What Is Utilitarianism?

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

- Attributed to John Wesley in The Fundamentals of Ethics by Russ Shafer-Landau.

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A moral theory that emphasises ends over means, Utilitarianism holds that a good act is one that increases pleasure in the world and decreases pain. The tradition flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and has antecedents in ancient philosophy. According to Bentham, happiness is the means for assessing the utility of an act, declaring "it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong." Mill and others went on to refine and challenge Bentham's views and to defend them from critics such as Thomas Carlyle, who termed Utilitarianism a "doctrine worthy only of swine."

Listen to Melvyn Bragg and guest discuss Utilitarianism on the In Our Time podcast.

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"Virtually everyone agrees that it's better for sentient beings to be happier and have less suffering. That's not enough to make everyone a utilitarian, because some people think that in addition, there are absolute moral rules one must never break. Most moral rules are useful guides to what will bring about the best consequences. But if they are not—if we really know, with certainty, that obeying a moral rule will have worse consequences than breaking it—should we still obey it? Why? That's the challenge utilitarianism poses to other views."

Continue reading Peter Singer's answer to the question What is Utilitarianism?

Further Reading

"Utilitarianism appears to be a simple theory because it consists of only one evaluative principle: Do what produces the best consequences. In fact, however, the theory is complex because we cannot understand that single principle unless we know (at least) three things: a) what things are good and bad; b) whose good (i.e. which individuals or groups) we should aim to maximize; and c) whether actions, policies, etc. are made right or wrong by their actual consequences (the results that our actions actually produce) or by their foreseeable consequences (the results that we predict will occur based on the evidence that we have)."

Continue reading the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Act and Rule Utilitariainism by Stephen Nathanson.

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