Utilitarianism Course Notes for Edexcel students

From the Edexcel Religion and Ethics Syllabus

a) Concepts of utility, pleasure, hedonism and happiness, influences on the emergence of the theory, including social, political and cultural influences, the significant contribution of Bentham and Mill to a recognised theory. Act and Rule Utilitarianism, the development of the theory, including Preference, Negative and Ideal Utilitarianism, the application of the theory in historical and contemporary ethical situations, including political and social reform, the concept of relativism in ethics.

b) Strengths and weaknesses of the theory and its developments, appropriateness of its continuing application and use, assessment of relevant examples, change in the law and social attitudes vis a vis the theory, compatibility or otherwise with religious approaches.

With reference to the ideas of J Bentham and J S Mill.


Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that can be seen as a product of something called ‘the Enlightenment’. The Enlightenment was a cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in late 17th century Western Europe which emphasised rationality and greater individualism. Its purpose was to reform society using reason, to challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and to advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted scientific thought, scepticism, and the sharing of intellectual ideas. This new way of thinking also involved the idea 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.

Put more simply, many European intellectuals at this time had begun to doubt whether God existed. This, in turn, meant that morality could no longer be based on God. Something else was needed. As will be seen later on in these notes, Jeremy Bentham thought that morality could and should be based on human psychology, specifically on the fact that human beings prefer pleasure to pain. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that proceeds from this basic observation.

Bentham was also attempting to develop a theory that would motivate us to do the right thing. The fact that human beings like physical sensations of pleasure provides them with a powerful incentive to do things that make them feel happy.

Utilitarianism is the moral theory that an action is right if it produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people affected by that action. Utilitarians believe that the only relevant factor in determining the morality of an action is therefore the amount of collective happiness generated by it.  It is therefore a consequentialist and teleological ethical theory, and in some versions also a relativist theory. Appeals to duty, moral intuitions or God’s wishes are not relevant.

Utilitarianism has a long history, but the most famous versions of the theory emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the hedonistic utilitarianism championed by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and the less well-known Henry Sidgwick.  Hedonism involves pleasure seeking, and hedonistic utilitarians like Bentham and Mill argue that morality is determined according to how much pleasure or pain is produced from a course of action e.g. on the issue of capital punishment, hedonistic utilitarians would argue that this practice is justified only if it produces a greater amount of general pleasure than pain.

Note that Bentham and Mill, along with Henry Sidgwick, are sometimes referred to as classical utilitarians.

Hedonism is a trait most typically associated with the Rock and Roll lifestyle. But which band rates as the most hedonistic of all time? My vote would go to Manchester’s Happy Mondays (who also had the best dancer in Bez – see above). Anyone who thinks that this is getting away from the world of Religious Studies obviously hasn’t come across former Professor of the subject Andrew Rawlinson’s brilliantly bonkers The Hit: Into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Universe and Beyond, a book length exploration of the tendency of this form of music to induce religious experiences.

Historical development

Utilitarianism is not the invention of any single philosopher and its roots can be traced back to ancient Greece and specifically, the writings of Epicurus (341 – 270 BCE), who argued that the gaining of pleasure and avoidance of pain (i.e. hedonism), is the single standard by which our actions should be judged.

In the 18th Century the Irish/Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747) also linked morality with happiness when he wrote that ‘The action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’ Most of the key elements of utilitarianism can be found in Hutcheson’s writings: first, the consequences of our actions – short term and long term – should be calculated; second the previously mentioned utility principle is identified as the standard of moral evaluation; third, there are higher intellectual pleasures and lower bodily pleasures that are both relevant to utilitarian moral decision-making.

Influenced by Hutcheson, David Hume (1711-1776) agreed that morally right actions are those that produce useful or immediately pleasing consequences for ourselves and others. Hume actually uses the term ‘utility’ to describe those useful consequences, and it is from this expression that utilitarianism gets its name. Like Paley (see below), Hume also supported the view that to produce useful consequences, rules were needed. For example, he argued that isolated instances of sexual chastity (i.e. not giving way to the temptation to have an affair) would not have the consequence of supporting family units. So he thought that remaining chaste should be a general rule, even for single women past childbearing age, to maintain the stability of the family and ‘the public good’. Here, then, we can see that he was laying the foundations for the kind of rule utilitarianism that was later developed by and more fully expressed by philosophers like Mill. Bentham too, acknowledged Hume as an important source of inspiration. 

Theological Utilitarianism

Two Christian clergymen from the later 18th Century also argued that promoting the general happiness is a duty on us imposed by God : Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) and William Paley (1743-1805). Priestley, for example, wrote that God ‘made us, to be happy’ (as reflected in the fact that as God’s creatures we have been designed with an ability to appreciate pleasure), but not to selfishly seek our own happiness and ignore other people’s. 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 by the phrase ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’, which he found in Priestley’s Essay on Government.

