Revision Test for the Edexcel syllabus on Utilitarianism






  1. Which of the following statements about influences on the emergence of Utilitarian ethical theory (including social, political and cultural influences) is FALSE?

A. Utilitarianism is a product of Enlightenment thinking. The Enlightenment is a term which describes a cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in late 17th century Western Europe that emphasised reason and individualism over and above tradition. Its purpose was to reform society using reason, to challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and to advance knowledge through the scientific method. This new way of thinking was that rational thought begins with clearly stated principles, uses correct logic to arrive at conclusions, tests the conclusions against evidence, and then revises the principles in the light of the evidence.

B. The moral thinkers of the Enlightenment, philosophers like Aquinas, Kant, Bentham and Mill, set out to replace traditional and superstitious forms of morality with a secular morality based on moral principles that were designed to be appealing to any rational person.

C. Bentham in particular spent a lot of time trying to formulate an ideal, rationally grounded code of law based on the Utility Principle and came close to having it adopted by a liberal Portuguese government.

D. Although much (not all) Enlightenment philosophy was produced by atheistically inclined writers, two Christian clergymen from the later 18th Century, Joseph Priestley and William Paley, argued that promoting the general happiness is a duty on us imposed by God. Priestley wrote that God ‘made us, to be happy’ but not to selfishly seek our own happiness and ignore other people’s. So seeking the happiness of others goes hand in hand with obedience to the will of God. Bentham himself is said to have been profoundly inspired and influenced by Priestley’s Essay on Government.

2. TRUE or FALSE? Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were both hedonistic utilitarians.

3. TRUE or FALSE? Both Frances Hutcheson and Joseph Priestley used a phrase similar to ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ in their writing…

4. TRUE or FALSE? Before John Stuart Mill, both Priestley and David Hume argued that rules were needed to guide people towards general happiness.

5. Who wrote the line ‘Bentham thought, people ought, to make soup of their dead grandmothers’ in criticism of utilitarian thinking?

A. William Paley

B. Richard Brandt

C. Sydney Smith

D. Joseph Priestley

6. TRUE or FALSE? If we accept, with Bentham, that ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two…masters, pain and pleasure’, this only entails that we should act to maximise our own pleasure. Seeking the pleasure of ‘the greatest number’ does not automatically follow from this.

7. In Bentham’s hedonic calculus, fecundity refers to….

A. How likely the pleasure is to be followed by experiences of a similar kind.

B. How likely the pleasure is to be followed by experiences of the opposite kind.

C. How quickly the pleasure will follow (its nearness).

D. How many people experience the pleasure.

8. TRUE or FALSE? In Bentham’s hedonic calculus, the word ‘propinquity’ (nearness) refers to how close the anticipated pleasure is in terms of distance.

9. TRUE or or FALSE? Bentham thought that animal suffering might be relevant to a hedonic calculation.

10. TRUE or or FALSE? Bentham saw all pleasures as equal and famously commented that pushpin (a mindless game played in pubs at the time) was as good as poetry in terms of the amount of pleasure produced.

11. TRUE or FALSE? Mill wrote the following: ‘It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a human being dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’  Here, Mill is concerned with the quality rather the mere quantity of pleasure produced by an action. Mill therefore distinguished between higher (intellectual) and lower (physical) pleasures.

12. TRUE or FALSE? Mill thought that an impartial judge, familiar with both higher intellectual pleasures, and lower bodily pleasures, would always prefer the former to the latter.

13. TRUE or or FALSE? Given that we therefore need pointing in the direction of higher pleasures, Mill thought that we needed rules to guide us towards them and the general happiness. These rules were meant to be ones that experience has shown tend to produce the greatest happiness. Mill listed some of them: for example we shouldn’t lie or deceive or cause injury to others (his famous Harm Principle). This is arguably a strength of Mill’s utilitarianism because this rule would prevent a majority from gaining pleasure by taking advantage of or causing pain to a minority (which is a problem for Bentham’s form of utilitarianism).

However, Mill is thought to have been a strong rather than a weak rule utilitarian in that he seemed to think that exceptions could not be made to the rules in particular cases. 

14. TRUE or FALSE? The term ‘rule utilitarianism’ was first used by JJC Smart in 1959.

15. TRUE or FALSE? In strong rule utilitarianism, morally wrong actions are those which fully rational citizens of any given society would not tend to support.

