Utilitarianism: what it is, founders and fundamental principles (2023)

What is utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a moral theory that advocates actions that promote happiness or pleasure and opposes actions that cause misfortune or harm. If a utilitarian philosophy is focused on making social, economic, or political choices, it would aim for the betterment of society as a whole.

Utilitarianism would say that an action is right if it results in the happiness of the greatest possible number of people in a society or group.

Main Conclusions

  • Utilitarianism is a moral theory that advocates actions that promote happiness and rejects actions that cause unhappiness.
  • Utilitarianism promotes “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”
  • When used in a socio-political construct, utilitarian ethics aims at the betterment of society as a whole.
  • Utilitarianism is a reason-based approach to determining right and wrong, but it has limitations.
  • Utilitarianism does not take into account things like feelings and emotions, culture or justice.

understand utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a tradition of ethical philosophy associated with Jeremy Bentham (1747-1832).John Stuart Mill(1806-1873), two British philosophers, economists and political thinkers of the late 18th and 19th centuries. Utilitarianism holds that an action is right when it tends to promote happiness and wrong when it tends to produce sadness or the opposite of happiness—not just the happiness of the doer, but that of everyone affected by it.

At work, you show utilitarianism when you take steps to ensure the office is a positive environment for your colleagues and then create it for yourself.

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This is what the 3 generally accepted principles of utilitarianism say

  • Pleasure or happiness is the only thing that has intrinsic value.To say that something has intrinsic value means that it is simply good in its own right. Intrinsic value is opposed to instrumental value. Something has instrumental value when it is a means to an end.
  • Actions are right when they promote happiness and wrong when they promote unhappiness.
    This principle is quite controversial as it implies that the moral quality of an action depends on the magnitude of its consequences. As long as an action brings the greatest possible benefit to the greatest number of people, utilitarianism does not care if the results are motivated by immoral motives. However, this principle can be disproved, since most people would agree that the moral quality of an action depends on the motive or intention behind it.
  • Everyone's happiness counts equally.While this axiom may seem obvious enough, in Bentham's time this principle of equality was radical and progressive. At that time it was generally accepted that some lives and the happiness of some people were simply more important and valuable than others. Betham's principle of equality holds the government responsible for creating policies that benefit everyone equally, not just the elite.

From the Founders of Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham describes his "Principle of Greatest Happiness" inIntroduction to the principles of morality and legislation,a 1789 publication in which he writes: “Nature has placed mankind under the rule of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.

John Stuart Mill had many years to absorb and reflect on Jeremy Bentham's thoughts on utilitarianism when he published his own work.Utilitarianism, in 1863. The key passage of this book:

The creed, which accepts utility, or the principle of greatest happiness, as the basis of morality, states that actions are right insofar as they tend to promote happiness and wrong in so far as they tend to produce the opposite of happiness. By happiness is meant pleasure and the absence of pain; through misfortune, through pain and through deprivation of pleasure.

The relevance of utilitarianism in a political economy

In liberal democracies, the progenitors of utilitarianism have produced variants and extensions of its core principles over the centuries. Some of the questions they struggled with were: what constitutes “the greatest amount of good”? How is happiness defined? How is justice taken into account?

In today's Western democracies, policy makers tend to be proponents ofFree Marketsand a degree of government interference in citizens' private lives to ensure safety and security. While the appropriate amount of regulation and legislation is always a matter of debate, political issues andeconomic policythey primarily aim to promote the maximum well-being of as many people as possible, or at least should be. Where there are disadvantaged groups suffering from income inequality or other negative consequences as a result of a policy or action based on utilitarianism, most politicians would try to find a solution.

In business and trade

Utilitarianism holds that the most ethical choice is the one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. As such, it is the only moral framework that can justify military force or war. In addition, utilitarianism is the most common approachbusiness ethicsbecause of the way he explainscosts and benefits.

The theory holds that there are two types of utilitarian ethics practiced in business, "domination" utilitarianism and "action" utilitarianism.

(Video) Mill's Utilitarianism

  • Rule utilitarianism helps as many people as possible with methods that are as fair as possible.
  • Action utilitarianism enables the most ethical action possible for the benefit of the people.

At the company workplace

Most companies have a formal or informal relationshipCode of Ethics, which is shaped by your corporate culture, values ​​and regional laws. Now more than ever it is important to have a formalized code of business ethics. For a company to grow, it doesn't just have to increase itsbottom line, but it also needs to build a reputationsocially responsible🇧🇷 Businesses must also strive to keep their promises and put ethics at least on a par with profit. Consumers look for companies they can trust, and employees work better when there is a strong ethical framework in place.

