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Utilitarianism, Mill, 1863
Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
Come to think of it
We can summarize utilitarianism thus: Happiness is what matters, and everyone's happiness counts the same. This doesn't mean that everyone gets to be equally happy, but it does mean that no one's happiness is inherently more valuable than anyone else's.
Joshua GreeneWikipedia[1]:170

Utilitarianism is an ethical system that bases the rightness or wrongness of an action on whether that action is net beneficial or harmful. In addition, an action with greater benefit than another is more right, and vice versa. Utilitarianism can roughly be summed up as a kind of moral arithmetic — if an action causes more good than bad, then the action is good, and vice versa.

Utilitarianism grew out of the Enlightenment and 19th-century philosophy. Two of its chief proponents were John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham.Wikipedia

Utilitarians typically do have one single moral absolute, usually pleasure or satisfaction of self-interest, which they consider intrinsically good and the basis for morality. Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism, the philosophy which holds that actions should be judged by their effects; for utilitarianism, maximising some particular effect is the goal.

The trouble with utilitarianism is that it assumes humans have utility functions. It's a tempting idea because people and society actually use something like utilitarianism in the non-extreme ranges. But it's brittle in obvious ways, leading easily to absurd results.

Classical utilitarianism[edit]

The version of utilitarianism promoted by Mill and Bentham holds pleasure to be the only intrinsic good. Bentham summarized classical utilitarianism by stating that "nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure."

This is often criticized in modern times for four serious problems: there is no difference between "base" pleasure and more sophisticated or intellectual pleasure (except Stuart Mill differentiates between them in his book Utilitarianism[2]); equality is not taken into account (if rich people get richer while the poor continue in misery, this doesn't increase the net pleasure of everyone on the planet. Studies show that there's a certain limit on income that prevents additional happiness. That amount is around US$75,000 dollars annually in 2010.[3]; pleasure is too abstract to be measured or quantified accurately (different people find different things pleasurable); and the concept of utilitarianism ignores recent research on the notion of the "hedonic treadmill" and the habituation of pleasurable experiences. (For example, listening to the same song doesn't maximize happiness any further. It may eventually drive the person crazy after a certain point).

Preference utilitarianism[edit]

Preference utilitarianism is an alternative to classical utilitarianism which defines satisfaction of personal preference or interests as "good," with pleasure being only one of these interests. The most vocal proponents of this type of utilitarianism are R. M. Hare and Peter Singer. Preference utilitarianism avoids many of the issues with classical utilitarianism because it recognizes other forms of "good" which might otherwise be overlooked in the name of pleasure. For example, classical utilitarianism cannot explain why adultery is wrong if one's partner is not made to suffer by it. In preference utilitarianism, the preference of the adulterer's wife or husband matters even if the frustration of that preference wouldn't increase pain or minimize pleasure.

Average utilitarianism[edit]

Utilitarianism is sometimes divided into "positive" — which seeks to maximize net happiness — and "negative" — which seeks to minimize net suffering. Negative utilitarianism is often criticized for implying that it would be morally good to destroy all life painlessly.[4]

Positive utilitarianism has criticisms too. It implies that overpopulation (of sentient beings) is mandatory, unless the suffering caused by this entirely "cancels it out" to the point that a low-population alternative would've had more net happiness anyway.

Average utilitarianism is an alternative that essentially states that population doesn't matter as much as "average" happiness or satisfaction per sentient being. A world with 4 sentient beings who are all 90% "happy" is better than a world with 8 sentient beings at 70% (this ratio is after taking loneliness into consideration). The 90% world is also better than a world with one person at 70%. The 90% world has neither the most net happiness nor the least net suffering (assuming the function used to compare is simple addition, and that each being's percentage scale is the same), but it is preferred under average utilitarianism.