Paley also thought that promoting the general happiness of others was what God wanted us to do, but wrote that in doing so, we would then ensure that we ourselves would end up in heaven. So he provides an oddly selfish motive for doing our best for others. This contrasts with mainstream utilitarianism which seeks to promote the general happiness for its own sake.  Paley seems to have been in favour of a strong version of what later became known as rule utilitarianism. He wrote, for example, that the violent assassination of a tyrant would be morally wrong because murder invariably has bad consequences. To allow this exception would thus be wrong because it sets a bad example to anyone else who believes that certain people are ‘noxious and useless’ and ‘better out of the world than in it.’

In addition to Priestley and Paley, there have been many other supporters of what has been called Theological or Anglican Utilitarianism. However, not all have been enthusiastic. One example is the Reverend Sydney Smith, who twitted ‘that Bentham thought people ought to make soup of their dead grandmothers.’ 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.

NOTE: in the short time available to you in an examination, you should not spend very much time at all describing these influences. They can and should be mentioned, but only briefly. For example, you might want to trace the origins of the utility principle back to Hutcheson and Priestley, or of Mill’s version of rule utilitarianism to Hutcheson and Hume. Having said this, if you get a question suggesting that utilitarianism is incompatible with a religious approach to ethics, you could about Priestley and Paley.

Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832)

Bentham presented his theory of utility in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789).

Two distinctive features of Bentham’s theory are :

  1. His exclusive appeal to only one factor in moral decision-making: the pleasing or painful consequences of actions on those affected by them. This forms the basis for his utility principle:  act in such a way as to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people (a principle which can also be found in the writings of Hutcheson and Priestley). At the beginning of the Principles, Bentham attempts to ground this decision in human psychology: ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two…masters, pain and pleasure’. However, even if we accept this observation as a psychological fact, it only entails that we should act to maximise our own pleasure. Seeking the pleasure of ‘the greatest number’ does not automatically follow from this. The later classical utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick, tried to grapple with this issue (see below).
  2. The second notable feature of Bentham’s theory is his method for working out which actions produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number in terms of their consequences: the hedonic calculus. Here, ‘happiness’ = physical sensations of pleasure. This method for measuring pleasure is quantitative and consists of seven criteria:
  • The Purity of the pleasure (is it contaminated by pain, for example – ‘There is no gain without pain’?).
  • The Remoteness of pleasure (how near or far away it is).
  • The Intensity of the pleasure.
  • How Certain it is that pleasure will result.
  • The Extent  of the pleasure (how many people are affected).
  • Its Duration – how long does it last for?
  • Its Fecundity – how likely is it to give rise to further pleasures of a similar kind?

This can be remembered by the formula “PRICEDF”

NOTE: it is very important that you do not simply list the seven elements of the hedonic calculus in an examination. They need to be explained and applied to a specific moral issue, for which you will receive a separate handout. A question about Act Utilitarianism would also require you to describe and explain the hedonic calculus, as it is the main method used in Act Utilitarian moral decision-making.

John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)

Mill wrote a famous defence of utilitarianism that first appeared in three instalments in Fraser’s Magazine in 1861 and eventually appeared in book form in 1863 under the title Utilitarianism.

Like Bentham, Mill believes that the sole criterion of morality is the general happiness.

Also like Bentham, he believed this criterion could be expressed in the form of a single principle:

‘Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of [general] happiness.’  – Utilitarianism (NOTE: I have added the word ‘general’ in square brackets as that is what Mill meant).

Third, like Hutcheson, Mill argues that happiness consists of both higher intellectual pleasures and lower bodily pleasures.

Finally, like Hume, Mill focuses on the good and bad consequences that result from following moral rules, and as such is therefore classified as a rule-utilitarian.

Higher and Lower Pleasures

One of the distinctive features of Mill’s utilitarianism is his distinction between higher intellectual pleasures and lower bodily pleasures. Although Hutcheson first made this distinction, Mill developed it and made it central to his theory.

Mill introduced this topic in order to counter a specific criticism of utilitarianism that it was a moral theory worthy only of swine as swine, too, pursue pleasure. We can also see here, the source of Mill’s famous comment:

 ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” 

Mill responds to the criticism here by pointing out that the concept of pleasure includes intellectual as well as bodily pleasures, and that pigs cannot experience intellectual pleasures.

For Mill, lower bodily pleasures are physical and instinctive, and derived from activities like sex and eating food. By contrast, higher intellectual pleasures are those gained from lofty pursuits that could include an appreciation of classical music, art, literature, philosophy, and the general cultivation of the life of the mind.

