Consequentialism – the goodness of an action is determined exclusively by its consequences.

Utilitarianism is one type of consequentialist ethical theory.

  • Classical utilitarians and founders of the tradition include Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill
  • Utility is only thing that is fundamentally good
  • Act Utilitarianism– an action is morally required if and only if it maximizes utility, generally when some uses the term “utilitarianism” they are referring to act utilitarianism
  •   “Optimific” is used to describe actions that maximize utility
  •  Utility:
    •  “greatest good for the greatest number”
    • or more precisely the greatest net balance of happiness over unhappiness
    •  not
      • happiness for the most
      • or the most happiness, without considering the suffering involved

Utility Calculus -Bentham talked about a utility calculus where we could literally add up the units of positive utility and subtract all the units negative utility and get an exact number of units of utility produced by each action

  • “pushpin (video games) is as good as poetry” Bentham
  • Mill thought there were higher and lower pleasures such than a strict utility calculus was not possible in the way Bentham imagined
  • The utilitarian calculus includes ALL the consequences of our actions to the end of time and every single sentient being that will be affected by them

How to apply consequentialist reasoning:

1) Identify what is intrinsically good.

2) Identify what is intrinsically bad.

3) Determine all of your options.

4) For each option, determine the value of its results.

5) Perform the action that yields the highest ratio of good to bad results.

Attractions of Utilitarianism


Everyone’s interests count equally.

Justifies conventional moral wisdom:

Slavery, rape, and killing are wrong because they make people (very) unhappy.

Conflict resolution:

Utilitarianism gives us a method for making difficult moral decisions.

Moral flexibility:

Explains why moral prohibitions (against lying, stealing, etc.) may sometimes be broken.

In summary utilitarianism explains many of our most basic intuitions regarding what actions are right and wrong.

The Moral Community

  • The moral community consists of those whose interests we are morally obligated to consider for their own sake.
  • For utilitarians, the moral community consists of all beings capable of suffering.
  • Bentham “the question is not Can they reason?, Nor can they talk?, but Can they suffer?”
  • Utilitarians were way ahead of their time on women’s rights and animal rights

Agent Neutrality

Consequentialism is agent neutral in that it does not give any preference to the agents desire, preferences, happiness, or life. An agent may be obligated to sacrifice any or all of the above.

Assessing Actions and Intentions with a Utilitarian Framework

  • Morally praiseworthy actions are not necessarily the right actions according to utitlitarianism
  • Actions are evaluated on actual consequences
  • Intentions are evaluated on expected consequences not actual consequences
  • The right action is the action that maximizes actual utility
  • The right intention is the intention maximizes expected utility
  • This is a little strange in that you could have an action that would be the wrong action but still be morally praiseworthy

Example: You see a drowning man and decide to save his life. This is a morally praiseworthy action that turns out to be the wrong action because the drowning man is actually Hitler.

Example: you decide to steal someone’s car a morally blameworthy action that turns out to be the right action as that person was going to hit and kill someone while driving home drunk

“On this view there is no essential connection between the morality of an action and the morality of the intentions behind it” (FoE, 124).


“Consequentialists say that our fundamental moral duty is to make the world the best place it can be. Utilitarians in particular understand this to mean that we msut contribute as much to the improvement of well-being as we possibly can. Though theorists differ, most claim that whether an action is optimific depends only on its actual (not expected) results. All results count, not just that occur in the short term. When we fail to maximize good results, we act wrongly, even if we had the best intentions. Though good intentions may earn us praise, they are irrelevant to an action’s morality. When we pass up a chance to do an action that would have had better results, we are doing something wrong. Always” (FoE 124).

Objections to Utilitarianism (FoE ch 10)

How do we measure and compare happiness or preferences

The epistemological problem:

There is an epistemological problem regarding the fact that utilitarianism tells us we can never really know what the right action is, but that isn’t such a big deal because we can evaluate a person’s intentions based on expected consequences.

The Deeper Problem: How do we compare preferences? If we accept a non-hedonistic view then it becomes much much harder to compare and utilitarianism loses much of its attractiveness due to simplicity.

