From New World Encyclopedia
Jeremy Bentham, advocate of Utilitarianism

Utility, in a philosophical context, refers to what is good for a human being. Utilitarianism is a moral theory according to which welfare is the fundamental human good. Welfare may be understood as referring to the happiness or well being of individuals. Utilitarianism is most commonly a theory about the rightness of actions; it is the doctrine that, from a range of possibilities, the right action is the action which most increases the welfare of human beings or sentient creatures in general. Of the many moral theories now called Utilitarian, all share this claim that morality ought to be concerned with increasing welfare.

Classical utilitarianism has its historical origins in seventeenth century Britain although its central ideas may be traced back to Plato and ancient Greek discussions of eudaimonia. The most important developers and proponents of utilitarianism are Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), and, later on, Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900). In its historical context, utilitarianism aspired to be a movement of social reform. It was closely tied to its political aspirations, promoted a new conception of morality which eschewed references to God and religion, and took morality to be fundamentally an attempt to bring about as much happiness of pleasure, to achieve the "greatest good for the greatest number."

Did you know?
Utilitarianism is basically the theory that the right course of action is the one that maximizes happiness and reduces suffering

Classical utilitarianism may be classified as hedonistic act consequentialism. This means that classical utilitarianism is a theory in which the right actions are defined as those bringing about as consequences the greatest net happiness (or pleasure). Hedonism is no longer widely embraced as a theory of welfare, but act consequentialism continues to be influential.

Classical utilitarianism

There are many forms of utilitarianism. Classical utilitarianism, ideal utilitarianism, and preference utilitarianism are but a few examples. The most well-known form of utilitarianism is also the oldest, classical utilitarianism, as articulated in the writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Although utilitarianism has been considerably developed since its earliest presentations, subsequent forms of utilitarianism may be helpfully understood in terms of their relation to classical utilitarianism.

Classical utilitarianism may be broken down into two main components: a theory of value (or the "good"), and a theory of right action. A theory of value is meant to specify what things (such as pleasure or equality) are valuable or good: These are the things, which we would like to have promoted or increased in the world. A theory of right action is meant to specify which actions are right and wrong, or, in other words, provide action-guiding rules for moral agents. (See also normative ethics.)

Classical utilitarianism endorses hedonism as a theory of value. Hedonism, then, is meant to spell out what is good. A classical utilitarian would formulate this in terms of utility; quite literally, utility is that which is useful to human beings. So, hedonism is a theory of utility (or, in another word, welfare), and utility is offered as what is valuable or good. Secondly, classical utilitarianism endorses consequentialism as a theory of correct action. A theory of correct action specifies what actions moral agents ought to perform; and consequentialism says that the rightness of an action is determined by its consequences. This is incipient, if not fully articulate, in Mill’s formulation of the principle of utility, which he regards as the fundamental moral principle: "The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness."[1]

Historically, the hedonism of classical utilitarianism has always been controversial. Many philosophers have rejected hedonism as a theory of value, without rejecting the insight that morality ought to be concerned with promoting valuable states of affairs (in other words, consequentialism). Philosophers have articulated alternative accounts of value, all the while maintaining the consequentialist element in classical utilitarianism. Preference utilitarianism is an example of utilitarianism without hedonism, can be seen below. There are, it seems, an almost countless number of distinct moral theories called utilitarian, all of which are variations and attempted refinements of the basic ideas presented by Bentham and Mill.


According to classical utilitarianism, assessing consequences is exclusively a matter of considering the amount of happiness brought about by an action. This means that classical utilitarianism endorses hedonism. Hedonism is the view that happiness is the only intrinsic good and that unhappiness is the only intrinsic bad. In order to understand hedonism, therefore, one needs to understand what the classical utilitarianist meant by happiness as well as grasp the concept of an intrinsic good.

Happiness is pleasure and an absence of pain

For the Classical Utilitarians, happiness is understood in terms of a presence of pleasure and an absence of pain. In this they depart from many ancient Greek discussions of eudaimonia, in which, well being or flourishing depends on much more than states of pleasure or displeasure. John Stuart Mill argues this quite clearly, "By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure."[1] The hedonism of classical utilitarianism, then, understands the human good in terms of qualitative states of pleasure and pain. But hedonism makes another important claim, which defines it. It says that happiness is the only intrinsic good.