According to Mill, higher pleasures are qualitatively superior to lower pleasures. ‘It is quite compatible with the principle of utility’, Mill wrote, ‘to recognise the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others.’ For Mill, Bentham made a mistake to think that happiness was simply a matter of quantity, so that ‘pushpin’ (a mindless pub game) might even be preferred to ‘poetry’ in some circumstances.

Mill’s emphasis on higher pleasures means that we cannot calculate general happiness according to the method described by Bentham. However, Mill did come up with a test to help us decide whether one pleasure is qualitatively superior to another.

Suppose that a group of people are trying to weigh up the pleasures that might result from either visiting an art museum or a monster truck rally. For Mill, in these circumstances, they should each adopt the position of being an impartial judge who is acquainted with both types of event. While the truck rally might produce a greater quantity of pleasure Mill thought that an impartial judge, being familiar with both higher and lower pleasures, would always prefer the qualitatively higher pleasure, in this case the trip to the art exhibition.

Another good contrast could be drawn between a trip to the gym and the same amount of time spent studying Philosophy.

A second important feature of Mill’s version of utilitarianism is universalisability.  By this is meant the idea that everyone should aim for the happiness of all, not just themselves. The best overall rules are deemed to be those which, when pursued by that community as a whole, lead to the most happiness. One important feature of his system is that, in any particular situation, the relevant rule must be obeyed even if, on that particular occasion, it does not result in the greatest pleasure for me. For example, occasions might arise for us to indulge in fare evasion when we use public transport, but for Mill this would be immoral as a good public transport system depends on everyone adhering to the rule about payment of fares.

Mill was also more sensitive to minorities, who arguably do not enjoy sufficient protection under Bentham’s system.  For example, a hedonic calculation might support Christians being thrown to the lions in the Roman arena if a sufficient number of spectators derived enough pleasure from this spectacle to outweigh the pain suffered by those Christians. So an important rule in Mill’s system was his famous Harm Principle. According to this rule, everyone should be at liberty to do as they please, as long as no-one is physically harmed as a result of our actions. Mill thought that one of the main purposes of a government was to make laws to prevent this from happening, so that in theory, minority groups do not end up getting victimised.


Derived from Bentham’s ideas, taking every situation as unique and individual.  You approach each ‘act’ with fresh eyes. J.J.C. Smart is a modern defender of this type of Utilitarianism. As an individual tool for moral decision-making, it involves calculating the pleasurable and painful consequences of our individual actions. A two-step process is involved: 1) you find out what the right moral action is by 2) appealing to the criterion of general happiness.


This is derived from Mill’s ideas and involves calculating the pleasurable and painful consequences of the moral rules that we adopt. Richard Brandt is a modern defender of this type of Utilitarianism. In Mill’s version of rule utilitarianism, individual liberty (freedom) is stressed. The rules only exist to prevent people from harming others through the expression of their personal freedom.

Rule Utilitarianism involves a three step process: 1) you find out what the right moral action is by appealing to 2) moral rules which are themselves arrived at by appealing to 3) the criterion of general happiness.


A form where the principles are stuck to without exceptions.  No flexibility allowed.  Richard Brandt is a philosopher who supports this approach to moral decision-making. This new theory is what is known as Rule Utilitarianism. In addition to Mill, the most famous defender of Rule Utilitarianism has probably been Richard Brandt. The actual term ‘rule utilitarianism’ was first coined by Brandt in 1959 (before that date JJC Smart referred to it as ‘restricted utilitarianism’).

Brandt suggests that the phrase ‘morally wrong’ would refer to any action that fully rational citizens of a given society would not tend to support.

Suppose we imagine two societies, one in which the rule ‘Don’t lie to frame an innocent man’ was in operation, and one in which this rule is not followed. In which society are people likely to be better off? From the point of view of Rule Utilitarianism, the first society is to be preferred. Similarly, other rules against violating people’s rights can also be established, along with rules requiring loyalty to our immediate friends and family, loving care of one’s children, and so on. We should accept such rules because following them brings about general happiness, and therefore still adheres to the general Principle of Utility (‘the greatest happiness of the

greatest number’) and also seems to fit with our moral common sense. In other words, we don’t have to treat everyone equally as Act Utilitarianism seems to demand, and therefore favour people starving in the Third World as much as we would our closest friends and family.

For strong rule utilitarians like Brandt, an individual is not permitted to break a rule in any circumstances, provided that if everyone were to follow it, utility would be maximised; so the fact that not everyone abides by it, or even that no-one else does, is no excuse. If the general happiness would be increased by, say, everyone telling the truth (even to a would-be murderer in the case of Kant’s famous example) and keeping their promises, then a person should tell the truth and keep their promises no matter what other people do.

However, the strictness 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. Smart is of the view that act utilitarianism is actually a demanding, radical 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, and/or that we should not put the interests of our own family above those who are dying of hunger in famine stricken parts of the world.