Utilitarianism is too demanding

Three areas:

  • deliberation
  • motivation
  • action


  • utitlitarianism seems to be too demanding in requiring an excessive or impossible amount of deliberation in order to determine the right action as the right action is the one with the best consequences, overall and until the end of time considered as to how it affects every sentient organism on the planet


  • on a utilitarian account the right motivations are the ones that produce the most happiness
  • utilitarianism seems to suggest that one needs to have the motivations of a saint, to always be motivated to maximize utility


  • utilitarianism implies that we are always doing the wrong thing because its standard of right action is so high
  • utilitarianism seems to imply that the right life is a life of extreme and constant self sacrifice
  • in our ordinary way of thinking about actions we tend to think of some actions as superogatory, admirable and praiseworthy but not required, but according to utilitarianism all right actions are required
  • Utilitarianism seems to violate a principle that is generally accepted in moral reasoning, that “ought is implies can.”

The Impartiality objection

  • Utilitarianism seems to require one to be completely impartial, however many people feel they have special duties to certain people (children, parents, spouses, countrymen, humans, etc).
  • One way around this is to argue that  caring for one’s family is generally optifimic if we consider all the consequences and therefore according to utilitarianism caring for one’s family is generally the right thing to do

No Intrinsic Wrongness

  • Nothing is absolutely and always wrong, including rape, torture, murder, genocide, slavery, etc.

The Integrity Objection

Here is a simple argument that might capture one’s intuitions regarding the role integrity in ethics: 

  1. If utilitarianism is correct then acting with integrity is not morally relevant to the morality of an action.
  2. Acting with integrity is morally relevant to the morality of an action.
  3. So, Utilitarianism is not correct.

Two examples from Bernard Williams’ Critique of Utilitarianism:

1)   A man is told by an evil dictator that if executes one innocent people then the lives of nine others will be spared and if he refuses all ten will be executed.

2)   A poor scientist who is having trouble supporting himself and his family is offered a lucrative job to make chemical weapons, and the weapons will be made with or without his participation.

In both cases utitlitarianism tells us it is wrong to act with integrity and refuse to kill an innocent person/make chemical weapons.


The Injustice Objection

Examples1 – The Lonesome Stranger: Framing a lonesome stranger for a crime to prevent some harm:

Example2 – The Organ Harvesting Doctor: Imagine a doctor goes around harvesting the organs of homeless people to save the lives of well-loved important people in society.

This objection has a lot to do with rights. Utilitarianism has no real way to account for rights. This is largely by design, Bentham said that rights were non-sense on stilts.

Shaffer Landau’s injustice argument against Utilitarianism:

  1. The correct moral theory will never require us to commit serious injustices.
  2. Utilitarianism sometimes requires us to commit serious injustices.
  3. Therefore, utilitarianism is not the correct moral theory.

How might a utilitarian respond to this argument?

Since the argument is valid so there are really only two options, the utilitarian must either deny that the first premise is true or deny that the second premise is true.

Deny Premise 2

A utilitarian can try to argue that injustice is never optimific. This will usually involve some long-term consequences.

Does this seem plausible?

For this to it must be true not only that there never has been a case where injustice was optimific but that it is not even logically conceivable that injustice could ever be optimific.

This is pretty implausible.

Deny Premise 1

This is what we call “biting the bullet” in philosophy jargon.

The diehard utilitarian will have to bite the bullet on this one and admit that sometimes it is not only permissible but morally required to infringe on someone’s or a group of individual’s rights and perform and injustice upon them.

They can however extol the importance of rights as being generally and almost always optimific.

Mill was an important proponent of certain rights that laid the foundation of the liberal democracy in England and America. (Read Mill’s On Liberty for more on this.)

A note about Utilitarianism and Political Philosophy

Because utilitarianism does not countenance individual rights it is impossible to form a stable society based on utilitarian principles.

Individual rights are the most basic foundation of society. Until you have rights you don’t really have a society.

No political philosopher has ever accepted utilitarianism. This includes but John Rawls and Robert Nozick, the two most famous political philosophers of the 20th century, despite their widely diverging approaches to political philosophy. Both Rawls and Nozick drew inspiration from Kant and the social contract tradition.


The  injustice objection is the most challenging for the utilitarian to address. This does not mean that there are no utilitarian answers to meet this objection but what it shows is that utilitarianism, despite its many attractions, utilitarianism fails to adequately capture the spirit of our moral thinking.

Oftentimes in philosophy there are no conclusive objections to a position but the objections serve to highlight what a person who takes that position is really committed to and help us to see if we want to be committed to that position.


