Philosophers throughout history have agreed that the greatest desire of mankind is happiness. Utilitarianism, also referred to as “maximizing utility,” is the theory that citizens should behave in such a way as to make as many people happy as possible. “Utility,” in this context refers to the well-being of people and other sentient beings. To explore this concept, consider the following utilitarianism definition.

Definition of Utilitarianism


  1. The belief that a morally good action is one that helps, or makes happy, the greatest number of people.


1820-1830        English Philosopher John Mill

What is Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is like hedonism in that it has the importance of happiness for all humans as its core belief. Basically, utilitarianism asks the question “what is a person supposed to do with his life,” then answers that question with “He needs to act in such a way that he produces the most positive consequences possible.” Because utilitarianism is concerned with all of the consequences that result from an action, the good consequences must be measured up to the bad consequences, and if the good outweigh the bad, then the person should pursue that action.

Utilitarianism is built on the idea that every action holds some good within it, and that the level of happiness that an action can provide to a person is the difference between how much pleasure it causes and how much pain it causes. By actually weighing the benefits against the risks, one can determine whether or not an action is overall good or evil.

Classical Utilitarianism

Classical utilitarianism is based on the belief that the ideas of right and wrong were not meant for the individual, but instead to guide the individual on how to behave for the good of mankind. Being “good” means working to increase the number of people in the world who are happy. Being “bad” only increases the number of people in the world who are suffering.

An example of utilitarianism that shows someone making an individual “good” choice that actually benefits the entire population can be seen in Bobby’s decision to buy his sister, Sally, a car. Bobby buys Sally the car so that she can get back and forth to work. Because Sally can now go to work, she can now accept the job with ABC Company. ABC Company has had trouble filling that position for quite some time, and it was an important one, so now the company can get a better handle on crucial business decisions.

As it stands, ABC Company does a lot of international business, and Sally is put in charge of their accounts. The continued business between ABC company and its international clients helps the global economy thrive, as people the world over remain employed; perhaps being given raises or promotions. In Bobby’s act of buying Sally a car, an act that could otherwise be seen as his making Sally happy on an individual level, he acted in such a way as to benefit the world at large.

Utilitarianism Examples in the Twentieth Century

During the twentieth century, utilitarianism evolved into narrower niches. There are four classifications by which modern-day utilitarianism can be grouped. Those classifications are ideal utilitarianism, act and rule utilitarianism, two-level utilitarianism, and preference utilitarianism.

Ideal Utilitarianism

Ideal utilitarianism is an argument against utilitarianism being self-indulgent, or just a general pursuit of pleasure. Instead, the argument is that there are several values that need to be considered individually, and that raising the total amount of happiness that each one of these values can provide will contribute to happiness overall.

Act and Rule Utilitarianism

Act utilitarianism says that no matter the situation, the action that is morally right is the one that provides mankind with the most amount of pleasure. Rule utilitarianism believes that the morally right action is the one that results from everyone following the same moral rule, which then creates the highest level of happiness.

Two-Level Utilitarianism

Two-level utilitarianism splits act and rule utilitarianism into two parts: “specific rule utilitarianism,” and “general rule utilitarianism.” When individuals are in charge of their own decisions, they should stick to the specific rule form. However, when they are involved in situations wherein human nature may sway them, then they should adhere to the general rule form. Here, act utilitarianism is considered the “critical” level of moral thinking, whereas rule utilitarianism is based on instinct.

Preference Utilitarianism

The principle of preference utilitarianism understands that when an individual is trying to separate what is good from what is bad for him individually, the only standards that should guide him are his own desires and preferences. However, it is understood that people have irrational preferences at times, and so the ideas of “manifest” and “true” preferences were born.

“Manifest” preferences are those preferences born from the behavior the individual observes, and can therefore be faulty. “True” preferences are preferences the individual would have if he was privy to all of the necessary information, and was in the perfect frame of mind to make such a decision.


Consequentialism is a doctrine that states that an action can only be moral if the consequences it creates are moral, too. Put another way, morality is defined by actions that produce the right kinds of consequences in the end. As utilitarianism considers the end result of actions, it is a form of consequentialism. Generally, there are three ways in which morality can be defined. Morality promotes:

  • the spread of happiness, while relieving the amount of suffering in the world
  • the creation of as much freedom as possible worldwide
  • the survival of the species

While consequentialism may sound like a wonderful thing, it is actually controversial in nature. When the concept is applied to the way others should conduct themselves, the capability of discovering one’s own potential, respecting everyone as a whole, and not interfering with the things that others want, it doesn’t sound so bad. However, accepting opinion that morality must be upheld “regardless of the consequences,” can be a recipe for disaster.

An example of utilitarianism that can be seen as consequentialism involves Ryan’s decision to spend more time with his family. Ryan does this, not out of his love for his family, but because he believes he can be a good example for others to follow, which will improve society at large. This does not make Ryan’s actions genuine. Critics argue that those who look to the consequences before acting, are not honest people because they are not making their decisions from the heart. This makes consequentialism both immoral and inhuman.

Examples of Utilitarianism Criticisms

Utilitarianism is a collection of theories developed over time. This leaves a great deal of room for criticism, as people weigh in on individual theories, and how they relate to one another. Examples of utilitarianism criticisms are outlined below:

  • “Utilitarianism is not concerned with justice.”

While those who defend utilitarianism wholeheartedly disagree, the doctrine’s practice of doing what is best for the greater good can, depending on the circumstances, result in an innocent person’s suffering if the doctrine is taken literally.

  • “If you take the time to calculate the best course of action, then the opportunity has probably already passed you by while you were deciding.”

The argument here is that, if someone spends time contemplating the consequences of every little decision he makes, he would get absolutely nothing done. This is more common in cases where utilitarianism is used as a decision-making tool, rather than as a code of ethics for people to follow.

  • “You can’t predict consequences.”

No one knows the future, which is why critics believe it is silly to contemplate the consequences of an event when no one can accurately do so. Additionally, it is argued that, not only is there no way to know consequences ahead of time, but it may be impossible to know whether fallout from an action was good or bad in the end.

  • “The practice of utilitarianism is incredibly demanding.”

Critics argue that utilitarianism is unbelievably demanding on an individual. Not only does the person have to concern himself with doing what is best for the well-being of himself and those close to him, but he also has to consider how his actions will affect the entire world. To do this properly, in following the doctrine, someone has to consider the immense number of people in the world who need help, and the innumerable ways in which he could help them.

Utilitarianism follows that, when a person makes a sacrifice, if that sacrifice does not increase the total happiness of the world’s population, it is ultimately wasted. That is a lot of pressure to put on an individual who is trying to make a decision.

  • “Wants and needs are individual. You can’t assume the wants and needs of all of mankind.”

Every person’s wants and needs are unique. What one person may need in one situation, another person may not. Critics of utilitarianism argue that no one could possibly make a decision he is sure would benefit everyone in the world, if everyone places different priorities on what they need in a given situation.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Hedonism – Man’s pursuit of happiness through pleasure.