768. In 1789, in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham elaborated his conception of utility at greater length. Like Beccaria, he was initially most concerned with policies warranting the minimization of pain. In the late 1780s and early 1790s he developed a scheme for the reform of Britain's prison system through a strategy of benign surveillance, termed Panopticon, whose disciplinary character in the absence of physical violence would come to be regarded by Michel Foucault (1926–1984) as one of the modern state's insidious bureaucratic trappings. While most utilitarians after Bentham have been committed to liberal ideals, they have often been charged with inconsistency on the grounds that their principle of aggregating benefits for "the greatest number" is inescapably hostile to individual freedom.

nineteenth-century utilitarianism

Bentham welcomed the French Revolution and was eventually nominated a citizen of France, but he at first sought reform through philanthropy and not democracy and remarked that he would only agree to become a republican in Paris if permitted to remain a Royalist in London. In England it was less through his own endeavors than the influence of his chief and far more radical acolyte, James Mill, that utilitarianism became a potent political force. Under Mill's guidance Bentham began early in the nineteenth century to campaign for major constitutional and social reform in England by way of such instruments as a free press, a parliament more manifestly accountable to the British electorate, and, eventually, universal suffrage. His Plan of Parliamentary Reform of 1818, together with Mill's essays "Education" and "Government" for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Westminster Review, a political journal that the two men founded in 1824, were to make the philosophy of English utilitarianism, by now described as philosophic radicalism, one of the principal motors of British constitutional change that was to culminate in the great Reform Act of 1832 and the transformation around this time of the old Whigs into the modern Liberal Party. Other currents of English radicalism, including the Chartist movement, also contributed to these developments, but none sprang from so deep a source of reflection on human nature in general or, thanks above all to Mill, from its by now tributary doctrine of political representation.

Mill's son was to prove Britain's preeminent, or at least most famous, political philosopher of the nineteenth century, less for his writings on utilitarianism than for his System of Logic and his essay On Liberty, still today liberalism's chief manifesto. That Benthamite utilitarianism was an insufficient foundation for ethics seemed plain to John Stuart Mill for much of his life, and in essays on Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) dating from the late 1830s he held that this doctrine, for all its admirable deconstruction of purely abstract ideals and blind intuitions, offered a defense of empiricism that lacked depth, subtlety, or any appreciation of aesthetic delight or the merits of received opinion. Utilitarianism as Bentham conceived it was a pragmatic and critical philosophy that had come to be compellingly radicalized, but it had never been informed by the terrors and passions of real experience, Mill remarked. In his essay Utilitarianism, dating from 1861, he continued to defend the principles of a philosophy he had mastered from his father, but he also set himself the task of distinguishing individuals' higher from their lower pleasures, insisting, contrary to Bentham's own scheme, that some kinds of pleasure, particularly of the mind, are more desirable and valuable than others.

Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900), in his Methods of Ethics, first published in 1874, developed Mill's objections to pure utilitarianism by way of contrasting both its virtues and faults from those of egoism and intuitionism, with which it competed for pride of place among other ethical doctrines. According to Sidgwick, each of these approaches taken separately was ultimately at variance with the more complex conceptions of reasonable conduct that did not admit of the formal definitions of the concepts of obligation and duty advocated by their proponents. To Sidgwick's analysis in particular moral philosophers of the past century have owed many of their distinctions between consequentialist and duty-based or deontological moral philosophies, and between Benthamite consequentialism and the deontology of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) in particular, some of which were already anticipated by Kant himself in his treatment of empiricism and the philosophy of David Hume (1711–1776).

See alsoBentham, Jeremy; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Dickens, Charles; Great Britain; Liberalism; Mill, James; Mill, John Stuart.


Primary Sources

Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. London, 1789.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. London, 1863.

Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics. London, 1874.

Secondary Sources

Halévy, Elie. The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. Translated by Mary Morris. With a preface by A. D. Lindsay. London, 1928.

