Weaknesses Of Utilitarianism Essay Questions



James Fieser






The Historical Development of Utilitarianism

Eighteenth-Century Contributions

Bentham’s Utilitarian Calculus

Mill’s Utilitarianism

General Happiness and Higher Pleasures


Criticisms of Utilitarianism

Gisborne’s Criticism: We Cannot know All of the Consequences

Bradley’s Criticism: Utilitarianism Conflicts with Ordinary Moral Judgments

Grote’s Criticism: Utilitarianism Only Perpetuates the Status Quo

Albee’s Criticism: Higher Pleasures are Inconsistent with Hedonism

Lingering Problems with Utilitarianism

Pleasure is Not the Only Important Moral Value

Problems with the Bare-Bones Utilitarian Formula


Reading 1: Mill on Higher Pleasures

Reading 2: Leslie on Utilitarianism

Study Questions



Some years ago, 38-year-old Karla Faye Tucker became the first woman executed in the State of Texas in over 130 years. A former drug addict and prostitute, Tucker and a friend ended a three-day drug binge by attempting to steal a young man’s motorcycle. They broke into the man’s apartment and killed him and a visiting woman friend with a pickax. Afterward, Tucker bragged that she got a thrill from the murders. She and her accomplice were caught a month later and ultimately sentenced to death. As her execution date approached, she gained worldwide notoriety because of her unique situation as a woman on death row, her newly found religious conviction, and her paradoxically warm personality. The Pope himself made a public appeal for clemency. Tucker herself believed that her life should be spared since she had reformed to the point that she was no longer part of society’s crime problem but part of the cure. In an interview two weeks before her execution, she explained:


I can witness to people who have been on drugs or into prostitution or into all of that, and they’ll listen to me because they know I understand and can relate to them. And I can keep them from going down that road, because I can let them know. I changed. You can too. [Larry King Live, January 31, 1998]


Clemency was not granted, and the execution took place as planned.

            Tucker argued that her life should be spared since her remaining alive would serve the greater social good. Her reasoning strategy was utilitarian in nature. Most generally, utilitarianism is the moral theory that an action is morally right if it serves the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. To determine whether Tucker should have been executed, the utilitarian would have compared the total good resulting from her execution with the total good resulting from her remaining alive. Tucker believed that more good would result if she remained alive. However, defenders of capital punishment also use utilitarian reasoning and argue that the greater social good is served by executing some criminals. After her execution, a relative of one of Tucker’s victims said, in utilitarian fashion, “The world’s [now] a better place.” Presumably, executing criminals such as Tucker sends a strong signal to other would-be criminals and deters them. It also assists in the psychological healing process of victims and their families.

            Utilitarians believe that the sole factor in determining an action’s morality is the balance of social good versus social evil. Appeals to moral intuitions, social traditions, or God’s wishes are not relevant. Utilitarianism has a long history, but the most famous versions of the theory emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in the hedonistic utilitarianism championed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Hedonism involves pleasure seeking, and hedonistic utilitarians argue that morality is determined according to how much pleasure or pain is produced from a course of action. For example, on the issue of capital punishment, hedonistic utilitarians would argue that this practice is justified only if it produces a greater amount of pleasure than pain. Other nonhedonistic versions of utilitarianism emerged in later years. In this chapter we will examine the development of the utilitarian theory and some of the problems that it faces.



Utilitarianism is not the invention of any single philosopher, and the general theory is as old as ancient Greece. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE) gives a clear statement of the role of pleasure in moral judgments:


We affirm that pleasure is the beginning and end of the good life. We recognize pleasure as the first good, being natural to us, and it is from pleasure that we begin every choice and avoidance. It is also to pleasure that we return, using it as the standard by which we judge every good. [Letter to Menoeceus]


Pleasure is clearly an important motivator in our lives, and most moral philosophers find at least some place for pleasure within their theories. What is distinct about Epicurus’s theory of hedonism, though, is that the gaining of pleasure and the avoidance of pain is the single standard by which we determine happiness and thereby judge our actions. Ultimately, Epicurus’s theory did not take hold, and in the centuries following Epicurus, moral philosophers emphasized the roles of virtue, natural law, and the will of God. But humanist philosophers of the Renaissance revived Epicurus’s theory, and by the eighteenth century, several philosophers were defending the pleasure criterion of morality.


Eighteenth-Century Contributions

Scotch-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694–1747) offered this systematic formula linking morality with happiness:


That action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery. [An Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil (1725), 3.8]


Here and in his other ethical writings, we find most of the key elements of utilitarianism. First, in Hutcheson’s words, we are to compute the consequences of our actions. Second, Hutcheson identifies the standard of moral evaluation as the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure that results for all people affected. Third, he provides details about the range of consequences that count; long-term, short-term, direct, and indirect consequences all enter into the computation. Finally, he provides details about what counts as happiness or pleasure: Higher intellectual pleasures and lower bodily pleasures are relevant, but with varying degrees of intensity and duration.

            Influenced by Hutcheson, David Hume (1711–1776) further developed this theory. Hume argues that, when we survey what people commonly consider to be moral conduct, we must conclude that morally right actions are those that produce useful or immediately pleasing consequences for ourselves or others. Hume uses the term utility in reference to the useful consequences, and it is from Hume’s expression that later commentators coined the term utilitarianism. Two features are unique to Hume’s theory. First, as criteria of moral evaluation, the useful longer-term consequences of actions are as important as the immediately pleasing consequences of actions. Sexual chastity, for example, is morally proper primarily because it has useful long-term consequences in holding together the family unit. The second unique feature of Hume’s theory is that some actions are useful only when followed as a rule. Again, with sexual chastity, isolated instances of sexual fidelity will not have the consequence of holding together family units. Hume believes that, to have useful consequences, chastity needs to be followed as a rule, even by single women who are past childbearing age. In Hume’s words:


A single act of justice [or chastity], considered in itself, may often be contrary to the public good; and it is only the concurrence of mankind, in a general scheme or system of action, which is advantageous. [A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), 3.3.1]


Hume’s reasoning here is the foundation of what was later called rule-utilitarianism, that is, morality involves examining the pleasurable and painful consequences of the moral rules that we adopt. By the end of the eighteenth century, dozens of prominent moral theorists, influenced by Hume’s theory of utility, proposed similar views. The most important of these theorists was British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), who acknowledged Hume as his immediate source of inspiration.


Bentham’s Utilitarian Calculus

Bentham presents his theory of utility in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), which he wrote as a kind of moral guidebook for legislators as they make public policy. Although the bulk of this work focuses on issues of criminal conduct, the opening chapters systematically describe how utility is the ultimate moral standard for all actions. Bentham states his principle of utility here:


By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever; and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government. [Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), 1.2]


Two features of Bentham’s theory make it especially unique. First, Bentham offers a bare-bones moral theory consisting of only one factor: the pleasing or painful consequences of actions. Although earlier theorists put forward the basic elements of utilitarianism, they also incorporated non-utilitarian doctrines into their moral theories. Some of these extraneous doctrines are that morality is ultimately founded on the will of God, that sympathy is needed to counterbalance human selfishness, that virtues underlie our moral actions, that we rationally intuit our duty, and that we judge conduct through a moral sense. For Bentham, some of these doctrines are nonsensical, and the rest are irrelevant. His rejection of these more traditional elements of moral theory gave utilitarianism the reputation of being Godless, impersonal, skeptical, and relativistic.

            The second and most important feature of Bentham’s theory is his method for precisely quantifying pleasures and pains, better known as the utilitarian calculus. He argues that the complete range of pleasing and painful consequences of actions can be quantified according to seven criteria: (1) intensity; (2) duration; (3) certainty; (4) remoteness, that is, the immediacy of the pleasure or pain; (5) fecundity, that is, whether similar pleasures or pains will follow; (6) purity, that is, whether the pleasure is mixed with pain; and (7) extent, that is, the number of people affected. In a footnote to a later edition of the Principles, Bentham summarizes these criteria in a rhyme, which he says might assist us in “lodging more effectually, in the memory, these points”:


Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure --

Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.

Such pleasures seek if private by thy end:

If it be public, wide let them extend.

Such pains avoid, whichever by they view:

If pains must come, let them extend to few.

[Principles of Morals and Legislation, 4:2]


            Bentham is very explicit about how the calculus works. For example, if we wanted to determine the morality of executing Karla Faye Tucker, we would first calculate, one at a time, all of the pleasure and pain that she personally would receive from the execution. One specific pleasure/pain that she would experience would involve her contemplating her own death. As she sat in her cell and thought about the fact that she would soon die, she undoubtedly had a strong painful experience of dread. According to Bentham’s calculus, we need to construct a pleasure/pain chart that takes into account the first four criteria listed previously. We also need to assign numerical values to these factors, perhaps on a scale of 1 to 10. In Tucker’s case, we might get these figures:


                                    Pleasure           Pain


Intensity:                     0                      10

Duration:                     0                      2

Certainty:                    0                      10

Immediacy:                 0                      10


Concerning the intensity of her pleasure/pain, we may presume that Tucker derived no pleasure from the events immediately surrounding her death, and she experienced very intense emotional pain at the prospect of losing her life. The duration of the emotional pain would have been relatively brief, but also certain and immediate.

            After we chart out the first four factors, we then consider the other three factors separately. Bentham’s purity factor involves whether an act produces both pain and pleasure. We’ve already taken this into account in our chart by noting that Tucker experienced only pain and no pleasure. The fecundity factor involves any similar long-term residual pleasures and pains that might result from an action. Since Tucker’s execution was carried out successfully, there were no residual pleasures and pains for her. However, if her execution had been botched on its first attempt and she had to go through the process again a month later, then we would need to devise another pleasure/pain chart for the new execution. Our chart quantifies only the psychological anguish that Tucker experienced when contemplating her own death. However, there were other distinct pleasures and pains that she experienced regarding her execution. For example, she would have been distressed at being permanently separated from her family and frustrated with the criminal justice system. For each of these additional pains or pleasures, we need additional pleasure/pain charts.

            Finally, Bentham’s extent factor involves all the pleasures and pains experienced by other people. So, once we fully account for Tucker’s pleasures and pains, we then construct similar pleasure/pain charts for each pleasure and pain experienced by each person affected by Tucker’s execution. This includes the pleasures experienced by people who wanted Tucker dead, such as the victim’s relatives and those who commiserated with the relatives. But it also includes the pains experienced by those who wanted her alive, such as Tucker’s own relatives, and even those like the Pope who oppose capital punishment and are pained by another execution. At this stage, thousands and perhaps millions of pleasure/pain charts would be involved. We then take the combined pleasure score from all charts and compare it to the combined pain score from all charts. If the pleasure column has the higher score, then executing Tucker is moral. But if the pain column has the higher score, then the execution is immoral.