Brandt’s version of strong rule utilitarianism has also been criticised because it insists that an individual should follow the rules even when no-one else does, as this would make that person vulnerable to being taken advantage of. For example, someone who keeps their promises and does not steal could easily be exploited if they were living in a society full of liars and thieves. So if the rules that are theoretically meant to be followed by rational persons are not adhered to by real, actual persons, then there does not seem to be much point in sticking to them yourself.


According to Mill, we appeal to the utility principle only to establish moral rules. On rare occasions, though, we may be caught in a moral dilemma between two conflicting rules. Suppose a friend borrows your authentic samurai sword and promises to return it when you ask for it. The next day you have a heated argument about the merits of utilitarianism with your philosophy teacher and afterwards, in a fit of rage, you ring the friend to ask for it back. The friend is now caught in a dilemma between two conflicting moral rules: keeping promises and not contributing to the harm of others. In such rare cases, Mill suggests that we should appeal directly to the utility principle to decide which rule has priority. In this case, the friend brings about more happiness by following the rule to avoid harming others, and so should hang on to the sword. This flexibility, which is not permitted to strong rule utilitarians, means that Mill (and anyone else who takes this approach) is referred to as a weak rule utilitarian.

JJC Smart argues, however, that if rules can sometimes be broken, this means that rule utilitarianism has morphed back into act utilitarianism again.  So why not just stick with Act Utilitarianism instead? It may be uncompromising, but perhaps that is no bad thing. In challenging our ordinary moral feelings, perhaps it does what good philosophy always does – makes us think again about issues that we may have previously taken for granted.

Other Utilitarian philosophers/Forms of Utilitarianism

NOTE: all the other forms of utilitarianism that are described from here on in are nearly all mentioned in your syllabus. So you will need to revise them too, though perhaps not in as quite so much depth.In particular, you might want to namedrop Sidgwick  as a philosopher who tried to show why I should seek the happiness of ‘the greatest number’ rather than just personal happiness.  And you could identify Singer as someone who – through his discussion of ‘personhood’ and ‘speciesism’, has championed animal rights by building on Bentham’s recognition that – as animals can feel pleasure and pain – they are entitled to some kind of moral status. Or you could propose something like negative utilitarianism, or Hare’s form of rule utilitarianism, as types of utilitarianism that address some of the weaknesses in Bentham and Mill’s versions of this ethical theory.

Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900)

Although Bentham and Mill are more famous, Sidgwick is regarded as the greatest of the classical/hedonistic utilitarian philosophers. In his writing, Sidgwick tries to address the following problem: if we are inclined as human beings to seek pleasure and avoid pain, why bother to follow the utility principle? Why be concerned to try to increase pleasure for anyone apart from myself?

In other words, he is trying to bridge the gap between ethical egoism (the idea that actions are right if they serve my selfish interests – which may sound odd as an idea but it can include the personal happiness that one might selfishly enjoy as a result of doing things for other people) and act utilitarianism. And if Bentham is right and we are programmed by nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain, in other words if we are all psychological egoists, Sidgwick is also trying to come with a defence of act utilitarianism that can encourage us to overcome this tendency. This is a difficult task because an act utilitarian hedonic calculus could demand that we make huge personal sacrifices (perhaps even to the extent of giving up our own lives).

To solve this problem, Sidgwick recommends that we should adopt ‘the point of view of the universe’.

Bentham had previously championed what became the famous slogan, “Each [is] to count for one, and none for more than one.” For Sidgwick, to take the ‘point of view of the universe’ involves looking at things impartially. Once we step outside of ourselves and look at ethical issues in this way, Sidgwick thought that we would immediately recognise a self-evident moral truth: that the good of one individual is of no more importance than the good of any other.

A PROBLEM: it may be an illusion to think that – at a moment’s notice –  we can psychologically move beyond our selfish perspective and private intuitions. And even if we could quickly adopt a more impartial stance, that point of view might then only reflect the views of the popular culture we are exposed to, one that consists of a hotch-potch of talk shows, tabloid news and unreliable views that we might have encountered in chat rooms or online forums.

Preference Utilitarianism

This is the view that the morally right course of action is one that maximises our preferences. A ‘preference’ is defined not as a physical sensation, though the satisfaction of preferences may give rise to physical sensations of pleasure. Instead, a preference is an expression of a desired state of affairs. So one might have a preference to not be thwarted in one’s desire to go to university by the raising of tuition fees to a point that makes further education unaffordable. Or one might have a preference to marry rather than remain single.

So if I live in a country like North Korea and am considering expressing political opinions that oppose those held by the government, in deciding whether to speak out in public I would have to balance my preference for free expression against my preference for not being tortured if, as is likely, I will then be arrested.

Preference utilitarianism is most associated with two philosophers: R.M. Hare and Peter Singer.