Confusion is still caused when averaging lower sentient beings, such as rodents, with humans. Trying to calculate happiness for non-humans would likely be even more fraught. Perhaps this can be solved by averaging the "goodness" of an individual's experience, and then multiplying that ratio with the individual's "amount of sentience" to determine the weighted average. Perhaps a scale can add weight to beings that suffer more, mathematically implying a prioritarian concept of equality.

Act vs. rule utilitarianism[edit]

Act utilitarianism evaluates every individual act, declaring it "good" if it produces the most utility out of all possible acts in the circumstances. Critics charge, however, that we cannot go through life judging every single circumstance individually — we need easy to follow rules to guide our moral conduct. One often cannot predict the outcomes of our actions beforehand — so one needs to follow uniform, easily-understandable rules. Thus, rule utilitarians take a different approach — they seek to establish moral rules, choosing moral rules based on which rules will produce the most utility out of all possible moral rules. However, having so chosen those rules, the rule utilitarian then judges individual acts, not by the amount of utility they produce individually, but on conformance to those rules.

A good example: stealing generally has bad consequences so rule utilitarians view stealing as unethical in all scenarios, even those when doing so would have overall good consequences. An act utilitarian can justify stealing medicine to save a child's life because stealing has the best overall consequences in that specific scenario, even though it normally has overall bad consequences. Rule "utilitarianism" is, actually, deontology — the difference being that rule utilitarianism gives us a concrete reason to follow the rules.[5]

Problems and criticisms[edit]

Many criticisms are on the basis of absolute moral standards other than those proposed in utilitarian thought. These may be religious ones, conservative ones (often involving appeal to nature and appeal to tradition), or maybe secular ones based on human rights. Some forms of utilitarianism consider only the effects of actions and place no judgement on a person's motivations and whether they have "good intentions." However, nothing about utilitarianism requires that one ignore the role of "good intentions" when designing laws, punishments, or incentives.

Hypothetically, classical utilitarianism could be used to justify a scenario in which a small minority is enslaved in order to bring greater benefit or pleasure to the majority and hence a net gain in happiness. Of course, if people consider such a scenario undesirable, utilitarian calculations would have to take this into consideration. Good utilitarian reasoning would, in fact, prohibit any such scenario that does not, in practice, meet the net preferences of the people within it. (If the majority of people gain more net benefit from slavery than they would from abolishing it, like in the previous example, then Utilitarianism would be forced to support it.)

Although utilitarianism seems very logical, it can lead to some questionable moral statements,[6][7][8] and many see the need to correct it. Some argue that the philosophy lacks attention to the individual and have proposed ethical egoism as an alternative. Others see equality as the problem and have proposed prioritarianism and strict egalitarianism as alternatives. Yet others say that utilitarianism doesn't have enough Goddidit, but that is probably just bullshit. In nearly every case, critics of utilitarianism underestimate the flexibility of utilitarian thought: if a hypothetical scenario proposed to criticize utilitarianism would be undesired by those within it, then, for precisely that reason, utilitarianism would oppose that scenario.

Ultimately, each objector to utilitarianism must argue for some objective moral criteria that utilitarianism would occasionally permit violating. Because every moral decision in a utilitarian framework requires a cost benefit analysis, no ethical "rules" are unbreakable. This is deeply upsetting to those who believe that their moral frameworks are objective. And yet, the clear absence of any way to establish such an objective framework dooms critics of utilitarianism to make unjustifiable assertions that their intuitive moral judgements are universalizable.

Epistemological problems[edit]

Easier said than done

Some believe that utilitarianism proposes that pain and pleasure can be systematically quantized and measured. This reflects a misunderstanding,[citation needed] but is often of concern to critics of utilitarianism. They argue that, because there is no universally-agreed-upon standard unit of suffering or bliss, it can be difficult to compare harms and benefits in the form of pain or pleasure in some cases. For example, while it is clear that factory farming causes intense, prolonged suffering, it is not clear whether, all considered, every last factory should be closed; it is possible that retaining some factory farming could maximize the aggregate good. Likewise, critics argue, utilitarianism might permit maintaining a small underclass of slaves to achieve the best balance of pleasure over pain for society as a whole.