            When Bentham’s Principles first appeared, two book reviewers attacked the work for the excessive detail throughout his entire discussion. The Analytical Review charged that “perhaps the love of discrimination has been sometimes carried too far, and been productive of divisions and subdivisions of little use to a legislator” (Vol. 5, 1789). The Critical Review commented more strongly that “long and intricate discussions end in trifling conclusions; affected refinement sometimes stands in the place of useful distinctions, and the parade of system is so highly labored as frequently to disgust” (Vol. 68,1789). Bentham was well aware of this overall problem with the Principles, and for that reason he delayed its publication for nine years. The problem with his utilitarian calculus in particular is that it imposes a precision on a subject that does not allow for it. Working through even a single example shows that it is virtually impossible to do a complete utilitarian calculus, and this constitutes the strongest argument against it.

            In spite of the problems with Bentham’s theory, his view of utilitarianism gained a following. By the mid-nineteenth century, his name was so strongly linked with utilitarianism that one commentator felt compelled to remind people that Bentham did not invent the doctrine (Simon Laurie, On the Philosophy of Ethics, 1866). The next great step in the development of utilitarianism came with British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873).



Bentham was John Stuart Mill’s godfather and teacher, and the young Mill was strongly influenced by his mentor’s account of utilitarianism. In early adulthood, Mill suffered an emotional breakdown, which he attributed to his heavily analytic education. When Bentham died shortly thereafter, Mill felt free to reevaluate the ideas of his upbringing. Mill’s early writings show a growing disenchantment with Bentham’s overly technical utilitarian calculus. In his 50s, Mill finally took the opportunity to write a popular defense of utilitarianism to counter the excessively scientific reputation the doctrine had obtained through Bentham. This appeared in three installments in Fraser’s Magazine in 1861 and was published in book form in 1863 under the title Utilitarianism. Because Mill’s Utilitarianism was written in a brief and popular format, one early commentator noted that he expected Mill to follow up with a “longer and more elaborate” book on the subject. But Mill never did. Within a decade, several studies appeared analyzing virtually every aspect of Mill’s theory, and by the turn of the century, Mill’s book became, as one commentator said, “more universally familiar than any other book in the whole literature of English Utilitarianism.”

            Commentators argue that there is little in Mill’s theory that is completely original. In fact, we can outline many features of Mill’s theory simply by listing their similarities to those in previous theories. First, like Bentham, Mill presents a bare-bones account of utilitarianism by not incorporating traditional moral concepts such as the will of God, virtues, a moral sense, or rational intuition. Mill does, though, find a place in his theory for socially oriented moral feelings such as sympathy, which give people the motivation to pursue general happiness. Without such motivation, utilitarianism would be a sterile principle without any practical value.

            Second, like Bentham, Mill believes that the sole criterion of morality is general happiness— that is, the maximum pleasures and the minimum pains that a society of people can experience. Third, like Bentham, Mill believes that this criterion can be expressed somewhat scientifically in the form of a single principle:


Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. [Utilitarianism, 2]


Fourth, like Hutcheson, Mill argues that happiness consists of both higher intellectual pleasures, and lower bodily pleasures. Fifth, like Hume, Mill focuses on the good or bad consequences that emerge from rules of conduct, and as such, Mill is classified as a rule-utilitarian.

            The two features of his theory that distinguish him most from Bentham are and his views of higher pleasure and his rule-utilitarianism, which we will look at in more detail.


General Happiness and Higher Pleasures

The first distinguishing feature of Mill’s utilitarianism is his differentiation between higher intellectual pleasures and lower bodily pleasures. Although Hutcheson also made this general distinction, Mill develops the notion and makes it central to his theory. Mill introduces the topic as a response to the specific criticism that utilitarianism is a doctrine worthy only of swine since swine, too, pursue pleasure. Mill responds that the concept of pleasure includes intellectual as well as bodily pleasures, and pigs clearly cannot experience intellectual pleasures:


Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites and, when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification. . . . It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. [Utilitarianism, 2]


Lower pleasures traditionally include those from food, sex, self-gratification, and other base instincts. By contrast, higher pleasures are those derived from music, art, and other more lofty intellectual accomplishments. According to Mill, higher pleasures are qualitatively superior to lower pleasures insofar as they are more highly valued even when limited in number. For Mill, Bentham erred by attempting to determine total happiness by assigning numerical values to pleasures and pains, with no regard for their qualitative differences. An early commentator wrote that Mill’s emphasis on higher pleasures established a “new utilitarianism” since higher pleasures are subjective and thus cannot be objectively quantified (Simon Laurie, Notes, 1868). For Mill, then, we cannot technically have a utilitarian calculus in which we tally numbers that represent differing quantities of pleasures and pains.

            Although we cannot calculate general happiness in the way that Bentham describes, Mill nevertheless tried to offer some objective standard for ranking the comparative value of differing pleasures. Specifically, Mill presents a test for determining whether one pleasure is qualitatively superior to another. Take, for example, the pleasures that we may experience from visiting an art museum versus attending a monster truck rally. Assume first that an impartial judge is acquainted with both events. The pleasure from the museum visit will be qualitatively superior if (1) the judge prefers the museum visit to the truck rally, (2) the museum visit is accompanied by some pain, such as a two-hour drive, and (3) the truck rally is quantitatively superior, such as a four-night truck-o-rama in contrast with a two-hour museum visit. Mill believes that an impartial judge will prefer the higher pleasure to the lower because we all have a sense of dignity, at least initially. People sometimes choose the lower pleasure since it is easy to kill our more noble feelings, and we often do not have the opportunity to keep our intellectual tastes alive:


Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying. [Utilitarianism, 2]


In short, according to Mill, higher pleasures are (1) the main ingredients of general happiness, (2) grounded in our intellectual abilities, (3) qualitatively superior to lower pleasures, (4) spawned by our sense of dignity, and (5) vulnerable to neglect.



The second feature of Mill’s theory that is distinct from Bentham’s concerns the place of moral rules in moral decision making. Bentham is what scholars today call an act-utilitarian, whereas Mill is a rule-utilitarian. The two approaches may be defined this way:


• Act-utilitarianism: morality involves examining the pleasurable and painful consequences of our individual actions.

• Rule-utilitarianism: morality involves examining the pleasurable and painful consequences of the moral rules that we adopt.


Act-utilitarianism involves a two-tiered system of moral evaluation: (1) selecting a particular action, and (2) evaluating that action by appealing to the criterion of general happiness. For example, according to act-utilitarianism, it would be wrong for me to steal my neighbor’s car since this particular act would produce more general unhappiness. Rule-utilitarianism, though, involves an intermediary step and so is a three-tiered system of moral evaluation: (1) selecting a particular action, (2) evaluating that action by appealing to moral rules, and (3) evaluating moral rules by appealing to the criterion of general happiness. For example, according to rule-utilitarianism, it would be wrong to steal my neighbor’s car since this act would violate the rule against stealing, and we endorse the rule against stealing since it promotes general happiness.

            Mill develops his view of rule-utilitarianism in reaction to two distinct issues. The first concerns whether we have enough time to calculate the consequences of our actions before performing them. Throughout the day there are countless actions that we perform, and it would be completely impractical to perform a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis beforehand on each one. Some of these actions are urgent and require quick decisions. Should we help rescue someone from drowning? Should we call the police when witnessing an assault? But even with less urgent actions, they are so numerous that it would become a bureaucratic nightmare to evaluate the general happiness of each one. A simple act such as selecting toothpaste may involve a pleasure-pain calculus of purchasing one toothpaste brand versus another. Also, could I justify spending my time watching TV, which benefits no one but me, rather than doing volunteer work for a charity group which will benefit many other people? It seems that virtually every action that we perform might require some pleasure-pain analysis, which would be humanly impossible to carry out.

            According to Mill, the above problem arises only for act-utilitarians who attempt to evaluate the general happiness of each action. For rule-utilitarians, though, the problem disappears. With each choice that we face throughout the day, we simply follow the moral rules that society has already established for us. For Mill, “the whole past duration of the human species” has consisted of efforts to learn through experience which types of actions bring about general happiness. Those well-established rules, then, are the guides for our behavior. Society has already determined that as a rule we should help others in need. Thus, we instantly know that we should try to rescue someone from drowning and call the police when we see an assault. Society has also determined that not every decision in our lives rises to the level of moral urgency, and some are matters of personal preference. There are no established moral rules that regulate what toothpaste we purchase or the leisure activities that we engage in, such as watching TV. We would not be promoting general happiness by making hard-and-fast rules about these decisions. Instead, general happiness would be better served if we endorsed a rule that allows each of us a range of free activity.

            The second issue behind Mill’s rule-utilitarianism involves how we resolve moral dilemmas. As noted, according to Mill we appeal to the utilitarian principle only to establish moral rules, but not to judge the morality of individual actions. However, on rare occasions we may be caught in a moral dilemma between two conflicting rules. Suppose I borrow your gun and promise to return it when you ask for it. The next day, you have a dispute with your boss and, in a fit of rage, ask for the gun back. I am now caught in a dilemma between two conflicting moral rules: I should keep my promises, yet I should not contribute to the harm of others. In such rare cases, I can determine the proper course of action by appealing directly to the utilitarian principle to see which rule has priority. Mill explains this point here:


We must remember that only in these cases of conflict between secondary principles [that is, rules] is it requisite that first principles [of general happiness] should be appealed to. There is no case of moral obligation in which some secondary principle is not involved . . . [Utilitarianism, 2]


In this case, I bring about more happiness by following the rule to avoid harming others, and so I should hold onto your gun. Thus, the only time we should directly examine the consequences of an individual action is settle a conflict between conflicting rules.

            To summarize, these are the main points of Mill’s utilitarianism:


• General happiness is the sole criterion of morality, and “happiness” is defined as pleasure.

• Higher intellectual pleasures are more valuable than lower bodily pleasures.

• We cannot quantifiably calculate which rules produce the greatest pleasure, although we can objectively determine whether one pleasure is higher than another.

• We appeal to the principle of greatest happiness only when evaluating rules of conduct, and not individual actions.



Early defenders of utilitarianism offered their theories as radical alternatives to the more conventional approaches to morality that emphasized God, natural law, and instinctive duties. From the start, utilitarian theories were challenged by more conventional theorists. We will look at four important criticisms of utilitarianism.