16. TRUE or FALSE? In a situation where two conflicting moral rules both seem to apply, Richard Brandt thought that we should then appeal directly to the principle of Utility to make the correct decision.

17. TRUE or FALSE? For strong rule utilitarians, an individual is not permitted to break a rule in any circumstances, provided that if everyone were to follow it, utility would be maximised; however, if no one presently abides by that rule, it is acceptable to break.

18. TRUE or FALSE? Smart is of the view that act utilitarianism is actually a demanding, radical, but ultimately correct form of moral decision-making precisely because it sometimes allows, say, an innocent person to be killed in order to spare others from even greater suffering.

19. TRUE or FALSE? The inflexibility of strong rule utilitarianism has been criticised by JJC Smart, who argues that utilitarianism gets transformed into unquestioning ‘superstitious rule worship’ when it takes on this form.

20. TRUE or FALSE? Henry Sidgwick thought that if we adopt an impartial point of view, ‘the point of view of the universe’ as he called it, that we would then see that our own happiness is only as important as, and not more important than, that of others. By adopting this point of view, he thought that he had shown how Bentham’s utility principle could be defended against the central claim of ethical egoism, namely, that I should only seem to maximise pleasure for myself.

21. TRUE or FALSE? In RM Hare’s system of preference utilitarianism, the correct moral decision is arrived at by considering what my preference or choice would be in any given situation.

22. TRUE or FALSE? Hare also tried to defend the Utility Principle on prescriptivist grounds. For example, if someone insists that one should not cheat when it comes to paying their taxes, then this applies to them too. From this perspective, the wisdom of taking into account everyone’s preferences rather than just one’s own, personal preferences is demonstrated.

23. TRUE or or FALSE? Hare’s system of Preference Utilitarianism avoids the problem posed for hedonistic utilitarianism by the example of Nozick’s Pleasure Machine, namely, that we seek real pleasures rather than virtual ones. If we were purely hedonistic, we would not. But Hare’s version of utilitarianism avoids this problem because it is based on the satisfaction of preferences rather than the production of sensations of pleasure. So the fact that most of us have a preference for genuine pleasures rather than artificial ones is allowed for by basing Utilitarianism on the satisfaction of preferences.

24. TRUE or FALSE? RM Hare was also responsible for proposing a two-level utilitarian system, according to which we should make straightforward moral decisions by following intuitive rules of thumb without thinking too much about them, but depart from these rules in trickier situations which require ‘critical moral reasoning.’

25. TRUE or FALSE? Karl Popper is famous for expressing a view that eventually became known as ‘negative utilitarianism‘.

26. TRUE or FALSE? In order to minimise avoidable suffering as Popper recommends, one important criticism of this view is that it logically entails that everyone alive now should kill themselves, to spare future generations of humanity the suffering that they will inevitably experience in life.

27. TRUE or FALSE? Peter Singer argued that the right action is that which brings about the best consequences for everyone affected by it, but denied that only pleasure or happiness are intrinsically good, adding friendship and the appreciation beauty as independent values.

28. Which of the following is NOT a weakness of Act Utilitarianism as argued for by Bentham and Smart?

A. Act-utiliarian moral decision-making arguably dehumanises us. Bernard Williams’s example of Jim and the Indians illustrates this point. In shooting one solitary Indian to save many others we lose something of our humanity.

B. Act Utilitarianism seems to be too demanding in the sense that it might require us to care as much about a greater number of strangers than we do for our own friends and family.

C. Bentham’s famous ‘Harm Principle’ does not include self-harm, and it only covers physical harm not psychological harm.

D. Minorities in Bentham’s theory are open to being exploited or harmed through his application of the Principle of Utility as there is no recognition of intrinsic human rights in his version of Act Utilitarianism.

E. It may not be possible to accurately measure pleasure or to know when one has taken into account all the relevant predicted consequences when applying Bentham’s hedonic calculus to a given moral dilemma.

29. Which of the following is NOT a perceived weakness of Rule Utilitarianism as argued for by MIll and Brandt?

A. Mill’s version of utilitarianism seems to be difficult to apply to many situations e.g. if the local council had to decide whether to build an opera house or a new hospital, it might be difficult for a decision to be reached based on Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Similarly, if someone is a doctor deciding to choose to save the life of the philosopher Peter Singer or Harry Styles, Mill’s system suggests that the philosopher should be saved because he is more capable of appreciating higher pleasures, which seems to be questionable.