The utilitarian calculus can seem to demand knowledge we cannot properly claim to know. How are we to know what sonar feels like to a bat? How are we to know what water feels like to a plant? How are we to know how these subjective experiences, many alien to our own, feel, let alone compare? Though we may apply general rules to guess the nature of these experiences, we are still at a loss as to what exactly they are and how they can be confidently calculated. This prevents a utilitarian from having a high degree of confidence about the moral value of some actions. Nevertheless, such precise calculations are not needed for many issues; the utility cost of torture, for example, is clear enough. Because moral value under utilitarianism is the product of values, and values are the subjective products of minds, we are essentially limited in the degree of confidence with which we can make firm moral judgements. Critics believe this is a weakness of utilitarianism. Proponents tout this flexibility and epistemic honesty as a strength.

The uncertainty about the feelings of other beings and entities has resulted in hilarious fringe initiatives like Brian Tomasik's essay "Is There Suffering in Fundamental Physics?"[9] and an organisation called People For The Ethical Treatment of Reinforcement Learners.[10] Some might say that PETA itself is an older example.

Another possible criticism of utilitarianism is, in fact, a strength. Some have argued that, even if we strive to calculate utility costs using randomised controlled trials, as some effective altruists have proposed,[11][12] the problem is that human societies are very complex and constantly changing. Utilitarianism is essentially flexible. Indeed, it may be the only essentially flexible moral system, as all others require the establishment of an objective moral ruleset. As utilitarianism always requires a cost-benefit analysis, it requires that we constantly revise and update our moral judgements in changing conditions or with novel information. An example of the dangers of inflexible moral reasoning was perhaps demonstrated when Giving What We Can, a self-proclaimed effective altruist charity, responded to a 2015 Cochrane Collaboration casting doubt on certain types of deworming initiatives, and in passing quoted a criticism that "public health nutrition has changed, worm burden has declined and this probably accounts for the lack of effect on biomedical outcomes in contemporary studies".[13] Despite the initial evidence being flawed by programming errors, statistical errors[14] and it being of uncertain relevance to today's world in any case, Giving What We Can continues to recommend the same deworming initiatives anyway. Insofar as deworming is no longer an effective intervention, utilitarianism correspondingly cannot endorse it.

One other potential pitfall of utilitarianism (generally of the act-utilitarianism kind) is the open-ended question of what time frame is to be considered in the utilitarian calculus, or at what point in the future the consequences of an action in the present can stop being evaluated. A utilitarian calculation of the best course of action could be vastly different depending on whether one is considering the next month, or year, or decade, or century.

World Happiness Report[edit]

The most ambitious project to quantify happiness across the world is the World Happiness Report (WHR), which started issuing annual reports in 2021. In 2024, the report sampled 100,000 people worldwide in 130 countries (769 people per country on average). In the survey, a single question was asked of respondents:

Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?[15]:67

The report stated that a sample size of 2,000 to 3,000 people per country was big enough to give a reasonably good estimate of rankings at the national level.[16] The WHR was effectively admitting that their own report[15] was inaccurate. Oddly, the sample size requirement did not even take country population size into account. The report also did not take into account the likely veracity of self-reporting of happiness for free (or open) vs. unfree (or closed) societies, for example as measured by Freedom House.[17] Some of the more dystopic countries have been left out of the report (e.g., North Korea and Eritrea), where everyone is "happy".[18]

The WHR, like many international studies, suffers from the WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) bias who is behind the project and how it is conceptualized.[19] Similarly, in the case of effective altruism, the movement was founded by academic philosophers and technologists. Polling of the movement in 2022 showed other strong skews: males (70%), white (76%), young (average age 26), left-leaning (77%), and non-religious (80%).[20]