Gisborne’s Criticism: We Cannot Know All of the Consequences

One of the first criticisms of the utilitarian theory was presented by English clergyman Thomas Gisborne (1758–1846). According to Gisborne, we are incapable of knowing all of the consequences of our actions. As we attempt to hunt down the various consequences, we will never be in a position to discover all of the relevant effects and form a conclusion about the overall happiness or unhappiness that results. He offers a picturesque analogy for this point:


As well might a fisherman infer, that his line, which has reached the bottom of the creek in which he exercises his trade, is therefore capable of fathoming the depths of the Atlantic. . . . He, who has had sufficient humility to become convinced. . . how few are the consequences which he can foresee, compared with those which are wrapped in obscurity, will be the most ready to confess his ignorance of the universal effects of his actions. [The Principles of Moral Philosophy Investigated (1789)]


Imagine that I use a 15 foot line to fish in a local creek, and with that I can reach its bottom. I then conclude that this same 15 foot line would be sufficient for me to fish in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, which, obviously, it is not. By analogy, in our ordinary lives we are good at figuring out some of the immediate consequences of our actions. If I break a cup, it will cost me $5 to replace. If I set my alarm clock to the wrong time, then I’ll be late for work the next day. However, this skill in discovering immediate consequences of ordinary actions does not equip us to discover all the long term effects of many of our other actions. If I steal my neighbor’s car, can I really say with certainty that the consequences, when all tallied, will produce more unhappiness than happiness? It may well be that my neighbor did not like his car and would prefer the insurance money that he’d get when reporting it stolen. It may well be that the police catch me and send me to jail, which in turn reforms me and makes me a more productive and responsible citizen. I just do not know what all the remote consequences will be. In Gisborne’s words, “the limited knowledge of expediency attainable by the wisest of men is unfit to be adopted as the basis of moral rectitude” (ibid).

            How might the utilitarian respond to Gisborne’s criticism? Rule-utilitarians like Mill have the easiest answer. When determining the rightness or wrongness of moral rules, like “do not steal,” it is never up to a single individual to calculate all the consequences. Through trial and error over many generations, our ancestors have experienced and evaluated the long term results of all sorts of actions. They kept records of these in stories and histories, and constructed laws to minimize the unhappy consequences that some courses of actions bring about. We are the beneficiaries of these efforts, and we can safely say that adopting a rule like “do not steal” will bring about more long term happiness than unhappiness. It makes no difference whether we as individuals lack the mental vision to detect all the remote consequences of our actions. Like so many other areas of our lives, we rely on cultural tradition to teach us lessons that we could not individually discover.

            But even the act-utilitarian has some response to Gisborne. Let’s grant that I as an individual have a limited ability to envision all the long term consequences of a given action, like stealing my neighbor’s car. Nevertheless, nature has provided me with enough foresight to assist me in planning my life and my community. The ability to project the consequences of actions is a critical survival skill. While I cannot literally see into the future to evaluate all the remote consequences of my actions, I can set up scenarios that are more likely than others. If I steal my neighbor’s car, it is not really likely that he’ll be happy about it and prefer the insurance money. I can also project that I’ll likely get caught and go to jail. And, even if I reform in prison, that experience is not likely to improve my life when I get out, but will instead permanently restrict my career options. I also know my act of theft will place a burden on my family, the insurance industry and the criminal justice system. In the end, I can make a good best guess that my act of theft will produce more unhappiness than happiness. This is not a 100% foolproof assessment, but it’s good enough for me to make a reasonable assessment of how I should morally behave. It is also not that much different than other critical decisions that I make in my life that are not strictly speaking moral ones. When choosing to accept a job offer, I try to make a reasonable cost-benefit analysis based on the limited knowledge that I have. So too with decisions about marrying someone, buying a home, and having children. Whether my actions are morally significant or morally neutral, nature has not left me helpless when it comes to projecting their most likely long term consequences.


Bradley’s Criticism: Utilitarianism Conflicts with Ordinary Moral Judgments

A second criticism of utilitarianism, presented by British philosopher F. H. Bradley (1846–1924), is that utilitarian moral judgments often conflict with our ordinary conceptions of moral obligation. For example, it is theoretically possible that you cheating on your spouse will maximize general happiness. It may make you and your lover happy, and as long as you keep it a secret, your spouse will not be unhappy. But even in this situation our ordinary moral judgment is that adultery is wrong:


Let us take the precept, Do not commit adultery. How are we to prove that no possible adultery can increase the overplus of pleasurable feeling? . . . To put the whole matter in to words; the precepts of Hedonism are only rules, and rules may always have exceptions: they are not, and, so far as I see, they can not be made out to be laws. [Ethical Studies (1876), 3]


According to Bradley, there are morally proper behaviors that “we should choose even if no pleasure came from them,” such as being faithful to one’s spouse. Thus, utilitarianism fails as a guideline of proper conduct.

            We can illustrate Bradley’s point further by considering cases in which we might exploit someone if doing so would produce general happiness. For example, suppose that I capture and enslave an unimportant person who has no relatives, and force him to perform all the menial tasks that I and my family hate. We have him clean the house, do the laundry, mow the yard, change the cat litter box, fix broken appliances, and so on. The slave surely suffer, but, overall, this results in more happiness with me and my family through the slaves’ labor. However, we commonly feel that it is simply wrong to enslave someone, in spite of the overall happiness that this might produce. According to Bradley’s reasoning, then, utilitarianism is an inadequate moral theory since it can be used to justify this kind of exploitation in the name of general happiness.

            In response to Bradley’s criticism, again, rule-utiltarians have the easiest job of providing an answer. According to rule-utilitarians such as Mill, we do not calculate the consequences of each action, such as whether general happiness is maximized when Jones in particular cheats on his wife. Instead, we calculate the consequences of each rule we adopt, such as “adultery is wrong.” As Hume argued, it is only through the adoption of this general rule against adultery that we maximize social utility by better preserving the family unit. So too with exploitive acts like slavery. We do not calculate the benefit of enslaving Jones in particular, but, instead, the benefit of rules like “Slavery is wrong.” When we focus on these rules, it becomes clear that adopting them will produce more happiness than unhappiness. Further, rule-utilitarians can safeguard against all isolated acts of exploitation, and not just slavery, by adopting a  rule like “We may never exploit individuals, even for an alleged greater good.” Even if some instances of exploitation do serve the general happiness, most exploitation will result in unhappiness. So, a rule prohibiting all exploitation will be one that, on balance, serves the general happiness.

            Act-utilitarians also have a response to Bradley’s criticism. When utilitarian reasoning conflicts with ordinary moral judgments, it is often because we focus only on the short-term benefits of one’s conduct, neglecting the long-term ones. In the situation of adultery, there is the realistic possibility that one’s spouse will eventually find out, or that one’s lover may feel taken advantage of and take revenge. With slavery there is the long term problem of slave rebellions, and creating an underclass of people that society may never fully recover from even after slavery is outlawed. In fact, the long-term negative consequences of slavery in the United States are still unfolding. The problem that Bradley exposes is not so much with act-utilitarianism itself, but with human nature and our tendency to prefer short term benefits over long term ones. It was much easier for slave owners to focus on the immediate economic benefits of slavery than the long term social and economic devastation that it would create. While the focus on long term consequences may not resolve all of utilitarianism’s conflicts with ordinary moral judgments, it goes a long way in reducing the force of Bradley’s criticism.


Grote’s Criticism: Utilitarianism Only Perpetuates the Status Quo

Suppose we wanted to determine whether an action like the execution of Karla Faye Tucker is morally permissible. According to utiltarians, we find this out by looking at how much pleasure and pain result from actually putting people to death. This involves an experiential inspection of the various consequences—an approach that, in essence, grounds morality in our factual observations. In his posthumously published An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (1870), John Grote (1813–1866) criticizes this purely experiential approach to determining our moral obligations. For Grote, appeals to experience will only perpetuate the status quo, and it will not include an ideal moral goal toward which we should aim. There is no room for anyone with special moral vision to expose the flaws with our current moral standards and put us on the path to moral reform. In Grote’s words, utilitarianism bases morality only on what is the case, not on what ought to be the case. Morality should include guidelines for moral improvement, but we will never get such guidelines by appealing only to what is the case. Grote makes this point here:


Man has improved as he has, because certain portions of his race have had in them the spirit of self-improvement, or, as I have called it, the ideal element; have been unsatisfied with what to them at the time has been the positive, the matter of fact, the immediately utilitarian; have risen above the cares of the day. . . [An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (1870), 13]


According to Grote, to obtain ideal guidelines, we need an intuitive knowledge of morality, which goes beyond mere experience and a utilitarian analysis.

            There are two distinct aspects of Grote’s criticism: (1) whether utilitarianism would ever allow standards of morality to shift beyond the status quo, and (2) whether utilitarianism has any room for people with special moral vision. Utilitarians have a response to both of these aspects. Regarding the first, imagine an isolated village where nothing ever changes. The population is stable and they have consistent growing seasons with no unpredictable droughts or insect infestations. There have been no technological advances in hundreds of years, and work routines are firmly established. Their political structure is stable, with no conflicts between social groups. There is no contact with outsiders who might introduce foreign customs or pose threats of war. In this situation, there would be no utilitarian grounds to move morality beyond the status quo. The village’s customs and moral values evolved around a fixed and unchanging social environment, and no additional experience would require a new assessment of what will bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. For this particular village, Grote is correct: utilitarianism would only perpetuate the status quo. However, very few societies are like this today, and probably have not been since the dawn of human civilization. Within most societies, there are continual changes as a result of population fluctuations, natural disasters, epidemics, clashes with foreigners, new technologies, social inequalities, political factions, and differing religions. Where there is constant change within societies, there will always be a need to reexamine which actions and policies bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Some tried and true moral rules will never change, such as “do not kill” and “do not steal.” But others may shift with the times such as with capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, cloning, church and state relations, universal health care, internet neutrality and a host of other hot button issues that divide society. Where there is heated debate, the status quo is not fixed, and there is a need to draw on utilitarianism to make society a happier place.

            The second aspect of Grote’s criticism—whether utilitarianism has any room for people with special moral vision—can be answered with a similar response. Within the isolated village described above, moral visionaries seeking to reform the status quo would only be troublemakers who would risk disrupting the efficient traditions of that past. In spite of their good intentions, their efforts at reform might produce more unhappiness than happiness. Again, in this village Grote is correct: utilitarianism has no room for the moral visionary. However, when we turn to societies that are ever-changing with constant social clashes, there is an important role for utilitarian moral visionaries. They are the ones who propose new ideas for mediating social conflict and bringing about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. A key theme throughout Mill’s Utilitarianism is that, over time, the status quo of general happiness will improve through education and science. The moral visionary is the one who brings these new social ideas to the public and attempts to gain consensus with them. The visionary will not seek guidance from an inner and intuitive sense of morality, as Grote suggests. Instead, the visionary will seek out areas of discontent within society and propose ways of remedying it. Some discontent will be so overwhelming that it may call for radical changes to set society on a long-term path of general happiness. The abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement are cases in point, and the leaders of these movements could fully justify their reforming efforts with utilitarian reasoning.