Intrinsic and instrumental value

An object, experience or state of affairs is intrinsically valuable if it is good simply because of what it is. Intrinsic value is to be contrasted with instrumental value. An object, experience, or state of affairs is instrumentally valuable if it serves as a means to what is intrinsically valuable. To see this, consider the following example. Suppose Jack spends his days and nights in an office, working at not entirely pleasant activities, such as entering data into a computer, and this, all for money. Someone asks, "why do you want the money?" Jack answers, "So, I can buy an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean, and a red Ferrari." This answer expresses the point that money is instrumentally valuable because it is a means to getting an apartment and a red Ferrari. The value of making money is dependent on the value of commodities. It is instrumentally valuable: valuable only because of what one obtains by means of it.

Happiness is an intrinsic good

Note that an apartment in the Mediterranean and a red Ferrari are not ends in themselves; they are presumably ends only because Jack believes that the quality of his life will be improved by having them. The car and the apartment are not intrinsically valuable at all. They are also instrumental goods (and so it follows, that one good can be instrumental to another instrumental good). But where does this chain of instrumental goods come to an end? The hedonist has a simple and plausible answer to this. He will say that the chain of instrumental goods are all directed toward achieving happiness, and that happiness, therefore, is an intrinsic good.

Suppose Jack is asked why he wants the apartment and the Ferrari. He may reply that he would be happy if he lived on the Mediterranean and drove around in fast car. At this point, it seems reasonable to think that the further question, "and why do you want to be happy?" does not really make sense. If someone asks this, it seems that such person has not understood what happiness is. Happiness is not an instrument to any further good: and this, it is thought, is an indication of an intrinsic good. When the "why" questions cease to make sense, one has run up against an intrinsic good. And the why questions run out when the "for the sake of X" answers run out. Happiness is intrinsically valuable; one does not want to be happy for any other reason than happiness itself.

Hedonism says that happiness (understood as qualitative states of pleasure) is intrinsically valuable; and that unhappiness (understood as qualitative states of pain) is intrinsically bad. But hedonism goes further than this, and maintains that happiness is the only intrinsic good. This is important, as almost everyone will admit that pleasure and pain are important in assessing someone’s welfare. Hedonism takes this one step further: happiness is the only thing that is intrinsically good; pleasure and an absence from pain are the only things good in themselves. John Stuart Mill expresses this point: "Pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends…all desirable things…are desirable either for [1] the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as [2] means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain."[1]

Bentham's hedonism

Jeremy Bentham

Bentham believed any particular pleasure or pain had a determinate value, which could be measured and compared. He attempted to construct a scale of comparison and measurement of pain and pleasure. He called this scale the felicific calculus. He claimed that the value of a pleasure was to be determined by such factors as its duration and its intensity. Bentham’s hedonism may be labeled quantitative hedonism, since all pleasures and pains appear on the same scale, being measured according to the same set of criteria (such as duration and intensity).

This assumption—all pleasures and pains can, in principle, be subjected to the same such measurement—entails that all pleasures are ultimately of the same sort, and that no pleasure is by its very nature superior to any other. Bentham argues, "The utility of all these arts and sciences, …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 furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either."[2] Bentham’s assumption that all pleasures and pains can, in principle, be subjected to such measurement entails that "push-pin may be better than as poetry." Pushpin was a simple child’s game played at the time, perhaps comparable to tiddlywinks. It all depends on the amount of pleasure one actually gains from the activity.

Mill's hedonism

John Stuart Mill

Bentham’s hedonism came under fire from some critics, notably Thomas Carlyle, who called utilitarianism "pig philosophy." One of Utilitarianism’s most eloquent defenders, John Stuart Mill expresses Carlyle’s sort of objection as, "To suppose that life has no higher end than pleasure—no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit—they designate as utterly mean and groveling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine."[1] The objection is that Utilitarianism ignores "higher values."

Mill’s main response to the accusation that utilitarianism is "Pig Philosophy" is to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures. He writes: “…some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone."[1] Higher pleasures include pleasures of the human mind: pleasures of the intellect, imagination, appreciation of beauty, and others. According to Mill, these higher pleasures are vastly superior to lower pleasures of the body or "mere sensations." They are different in quality, not just quantity.