John Stuart Mill – Utilitarianism

In this reading Mill attempts to address the following three criticisms:

  1. Utilitarianism doesn’t actually provide a reason for acting morally i.e. for acting in a utilitarian way to maximize utility.
  2. Utilitarianism doesn’t account for the higher values of life, things like virtue and knowledge that are more important than pleasure. It is a doctrine “fit for swine” because it claims that the only thing that is valuable is crude physical pleasure.


Two main arguments in the reading

  1. Mill’s Argument for Higher and lower Pleasures
  2. Mill’s Argument for the greatest happiness principle.


Mill’s Argument for Higher and Lower Pleasures


Mill’s Claim: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides”


Bentham vs. Mill – Higher and and lower pleasures?


Bentham “pushpin is as good as poetry”


“The utility of all these arts and sciences, –I speak of those of amusement and curiosity, –the value which they possess, is exactly in proportion to the pleasure they yield. Every other species of preeminence which may be attempted to be established among them is altogether fanciful. 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 furnished more pleasure, it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few.”

– Jeremy Bentham


Qualitative Utilitarianism vs Quantitative Utilitarianism

Bentham’s utilitarianism is quantitative in that he believes the only reason one pleasure is better than another is because it produces more pleasure. The things that normally get labeled “higher” pleasures are higher only because they produce more happiness and less suffering in the long run. On this view the value of certain moral virtues like temperance, kindness, etc. is in the long term happiness they produce.


On Betham’s view we could literally add up the pleasure produced by different activities and compare it.


Mill attempts to argue that certain pleasures are qualitatively different such that no possible amount of lower pleasure is greater than a certain amount of higher pleasure.


This argument is supposed to deflect the criticism that “utilitarianism is a doctrine worthy of swine” because it doesn’t value anything higher than pleasure and reduces the value of life to pleasure.


How do we know some pleasure are higher than others or which pleasures are higher?


Competent judges – A competent judge is someone who has experienced both.



“If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.” Mill


And a little later:

  • “few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals,”
  • “no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool,”
  • “no instructed person would be an ignoramus,” and
  • “no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base”



However Mill’s account of higher pleasures leaves us wondering what could Mill really mean by claiming that one pleasure is better aside from quantitative considerations like duration, permanency, safety, costliness etc?




Mill’s Argument for the greatest happiness principle


Let’s reconstruct Mill’s first Argument as follows:


(1) Seeing something proves that it is visible.


(2) So, desiring something proves that it is desirable.

(3) The only thing each person desires is his or her own happiness.


­­­(4) The only thing that is desirable for a person is his or her own happiness.

(5) So, each person should perform those actions that promote the greatest happiness.


Normative vs Descriptive

“Visible” is a descriptive term, it describes things that can be seen. If something is visible it means it is possible to see it.


But “desirable” is normative term. When we say that X is desirable we do not mean that it is possible to desire X but that one ought to desire X.


Mill makes the mistake of trying to derive the normative claim that we ought to desire happiness from the descriptive claim or observation we do in fact desire happiness.


This distinction between normative and descriptive claims was noted by David Hume and has come to be known as the “Is-Ought Gap” or more commonly in contemporary analytic philosophy the “fact-value distinction.”


He says:


In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.


For this class we will use the slightly more colloquial “Is-ought gap” to describe this mistake.


Examples of the Is-Ought Gap:


(1) Torturing babies for no good reason causes great suffering.


(2) So, It is wrong to torture babies.


The above argument is invalid. The conclusion does not follow from the premises.



The first claim is a descriptive claim about the effect of torturing babies and the conclusion of the argument is a normative claim about what we one ought not to do. But we cannot derive a normative claim from the descriptive claim.


A good rule thumb to remember when evaluating an argument is that the conclusion cannot contain a normative claim unless one of the premises contains a normative claim.



Back to Mill’s argument:


(1) Seeing something proves that it is visible.


(2) So, desiring something proves that it is desirable.

(3) The only thing each person desires is his or her own happiness.


­­­(4) So, the only thing that one ought to desire is his or her own happiness.

(5) So, the only actions that one ought to perform those actions that promote the greatest happiness.


Premise (2) is supposed to follow from (1) and (4) is supposed to follow from (2) and (3).



(2) Is invalid as it does not follow from (1). Here Mill doesn’t properly respect the is-ought gap. He attempts to jump from an is-claim to an ought-claim or from a descriptive to a normative claim.