Albee’s Criticism: Higher Pleasures are Inconsistent with Hedonism

A final criticism focuses specifically on Mill’s version of utilitarianism. We saw that the most distinctive feature of his theory is that happiness consists of both higher and lower pleasures, and that higher pleasures are qualitatively superior to lower ones. The problem is that Mill appears to offer two separate standards of general happiness: (1) pleasure and (2) dignity. If we see pleasure as the sole criterion, then we must deemphasize dignity; if we see dignity as the principal criterion, then we must deemphasize pleasure. American philosopher Ernest Albee (1865–1929) concisely states the central issue here:


The inconsistency, in truth, may be expressed in a word: If all good things are good in proportion as they bring pleasure to oneself or others, one cannot add to this statement that pleasure itself, the assumed criterion, is more or less desirable in terms of something else (e.g., human dignity) which is not pleasure. [A History of English Utilitarianism (1902), 12]


The problem here is a serious one, and it appears that Mill simply cannot hold up both pleasure and dignity as the principal standard of happiness.

            One option is to set aside the notion of dignity, and simply to see pleasure as the standard of happiness. This solution brings Mill closer to Bentham, since any difference between pleasures would then have to be quantitative. This even allows for the possibility of a utilitarian calculus of differing quantities of pleasure. However, this resurrects the problem that Mill hoped to avoid—namely, that utilitarianism is a doctrine worthy only of swine since swine also pursue pleasure. Thus, this is not the best option for Mill. The very uniqueness of his version of utilitarianism rests on the concept of higher pleasure, and, so, we must try to answer Albee’s criticism while preserving that concept.

            A second option is to redefine the notion of human pleasure to make it inseparable from the notion of human dignity. That is precisely what Mill tried to do when distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures. The lower ones are bodily in nature, which even animals can experience. By contrast, the higher ones are uniquely human and involve human dignity. The challenge for Mill is to explain how a pleasure can be a dignifying one, and still be an actual “pleasure” in any meaningful sense of the word. His slogan “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied” does not help his case since it looks like the human being is not experiencing any real pleasure at all. It is here that Mill needs help.

            To assist Mill with this problem, let’s start by considering a common distinction between pain and suffering. Suppose that both I and my pet hamster break a leg as a result of an accident. We both will experience physical pain from our respective injuries. However, I, with my more complex brain, will reflect on my pain in ways that the hamster cannot. I’ll worry how long the pain will last, how long it will take to heal, whether I’ll be able to function normally when it does heal, and whether I’ll be treated differently by my peers throughout the healing process. What I am experiencing now is not just pain, but suffering. The specific formula is pain plus reflection produces suffering. While suffering of this sort may not be a uniquely human experience, it would at best be restricted to higher animals sophisticated thought processes.

            Consider now how I and my hamster would react to a pleasurable experience of, say, eating our favorite meal. The hamster eats its food pellets and I eat a pizza. We both experience gastronomic pleasure, but, because of my more sophisticated thought process, I reflect on it in different ways. I think about the subtle interplay of ingredients, the manner in which it was cooked, its visual appearance, how it compares to other pizzas I’ve had, and what beverage would go well with it. I also think about how many calories I’m eating, whether the ingredients are processed or whole foods, and how it fits into a balanced diet for the day. While my gastronomic pleasure is similar to that of the hamster, my overall enjoyment of the experience is entirely different since it is filtered through my higher thought processes. At least some of this thought process involves a sense of dignity. I’m not simply shoveling food into my mouth to satisfy a craving, but by reflecting on these additional elements I am elevating the experience to a level that fits into my sense of human worth. The formula here is ordinary pleasure plus reflection produces higher pleasure. Now I do not always do this when I eat pizza, and sometimes my experience is no better than a hamster’s. But, on the occasions that my eating enjoyment is connected with my higher functions, my experience is more valuable. With a sense of human adventure, I might expand beyond my usual eating routine and try different foreign foods and enjoy them. Similarly, I might expand beyond the action-adventure movies that I watch and try foreign films and documentaries, and enjoy them as well. In all of these cases, the higher pleasure that I’m experiencing is a genuine pleasure that is rooted in an ordinary pleasure, such as good eating, drama, suspense, intrigue, romantic passion. But as it becomes elevated to a higher pleasure, it cannot be separated from my human dignity. In this way, contrary to Albee, higher pleasures are not inconsistent with hedonism.



The utilitarian strategy for moral decision making has withstood the test of time and this in and of itself demands that we take it seriously. We’ve examined four major criticisms against it, and in each case utilitarians have a plausible response. In this final section we will consider two lingering problems with utilitarianism, one of which questions whether pleasure is the only important moral value, and the other that questions whether any bare-bones utilitarian formula can function as the sole authority in moral judgments.


Pleasure is Not the Only Important Moral Value

Bentham and Mill’s hedonistic utilitarianism is a mixed bag. On the plus side, by focusing exclusively on the pleasure that results from a course of action, morality stands up to experiential and even scientific judgment. Hedonistic utilitarians argue that we can record experiences of pleasure, quantify degrees of pleasure, and use this as the basis of our moral judgments. Scottish economist Francis Edgeworth (1845-1926) proposed the idea of a hedonimeter that could scientifically measure the pleasure that a person was experiencing:


Let there be granted to the science of pleasure what is granted to the science of energy, to imagine an ideally perfect instrument, a psychophysical machine, continually registering the height of pleasure experienced by an individual, exactly according to the verdict of consciousness. . . . . [Mathematical Psychics (1881), Appendix 3]


Such a machine has not yet been created, but, even today, many philosophers and social scientists defend hedonistic utilitarianism because of its objectivity. Books in microeconomics routinely include chapters on techniques for numerically measuring utility. For the hedonistic utilitarian, then, moral assessment is not a matter of personal feelings or intuitions. Instead, it attempts to place the issue of morality squarely in the arena of public observation.

            The minus side of hedonistic utilitarianism, though, is that, as critics point out, pleasure is not the only thing in life that is morally significant. Religious and political martyrs are vivid illustrations of this. Many people throughout history have felt morally compelled to defend their religious or political ideals knowing full well that they would be tortured and ultimately killed for their actions. Their lives would have been more pleasurable—or at least far less painful—if they had simply conformed to social expectations. It seems, then, that an important part of our moral assessments goes beyond mere pleasure.

            Mill himself acknowledged that mere pleasure is not the only thing that counts, and as we’ve seen, he addressed this problem with the notion of higher pleasures. Perhaps Mill would say that martyrs experience higher pleasures that counterbalance their pains. To more successfully address this problem, some contemporary defenders of utilitarianism abandon pleasure altogether as the ultimate criterion and propose instead a standard that is broad enough to include cases like religious and political martyrs. The two most popular alternatives are ideal utilitarianism and preference utilitarianism.

            Ideal utilitarianism is the view that the morally right course of action is the one that brings about the greatest amount of goodness, regardless of what we specifically identify as good. Many things in life are intrinsically good, such as aesthetic beauty, integrity, friendship, fulfillment of desires, fairness, and freedom. However, we should not single out any one of these qualities as definitive, which is exactly what Bentham and Mill did by focusing on pleasure. According to British philosopher G. E. Moore (1873–1958), it is actually impossible for us to pinpoint all of the qualities that constitute absolute goodness:


It is just possible that the Absolute Good may be entirely composed of qualities which we cannot even imagine. This is possible, because, though we certainly do know a great many things that are good-in-themselves, and good in a high degree, yet what is best does not necessarily contain all the good things there are. [Principia Ethica (1903), 6.11]


Rather than focusing on a specific quality, such as pleasure, we should instead recognize that any consequence that counts as good needs to be entered into the utilitarian tally. Suppose I live in a repressive country and am considering voicing my unpopular political opinions. I not only tally the pain I will experience from being tortured, which is clearly bad, but also tally the assertion of my freedom and the integrity of my convictions, which are good things. How do we recognize the various things that count as good? Moore argues that we should start by pointing out the flaws in popular standards of goodness that leave out important goods. Moore concludes that the ideal standard we arrive at will emphasize a mixture of aesthetic enjoyments, such as beauty, and admirable mental qualities, such as sociability. Ultimately, we must rely on intuition to recognize the various goods.

            Preference utilitarianism is the view that the morally right course of action is the one that maximizes our preferences. Again, if I live in a repressive country and am considering expressing my unpopular political opinions, I would tally my preference for free expression in addition to the pain I would experience from being tortured. Preference utilitarianism is most associated with contemporary British philosopher R. M. Hare (Moral Thinking, 1981). There are three key aspects to Hare’s account. First, to say that I “prefer” something simply means that I would choose that thing if the appropriate situation arose. For example, to say, “I prefer that Karla Faye Tucker be executed,” means that I would choose in favor of her execution if I had the chance. Second, my preferences include a combination of both immediate and long-term preferences. Among other combinations, it includes (1) what I prefer right now to attain right now, (2) what I prefer right now to attain in the future, and (3) what I will prefer in the future to attain in the future. Third, my preferences are not merely restricted to myself but also include the preferences of other people. That is, some of my preferences must be impartial and universal, and I must imagine what my preferences would be if I were in someone else’s shoes. For example, I would not prefer that, if I were Tucker, I should be executed. But I would prefer that, if I were a relative of the victim, Tucker should be executed. According to Hare, I need to tally my own preferences for myself and weigh them against what I’d prefer if I were other parties involved. If my preferences focused only on myself, then I would be an egoist, and not a utilitarian.

            Both ideal utilitarianism and preference utilitarianism allow us to tally a broad range of possible consequences in our utilitarian calculus. Contrary to hedonism, they recognize that pleasure is not the only thing that counts. However, ideal and preference utilitarians pay a price for being so inclusive— namely, they lose objectivity. As mentioned earlier, according to hedonistic utilitarians, pleasure can be experientially measured. But, ideal goodness and personal preferences cannot be experientially measured. These are founded in gut feelings and private intuitions, which do not lend themselves to public inspection, and is precisely what Bentham was trying to avoid. Consequently, many utilitarians stick with the old hedonistic version in spite of its narrowness.


Problems with the Bare-Bones Utilitarian Formula

Utilitarians from Bentham and Mill onward are united in the view that morality is a matter of weighing the positive versus the negative consequences of a course of action. We described this earlier as a bare-bones concept of morality, which does not involve other considerations such as virtues, God’s will, natural law, or natural rights. Utilitarian writers present different claims about the purpose of the bare-bones utilitarian formula. They sometimes see it as (1) a description of how we actually make moral decisions or (2) a description of how we should make moral decisions or (3) a quick and easy test to use in making moral decisions. But no version of utilitarianism is successful in any of these claims.