Mill’s hedonism may be labeled qualitative hedonism. The crucial claim defining qualitative hedonism is that the pleasures of the mind are so valuable that they can never be counterbalanced in value by any amount of sensual pleasure.[3] There are discontinuities between pleasures such that no amount of certain (lower) pleasures can ever be more valuable for the person who experiences them than some finite amount of certain (higher) pleasures.[3] This move toward qualitative hedonism allows Mill to conclude, "It is better (happier) to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied."[1]

Mill’s qualitative hedonism generates the question of how one decides which pleasures are more valuable. Mill’s response was to appeal to the notion of competent judges. "Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experienced both give a decided preference…[it be] the more desirable pleasure."[1] Those who have knowledge of both kinds of pleasures are the "only competent judges" and they choose or prefer the higher pleasures. So, for example, in order to find out whether the pain of hitting one’s finger with a hammer is worse than the pain of losing one’s lover in death, one must ask someone who has experienced both. In the same way, to find out whether Mozart is better than meatballs one must ask people who have experienced both.

In summary, both Mill and Bentham are hedonists. Hedonists make the claim that happiness (pleasure) is the only intrinsic good. Bentham is a quantitative hedonist: pleasure is valuable in proportion to the amount of it that’s produced. Mill is a qualitative hedonist: some experiences are of a different quality to others. Higher pleasures are of a different quality and superior in virtue of their kind. Higher pleasures cannot be compared with any amount of lower pleasures. Hedonism operates as Utility in classical utilitarianism.

Criticisms of hedonism

One of the most well known objections to hedonism derives from a thought experiment devised by Robert Nozick. The thought experiment of "The Experience Machine" runs as follows: "Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuro-psychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?"

The experience machine is meant to be an argument against hedonism. If hedonism were correct, then people would want to plug into the "Experience Machine." This is because the experience machine can guarantee more pleasure than one would have in real life. Nozick thinks that people do not really want to plug into the "Experience Machine." Therefore, hedonism is not correct. If hedonism were correct, then, by the definition of hedonism, the only thing people value, ultimately, is happiness or pleasure. The conclusion of Nozick’s argument then says that people do, as a matter of fact, value things besides our own happiness; the fact that people are reluctant to plug in means that at the very least, humanity values the truthfulness of its experiences.

Some Utilitarians, who agree that the experience machine defeats hedonism, have argued that what is good is not happiness, understood as pleasure, but the satisfaction of desires or preferences. This is meant to accommodate an insight from the experience machine, namely that it seems to matter whether one’s desires are really satisfied, or only appear to be satisfied. What matters is really (e.g.) having a friend, or writing a good book, rather that believing that one has a friend or has written a good book. This form of utilitarianism, which understands Utility in terms of the satisfaction of people’s desires or preferences, is usually called preference utilitarianism. Preference utilitarianism not without its problems, and many variations, have been proposed and refined, and some of the proposals are quite technical. For the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to note one key distinction between theories of value. This is the distinction between subjectivist and objectivist accounts of value.

Subjectivist accounts tie value to the conscious states of sentient beings, whereas objective accounts maintain that something may be good or bad for a human being even if he or she does not know about this putative good. Hedonism and preference satisfaction theories are subjectivist since they tie what is valuable to the states of consciousness, desires, and needs of sentient creatures. By contrast, objectivist theories say that some things are good or bad for people, independently of whether they know about them, or desire them. Suppose for example, an imaginary world (perhaps along the lines of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World) in which everyone is brainwashed so that they are neither free, nor desire to be free. An objectivist theory of value might say that in this case, freedom is something objectively good, even though no one desires it.

G.E. Moore’s (1903) ideal utilitarianism recognizes (amongst others) beauty, truth, and pleasure as intrinsic goods, and may be regarded as a pluralist theory, because it includes subjective and objective goods.


As already mentioned, no particular account of utility is essential to utilitarianism. However, consequentialism is essential to any theory under the utilitarianism banner. Utilitarianism is one species of consequentialism. Although this terminology is not absolutely standard, most theorists identify utilitarianism as consequentialism with a subjectivist account of value. In this respect, consequentialist theories which endorse theories of value that are not centrally concerned with individual welfare, such as perfectionist or eudaimonistic consequentialism, are not usually thought of as utilitarian theories. The rationale for doing so is presumably to emphasize the link between the utility, the useful, and human desires. By contrast, it is a central claim in perfectionism that a state can be valuable for an agent even it does not affect that person's happiness. A consequentialist theory with a perfectionist theory of value would not therefore be called perfectionist Utilitarianism. (It is worth noting that calling G.E. Moore's "Ideal" Utilitarianism is misleading, at least according to those theorists who want to keep the term Utilitarianism for theories with subjectivist accounts of value.)

