From beginner-friendly introductions to classic books on utilitarianism, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book on utilitarianism. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or pick up one of the classics.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
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….
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….
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.
The Methods of Ethics – Henry Sidgwick
Publisher description: This Hackett edition, first published in 1981, is an unabridged and unaltered republication of the seventh (1907) edition as published by Macmillan and Company, Limited.
From the forward by John Rawls: In the utilitarian tradition Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) has an important place. His fundamental work, The Methods of Ethics (first edition 1874, seventh and last edition 1907, here reprinted), is the clearest and most accessible formulation of what we may call ‘the classical utilitarian doctrine.’ This classical doctrine holds that the ultimate moral end of social and individual action is the greatest net sum of the happiness of all sentient beings. Happiness is specified (as positive or negative) by the net balance of pleasure over pain, or, as Sidgwick preferred to say, as the net balance of agreeable over disagreeable consciousness. . . .
The Point of View of the Universe – Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek & Peter Singer
Publisher description: What does the idea of taking ‘the point of view of the universe’ tell us about ethics? The great nineteenth-century utilitarian Henry Sidgwick used this metaphor to present what he took to be a self-evident moral truth: the good of one individual is of no more importance than the good of any other. Ethical judgments, he held, are objective truths that we can know by reason. The ethical axioms he took to be self-evident provide a foundation for utilitarianism. He supplements this foundation with an argument that nothing except states of consciousness have ultimate value, which led him to hold that pleasure is the only thing that is intrinsically good. …
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Great Traditions in Ethics: Utilitarianism – Philosophy 355 | Northern Kentucky University
- Utilitarianism – King’s College London
- 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
- What are the best books to read to learn as much as I can about Utilitarian theory?
- Utilitarianism books ?
You might also be interested in the following reading lists:
- The Best Introductory Philosophy Books
- The Best Introductory Books on Ethics
- The Best Books on Effective Altruism
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A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations – Lennox Johnson
Category: Reference | Length: 145 pages | Published: 2019
Publisher’s Description: A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is a collection of the greatest thoughts from history’s greatest thinkers. Featuring classic quotations by Aristotle, Epicurus, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, and many more, A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is ideal for anyone looking to quickly understand the fundamental ideas that have shaped the modern world.