One of the most influential ethical frameworks, utilitarianism is focused on consequences and results; the sole basis of morality is determined by its usefulness or utility. The morally “correct” action is the one the produces the most good (or the most happiness) and the least amount of suffering for the most people (pleasure over pain)..
A distinction is made between act utilitarianism (one chooses an action based upon the probable consequences) or rule utilitarianism (adhering to rules that will maximize utility).
- Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), founder
- John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Bentham’s mentee, who popularized the term “utilitarianism”
Act utilitarians place a focus on the effects of one’s individual actions (e.g. Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of President John F. Kennedy), while rule utilitarians focus on the effects of types of actions (such as killing or stealing) and how to handle them in terms of rules and laws.
The greatest good for the greatest number
Unlike deontologists, utilitarians reject orders or commands given by religious or political leaders. Instead, utilitarianism is considered a form of consequentialism because it is the results of individual actions, laws, or policies, etc. that determine whether something is right or wrong. Proponents argue the choice that leads to the best overall results or maximized utility is best.
The ends justify the means
Utilitarianism can be thought of in terms of the saying, “the ends justify the means.” In this way, the means are not as important as the end result.
Strengths and advantages to this approach
There are various advantages to this kind of approach.
- Relatively straightforward to apply
- Avoids requirement of prior beliefs; therefore possibly accepted across cultures and religions
- Happiness and utility is the focus.
Weaknesses and criticisms to this approach
- Uncertain to know fully the consequences of an action; consequences are unpredictable
- Ignores duty
- Ignores motives and personal integrity
- Some argue that utilitarian-based approaches may not properly address concerns of justice for the minority population
Additional Resources and References
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/util-a-r/
- Habibi, Don (2001). “Chapter 3, Mill’s Moral Philosophy”. John Stuart Mill and the Ethic of Human Growth. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. pp. 89–90, 112.