Plamenatz, John Petrov. The English Utilitarians. Oxford, U.K., 1949.

Thomas, William. The Philosophic Radicals. Oxford, U.K., 1979.

Robert Wokler


views updated May 18 2018


According to the ethical theory of utilitarianism, an action is right if it promises to produce better results thanor maximize the expected utility ofother action possible in the circumstances. Although there are earlier examples of utilitarian reasoning, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (17481832) gave utilitarianism its first full formulation. "Nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters," Bentham declared, "pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do." The ethical person, then, will act to increase the amount of pleasure (or utility) in the world and decrease the amount of pain by following a single principle: promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

As later utilitarians discovered, this principle is not as straightforward as it seems. The very notion of happiness is problematical. Are all pleasures intrinsically equal, as Bentham suggested? Or are some inherently better or "higher" than others, as John Stuart Mill (18061873), the English philosopher and political economist, insisted? A related problem is the difficultysome say the impossibilityof making interpersonal comparisons of utility. If people want to promote the greatest happiness (or good or utility) of the greatest number, they need a way to measure utility. But there is no ruler that can assess the utility of various actions in the way that weight, height, or distance are quantified.

Another problem is the ambiguity of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." Stressing "the greatest number" implies that the utilitarian should bow to the majority. But "the greatest happiness" may mean that the intense preferences of the minority may override an equivocal majority. Utilitarians have typically taken the second tack by reformulating the principle as "maximize aggregate utility."

Either interpretation seems to call for an ever-increasing population. The more people there are, the more happiness there will be. This has led some utilitarians to argue that people should try to promote average rather than total utility. Since the average amount of happiness could decline in an overcrowded world even as the total amount increased, the "average utilitarian" could consistently argue for population control.

Finally, who counts when happiness or utility is calculated? Everyone counts equally, Bentham said, but does "ev eryone" include only those people living in this place at this time? The expansive view is that "everyone" embraces all those who may be affected by one's actions, even people who may not yet be born. If so, should today's people count the preferences of future generations equally with those presently living? For that matter, should they restrict their concern to people? According to Bentham, the test of inclusion should not be: "Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" This emphasis on sentience has led some contemporary utilitarians to advocate "animal liberation," including vegetarianism , as part of a consistent attempt to promote utility.

See also Animal rights; Environmental ethics; Intergenerational justice

[Richard K. Dagger ]



Bentham, J. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. New York: Hafner, 1948 (originally published 1789).

Mill, J. S. "Utilitarianism." In Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government. New York: Dutton, 1951.

Smart, J. J. C., and B. Williams. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.


views updated May 21 2018


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.

further readings

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.


Chicago School; Dworkin, Ronald Myles.


views updated May 14 2018

utilitarianism is the moral philosophy which asserts that the maximization of happiness is the ultimate aim of all human conduct. Philosophers since the time of Aristotle have stressed the ethical value of happiness, but not until the 18th cent., with the work of Helvetius, Beccaria, and Hume, was there a theory which defined moral worth exclusively in terms of happiness. According to Jeremy Bentham, the systematizer of utilitarianism, an action is right if, and only if, it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

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


views updated Jun 27 2018

utilitarianism The name given by John Stuart Mill to a leading tradition of economic liberalism in political and moral philosophy and social theory. As a political and moral philosophy, utilitarianism is epitomized by a famous slogan coined by Jeremy Bentham, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. The most sophisticated version is to be found in the work of the philosopher David Hume, but Hume's arguments equating goodness and utility are rejected by Adam Smith in his moral writings, even though Smith is often misleadingly cast as a utilitarian in modern sociological literature. Utilitarianism flourished in late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century Britain, but European and American thinkers propounded similar notions. Bentham and his followers argued that the respective ‘happinesses’ of each individual are additive (the so-called utilitarian calculus of pleasure and pain) and that the test of the rightness of individual or social action is to maximize the sum of individual utility.

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.


views updated May 23 2018

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.