A problem that arises from WHR and WEIRD is who defines happiness and how are the questions written for different countries. It is well known that even within a single country, how poll questions are asked can influence the results.[21] Even properly translated, people in other countries can interpret questions fundamentally differently than the pollsters intended. For example in Tanzania, which ranks low in the index, one peson vacillated between a 0 and a 10, and another person thought that raising her answer from 6 to 8 would help her financially.[22] According to "personality and cultural psychologist Mohsen Joshanloo notes that many people, especially outside the West, fear that admitting to a high level of happiness may cause something bad to happen."[19][23] It was also found that even in Western countries, people believed that the ideal person would not have perfect happiness.[24]

Reasons and Persons[edit]

Philosopher Derek ParfitWikipedia (1942–2017) wrote a lengthy (543-page) book, Reasons and Persons, about problematic conclusions that utilitarians would need to confront on the basis of their philosophy.[25] The four problems that Parfit described were:

  1. The Non-Identity Problem: This problem is a paradox where different actions result in both different individuals coming into existence (due to different times or circumstances of conception) and different life outcomes. The paradox arises from the assumption that coming into existence is an inherent good, and from comparing whether it is better to create a life with a poor start in life or to create a different life with a better start in life.[25]:351-379[26]
  2. The Repugnant Conclusion: This conclusion also arises from the assumption that coming into existence is an inherent good. The conclusion then is that more people, even with worse quality of life will be better than fewer people with a higher quality of life, even leading to overpopulation.[25]:381-390[27][note 1]
  3. The Absurd Conclusion: In utilitarian thought, the addition of a life worth living is a positive, but the absurd conclusion is arrived at by adding sufficiently many lives that are barely worth living such that the population is considered better as a whole has overall much better lives.[25]:391-417[27]
  4. The Mere Addition Paradox: This paradox is the mechanism that turns The Repugnant Conclusion into The Absurd Conclusion, the mere addition of a life barely worth living makes a population with a worse standard of living appear better than one with a better standard of living.[25]:418-441

Despite much effort, Parfit was unable to come up with a theory that avoided all four of these, but he was hopeful that someone else might.[25]:443

If the assumption of the goodness of coming into existence that is behind these problems seems just like what is behind the personhood laws in the abortion debates, that's because it is. The personhood laws are based utilitarianism, albeit usually couched in terms of Christian fundamentalism.[30][31][32]

Indeed Parfit's definition of personhood was twofold: physical and psychological.[25]:202-209 If one excluded the psychological aspects, the definition would not have precluded fetal personhood (with brain), but perhaps would have excluded embryonic personhood (with neural tube), though the 2024 Alabama Supreme Court's ruling would have included embryonic personhood,[25]:204 which caused panic in the in vitrofertilization community.[32] Parson defined physical personhood as follows:[25]:204

The Physical Criterion: (1) What is necessary is not the continued existence of the whole body, but the continued existence of enough of the brain to be the brain of a living person. X' today is one and the same person as Y at some past time if and only if (2) enough of Y's brain continued to exist, and is now X's brain, and (3) there does not exist a different person who also has enough of Y's brain. (4) Personal identity over time just consists in the holding of facts like (2) and (3).

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Sam Bankman-Fried notably rejected the idea of The Repugnant Conclusion at the tender age of 14, according to his consequentialist mother Barbara Fried,Wikipedia but nonetheless ran his companies FTX and Alameda Research under utilitarian ideals.[28]:81-82[29]:xv