Consequentialism is, basically, the idea that the moral rightness of, for example, an action is determined in terms of the value of its consequences, in terms of the goodness (or badness) brought into existence. So, for example, hedonistic act consequentialism (classical utilitarianism) defines the right action in terms of the value of the consequences brought about, where value is to be understood in terms of pleasure and absence from pain. But this is not yet enough to accurately characterize classical utilitarianism.

Firstly, who are the recipients of the increase in non-moral value necessary for right action? According to Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian is required to be impartial and to count everyone’s interests equally and can be seen in his slogan, "Everybody [is to] to count for one and nobody for more than one." When it comes to other teleological and consequentialist moral theory, namely ethical egoism, an action is right if it promotes an increase in happiness for the agent him or her self. Right action is entirely self-interested action. Ethical Egoism is therefore, strictly speaking, a consequentialist moral theory, even a hedonistic consequentialist theory. What differentiates ethical egoism from classical utilitarianism is that classical utilitarianism requires that the actor be entirely impartial; everyone’s interests are taken into consideration equally.

So classical utilitarianism says that the rightness of an action is determined by the value of the consequences brought about by the action, and also, that one is required to be impartial in tallying up the value of the consequences. Everyone’s interests are to be counted equally in the utility calculation. But how much utility is one required to bring about? Suppose that, of the actions available to the agent, all will increase the value in the world, i.e., bring about some increase in goodness, but some will do so more than others. Employing something like Bentham’s felicific calculus, assume that action A produces 20 units of happiness whereas action B only 15. Which action is one required to do, according to the classical utilitarian?

According to classical utilitarianism one must bring about the most possible happiness overall. It is not good enough to bring about some increase in happiness; rather, one is required to do one’s best. So if one performed action B and only produced 15 units of happiness, then that person would not have done his or her duty. Because classical utilitarianism requires people to do the very best action available, it may be called maximizing consequentialism. Calculating happiness is a matter of weighing each person's happiness equally, and also maximizing overall happiness (aggregate utility).

Objections to consequentialism

Justification and deliberation

A normative theory such as consequentialism aims to answer the question, "what makes actions right or wrong?" A related aim of normative theory is to provide principles of right action that may be employed as a moral guide to human beings in their lives. But this generates a problem. The objection goes back to Mill's utilitarianism, and it is this: "There is not enough time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing any line of conduct on the general happiness." To see the problem, consider that the Principle of Utility is a fundamental moral principle according to which right actions are those that maximize happiness. This is an account of which actions are right and which are wrong in terms of a basic moral principle. But if moral theories are meant to provide guidance for human conduct on the basis of particular rules, then the Principle of Utility does not seem to be very well suited to this. For it would seem to be self defeating to use the Principle of Utility as a decision procedure since by using it one would probably be prevented from actually bringing about the best action. Consider an example when someone has to act quickly in order to save another person from drowning. If he or she had to use the Principle of Utility to calculate whether (e.g.) jumping into the ocean was indeed the right thing, the opportunity of saving the life would be lost, and he or she would end up not having done the right thing. So, the objection says that Utilitarianism fails as a moral theory because it does not provide a rule which can actually be used by people to guide their own conduct.

Mill’s reply to this objection says that the "…there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species."[1] Ordinary morality may then be used as rules of thumb, guidelines that will help in navigating through daily life. This is important because it opens up a gap between how one ought to think in contexts of moral deliberation, and those properties of individual acts, which confer rightness or wrongness on the action. If the principle of utility is a criterion of rightness, and not a decision procedure, then utilitarianism does not entail that one ought (always) to try to calculate the greatest utility of one’s action. It will often be better to act in accordance with common sense moral rules rather than trying to calculate the expected outcome of one’s action.

Conflicts with ordinary morality

Utilitarianism is in conflict with ordinary moral thinking in a number of ways. This is because Utilitarianism is a form of act consequentialism, and act consequentialim conflicts with ordinary moral thinking.