There are three important features of Hare’s account:

  1. To say that I would ‘prefer’ something simply means that I would choose that thing if a certain situation arose. For example, if I am a prisoner on death row, to say ‘I would prefer not to be executed’ means that I would choose to be spared if I had the chance.
  2. My preferences can include a combination of short and long-term preferences. For example, in the short-term I might prefer not to receive the death penalty while in the longer term I might prefer to have the death penalty abolished.
  3. My preferences are not merely restricted to myself but also include the preferences of other people. That is, some of my preferences must be impartial and universal (there are echoes of Sidgwick’s philosophy here), and I must imagine what my preferences would be if I were in someone else’s shoes. For example, I would not prefer that, if I were the prisoner on death row, that I should be executed. However, if I were a relative of someone that prisoner has murdered, I might prefer that the execution should take place.

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

PROBLEMS: Just as it might be considered impossible to accurately measure pleasure according to Bentham’s hedonic calculus because of the difficulty involved with calculating the likely pleasures and pains involved for everyone affected by one’s actions if the moral decision will affect lots of people, similar problems arise with weighing up the worth of conflicting preferences. For example, how are the preferences of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to uphold free speech to be weighed against the desire of the Muslim community not to be offended? Are different kinds of preference to be treated equally e.g. is a sixth former’s preference to stay in bed all day to be given the same preferential weight as their teacher’s preference for them to reading philosophy textbooks? My preferences may be the product of largely unconscious drives and urges that hardly makes them a suitable basis for moral decisions. See also the very last criticism in the ‘Weaknesses’ section below.


Singer is especially famous for championing the cause of animal rights and the claim that we are speciesists in our treatment of animals. Speciesism for Singer happens when we allow the frequently trivial preferences of our own species to override the more weighty preferences of another species. For example, when shopping for food, most of us would prefer to buy cheap food that tastes good. But if that food is an animal product, in making our purchase we have not taken into account the preference an animal may have for not suffering when they are alive (as often happens as a result of intensive farming) and dying prematurely. For Bentham, animals were of moral significance. He wrote that “The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?” Singer agrees with Bentham’s view and also introduces the notion of personhood into his version of preference utilitarianism. For Singer, a person is a being that can value its own existence and knows that it has a future. He argues that many animals are persons in this sense, and research into animal awareness suggests that he is right. For example, chimpanzees have been taught ASL (American Sign Language) and have exhibited  linguistic skills that approximate to those of a human child of around two years of age.

Singer is controversial for several reasons:

  1. He regards speciesism as being as immoral as racism. For example, in old American south, a white slave owner’s preference for profit and cheap labour were allowed to override the preference of black slaves to be free. For Singer, this example is morally equivalent to the example of the food shopper given above.
  2. He considers unborn foetuses and young babies to lack personhood, which makes abortion and even infanticide morally acceptable for him in some cases. He has even suggested that it may therefore be preferable to carry out medical experiments on orphaned human infants rather than animals because infants are less aware than many species of animals and do not acquire a sense of being a person until they are older.
  3. Personhood is also something that can be lost (as when someone becomes ‘brain dead’ following a serious accident). This makes euthanasia morally acceptable for Singer.
  4. Like JJC Smart, he regards utilitarianism as a morally demanding philosophy which entails that – from an impartial perspective (Singer’s favourite philosopher is Henry Sidgwick) – we should care as much about starving and dying children in the Third World as we do about a child drowning right in front of us. He therefore suggests that the money we spend on luxury items should be redistributed to those more in need of it.

A PROBLEM:  Can animals be truly said to have preferences in the way that humans do?

Two Level Utilitarianism

  • Two Rule or Two Level Utilitarianism was developed by the moral philosopher R.M. Hare. This system takes elements from both Bentham and Mill and can be seen as a more fully worked out version of rule utilitarianism.
  • Hare suggests that our moral actions should in the first instance follow a set of simple and obvious (‘intuitive’) moral rules. In other words, on an everyday level, we should think like a rule utilitarian. Yet, we should depart from these occasionally when we are required to engage in ‘critical moral reasoning’ e.g. 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. So Hare here is implicitly critical of strong rule utilitarianism.
  • 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.
  • In favouring this approach, Hare thought that he had captured the spirit of the way in which most of us make moral decisions.