            First, utilitarianism does not accurately describe how we always make moral decisions, as we can see from the Karla Faye Tucker story. Although both sides of the dispute at some point offered utilitarian reasoning for their views, they also appealed to a variety of non-utilitarian reasons. Tucker herself believed that, as a matter of simple mercy, society should forgive criminals who reform. Her critics argued that she should be executed based on an “eye for an eye” notion of justice. Appeals to simple mercy or to eye-for-an-eye justice do not involve utilitarian tallies of good or bad consequences. Also, utilitarianism involves a type of arithmetic by which we subtract the weight of the negative consequences from the weight of the positive ones. Those calling for Tucker’s execution appear to have simply dismissed the positive consequences of her staying alive. That is, they did not subtract the positive consequences from the negative ones, as a true utilitarian would.

            Second, it is not clear that we should adopt the utilitarian formula when making all of our moral decisions. Kant made this point specifically with regard to capital punishment. Although Kant himself defended the death penalty, he argued that, if we execute a criminal because of its positive value for society, such as crime deterrence, then we are using the criminal as a tool for our own purposes. For Kant, it is always bad to use someone as a tool, even if the person in question is a criminal (Metaphysics of Morals, 1797).

            Third, in many if not most cases, the utilitarian formula is neither a quick nor an easy way of making moral decisions. It is difficult to see how many people might be affected by a given course of action. It is also difficult to know how to assign weight to the various good or bad consequences that emerge. Although hedonistic utilitarians brag that pleasure can be experientially quantified, the fact remains that scientists have not yet invented a pleasure meter. Assigning weight to pleasures and pains will still involve some level of subjective judgment.

            Perhaps the problem with utilitarianism is its bare-bones claim that morality depends entirely on calculations of consequences. Philosophers today are drawn to simple formulas and to simple explanations for complex philosophical puzzles. But moral decision making appears to be one area that we cannot account for with a simple, unified formula. Our actual moral decision-making process depends on a patchwork of various theories and explanations that cannot be reduced to a single theme. At times, we do rely on utilitarian reasoning, and, to that extent it is an important part of moral decision making. Utilitarians merely need to abdicate their claim to sole authority.



Many philosophers as far back as ancient times believed that pleasure is the standard by which we should judge moral conduct. Philosophers during the 18th century refined this notion, and, with Bentham, we find the classic statement of hedonistic utilitarianism. According to Bentham, we determine whether an action is right by calculating all of the pleasure and pain that results from that action. Mill offered a version of utilitarianism that parted company with Bentham in two important ways. First, he emphasized the difference between higher and lower pleasures, where the higher ones are more important and are incapable of numerical computation. Second, Mill offered a version of rule-utilitarianism holding that we test only the general happiness of moral rules, not that of each action.

            We next looked at four criticisms of utilitarianism, the first of which by Gisborne is that we will never be able to discover all of the relevant effects of our conduct. Next, Bradley criticized that utilitarianism conflicts with common moral values; for example, with utilitarianism, we could justifiably commit adultery or enslave someone if doing so maximized the general happiness. Grote criticized that utilitarianism locks us into the morality of the status quo and does not account for moral progress. Albee criticized that Mill inconsistently holds to two standards of moral value: pleasure and dignity. Finally, we looked at two lingering problems with utilitarianism. The first is whether pleasure is the only important moral value. Ideal utilitarians such as Moore recommend that we tally the total good versus bad that results from a course of action. Preference utilitarians such as Hare recommend that we assess our total preferences regarding a course of action. The second lingering problem concerns whether any bare-bones utilitarian formula can function as the sole authority in moral judgments.




Introduction: The unique feature of Mill’s version of utilitarianism is his distinction between higher and lower pleasures, where higher mental pleasures are more important than lower bodily ones. He explains his position in the following selections. It may not always be easy to recognize when a pleasure that we pursue is a higher or lower one, but he offers a procedure for distinguishing between the two, and explains further that the underlying source of higher pleasures is our human sense of dignity. He also discusses why people often reject higher mental pleasures in favor of lower bodily ones.


Higher and Lower Pleasures

The creed which accepts, as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure. To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in particular, what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure, and to what extent this is left an open question. But these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded—namely, that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.

Now, such a theory of life excites in many minds (and among them in some of the most estimable in feeling and purpose) inveterate dislike. To suppose that life has (as they express it) no higher end than pleasure—no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit—they designate as utterly mean and groveling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine, to whom the followers of Epicurus were, at a very early period, contemptuously likened. And modern holders of the doctrine are occasionally made the subject of equally polite comparisons by its German, French, and English assailants.

            When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light, since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable. If this supposition were true, the charge could not be gainsaid, but would then be no longer an imputation; for, if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same to human beings and to swine, the rule of life which is good enough for the one would be good enough for the other. The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites; and, when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification. I do not indeed consider the Epicureans to have been by any means faultless in drawing out their scheme of consequences from the utilitarian principle. To do this in any sufficient manner, many Stoic as well as Christian elements require to be included. But there is no known Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation. It must be admitted, however, that utilitarian writers in general have placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures chiefly in the greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, etc., of the former—that is, in their circumstantial advantages rather than in their intrinsic nature. And, on all these points, utilitarians have fully proved their case; but they might have taken the other, and, as it may be called, higher ground, with entire consistency. It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that (while in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity) the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.


The Test for Higher Pleasures and the Sense of Dignity

If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another (merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount) there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.

            Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures. No intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme, that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type. But in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.

            We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness. We may attribute it to pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most and to some of the least estimable feelings of which mankind are capable. We may refer it to the love of liberty and personal independence, an appeal to which was with the Stoics one of the most effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power, or to the love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and contribute to it. But its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some (though by no means in exact) proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong, that nothing which conflicts with it could be, otherwise than momentarily, an object of desire to them. Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness—that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior—confounds the two very different ideas of happiness and content. It is indisputable, that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied. And a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied, than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.


Why People Reject Higher Pleasures

It may be objected that many who are capable of the higher pleasures, occasionally (under the influence of temptation) postpone them to the lower. But this is quite compatible with a full appreciation of the intrinsic superiority of the higher. Men often, from infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be the less valuable, and this no less when the choice is between two bodily pleasures than when it is between bodily and mental. They pursue sensual indulgences to the injury of health, though perfectly aware that health is the greater good. It may be further objected, that many who begin with youthful enthusiasm for everything noble, as they advance in years sink into indolence and selfishness. But I do not believe that those who undergo this very common change voluntarily choose the lower description of pleasures in preference to the higher. I believe that before they devote themselves exclusively to the one, they have already become incapable of the other. Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and, in the majority of young persons, it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access, or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying. It may be questioned, whether any one, who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures, ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower; though many in all ages have broken down in an ineffectual attempt to combine both. . . .




Introduction: The following selection by Irish economist Thomas Edward Cliffe Leslie (1825-1882) discusses objections to Mill’s version of utilitarianism. Leslie first maintains that the common objections to utilitarianism fail, and he shows how utilitarians might respond to various counter-examples. Second, however, he argues that utilitarianism ultimately fails because it cannot successfully function as a one-size-fits all formula for determining moral value. Rather, increasing happiness or usefulness is only one of many things that are valuable. Moral progress, he maintains, is one of our most cherished values, and is even more valuable to us than utilitarian happiness.


Failure of Common Objections to Utilitarianism

The common objections to the doctrine [of Utilitarianism] must, in fairness, be admitted to be weak.

            For example: when [French philosopher] M. Victor Cousin says that the ideas of justice and expediency [i.e., benefit]—if they often go together—are sometimes opposed, he instances the answer of Aristides to the proposal of Themistocles, to burn the ships of the allies in the port of Athens to secure supremacy to the Athenian State.  “The project would be expedient [i.e., beneficial for Athens],” said Aristides; “but it is unjust.” The Utilitarian denies that it would have been expedient, even for the interests of the Athenians themselves, [since it would serve] to establish a precedent for treachery toward confiding neighbors and friends, and to make the citizen of Athens, wheresoever he went, the object of suspicion, retaliation, and cunning and cruel surprises.

            Or, again, when it is argued that a piece of furniture, or any other inanimate object, may be useful, yet that no one ascribes to it moral rectitude or virtue, and that it follows, that intention and not utility is the criterion of morality, the Utilitarian fairly replies that things without feeling are not fit objects, however useful, for gratitude or indignation, for reward or punishment, because they cannot feel either, and neither is therefore expedient; because such things tend to do harm as well as good, to hurt or inconvenience as well as to do service; and because no praise or censure bestowed upon senseless matter tends to make the class to which it belongs contribute to the happiness of life. In the Utilitarian estimate intention is of great importance, because of its consequences or tendencies.

            The Utilitarian blames a small act of malignity [i.e., cruelty], not in proportion only to the actual pain it causes, but to the general mischiefs to which malignity tends. He does not, on the other hand, blame a person who sets fire to a house by reading in bed, as he does an incendiary [i.e., an arsonist]; because the general tendency of midnight study is wholly different from that of vindictiveness and treachery; and because, again, the reader in bed is not so likely to burn the house by accident as the person who tries to do so of malice intent. Yet the former is blamed according to the doctrine of utility, and blamed just in proportion to the probability that his negligence will do harm: if he reads by a perfectly safe light, he is not blamed at all.

            Or take a higher example. “At the cavalry combat at El Bodon, a French officer raised his sword to strike Sir Felton Harvey, of the 14th Light Dragoons; but, perceiving that his antagonist had only one arm, he stopped, brought down his sword before Sir Felton in the usual salute, and rode on.” Was this proceeding right or wrong? The first duty of a citizen is to his country, and of an officer to his army. War, too, is not a duel, and the combat ants do not measure their swords. Sir Felton Harvey had not lost his head, and the head of an officer is more dangerous to an enemy in battle than his arm. The Frenchman, therefore, ought, it seems, to have cut him down. Yet the Utilitarian would admit that the magnanimous [i.e., generous] intention alters the character of the act, because it is of supreme importance to human happiness that a spirit should exist among the strong to spare the weak, and that even enemies should show mercy and courtesy to each other.

            Take yet another case. It has been argued that the negroes in America are happier as slaves than as free laborers, and, therefore, upon Utilitarian principles, slavery is not a crime. [Let’s set aside the obvious fact] . . . that a view of slavery which looks only at the slave at play instead of at work (that is, in his moments of liberty, so far as it goes), supplies evidence only [i.e., entirely] in favor of liberty. . . .  [Nevertheless, a] just Utilitarian estimate of slavery includes not only the consequences of oppression and debasement to the slave, but also the consequences to his master of the possession of tyrannical power and ill-gotten gain, and the consequences to the world at large of an empire being founded on the principle that the strong may lawfully trample on the weak.