Firstly, it seems that consequentialism is unable to accommodate justice and rights. One well known case of this problem with consequentialism is that of a sheriff who frames and executes an innocent man in order to prevent a riot in which many innocent people would certainly be killed. Since the sheriff brings about more good consequences than bad consequences by framing the innocent man, consequentialism says that this is the right action to perform. However, an innocent man does not deserve to be punished. So, it seems, consequentialism does not accommodate justice. Since consequentialism is one necessary component in utilitarianism, it seems that utilitarianism does not accommodate rights.

A structurally very similar problem arises with respect to consequentialism and rights. The concept of a "right" has to do with protecting a person’s important interests. Rights place limits on how an individual may be treated; they are basic constraints which set limits on what may be done to persons. Once again the problem is that a utilitarian moral theory is apparently committed to the claim that nothing that is ultimately prohibited, so long as the good consequences of this action outweigh the bad. Rape, torture, and all manner of horrific acts may in principle be required whenever the overall consequences are good enough. This clashes with the idea that persons have rights which limit what may be done to them, even in the pursuit of good consequences.

Another problem for utilitarianism is accounting for the existence of special ties of obligation. Special obligations include those acquired by entering into contracts, occupying a certain occupational role, and family ties. For example, a teacher is obligated to certain sorts of actions related to satisfying occupational duties, and these actions are required of him or her only because of the special duties incumbent on a teacher. Similarly, a mother or father is usually thought to be obligated to her or his children in a way she or he is not obligated to other people’s children. These are sometime called agent-relative duties. The trouble is that utilitarianism requires strict impartiality in the calculation of consequences, (it is therefore, an agent neutral moral theory) and so, one is obligated to bring about good for those who would benefit from it most, irrespective of their relationship to oneself. This consequence is at odds with ordinary thinking in that it seems that a person reasonably displays concern for her family that she does not display for others. But utilitarianism requires one to promote the good in general, and does therefore not accommodate the common sense intuition that special obligations generate special duties, and that a father is required to do things for his own family that he is not required to do for people in general.

On a closely related point, W.D. Ross has argued that if breaking a promise brings about slightly more happiness, then the classical Utilitarian must prescribe that the promise is to be broken. Imagine that Jack made a promise to give John a ride to the airport. However, at the last moment Jill asks Jack to go away for the weekend, making it impossible to give John the ride. Imagine that there would be a slightly greater balance of gain if Jack went on the weekend get-away: Jack really is a bundle of fun, and the happiness he brings about on the trip slightly outweighs John's irritation over the broken promise. Ross’s point is that utilitarianism says Jack should break his promise even if the gain is only slightly more. But this seems to imply that utilitarianism cannot accommodate the point that one is obligated by the promise, and a slight gain in overall pleasure does not seem to trump this obligation.

Another important objection to utilitarianism is that it is too demanding as a moral theory. To understand this objection, it is necessary to spend a moment considering some key features of common moral beliefs. In ordinary morality, there is a distinction between what people are morally required to do (or not do) and what is good or morally significant to do, but what is not strictly required. For example, "Thou shall not murder" entails that people are required to refrain from intentionally killing innocent people. By contrast, acts of charity are morally praiseworthy, but people are not, it is usually thought, strictly required to be charitable. Rather, charity is something that goes beyond the bounds of duty. One would not normally be blamed for failing to give to charity, although one would be morally praised for so doing. Actions that are morally admirable to do but not strictly required are called supererogatory actions.

The problem for utilitarianism is that it eliminates the distinction between actions that are morally required and morally supererogatory actions and so it is at odds with ordinary moral thinking. The utilitarian criterion for right action is maximization of a specified value: one is doing the right thing only insofar as one is maximizing the good. However, people often take themselves to be acting in a way that is morally permissible even when it clearly is not one which brings about the most good. Spending money on a holiday, for example, seems to be a candidate for a morally permissible action although there are other courses of action that would serve a much greater good overall. For instance, giving the money to an agency like the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) may help to save lives, a much greater good than a few days spent lazing about on a beach. If people are doing the right thing only when maximizing the good, it seems that almost all actions are wrong. Critics contend that this entails that utilitarianism is too demanding as a moral theory. It does not seem right to say that one is doing wrong by going out for dinner on Friday night, or sitting around chatting with friends.