Ideal Utilitarianism

  • This form of utilitarianism was developed by the philosopher G.E. Moore (1873 – 1958).
  • Moore accepted the consequentialist approach of classical Utilitarianism but rejected its hedonism. His Principia Ethica of 1903 attacked Bentham and Mill on the grounds that hedonistic utilitarianism makes a travesty of human nature through its reduction of everything we care about to species of pleasure.
  • Moore argued that instead we should value ideals above pleasure and seek to act in such a way that these ideals would be maximised in society.
  • The ideals we might promote through consequentialism include: beauty, peace, justice, truth, etc.
  • Curiously, Moore believed that beauty as an ideal is something objective and intrinsic to nature. In this respect, his perspective resembles that of Deep Ecologists like Aldo Leopold and Arne Naess.
  • In a thought experiment, he invited his readers to first of all imagine a world that is exceedingly beautiful and full of admirable things that are ‘combined in the most exquisite proportions’. Then, by way of contrast, we are requested to imagine a world of exceptional ugliness which is ‘one heap of filth, containing everything that is disgusting to us’ and lacking in any redeeming features.
  • Moore goes on to assert that even if these worlds remained forever unperceived by beings capable of appreciating or striving to produce the more beautiful example, that this world would still be inherently more valuable than its ugly alternative.
  • Moore appeals to intuition to support his assertion.
  • However, Moore could be criticised on the grounds that others may have competing intuitions telling them whether an object is beautiful or ugly becomes irrelevant if no-one sensitive to beauty is ever going to see it.
  • A further weakness of Moore’s position is that he simply assumes that beauty is something objective and not something that exists merely in the eye of the beholder.

NOTE: both ideal and preference utilitarianism retain the consequentialist element of earlier forms of utilitarianism and might be seen as addressing an issue recently raised by Robert Nozick. Nozick invites us to imagine that a pleasure machine has been invented. The pleasure machine functions like a virtual reality in which any pleasurable experience that we can imagine can be duplicated, and we can enjoy an unbroken sequence of those pleasurable experiences. Nozick suggests that most people would not choose to remain in this utilitarian paradise, and that this challenges the fundamental claim made by hedonistic utilitarians that human beings are primarily driven by the urge to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Ideal and preference utilitarianism may be capable of sidestepping this criticism because they also recognise that pleasure is not the only thing that counts.



The long term influence of utilitarianism

Bentham, Mill and Singer have arguably all advanced the cause of animal rights. Bentham is credited for directly or indirectly initiating reforms of the representative system of parliament, the drafting of Acts passed by Parliament, the jury and criminal justice system, the abolition of transportation and imprisonment for debt, the development of savings banks and cheap postage, and the registration of births and deaths. Bentham was also probably the first person to suggest the formation of a League of Nations (the forerunner of the UN).

Although his idea for a Panopticon was never adopted by the prison service, it does show how Bentham was concerned with the reformation of character rather than punishment as one of the aims of the criminal justics system.

John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle has obviously influenced debates about the limits of free speech in a democracy and he advocated equality between the sexes. Mill was convinced that the moral and intellectual advancement of humankind would result in greater happiness for everybody. He asserted that the higher pleasures of the intellect yielded far greater happiness than the lower pleasure of the senses. He conceived of human beings as morally and intellectually capable of being educated and civilised. Mill believed everyone should have the right to vote, with the only exceptions being barbarians and uneducated people.

Mill argues that people should be able to vote to defend their own rights and to learn to stand on their two feet, morally and intellectually. This argument is applied to both men and women. Mill often used his position as a member of Parliament to demand the vote for women, a controversial position for the time.

Main Strengths of the Theory (with most important or memorable examples highlighted in bold):

  • It is attractive.  Most people like to maximise pleasure in their lives .
  • Looks at consequences, and is therefore more context-specific  and flexible than a deontological theory like Kantian ethics, which forbids any bending or breaking of the rules. Previous decisions made in an act-utilitarian manner can also be revised and corrected when new circumstances and consequences are considered.
  • The hedonic calculus considers others and not just the individual.
  • It provides a clear-cut and highly practical recipe for political action: governments should first of all find out what makes people happy, and then come up with policies to bring that happiness about.
  • With its emphasis on pleasure and pain, Utilitarianism might be said to have identified a motivating force that can make us want to be more moral.
  • It could be used as the basis for a good system of education, where schools could teach pupils to care about everyone’s welfare and to appreciate higher pleasures.
  • It does not depend on having to additionally justify the existence of God (which is necessary in Divine Command Ethics).
  • Utilitarianism focuses on this world rather than the next one and insists that human existence is justified by the richness of the experiences that can be had on earth, rather than in some future afterlife that may turn out not to exist.
  • Utilitarianism can claim to be based on the scientific study of human nature rather than on some dubious religious ideas about human beings e.g. that we are all sinners.
  • Given that animals are held to be capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, their suffering can be acknowledged and factored in to utilitarian calculations. Bentham recognised that animals can suffer and Peter Singer has been a very important supporter of animal rights.
  • In situations where resources are scarce, utilitarianism can assist the making of difficult decisions e.g. if the choice is between the NHS paying for an expensive drug to give an already terminally ill patient 3 more months of life or using the same money to pay for medicine which will save the lives of 10 children the hedonic calculus can give a clear answer.
  • Weak Rule Utilitarianism and Two Level Utilitarianism are more flexible than Kantian ethics while still upholding standards for us to live by.
  • In situations of emergency (e.g. the famous Trolley Car situation) utilitarianism may be invoked in order to allow difficult decisions to be made where it is inevitable that some people may suffer.
  • Mill’s famous ‘Harm Principle’ seems to be very useful as an example of a utilitarian rule. According to this principle, every adult should be free to do as he or she pleases, as long as no-one else is physically harmed in the process. This means that everyone is, in principle, free to do what they want to do, even when a majority of people might disagree with their lifestyle choices, as long as no-one is hurt in the process. The task of government is to make rules to prevent this from happening.
  • Mill’s form of utilitarianism would therefore seem to avoid the problem of ‘evil’ majority pleasures.
  • Mill’s form of utilitarianism is arguably more natural than Bentham’s. For example, we can surely agree that friendship is a higher pleasure than getting drunk.

