Utilitarianism is an ethical theory holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes the overall "happiness". It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome, and that one can only weigh the morality of an action after knowing all its consequences.
Act-utilitarianism -- The principle of utility is applied directly to each alternative act in a situation of choice. The right act is then defined as the one which brings about the best results (or the least amount of bad results).
Rule-utilitarianism -- The principle of utility is used to determine the validity of rules of conduct (moral principles). A rule like promise-keeping is established by looking at the consequences of a world in which people broke promises at will and a world in which promises were binding. Right and wrong are then defined as following or breaking those rules.
John Stuart Mill adjusted the more hedonistic tendencies in Bentham's philosophy by emphasizing (1) It is not the quantity of pleasure, but the quality of happiness that is central to utilitarianism, (2) the calculus is unreasonable -- qualities cannot be quantified (there is a distinction between 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures), and (3) utilitarianism refers to "the Greatest Happiness Principle" -- it seeks to promote the capability of achieving happiness (higher pleasures) for the most amount of people (this is its "extent").
Bentham's Principle of Utility: (1) Recognizes the fundamental role of pain and pleasure in human life, (2) approves or disapproves of an action on the basis of the amount of pain or pleasure brought about i.e, consequences, (3) equates good with pleasure and evil with pain, and (4) asserts that pleasure and pain are capable of quantification (and hence 'measure').
How is egoism related to utilitarianism?
The main similarity between the two is that they are both usually hedonistic theories, ie. both concerned (solely) with pleasure and pain. The difference between the two, is whose interests (whose pleasure and pain) count when determining the rightness or wrongness of an action. An egoist would think that only the interests of the agent himself count, while the utilitarian would think that all interests count.
His Utilitarianism 1861 remains the classic defence of the view that we ought to aim at maximizing the welfare of all sentient creatures, and that welfare consists of their happiness. Mill's defence of the view that we ought to pursue happiness because we do pursue happiness, has been the object of savage attack by, among others, F. H. Bradley in his Ethical Studies 1874 and G. E. Moore in Principia Ethica 1903.
Subordinate rules are what we would normally call “commonsense morality”.
According to Mill, these are rules that tend to promote happiness, so we
should internalize them as good rules to follow.
They have been learned through the experience of many generations.
But subordinate rules are just that: subordinate. If it is clear that breaking a
subordinate rule would result in much more happiness than following it, then
you should break it.
Utilitarians argued that criminals ought to be
reformed and not merely punished (although Mill did support capital
punishment as a deterrent). Bentham spoke out against cruelty to animals.
Mill was a strong supporter of meritocracy.
English philosophers John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Jeremy Bentham
(1748-1832) were the leading proponents of what is now called
The Utilitarians were social reformers
They supported suffrage for women and those without property,
and the abolition of slavery.
The Classical Utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, identified the good with pleasure, so, like Epicurus, were hedonists about value. They also held that we ought to maximize the good, that is, bring about ‘the greatest amount of good for the greatest number’.
Utilitarianism is also distinguished by impartiality and agent-neutrality. Everyone's happiness counts the same. When one maximizes the good, it is the good impartially considered. My good counts for no more than anyone else's good.
Utilitarianism is one of the most powerful and persuasive approaches to normative ethics in the history of philosophy. Though not fully articulated until the 19th century, proto-utilitarian positions can be discerned throughout the history of ethical theory.
Though there are many varieties of the view discussed, utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good.