B. There is an obvious inconsistency in Mill’s version of utilitarianism. On the one hand, he wants to defend the hedonistic view that actions that promote the general happiness are the right ones. However, when he writes that it is ‘better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’, he seems to have abandoned his appeal to the production of feelings of happiness as a basis for moral decision-making, as it is obvious that Socrates is not happy, even though he can appreciate higher pleasures.

C. Some lower, BODILY pleasures seem to also have a higher INTELLECTUAL or aesthetic appeal (e.g. ballet, or eating food offered by a Michelin starred chef). Even sex , one of the most instinctive pleasures, has been seen as something sacred and ‘higher’ e.g. in Hindu texts like the Kama Sutra and Tantric scriptures which describe sexual yoga. Mill does not seem to have thought about this.

D. Basing morality on preferences as Mill does is not necessarily a good idea as they may be the product of largely unconscious drives and urges that we may not even be aware of.

30. Which of the following is NOT an example of the successful influence that utilitarianism has arguably had when it comes to historical and contemporary ethical situations, including political and social reform?

A. Utilitarianism has successfully influenced recent thinking about education, which has emphasised the need to instil greater resilience in pupils.

B. Bentham’s opposition to laws making homosexual acts a crime was far in advance of his times, and may have influenced subsequent thinking about this issue and eventual reforms to the law.

C. Utilitarians led early campaigns to recognise the rights of women, including allowing women to vote and married women to own property, be admitted to university and have access to contraception.

D. Utilitarians have championed animal rights, especially the modern philosopher Peter Singer, and so utilitarians may deserve credit for the fact that today, almost every society now has laws about animal welfare.

E. Although Bentham’s notion of the Panopticon has been criticised for its denial of privacy, he saw one of its advantages as enabling the person in charge to ensure that warders and supervisors did not mistreat those under their control.


1. Correct answer:

Aquinas was a medieval theologian not an Enlightenment thinker. However, he did think that God was rational and that we could be too, given that we are made in God’s ‘image’ according to Genesis.
2. Correct answer:
Explanation:A hedonist is someone who lives for pleasure where ‘pleasure’ means the cultivation of physical feelings of happiness in as many people as possible who are affected by your decision. Mill was a hedonist too but thought that higher pleasures (mainly associated with the life of the mind) were more rewarding. However, it could be said that Mill is abandoning purely hedonistic utilitarianism with his emphasis on higher pleasures, even though he insisted that an informed judge would always prefer a higher intellectual pleasure to a lower physical one. This is because at this point, his version of utilitarianism implies that those capable of appreciating higher pleasures are more refined, noble and intellectual people, which takes him more in the direction of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics with its emphasis on character development and eudaimonia, a state of happiness achieved by a well-rounded, cultured person who has striven to cultivate various refined qualities of temperament.
3. Correct answer:TRUE
Explanation:True – though apparently no-one has ever found the actual phrase in one of Priestley’s pamphlets.
4. Correct answer: FALSE – It was Paley and Hume.
5. Correct answer:C – Sydney Smith
Explanation:Here Smith is lampooning the tendency of Bentham’s system to produce moral outcomes that are deemed acceptable according to the utility principle but that most people would find abhorrent.
6. Correct answer:TRUE
Explanation:Utilitarian philosophers have always struggled to justify the wider application of the Utility Principle to include the generation of pleasure for everyone affected by our actions. Bentham’s attempt to ground morality in human psychology (and at the same time to motivate us to do the right thing as we all seek pleasure in life) only seems to provide a justification for seeking pleasure for ourselves. Sidgwick was the philosopher who tried to address this problem. He argued that if we look at things impartially from what he called ‘the point of view of the universe’, that we would all agree that our own personal happiness cannot count for more than anyone else’s happiness.
7. Correct answer: A – How likely the pleasure is to be followed by experiences of a similar kind.
8. Correct answer:FALSE – propinquity describes how near the anticipated pleasure is in terms of TIME. So the pleasure of qualifying as a doctor may be several years away for someone just starting a university course in medicine.
9. Correct answer:TRUE
Explanation:Bentham wrote that “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? 
Mill was also a supporter of animal rights. He wrote ‘Granted that any practice causes more pain to animals than it gives pleasure to man; is that practice moral or immoral? And if, exactly in proportion as human beings raise their heads out of the slough of selfishness, they do not with one voice answer “immoral,” let the morality of the principle of utility be for ever condemned.’ Here he seems to be suggesting that he was prepared to stake the entire question of the validity of the principle of utility on the inclusion of animals in morality.
10. Correct answer: TRUE
11. Correct answer:

FALSE – Mill wrote: ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’ As suggested in the feedback to a previous question, Mill might be accused of having abandoned the utility principle in writing this, as we can imagine a society of unhappy intellectuals who can still appreciate higher pleasures.
12. Correct answer:TRUE
Explanation:A good example of the contrast between a higher and lower pleasure would be taking this revision test versus going to the gym. Mill claimed that anyone familiar with both pleasures would prefer to be reading this bit of feedback.
13. Correct answer:

False – Mill is what is known as a ‘weak rule utilitarian’. Exceptions could be made to rules that otherwise should not be broken if the Utility Principle was upheld by doing so on the occasion in question. So for example, a person might break a rule about stealing if they had no other way of getting food and would otherwise starve to death.
14. Correct answer:FALSE – it was first used by Richard Brandt in that year.
15. Correct answer: TRUE

16. Correct answer:    FALSE

Explanation:It was Mill who recommended this, and this is why he known as a weak rule utilitarian. JJC Smart argues, however, that if rules can sometimes be broken, this means that weak rule utilitarianism has morphed back into act utilitarianism again. So why not just stick with act utilitarianism instead?

17. Correct answer:    FALSE

Explanation:Brandt (as a strong rule utilitarian) thought that the rule should be followed, even if no-one was sticking to it at the time. This leads to a criticism of strong rule utilitarianism that it might leave some people wide open to being exploited by those who are not following, say, a rule to be honest in one’s dealings with others.
18. Correct answer: TRUE

19. Correct answer: TRUE

20. Correct answer: TRUE

21. Correct answer:  FALSE

Explanation:According to Hare, I need to tally my own preferences for myself and weigh them against what I would prefer if I put myself in the position of being the other parties affected by my decision. If my preferences only focused on myself, then I would be an ethical egoist not a utilitarian.

22. Correct answer: TRUE

23. Correct answer: TRUE

24. Correct answer:TRUE
Explanation:An example might be if a mad axe murderer is asking where your friend is (an example actually taken from Kant’s philosophy), it might be a good idea not to follow a rule about telling the truth on this occasion. Hare liked to quote a placard he once saw outside a church: ‘if you have a conflict of duties, one of them isn’t your duty’. In these rare situations, Hare thought that we should revert to act utilitarianism.

25. Correct answer: TRUE

26. Correct answer:TRUE
Explanation:R.N. Smart was responsible for advancing a version of this criticism (though in a different form to the way I have presented it): ‘….one may reply to negative utilitarianism (hereafter called NU for short) with the following example, which is admittedly fanciful, though unfortunately much less so than it might have seemed in earlier times. Suppose that a ruler controls a weapon capable of instantly and painlessly destroying the human race. Now it is empirically certain that there would be some suffering before all those alive on any proposed destruction day were to die in the natural course of events. Consequently the use of the weapon is bound to diminish suffering, and would be the ruler’s duty on NU grounds.’
27. Correct answer:

FALSE – it was G.E. Moore who made this argument and the form of Utilitarianism that he attempted to justify in this way is known as Ideal Utilitarianism.
28. Correct answer:
Explanation:Mill not Bentham came up with the Harm Principle to prevent minorities from being oppressed by a majority. According to this principle, we are free to do what we like as long as we do not cause physical harm to others in the pursuit of our freedom.

29. Correct answer: D

Explanation:Mill was NOT a preference utilitarian (though he does, in a sense, argue that we all have a preference for higher pleasures).
30. Correct answer:

It is actually Virtue Ethics that has influenced modern thinking about education and the need to instil more character into a modern students who have been caricatured elsewhere as a generation of ‘snowflakes’. 

Note that Mill’s strong advocacy of freedom of thought and expression and his urging that the state should allow individuals to choose their own ways of living has arguably also greatly influenced our contemporary lifestyles, as well as thinking on the limits of free speech, artistic expression, and tolerance of others in a multicultural society.