On an individual level, everyone's happiness will increase when you make morally correct decisions at work. However, if you choose to do something morally wrong—even if it's legal—your happiness and that of your peers will plummet.

utilitarian ethics

Utilitarian Ethics of "Domination"

An example of rule utilitarianism in economics is pricing a product or service differently for different types of customers. In the airline industry, for example, many aircraft offer First, Business, and Economy Class seats. Customers flying First or Business Class pay a much higher price than Economy Class, but also get more amenities - at the same time, people who cannot afford upper-class seats benefit from Economy Class fares. This practice brings the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people.

And the airline benefits too. The more expensive upper class seats help ease the financial burden the airline has inflicted on making space for economy class seats.

Ethics of use "Action"

An example of action utilitarianism might be when drug companies release drugs that have been approved by the government but have lesser-known side effects because the drug can help more people than the side effects bother. Action utilitarianism generally demonstrates the concept that "the end justifies the means" - or is worth it.

Quantitative Utilitarianism vs. Qualitative Utilitarianism

quantitative utilitarianismis a branch of utilitarianism that developed from the work of Jeremy Bentham. Quantitative utilitarians focus on maximizing utility, i.e. maximizing everyone's overall happiness, and use a hedonic approach to determining whether actions are right or wrong. Bentham defined the principle that "the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the measure of right and wrong" as the basis of his philosophy.

Qualitative utilitarianism is a branch of utilitarianism that grew out of the work of John Stuart Mill. Qualitative utilitarians tend to categorize pleasures and pains qualitatively according to the magnitude of their consequences, ignoring all quantifiable evidence of their importance.

Quantitative vs. qualitative

Qualitative utilitarianism argues that mental pleasures and pains are distinct and qualitatively superior in purely physical terms. Quantitative utilitarianism argues that mental pleasures and pains differ from physical ones only in terms of quantity.

(Video) What is Utilitarianism?

The Limits of Utilitarianism

In the workplace, however, utilitarian ethics are difficult to achieve. These ethics can also be difficult to uphold in our corporate culture, where acapitalist economyIt often teaches people to focus on themselves at the expense of others. Similar,monopolistic competitionteaches a business to thrive at the expense of others.

  • A limitation of utilitarianism is that it tends to create a black and white construct of morality. There are no shades of gray in utilitarian ethics - either something is wrong or something is right.
  • Utilitarianism also cannot predict with certainty whether the consequences of our actions will be good or bad—the results of our actions will occur in the future.
  • Utilitarianism also has trouble explaining values ​​such as justice and individual rights. For example, let's say a hospital has four people whose lives depend on organ transplants: heart, lung, kidney, and liver. When a healthy person is hospitalized, their organs can be removed, saving four lives at the cost of one. This would undoubtedly produce the greatest good for the greatest number. But few would consider this an acceptable course of action, let alone an ethical one.

While utilitarianism is certainly a reason-based approach to determining right and wrong, it has obvious limitations.

What are the principles of utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism considers it a virtue to improve one's life by increasing the good things in the world and minimizing the bad things. This means seeking pleasure and happiness, avoiding discomfort or unhappiness.

What is a utilitarian?

A utilitarian is a person who holds the belief of utilitarianism. Today, these people can be described as cold and calculating, practical and perhaps selfish - sometimes seeking their own pleasure at the expense of the social good.

(Video) John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism | Utilitarianism, Sanctions, and Duty | Philosophy Core Concepts

What is rule utilitarianism?

Rule utilitarians focus on the effects of actions that follow specific rules or moral guidelines (e.g., the "Golden Rule," the 10 Commandments, or laws against murder). If an action conforms to a moral rule, then the action is moral. A rule is considered moral if its existence increases welfare more than any other rule, or the absence of such a rule.

What is use value in consumer behavior?

If a consumer buys something purely for its practical use value, on a rationally calculated basis, then it has use value. This excludes any kind of emotional or sentimental judgements, psychological biases or other considerations.

What role does utilitarianism play in today's business environment?

Because its ideology advocates the greatest good for the greatest number of people, a corporation that acts in a utilitarian manner should enhance the well-being of others. In practice, however, utilitarianism can breed greed and fierce competition that can undermine societal well-being.


Utilitarianism offers a relatively simple method of determining the morally correct course of action for a given situation. Over the years, the principle of utilitarianism has been refined and expanded in many variations. Utilitarians today describe benefits and harms in terms of satisfying personal preferences, or in purely economic terms of monetary benefits versus monetary costs, rather than in terms of "happiness" and "enjoyment."


1. Kant & Categorical Imperatives: Crash Course Philosophy #35
2. Utilitarianism according to Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill | Ethics: Utilitarianism Explained
3. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism | Justice and Utility | Philosophy Core Concepts
(Gregory B. Sadler)
4. Jeremy Bentham, Introduction | Utilitarianism as a Moral Theory | Philosophy Core Concepts
(Gregory B. Sadler)
5. Jeremy Bentham - Founder of Modern Utilitarianism
6. Utilitarianism
(Daniel Bonevac)
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