Moral Progress more Valuable than Utility

Every step in the progress of civilization has by no means been attended by an increase of human happiness; yet the step was a thing desirable in itself, irrespective of ultimate ends. . . . If the good man would not choose the lower and more animal life, however pleasant, either for himself or for mankind, does it not seem that the summum bonum [i.e., highest moral good] and the aim and end of virtue is what disciplines and ennobles humanity, and elevates it more and more above the condition of the brute, rather than what may serve to annihilate most pains and provide most pleasures? Is not the progressive improvement of living creatures the best purpose the world seems to contain or disclose?

            The chief quality in the character of virtue is, in truth, not usefulness, but excellence, rarity, nobleness. If all men were benevolent, and equally so, benevolence would not be thought of as a virtue. The pecuniary value of things in the market depends, not on their utility, but on their comparative scarcity, difficulty of attainment, and superiority; and so the moral worth of actions and qualities is estimated by their rare and peculiar merit and extraordinary dignity and sublimity, rather than their pleasure-giving effects. What we most admire in man is what sets him above the brute; and what we most' admire and approve in men is ascent above their fellow-men in. intellectual and moral rank; and these sentiments of admiration and esteem supply ample motives to sacrifice pleasure to improvement, and tend to make the standard or criterion of virtue the tendency to elevate and ennoble human nature rather than to promote the happiness of human life. . .

            But different theories of life must, in this world of mystery and doubt, present themselves to different minds, and the just weight to be attached to earthly happiness can be determined by no human measure. It is in itself a good, but not the sole good. And, in truth, it seems that, as on the one hand the moral sense is not a single sentiment, but a plurality of affections, emotions, and ideas, of different complexion in different ages and different men, so there is no sole and universal criterion either of virtuous actions or of human good. We love, approve, admire, respect, and venerate different qualities respectively; and virtue is, in short, not an abstract name of a single attribute, but a noun of multitude, which includes not only the useful and the loveable, but the exalted, the excellent, the noble, and the sublime, and the beautiful to the eye of the soul. All virtue aims, indeed, at human good; but human good seems manifold. It is innocent pleasure and innocent escape from pain, but it is also improvement; it is enjoyment, but it is also discipline, energy, and action. And, if a conflict should arise between the two, if the progressive should become less happy than the stationary state, the virtuous man may be expected to make the choice of Hercules both for himself and for others.

            The great changes which have taken place, however, in the moral sentiments of successive generations of mankind, and in their estimates of the worth of qualities and actions, might in reason warn us from attempting to fix forever the standard and ideal of virtue, or to determine the aims of life for all future generations. It was held in ancient Rome, “that valor is the chiefest virtue,” and humanity would then have been held nearly akin to vice. So it seems not for us to make certain that our present theories of the right and good are not dwarfed by the imperfection of our sentiments and our knowledge. For this reason alone the claims of Utilitarianism to be received as "a comprehensive formula, including all things which are in themselves good," would seem open to question. The moral progress of mankind is in itself a good, which makes the final determination of the summum bonum improbable; and it is too in itself a good which is probably better than happiness.


Source: Thomas Edward Cliffe Leslie, “Utilitarianism and the Summum Bonum” (1863).




1. What is “hedonism,” and what is “hedonistic utilitarianism”?

2. What was Epicurus’s view about pleasure?

3. What are the four key elements of utilitarianism found in Hutcheson’s writings?

4. What are Hume’s two contributions to utilitarianism?

5. What are the seven criteria of Bentham’s utilitarian calculus?

6. What are the five main features of Mill’s utilitarian theory?

7. Explain the difference between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism.

8. How does Mill distinguish between quantitative and qualitative differences in pleasures?

9. What are the rule-utilitarian and act-utilitarian responses to Gisborne’s criticism that we cannot know all of the consequences of our actions?

10. What are the rule-utilitarian and act-utilitarian responses to Bradley’s criticism that utilitarianism conflicts with ordinary moral judgments?

11. What is the utilitarian response to Grote’s criticism that utilitarianism only perpetuates the status quo?

12. What is the utilitarian response to Albee’s criticism that higher pleasures are inconsistent with hedonism?

13. What is the key advantage of hedonistic utilitarianism?

14. What are the main points of ideal utilitarianism and preference utilitarianism?

15. What are the three problems with any bare-bones notion of utilitarianism?

[Reading 1: Mill on Higher Pleasures]

16. According to Mill, how did Epicurus respond to the criticism that his doctrine of pleasure was animalistic, and worthy only of swine?

17. What is Mill’s test for distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures?

18. Why, according to Mill, do people reject higher pleasures?

[Reading 2: Leslie on Utilitarianism]

19. What are Leslie’s responses to the common objections against utilitarianism?

20. What are Leslie’s reasons for holding that moral progress is more valuable than utility or pleasure?

[Question for Analysis]

21. In a minimum of 150 words, pick any one of the following listed views in this chapter and criticize it. Bentham: utilitarian calculus, act utilitarianism; Mill: higher pleasures, rule-utilitarianism; one of the responses to Gisborne, Bradley, Grote, or Albee; Moore’s ideal utilitarianism; Hare’s preference utilitarianism; criticisms of the bare-bones notion of utilitarianism; Mill’s test for higher pleasures; one of the common objections to utilitarianism presented by Leslie; Leslie’s view of human progress.


Act and Rule Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is one of the best known and most influential moral theories. Like other forms of consequentialism, its core idea is that whether actions are morally right or wrong depends on their effects. More specifically, the only effects of actions that are relevant are the good and bad results that they produce. A key point in this article concerns the distinction between individual actions and types of actions. Act utilitarians focus on the effects of individual actions (such as John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln) while rule utilitarians focus on the effects of types of actions (such as killing or stealing).

Utilitarians believe that the purpose of morality is to make life better by increasing the amount of good things (such as pleasure and happiness) in the world and decreasing the amount of bad things (such as pain and unhappiness). They reject moral codes or systems that consist of commands or taboos that are based on customs, traditions, or orders given by leaders or supernatural beings. Instead, utilitarians think that what makes a morality be true or justifiable is its positive contribution to human (and perhaps non-human) beings.

The most important classical utilitarians are Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Bentham and Mill were both important theorists and social reformers. Their theory has had a major impact both on philosophical work in moral theory and on approaches to economic, political, and social policy. Although utilitarianism has always had many critics,  there are many 21st century thinkers that support it.

The task of determining whether utilitarianism is the correct moral theory is complicated because there are different versions of the theory, and its supporters disagree about which version is correct. This article focuses on perhaps the most important dividing line among utilitarians, the clash between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. After a brief overall explanation of utilitarianism, the article explains both act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism, the main differences between them, and some of the key arguments for and against each view.

Table of Contents

  1. Utilitarianism: Overall View
    1. What is Good?
    2. Whose Well-being?
      1. Individual Self-interest
      2. Groups
      3. Everyone Affected
    3. Actual Consequences or Foreseeable Consequences?
  2. How Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism Differ
  3. Act Utilitarianism: Pros and Cons
    1. Arguments for Act Utilitarianism
      1. Why Act utilitarianism Maximizes Utility
      2. Why Act Utilitarianism is Better than Traditional, Rule-based Moralities
      3. Why Act Utilitarianism Makes Moral Judgments Objectively True
    2. Arguments against Act Utilitarianism
      1. The “Wrong Answers” Objection
      2. The “Undermining Trust” Objection
      3. Partiality and the “Too Demanding” Objection
    3. Possible Responses to Criticisms of Act Utilitarianism
  4. Rule Utilitarianism: Pros and Cons
    1. Arguments for Rule Utilitarianism
      1. Why Rule Utilitarianism Maximizes Utility
      2. Rule Utilitarianism Avoids the Criticisms of Act Utilitarianism
        1. Judges, Doctors, and Promise-makers
        2. Maintaining vs. Undermining Trust
        3. Impartiality and the Problem of Over-Demandingness
    2. Arguments against Rule Utilitarianism
      1. The “Rule Worship” Objection
      2. The “Collapses into Act Utilitarianism” Objection
      3. Wrong Answers and Crude Concepts
  5. Conclusion
  6. References and Further Reading
    1. Classic Works
    2. More Recent Utilitarians
    3. Overviews
    4. J. S. Mill and Utilitarian Moral Theory
    5. Critics of Utilitarianism
    6. Collections of Essays

1. Utilitarianism: Overall View

Utilitarianism is a philosophical view or theory about how we should evaluate a wide range of things that involve choices that people face. Among the things that can be evaluated are actions, laws, policies, character traits, and moral codes. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism because it rests on the idea that it is the consequences or results of actions, laws, policies, etc. that determine whether they are good or bad, right or wrong. In general, whatever is being evaluated, we ought to choose the one that will produce the best overall results. In the language of utilitarians, we should choose the option that “maximizes utility,” i.e. that action or policy that produces the largest amount of good.

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).

a. What is Good?

Jeremy Bentham answered this question by adopting the view called hedonism. According to hedonism, the only thing that is good in itself is pleasure (or happiness). Hedonists do not deny that many different kinds of things can be good, including food, friends, freedom, and many other things, but hedonists see these as “instrumental” goods that are valuable only because they play a causal role in producing pleasure or happiness. Pleasure and happiness, however, are “intrinsic” goods, meaning that they are good in themselves and not because they produce some further valuable thing. Likewise, on the negative side, a lack of food, friends, or freedom is instrumentally bad because it produces pain, suffering, and unhappiness; but pain, suffering and unhappiness are intrinsically bad, i.e. bad in themselves and not because they produce some further bad thing.

Many thinkers have rejected hedonism because pleasure and pain are sensations that we feel, claiming that many important goods are not types of feelings. Being healthy or honest or having knowledge, for example, are thought by some people to be intrinsic goods that are not types of feelings. (People who think there are many such goods are called pluralists or“objective list” theorists.) Other thinkers see desires or preferences as the basis of value; whatever a person desires is valuable to that person. If desires conflict, then the things most strongly preferred are identified as good.

In this article, the term “well-being” will generally be used to identify what utilitarians see as good or valuable in itself. All utilitarians agree that things are valuable because they tend to produce well-being or diminish ill-being, but this idea is understood differently by hedonists, objective list theorists, and preference/desire theorists. This debate will not be further discussed in this article.

b. Whose Well-being?

Utilitarian reasoning can be used for many different purposes. It can be used both for moral reasoning and for any type of rational decision-making. In addition to applying in different contexts, it can also be used for deliberations about the interests of different persons and groups.

i. Individual Self-interest

(See egoism.) When individuals are deciding what to do for themselves alone, they consider only their own utility. For example, if you are choosing ice cream for yourself, the utilitarian view is that you should choose the flavor that will give you the most pleasure. If you enjoy chocolate but hate vanilla, you should choose chocolate for the pleasure it will bring and avoid vanilla because it will bring displeasure. In addition, if you enjoy both chocolate and strawberry, you should predict which flavor will bring you more pleasure and choose whichever one will do that.