(4) is unsound because (2) which serves as a premise for (4) is false. The argument is actually valid but unfortunately for Mill (2) is false. If (2) were true then (4) would also be true.


(5), which is the central claim of utilitarianism is now is a rough spot. (5)’s problems begin with the fact that Mill has not successfully established that one ought to desire happiness, even their own happiness. (5) is supposed to follow from (4), but (4) is false so the argument for (5) is unsound. However (5)’s problems don’t stop there because the argument for (5) is also invalid. To move from (4) to (5) one would need some additional premise.




Rule vs Act Utilitarianism

  • Rule Utilitarianism has been suggested as a solution to various problems, especially the injustice objection

Organ harvesting doctor

In rule utilitarianism the rightness or wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of the rule of which it is an instance

The correctness of a rule is determined by the amount of good it brings about when followed

JJC Smart – Extreme (Act) and Restricted (Rule) Utilitarianism

Rule Utilitarianism

  • Df – an action is required iff it is dictated by a rule that if followed by everyone would maximize utitlity

Act Utilitarianism

  • Df – an action is morally required if and only if it maximizes utility


Motivations for Rule Utilitarianism

  • Gets the right answer in certain cases that act utilitarianism seems to get wrong
  • Examples:
    • Lonesome stranger
    • Preferential treatment to family members
    • And more generally any case involving individual rights, civil liberties, etc


Examples Smart Uses

  • Drowning man example (94)

Although saving the man (who happens to be Hitler) would not be optimific it is nevertheless praiseworthy because the motivation of action is an optimific motivation because the action follows a generally optimific rule

“It can be expedient to praise an inexpedient action and inexpedient to praise an expedient one.”

With this example Smart begins to build his case that motivations should be judged in a rule utilitarian way while actions should be judged in an act utilitarian way

The divorce example (95)

This example is supposed to show that rules are important because we tend to underestimate the bad consequences of our actions due to our personal biases

In the case of divorce we may underestimate the effect divorce will have on our children and the harm done by the general weakening of the institution of marriage

Rule R 

  • Maximizes utility 99% of the time
  • Fails to maximize utility 1% of the time

If we don’t know for certain the consequences of our action we should do R

But if we know for certain that a specific instance of Ring will not maximize utility how could it be rational to R is such a circumstance

“But is it not monstrous to suppose  that if we have worked out the consequences and if we have perfect faith in the impartiality of our calculations, and if we know that in this instance to break R will have better results than to keep it, we should nevertheless obey this rule? It is not to erect R into a sort of idol if we keep it when breaking it will prevent, say, some avoidable misery?”

The dying promise

The dying promise is supposed to show that there really are instances where it makes sense to break rules that generally optimific

Written as an argument:

1. If there are such examples  where it is genuinely optimific to break a rule that when followed by all has good consequences then rule utilitarianism is false.

2. There are such examples (the dying promise).

3. So, rule utilitarianism is false.

Exercise: Smart says that he would be right to give the money to the hospital but that if someone found out they would be right to try to punish him for his actions. Does this make sense? Why or why not?



“I conclude that in every case if there is a rule R the keeping of which is in general optimific, but such that in a special sort of circumstances the optimific behavior is to break R, then in these circumstances we should break R.” (100)

with a caveat

“Of course we must consider all the less obvious  effects of breaking R, such as reducing people’s faith in the moral order, before coming to the conclusion that to break R is right: in fact we shall rarely come to such a conclusion. Moral rules, on the extreme utilitarian view, are rules of thumb only, but they are not bad rules of thumb. But if we do come to the conclusion that we should break the rule and if we have weighed in the balance of our own fallibility and liability to personal bias, what good reason remains for keeping the rule. I can understand “it is optimific” as a reason for action but why should “it is a member of a class of actions which are usually optimific than any alternative class” be a good reason?” (100)

 Looking Ahead: Consequential vs. Kantian/Social Contract Approaches

  • Exactly opposite types of theories
  • Consequences vs. Motives
  • Focus on personal integrity
  • Focus on individual rights

Useful for political philosophy

(Rawl’s Neo-Kantianism)

2 Responses to “Lesson 2: Utilitarianism”

  1. Could you tell me the date this was posted please? I am citing it in an essay and I would like to include the date if I can.

    • gaurarader Says:

      You can cite something that does not have a date by using the abbreviation for “no date” which is “n.d.”

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