Main Weaknesses of the Theory (There are probably more than most students need – pick the ones that are easiest to understand and note that ones relating to specific types of utilitarianism are labelled in brackets at the end of the relevant bullet point)

  • Bentham wrote that ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.’ But even if this is true, it is not at all obvious that we ought, in our moral decision-making, to maximise pleasure and minimise pain.
  • Bentham’s philosophy seems deterministic: if we are all dancing to the tune of pleasure and pain, that seems to leave no room for any free-will in moral decision-making.
  • All that seems to follow from the fact that each of us seeks to maximise pleasure and avoid pain is that we should therefore maximise our own pleasure in our moral decision-making. It is not at all clear that we should aim to promote happiness for everyone. Henry Sidgwick was a later classical utilitarian philosopher who tried to address this very important issue (see above).
  • Bentham’s version of moral decision-making rejects the idea of moral RIGHTS.  Rights go against utility. Bentham wrote that talk of human rights was ‘nonsense upon stilts.’ What he meant was that there is no sense in which we automatically possess human rights just because we are human. Talk of human rights is nonsense because it all depends on whether whoever is ruling us allows us to have them. In places like Russia under Stalin, or present day North Korea, it is clear that no such rights exist.
  • Act-utilitarian 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.The use of a hedonic calculus to make moral decisions is also questionable. For example, it would require that the pleasure any sadistic Nazis got from murdering and mistreating Jews be set off against the pain caused to their victims. And if the pain caused to Christians in the Roman arena is greater than the pleasure this arouses in the spectators, then all you might have to do to address this issue is you were a Roman is to expand the seating capacity of the stadium in order for your hedonic calculus to produce the result you want.
  • Quantifying pleasure is difficult. Perhaps it isn’t always possible to measure pleasure. Consider, for example, the case of the person on death row (in the section on preference utilitarianism mentioned above). Any hedonic calculation might be too complicated to perform because it would have to include the pleasures and pains of the prisoner and those of anyone who want them to remain alive, the pleasures and pains of those who want them dead, and perhaps also the many thousands of people who might take an interest in the case if it is reported in the media, for whom the issue of capital punishment is important. Working through even a simple example like this shows that it is virtually impossible to do a complete hedonic calculus and is therefore a strong argument against adopting this approach to moral decision-making.
  • Bentham’s idea of pleasure seems little more than an appeal to animal instincts because of its claim about pleasure and pain in relation to nature. This is another reason why Kant disapproved of utilitarian type thinking. He thought that it was only when we rise above our natural desires and follow the dictates of the categorical imperative that we are truly acting morally.
  • Are higher pleasures better than lower ones?  Who says?  Is learning a foreign language better than having sex? (Rule)
  • Can’t pain sometimes be a good thing? For example, when parents tell children off for their good or make them have vaccinations?
  • Outcomes/Consequences are not always predictable.   Examples : military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, Thomas Midgeley Jr (1889-1944) who has been described as ‘the unluckiest inventor’ because he invented both leaded petrol and CFC’s thereby inadvertently causing many of the devastating environmental problems we face today.
  • Minorities in Bentham’s theory are open to being exploited or harmed through his application of the Principle of Utility. Though,in fact, as Dinwiddy points out, Bentham did recognise that conflicts of interest might arise in which the happiness of some might have to be sacrificed to ensure the happiness of a majority. According to Dinwiddy, Bentham also was aware that a minority might be oppressed by a majority in a way that caused more unhappiness for that minority. However, as we can see, if the minority was suffering more, the correct hedonic calculation had not been followed.
  • Rules may not be best applied in all situations (if using Rule utility in the strong form – not like Mill of course). 
  • In a situation where two acts, A and B, can be calculated to produce the same amount of general happiness but A involves breaking a promise but B does not, for an act utilitarian there would be nothing to choose between the two acts and they would be equally good. This example suggests that a theory based purely on consequences cannot be correct because most people would intuitively recognise that A is wrong and B is right.
  • Are pleasure and happiness really the same thing? Perhaps happiness is a lasting state of mind while utilitarianism seems more concerned with pleasures that do not last e.g. there is only so much chocolate (or lager) you can eat or drink before you are sick. Nozick’s example of the pleasure machine may be relevant here: many people do not want to stay in it because they sense that there is something false about experiencing continuous pleasure just for its own sake. However, ideal and preference utilitarianism might be said to address this issue (see above)