In this case, because utilitarian reasoning is being applied to a decision about which action is best for an individual person, it focuses only on how the various possible choices will affect this single person’s interest and does not consider the interests of other people.

ii. Groups

People often need to judge what is best not only for themselves or other individuals but alsowhat is best for groups, such as friends, families, religious groups, one’s country, etc. Because Bentham and other utilitarians were interested in political groups and public policies, they often focused on discovering which actions and policies would maximize the well-being of the relevant group. Their method for determining the well-being of a group involved adding up the benefits and losses that members of the group would experience as a result of adopting one action or policy. The well-being of the group is simply the sum total of the interests of the all of its members.

To illustrate this method, suppose that you are buying ice cream for a party that ten people will attend. Your only flavor options are chocolate and vanilla, and some of the people attending like chocolate while others like vanilla. As a utilitarian, you should choose the flavor that will result in the most pleasure for the group as a whole. If seven like chocolate and three like vanilla and if all of them get the same amount of pleasure from the flavor they like, then you should choose chocolate. This will yield what Bentham, in a famous phrase, called “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

An important point in this case is that you should choose chocolate even if you are one of the three people who enjoy vanilla more than chocolate. The utilitarian method requires you to count everyone’s interests equally. You may not weigh some people’s interests—including your own—more heavily than others. Similarly, if a government is choosing a policy, it should give equal consideration to the well-being of all members of the society.

iii. Everyone Affected

While there are circumstances in which the utilitarian analysis focuses on the interests of specific individuals or groups, the utilitarian moral theory requires that moral judgments be based on what Peter Singer calls the “equal consideration of interests.” Utilitarianism moral theory then, includes the important idea that when we calculate the utility of actions, laws, or policies, we must do so from an impartial perspective and not from a “partialist” perspective that favors ourselves, our friends, or others we especially care about. Bentham is often cited as the source of a famous utilitarian axiom: “every man to count for one, nobody for more than one.”

If this impartial perspective is seen as necessary for a utilitarian morality, then both self-interest and partiality to specific groups will be rejected as deviations from utilitarian morality. For example, so-called “ethical egoism,” which says that morality requires people to promote their own interest, would be rejected either as a false morality or as not a morality at all. While a utilitarian method for determining what people’s interests are may show that it is rational for people to maximize their own well-being or the well-being of groups that they favor, utilitarian morality would reject this as a criterion for determining what is morally right or wrong.

c. Actual Consequences or Foreseeable Consequences?

Utilitarians disagree about whether judgments of right and wrong should be based on the actual consequences of actions or their foreseeable consequences. This issue arises when the actual effects of actions differ from what we expected. J. J. C. Smart (49) explains this difference by imagining the action of a person who, in 1938,saves someone from drowning. While we generally regard saving a drowning person as the right thing to do and praise people for such actions, in Smart’s imagined example, the person saved from drowning turns out to be Adolf Hitler. Had Hitler drowned, millions of other people might have been saved from suffering and death between 1938 and 1945. If utilitarianism evaluates the rescuer’s action based on its actual consequences, then the rescuer did the wrong thing. If, however, utilitarians judge the rescuer’s action by its foreseeable consequences (i.e. the ones the rescuer could reasonably predict), then the rescuer—who could not predict the negative effects of saving the person from drowning—did the right thing.

One reason for adopting foreseeable consequence utilitarianism is that it seems unfair to say that the rescuer acted wrongly because the rescuer could not foresee the future bad effects of saving the drowning person. In response, actual consequence utilitarians reply that there is a difference between evaluating an action and evaluating the person who did the action. In their view, while the rescuer’s action was wrong, it would be a mistake to blame or criticize the rescuer because the bad results of his act were unforeseeable. They stress the difference between evaluating actions and evaluating the people who perform them.

Foreseeable consequence utilitarians accept the distinction between evaluating actions and evaluating the people who carry them out, but they see no reason to make the moral rightness or wrongness of actions depend on facts that might be unknowable. For them, what is right or wrong for a person to do depends on what is knowable by a person at a time. For this reason, they claim that the person who rescued Hitler did the right thing, even though the actual consequences were unfortunate.

Another way to describe the actual vs. foreseeable consequence dispute is to contrast two thoughts. One (the actual consequence view) says that to act rightly is to do whatever produces the best consequences. The second view says that a person acts rightly by doing the action that has the highest level of “expected utility.” The expected utility is a combination of the good (or bad) effects that one predicts will result from an action and the probability of those effects occurring. In the case of the rescuer, the expected positive utility is high because the probability that saving a drowning person will lead to the deaths of millions of other people is extremely low, and thus can be ignored in deliberations about whether to save the drowning person.

What this shows is that actual consequence and foreseeable consequence utilitarians have different views about the nature of utilitarian theory. Foreseeable consequence utilitarians understand the theory as a decision-making procedure while actual consequence utilitarians understand it as a criterion of right and wrong. Foreseeable consequence utilitarians claim that the action with the highest expected utility is both the best thing to do based on current evidence and the right action. Actual consequence utilitarians might agree that the option with the highest expected utility is the best thing to do but they claim that it could still turn out to be the wrong action. This would occur if unforeseen bad consequences reveal that the option chosen did not have the best results and thus was the wrong thing to do.

2. How Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism Differ

Both act utilitarians and rule utilitarians agree that our overall aim in evaluating actions should be to create the best results possible, but they differ about how to do that.

Act utilitarians believe that whenever we are deciding what to do, we should perform the action that will create the greatest net utility. In their view, the principle of utility—do whatever will produce the best overall results—should be applied on a case by case basis. The right action in any situation is the one that yields more utility (i.e. creates more well-being) than other available actions.

Rule utilitarians adopt a two part view that stresses the importance of moral rules. According to rule utilitarians, a) a specific action is morally justified if it conforms to a justified moral rule; and b) a moral rule is justified if its inclusion into our moral code would create more utility than other possible rules (or no rule at all). According to this perspective, we should judge the morality of individual actions by reference to general moral rules, and we should judge particular moral rules by seeing whether their acceptance into our moral code would produce more well-being than other possible rules.

The key difference between act and rule utilitarianism is that act utilitarians apply the utilitarian principle directly to the evaluation of individual actions while rule utilitarians apply the utilitarian principle directly to the evaluation of rules and then evaluate individual actions by seeing if they obey or disobey those rules whose acceptance will produce the most utility.

The contrast between act and rule utilitarianism, though previously noted by some philosophers, was not sharply drawn until the late 1950s when Richard Brandt introduced this terminology. (Other terms that have been used to make this contrast are “direct” and “extreme” for act utilitarianism, and “indirect” and “restricted” for rule utilitarianism.) Because the contrast had not been sharply drawn, earlier utilitarians like Bentham and Mill sometimes apply the principle of utility to actions and sometimes apply it to the choice of rules for evaluating actions. This has led to scholarly debates about whether the classical utilitarians supported act utilitarians or rule utilitarians or some combination of these views. One indication that Mill accepted rule utilitarianism is his claim that direct appeal to the principle of utility is made only when “secondary principles” (i.e. rules) conflict with one another. In such cases, the “maximize utility” principle is used to resolve the conflict and determine the right action to take. [Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 2]

3. Act Utilitarianism: Pros and Cons

Act utilitarianism is often seen as the most natural interpretation of the utilitarian ideal. If our aim is always to produce the best results, it seems plausible to think that in each case of deciding what is the right thing to do, we should consider the available options (i.e. what actions could be performed), predict their outcomes, and approve of the action that will produce the most good.

a. Arguments for Act Utilitarianism

i. Why Act utilitarianism Maximizes Utility

If every action that we carry out yields more utility than any other action available to us, then the total utility of all our actions will be the highest possible level of utility that we could bring about. In other words, we can maximize the overall utility that is within our power to bring about by maximizing the utility of each individual action that we perform. If we sometimes choose actions that produce less utility than is possible, the total utility of our actions will be less than the amount of goodness that we could have produced. For that reason, act utilitarians argue, we should apply the utilitarian principle to individual acts and not to classes of similar actions.

ii. Why Act Utilitarianism is Better than Traditional, Rule-based Moralities

Traditional moral codes often consist of sets of rules regarding types of actions. The Ten Commandments, for example, focus on types of actions, telling us not to kill, steal, bear false witness, commit adultery, or covet the things that belong to others. Although the Biblical sources permit exceptions to these rules (such as killing in self-defense and punishing people for their sins), the form of the commandments is absolute. They tell us “thou shalt not do x” rather than saying “thou shalt not do x except in circumstances a, b, or c.”

In fact, both customary and philosophical moral codes often seem to consist of absolute rules. The philosopher Immanuel Kant is famous for the view that lying is always wrong, even in cases where one might save a life by lying. According to Kant, if A is trying to murder B and A asks you where B is, it would be wrong for you to lie to A, even if lying would save B’s life (Kant).

Act utilitarians reject rigid rule-based moralities that identify whole classes of actions as right or wrong. They argue that it is a mistake to treat whole classes of actions as right or wrong because the effects of actions differ when they are done in different contexts and morality must focus on the likely effects of individual actions. It is these effects that determine whether they are right or wrong in specific cases. Act utilitarians acknowledge that it may be useful to have moral rules that are “rules of thumb”—i.e., rules that describe what is generally right or wrong, but they insist that whenever people can do more good by violating a rule rather than obeying it, they should violate the rule. They see no reason to obey a rule when more well-being can be achieved by violating it.

iii. Why Act Utilitarianism Makes Moral Judgments Objectively True

One advantage of act utilitarianism is that it shows how moral questions can have objectively true answers. Often, people believe that morality is subjective and depends only on people’s desires or sincere beliefs. Act utilitarianism, however, provides a method for showing which moral beliefs are true and which are false.

Once we embrace the act utilitarian perspective, then every decision about how we should act will depend on the actual or foreseeable consequences of the available options. If we can predict the amount of utility/good results that will be produced by various possible actions, then we can know which ones are right or wrong.

Although some people doubt that we can measure amounts of well-being, we in fact do this all the time. If two people are suffering and we have enough medication for only one, we can often tell that one person is experiencing mild discomfort while the other is in severe pain. Based on this judgment, we will be confident that we can do more good by giving the medication to the person suffering extreme pain. Although this case is very simple, it shows that we can have objectively true answers to questions about what actions are morally right or wrong.