Utilitarian replies to objections


Some hard line utilitarians argue that moral common sense is mistaken and ought to be revised. The conflict between the prescriptions of a moral theory and the ordinary way of thinking raises a question about how moral theories are to be evaluated. If a moral theory conflicts with commonsense, pre-reflective morality, it could be that the theory is wrong or contemporary moral convictions are wrong (or both). Does one revise his or her practices or morality to accord with the theory? Or do people reject the theory, and try to find another one that fits better with popular moral convictions? Hard-line utilitarians argue that utilitarianism, as a moral theory, ought to be upheld over our common moral intuitions. We ought to prefer the theory to intuitive judgments expressive of commonsense morality. Smart expresses this view as, "Admittedly utilitarianism does have consequences which are incompatible with the common moral consciousness, but I tended to take the view 'so much the worse for the common moral consciousness.' That is, I was inclined to reject the common methodology of testing general ethical principles by seeing how they square with our feelings in particular instances."[4]

This sort of hard line commitment to the revision of moral practices is probably not the most popular response taken by contemporary utilitarians. Most philosophers are uncomfortable with a large-scale revisionism of moral practices as a result of a moral theory. As a result, they attempt to modify the theory to bring it closer to ordinary moral thinking on certain key matters. The philosophical literature on utilitarianism and, more specifically, consequentialism is enormous, proliferating with attempts to avoid the problems outlined above, and others, and bring utilitarianism more into line with moral common sense.

Rule utilitarianism

One common move in bringing utilitarianism more in line with ordinary moral thinking is to specify the relation between consequences and right action indirectly. Classical utilitarianism defines rightness directly. An act is right if and only if it increases aggregate happiness. Classical utilitarianism is therefore a version of direct act consequentialism. Direct act consequentialism says that the moral rightness of an action depends on the consequences of that very action. By contrast, indirect act consequentialism says that the moral rightness of an act depends on the consequences of something else, such as motives or rules.

One influential form of indirect consequentialism is rule utilitarianism. According to rule utilitarianism, the moral rightness of an act depends on its conformity with a rule, which itself is justified because it produces the best consequences overall. So rule utilitarianism endorses rule consequentialism. Rule consequentialism defines right action indirectly in terms of rules that tend to promote the non-moral good. In order to ascertain whether an action is right, one has to take into account the consequences of following the rule against which the action is assessed. In this respect, rule utilitarianism is indirect act consequentialism because it makes the rightness of an action dependent on the results of following a rule, rather than the action itself. A right action is one which conforms to a rule, which is justified because the consequences of following this rule are better than the consequences of following alternative rules.

Rule utilitarianism seems to be able to answer the objections from rights and justice outlined above. With respect to the scenario in which an innocent man is framed in order to prevent a riot, a rule Utilitarian will reason that a society in which people adhere to the rule, "don’t punish the innocent" is bound to be better that a society in which this rule is not followed. The rule, "don’t punish the innocent" produces greater overall good. Punishing the innocent man is wrong because it does not accord with the rule which would bring about the best consequences overall. Secondly, the rule utilitarian may accommodate intuitions about special obligations by arguing that the consequences of following these sorts of rules will tend to be better than those generated by not adhering to agent relative duties. It seems reasonable to think that rule utilitarianism will generate moral prescriptions quite closely in accordance with those of common sense.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 John Stuart Mill, Chapter 2: What Utilitarianism Is Utilitarianism, 1863. Retrieved June 16, 2020.
  2. Jeremy Bentham, The Rationale of Reward (Nabu Press, 2012, ISBN 978-1276823883).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Roger Crisp, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism (London: Routledge, 1997).
  4. J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, ISBN 978-0521098229), 68.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Moral Legislation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0198205163
  • Cornman, James, et al. Philosophical Problems and Arguments - An Introduction. 4th edition Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.
  • Crisp, Roger. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism. London: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 978-0415109789
  • Martin, Michael. A Utilitarian Kantian Principle. Philosophical Studies. (with H. Ruf), 21 (1970): 90-91.
  • Mill, J.S. Utilitarianism and on Liberty: Including 'Essay on Bentham' and Selections from the Writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin. Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
  • Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1974. ISBN 0465097200
  • Shaw, William. Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. ISBN 0631202935
  • Silverstein, Harry S. A Defence of Cornman’s Utilitarian Kantian Principle. Philosophical Studies (Dordrecht u.a.) 23 (1972): 212-215.
  • Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics, 2nd edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. ISBN 052143971X
  • Singer, Peter. The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology. New York : Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981. ISBN 0374151121
  • Smart, J.J.C. and Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973. ISBN 978-0521098229

External links

All links retrieved May 3, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.