  • Mill’s appeal to higher pleasures is sometimes seen as elitist, as only highly educated people (‘competent judges’ can appreciate things like poetry and philosophy. But Mill himself thought that anyone could learn to enjoy higher pleasures if they were educated in the right way. (Rule)
  • 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. (Rule).
  • Karl Popper argued that the attempt to maximise pleasure for society as a whole is unrealistic and that the reduction of misery and anguish is a better goal to strive for. As he put it, ‘Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all’. Some utilitarians, known as ‘negative utilitarians’, have taken on board Popper’s observation and made this their aim.  So, for example, if faced with a choice between building a new hospital or a theatre, negative utilitarians would not be persuaded by Mill’s ‘impartial judges’ to prefer the construction of the theatre (in accordance with Mill’s emphasis on the pursuit of higher pleasures). The hospital would be built instead. However, negative utilitarianism can be criticised on the basis that – as Timothy Sprigge has pointed out – it leads to the ‘absurd consequence that the best thing to do would be to exterminate all life in which there is any distress at all.’ According to this view, given that suffering is inevitable, human beings would therefore be better off not reproducing. The extinction of our species should be our objective so that future generations (and the animals they might eat) are spared from the inescapable wretchedness that would go hand in hand with their existence. Note that in recent years, a philosophy known as anti-natalism has emerged, most prominently championed by David Benatar in his book Better Never To Have Existed. According to Benatar, having children is cruel and irresponsible because life is full of badness. In part, for this reason, he and other anti-natalists think that the world would be a better place if human life disappeared altogether. Obviously, there are implications here for other ethical issues in the field of medical ethics, like abortion, euthanasia, and reproductive technologies such as IVF. Significantly, anti-natalist ideas are starting to gain some traction in popular culture. For example, Nic Pizzolatto, the screenwriter behind True Detective, read Benatar’s book and made Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey’s character, a nihilistic anti-natalist. (‘I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,’ Cohle says).
  • Mill’s version of utilitarianism seems to be difficult to apply to many situations e.g. if a 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. The construction of an opera house would seem to be indicated but what’s the point in having one if people are too sick to appreciate what goes on it and do not have access to a hospital? (Rule)
  • Another example of how Mill’s version of utilitarianism might be difficult to apply arises from the following example: suppose a doctor has to make a choice between saving the life of Lionel Messi or Peter Singer. Singer might be obviously more capable of appreciating ‘higher’ pleasures. But does this entitle him to special consideration?
  • This highlights a significant problem with Mill’s version of utilitarianism that has been raised by Seth Payne, namely, that it might lead to discrimination against beings that are incapable of appreciating higher pleasures, such as the mentally disabled and animals. One of the more attractive features of Bentham’s version of Utilitarianism is its insistence that all members of a moral community are treated equally. This is arguably undermined by Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures.
  • Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ does not include self-harm, and it only covers physical harm not psychological harm. So if a solitary alcoholic wants to drink themselves to death, the scope of Mill’s principle is not wide enough to prevent them from doing so. And if a boss resorted to psychologically bullying his or her employees (as in the movie The Devil Wears Prada), Mill’s principle in its original form could not prevent them from doing so. (Rule).
  • 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. (Rule)
  • Rule-utilitarianism can arguably make moral decision-making more difficult when there is a clash of rules. For example, if we are faced with Kant’s would-be murderer, should we observe the rule ‘Tell the truth’ or the rule ‘Protect innocent people from harm’? However, Hare’s Two-Level Utilitarianism might help in this respect. (Rule).
  • JJC Smart’s criticism of strong rule utilitarianism as a form of ‘rule-worship’ that departs from the consequentialist spirit of utilitarian thinking is relevant. (Rule).
  • 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. (Rule)
  • Imagine that someone in the RAF is seriously injured in a plane crash behind enemy lines and then captured and tortured. The attempt to explain the sheer range and depth of physical pain, extreme anguish, fear and frustration that in all probability has left them scarred them for life purely as a tally of pleasure and pain (as Bentham does), or as psychological preferences against something ( as Hare does) , for example, not to be in plane crashes and then get tortured, is surely to trivialise horrendous experiences like this.