This page contains a list of the six best books on utilitarianism. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on utilitarianism” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works on utilitarianism. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on utilitarianism. This list was created by compiling recommendations from across the internet and is not a list of personal recommendations. More information about this process is at the end of the post. Here are the best books on utilitarianism in no particular order:
Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction – Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek & Peter Singer
Publisher description: Utilitarianism may well be the most influential secular ethical theory in the world today. It is also one of the most controversial. It clashes, or is widely thought to clash, with many conventional moral views, and with human rights when they are seen as inviolable. Would it, for example, be right to torture a suspected terrorist in order to prevent an attack that could kill and injure a large number of innocent people?
In this Very Short Introduction Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer provide an authoritative account of the nature of utilitarianism, from its nineteenth-century origins, to its justification and its varieties. Considering how utilitarians can respond to objections that are often regarded as devastating, they explore the utilitarian answer to the question of whether torture can ever be justified. They also discuss what it is that utilitarians should seek to maximize, paying special attention to the classical utilitarian view that only pleasure or happiness is of intrinsic value.
Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer conclude by analyzing the continuing importance of utilitarianism in the world, indicating how it is a force for new thinking on contemporary moral challenges like global poverty, the treatment of animals, climate change, reducing the risk of human extinction, end-of-life decisions for terminally-ill patients, and the shift towards assessing the success of government policies in terms of their impact on happiness.
Understanding Utilitarianism – Tim Mulgan
Publisher description: Utilitarianism – a philosophy based on the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people – has been hugely influential over the past two centuries. Beyond ethics or morality, utilitarian assumptions and arguments abound in modern economic and political life, especially in public policy. An understanding of utilitarianism is indeed essential to any understanding of contemporary society. “Understanding Utilitarianism” presents utilitarianism very much as a living tradition. The book begins with a summary of the classical utilitarianism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Subsequent chapters trace the development of the central themes of utilitarian thought over the twentieth century, covering such questions as: What is happiness? Is happiness the only valuable thing? Is utilitarianism about acts or rules or institutions? Is utilitarianism unjust, or implausibly demanding, or impractical? and Where might utilitarianism go in the future?
The Cambridge Companion to Utilitarianism – Ben Eggleston & Dale E. Miller
Publisher description: Utilitarianism, the approach to ethics based on the maximization of overall well-being, continues to have great traction in moral philosophy and political thought. This Companion offers a systematic exploration of its history, themes, and applications. First, it traces the origins and development of utilitarianism via the work of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, and others. The volume then explores issues in the formulation of utilitarianism, including act versus rule utilitarianism, actual versus expected consequences, and objective versus subjective theories of well-being. Next, utilitarianism is positioned in relation to Kantianism and virtue ethics, and the possibility of conflict between utilitarianism and fairness is considered. Finally, the volume explores the modern relevance of utilitarianism by considering its practical implications for contemporary controversies such as military conflict and global warming. The volume will be an important resource for all those studying moral philosophy, political philosophy, political theory, and history of ideas.
The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill – John Troyer
Publisher description: This volume includes the complete texts of two of John Stuart Mill’s most important works, Utilitarianism and On Liberty, and selections from his other writings, including the complete text of his Remarks on Bentham’s Philosophy. The selection from Mill’s A System of Logic is of special relevance to the debate between those who read Mill as an Act-Utilitarian and those who interpret him as a Rule-Utilitarian.
Also included are selections from the writings of Jeremy Bentham, founder of modern Utilitarianism and mentor (together with James Mill) of John Stuart Mill. Bentham’s Principles of Morals and Legislation had important effects on political and legal reform in his own time and continues to provide insights for political theorists and philosophers of law. Seven chapters of Bentham’s Principles are here in their entirety, together with a number of shorter selections, including one in which Bentham repudiates the slogan often used to characterize his philosophy: The Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number.
John Troyer’s Introduction presents the central themes and arguments of Bentham and Mill and assesses their relevance to current discussions of Utilitarianism. The volume also provides indexes, a glossary, and notes.
An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation – Jeremy Bentham
Publisher description: First published in 1789, Jeremy Bentham’s best-known work remains a classic of modern philosophy and jurisprudence. Its definitions of the foundations of utilitarian philosophy and its groundbreaking studies of crime and punishment retain their relevance to modern issues of moral and political philosophy, economics, and legal theory.
Based on the assumption that individuals seek pleasure and avoid pain, Bentham’s utilitarian perspective forms a guide to moral decision-making. With the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” as his objective, the author attempts to identify the sources and varieties of pleasure and pain as well as the ways in which they can be measured in assessing moral options. Considerations of intentionality, consciousness, motives, and dispositions support Bentham’s arguments. The text concludes with his survey of purpose and the role of law and jurisprudence, a fascinating exercise in the theory of social reform that explores conflicts between the interests of the majority and individual freedom.
Utilitarianism – John Stuart Mill
Publisher description: This expanded edition of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism includes the text of his 1868 speech to the British House of Commons defending the use of capital punishment in cases of aggravated murder. The speech is significant both because its topic remains timely and because its arguments illustrate the applicability of the principle of utility to questions of large-scale social policy.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on The History of Utilitarianism
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Act and Rule Utilitarianism
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