  1. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene (2015) Atlantic Books. ISBN 9781782393382.
  2. Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill (1895) George Routledge & Sons. Twelfth edition.
  3. Kahneman resolves conflict on income-wellbeing study, finds point at which unhappiness stops decreasing for unhappy people (March 8, 2023) Princeton University.
  4. Negative Average Preference Utilitarianism by Roger Chao (2012) Journal of Philosophy of Life 2(1):55-66.
  5. Ethics in Government, Richard Baron, Philosophy Now
  6. Philosophy For Beginners by Richard Osborne (2007) For Beginners. ISBN 1934389021.
  7. Less Wrong: Torture vs Dust Specks by Eliezer Yudkowsky (29th Oct 2007) LessWrong.
  8. Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit (1986) Oxford University Press. IBN 019824908X.
  9. Is There Suffering in Fundamental Physics? by Brian Tomasik (First published: 2014 Aug 17. Last nontrivial update: 2020 Feb 14) Essays on Reducing Suffering.
  10. People For The Ethical Treatment of Reinforcement Learners: Promoting Moral Consideration for Algorithms
  11. Do effective altruists only value short-term, measurable outcomes? by Surbhi Bharadwaj & Andrew Leeke (25 Apr 2021) Giving What We Can.
  12. Disagreeing about what’s effective isn’t disagreeing with effective altruism by Robert Wiblin (July 16th, 2015) 80,000 Hours.
  13. Is deworming really effective? A response to recent deworming studies (Jul 23rd 2015) Giving What We Can (archived from July 24, 2015).
  14. Scientists Are Hoarding Data And It’s Ruining Medical Research by Ben Goldacre (July 22, 2015) BuzzFeed.
  15. 15.0 15.1 World Happiness Report 2024 by J. F. Helliwell et al. (2024) University of Oxford: Wellbeing Research Centre. ISBN 9781734808070.
  16. FAQ 'World Happiness Report (archived from April 15, 2024).
  17. Countries and Territories Freedom House.
  18. North Korea: The second 'happiest place on earth'? (January 8, 2015) The Week.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Not all cultures value happiness over other aspects of well-being: Rankings of the happiest countries don’t account for how their people think about happiness by Sujata Gupta (March 19, 2024 at 8:01 pm) Science News.
  20. EA Survey 2022: Demographics by David Moss & Willem Sleegers (May 15 2023) Effective Altruism.
  21. How question style can influence survey responses: the effect of multiple-select by Eli McKown-Dawson (September 17, 2023, 8:55 PM GMT-7) YouGov.
  22. What the World Happiness Report Doesn’t See: The Sociocultural Contours of Wellbeing in Northern Tanzania by Michael B. Kaufman et al. (2022) International Journal of Wellbeing 12(4):27-50. doi:10.5502/ijw.v12i4.2061.
  23. The influence of fear of happiness beliefs on responses to the satisfaction with life scale by Mohsen Joshanloo (2013) Personality and Individual Differences 54(5):647–651. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.11.011.
  24. Happiness Maximization Is a WEIRD Way of Living by Kuba Krys et al. (2024) Psychological Science doi:10.1177/174569162312083.
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 25.4 25.5 25.6 25.7 25.8 Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit (1986) Oxford University Press. ISBN 019824908X.
  26. The Nonidentity Problem by M. A. Roberts (First published Tue Jul 21, 2009; substantive revision Tue Apr 2, 2019) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  27. 27.0 27.1 The Repugnant Conclusion by Gustaf Arrhenius et al. (First published Thu Feb 16, 2006; substantive revision Mon Jan 16, 2017) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  28. Number Go Up: Inside Crypto's Wild Rise and Staggering Fall by Zeke Faux (2023) Crown Currency. ISBN 0593443810.
  29. Facing Up to Scarcity: The Logic and Limits of Nonconsequentialist Thought by Barbara H. Fried (2020 Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198847874.
  30. Beyond Abortion: Why the Personhood: Movement Implicates Reproductive Choice by Jonathan Will (2013) American Journal of Law & Medicine 39:573-616.
  31. The problems with utilitarian conceptions of personhood in the abortion debate by Daniel R. A. Cox (2011) Journal of Medical Ethics 37(5):318-320. doi:10.1136/jme.2010.039859.
  32. 32.0 32.1 In vitro fanaticism: Laced with Christian Nationalism, a ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court restricting reproductive options sparks a powerful backlash by Liz Hayes (Mar 28, 2024) Church & State Magazine, Americans United for Separation of Church and State.