Jeremy Bentham provided a model for this type of decision making in his description of a “hedonic calculus,” which was meant to show what factors should be used to determine amounts of pleasure and happiness, pain and suffering. Using this information, Bentham thought, would allow for making correct judgments both in individual cases and in choices about government actions and policies.

b. Arguments against Act Utilitarianism

i. The “Wrong Answers” Objection

The most common argument against act utilitarianism is that it gives the wrong answers to moral questions. Critics say that it permits various actions that everyone knows are morally wrong. The following cases are among the commonly cited examples:

  • If a judge can prevent riots that will cause many deaths only by convicting an innocent person of a crime and imposing a severe punishment on that person, act utilitarianism implies that the judge should convict and punish the innocent person. (See Rawls and also Punishment.)
  • If a doctor can save five people from death by killing one healthy person and using that person’s organs for life-saving transplants, then act utilitarianism implies that the doctor should kill the one person to save five.
  • If a person makes a promise but breaking the promise will allow that person to perform an action that creates just slightly more well-being than keeping the promise will, then act utilitarianism implies that the promise should be broken. (See Ross)

The general form of each of these arguments is the same. In each case, act utilitarianism implies that a certain act is morally permissible or required. Yet, each of the judgments that flow from act utilitarianism conflicts with widespread, deeply held moral beliefs. Because act utilitarianism approves of actions that most people see as obviously morally wrong, we can know that it is a false moral theory.

ii. The “Undermining Trust” Objection

Although act utilitarians criticize traditional moral rules for being too rigid, critics charge that utilitarians ignore the fact that this alleged rigidity is the basis for trust between people. If, in cases like the ones described above, judges, doctors, and promise-makers are committed to doing whatever maximizes well-being, then no one will be able to trust that judges will act according to the law, that doctors will not use the organs of one patient to benefit others, and that promise-makers will keep their promises. More generally, if everyone believed that morality permitted lying, promise-breaking, cheating, and violating the law whenever doing so led to good results, then no one could trust other people to obey these rules. As a result, in an act utilitarian society, we could not believe what others say, could not rely on them to keep promises, and in general could not count on people to act in accord with important moral rules. As a result, people’s behavior would lack the kind of predictability and consistency that are required to sustain trust and social stability.

iii. Partiality and the “Too Demanding” Objection

Critics also attack utilitarianism’s commitment to impartiality and the equal consideration of interests. An implication of this commitment is that whenever people want to buy something for themselves or for a friend or family member, they must first determine whether they could create more well-being by donating their money to help unknown strangers who are seriously ill or impoverished. If more good can be done by helping strangers than by purchasing things for oneself or people one personally cares about, then act utilitarianism requires us to use the money to help strangers in need. Why? Because act utilitarianism requires impartiality and the equal consideration of all people’s needs and interests.

Almost everyone, however, believes that we have special moral duties to people who are near and dear to us. As a result, most people would reject the notion that morality requires us to treat people we love and care about no differently from people who are perfect strangers as absurd.

This issue is not merely a hypothetical case. In a famous article, Peter Singer defends the view that people living in affluent countries should not purchase luxury items for themselves when the world is full of impoverished people. According to Singer, a person should keep donating money to people in dire need until the donor reaches the point where giving to others generates more harm to the donor than the good that is generated for the recipients.

Critics claim that the argument for using our money to help impoverished strangers rather than benefiting ourselves and people we care about only proves one thing—that act utilitarianism is false. There are two reasons that show why it is false. First, it fails to recognize the moral legitimacy of giving special preferences to ourselves and people that we know and care about. Second, since pretty much everyone is strongly motivated to act on behalf of themselves and people they care about, a morality that forbids this and requires equal consideration of strangers is much too demanding. It asks more than can reasonably be expected of people.

c. Possible Responses to Criticisms of Act Utilitarianism

There are two ways in which act utilitarians can defend their view against these criticisms. First, they can argue that critics misinterpret act utilitarianism and mistakenly claim that it is committed to supporting the wrong answer to various moral questions. This reply agrees that the “wrong answers” are genuinely wrong, but it denies that the “wrong answers” maximize utility. Because they do not maximize utility, these wrong answers would not be supported by act utilitarians and therefore, do nothing to weaken their theory.

Second, act utilitarians can take a different approach by agreeing with the critics that act utilitarianism supports the views that critics label “wrong answers.”  Act utilitarians may reply that all this shows is that the views supported by act utilitarianism conflict with common sense morality. Unless critics can prove that common sense moral beliefs are correct the criticisms have no force. Act utilitarians claim that their theory provides good reasons to reject many ordinary moral claims and to replace them with moral views that are based on the effects of actions.

People who are convinced by the criticisms of act utilitarianism may decide to reject utilitarianism entirely and adopt a different type of moral theory. This judgment, however, would be sound only if act utilitarianism were the only type of utilitarian theory. If there are other versions of utilitarianism that do not have act utilitarianism’s flaws, then one may accept the criticisms of act utilitarianism without forsaking utilitarianism entirely. This is what defenders of rule utilitarianism claim. They argue that rule utilitarianism retains the virtues of a utilitarian moral theory but without the flaws of the act utilitarian version.

4. Rule Utilitarianism: Pros and Cons

Unlike act utilitarians, who try to maximize overall utility by applying the utilitarian principle to individual acts, rule utilitarians believe that we can maximize utility only by setting up a moral code that contains rules. The correct moral rules are those whose inclusion in our moral code will produce better results (more well-being) than other possible rules. Once we determine what these rules are, we can then judge individual actions by seeing if they conform to these rules. The principle of utility, then, is used to evaluate rules and is not applied directly to individual actions. Once the rules are determined, compliance with these rules provides the standard for evaluating individual actions.

a. Arguments for Rule Utilitarianism

i. Why Rule Utilitarianism Maximizes Utility

Rule utilitarianism sounds paradoxical. It says that we can produce more beneficial results by following rules than by always performing individual actions whose results are as beneficial as possible. This suggests that we should not always perform individual actions that maximize utility. How could this be something that a utilitarian would support?

In spite of this paradox, rule utilitarianism possesses its own appeal, and its focus on moral rules can sound quite plausible. The rule utilitarian approach to morality can be illustrated by considering the rules of the road. If we are devising a code for drivers, we can adopt either open-ended rules like “drive safely” or specific rules like “stop at red lights,” "do not travel more than 30 miles per hour in residential areas,” “do not drive when drunk," etc. The rule “drive safely”, like the act utilitarian principle, is a very general rule that leaves it up to individuals to determine what the best way to drive in each circumstance is.  More specific rules that require stopping at lights, forbid going faster than 30 miles per hour, or prohibit driving while drunk do not give drivers the discretion to judge what is best to do. They simply tell drivers what to do or not do while driving.

The reason why a more rigid rule-based system leads to greater overall utility is that people are notoriously bad at judging what is the best thing to do when they are driving a car. Having specific rules maximizes utility by limiting drivers’ discretionary judgments and thereby decreasing the ways in which drivers may endanger themselves and others.

A rule utilitarian can illustrate this by considering the difference between stop signs and yield signs. Stop signs forbid drivers to go through an intersection without stopping, even if the driver sees that there are no cars approaching and thus no danger in not stopping. A yield sign permits drivers to go through without stopping unless they judge that approaching cars make it dangerous to drive through the intersection. The key difference between these signs is the amount of discretion that they give to the driver.

The stop sign is like the rule utilitarian approach. It tells drivers to stop and does not allow them to calculate whether it would be better to stop or not. The yield sign is like act utilitarianism. It permits drivers to decide whether there is a need to stop. Act utilitarians see the stop sign as too rigid because it requires drivers to stop even when nothing bad will be prevented. The result, they say, is a loss of utility each time a driver stops at a stop sign when there is no danger from oncoming cars.

Rule utilitarians will reply that they would reject the stop sign method a) if people could be counted on to drive carefully and b) if traffic accidents only caused limited amounts of harm. But, they say, neither of these is true. Because people often drive too fast and are inattentive while driving (because they are, for example, talking, texting, listening to music, or tired), we cannot count on people to make good utilitarian judgments about how to drive safely. In addition, the costs (i.e. the disutility) of accidents can be very high. Accident victims (including drivers) may be killed, injured, or disabled for life. For these reasons, rule utilitarians support the use of stop signs and other non-discretionary rules under some circumstances. Overall these rules generate greater utility because they prevent more disutility (from accidents) than they create (from “unnecessary” stops).

Rule utilitarians generalize from this type of case and claim that our knowledge of human behavior shows that there are many cases in which general rules or practices are more likely to promote good effects than simply telling people to do whatever they think is best in each individual case.

This does not mean that rule utilitarians always support rigid rules without exceptions. Some rules can identify types of situations in which the prohibition is over-ridden. In emergency medical situations, for example, a driver may justifiably go through a red light or stop sign based on the driver’s own assessment that a) this can be done safely and b) the situation is one in which even a short delay might cause dire harms. So the correct rule need not be “never go through a stop sign” but rather can be something like “never go through a stop sign except in cases that have properties a and b.” In addition, there will remain many things about driving or other behavior that can be left to people’s discretion. The rules of the road do not tell drivers when to drive or what their destination should be for example.

Overall then, rule utilitarian can allow departures from rules and will leave many choices up to individuals. In such cases, people may act in the manner that looks like the approach supported by act utilitarians. Nonetheless, these discretionary actions are permitted because having a rule in these cases does not maximize utility or because the best rule may impose some constraints on how people act while still permitting a lot of discretion in deciding what to do.

ii. Rule Utilitarianism Avoids the Criticisms of Act Utilitarianism

As discussed earlier, critics of act utilitarianism raise three strong objections against it. According to these critics, act utilitarianism a) approves of actions that are clearly wrong; b) undermines trust among people, and c) is too demanding because it requires people to make excessive levels of sacrifice. Rule utilitarians tend to agree with these criticisms of act utilitarianism and try to explain why rule utilitarianism is not open to any of these objections.

1. Judges, Doctors, and Promise-makers

Critics of act utilitarianism claim that it allows judges to sentence innocent people to severe punishments when doing so will maximize utility, allows doctors to kill healthy patients if by doing so, they can use the organs of one person to save more lives, and allows people to break promises if that will create slightly more benefits than keeping the promise.

Rule utilitarians say that they can avoid all these charges because they do not evaluate individual actions separately but instead support rules whose acceptance maximizes utility. To see the difference that their focus on rules makes, consider which rule would maximize utility: a) a rule that allows medical doctors to kill healthy patients so that they can use their organs for transplants that will save a larger number of patients who would die without these organs; or b) a rule that forbids doctors to remove the organs of healthy patients in order to benefit other patients.

Although more good may be done by killing the healthy patient in an individual case, it is unlikely that more overall good will be done by having a rule that allows this practice. If a rule were adopted that allows doctors to kill healthy patients when this will save more lives, the result would be that many people would not go to doctors at all. A rule utilitarian evaluation will take account of the fact that the benefits of medical treatment would be greatly diminished because people would no longer trust doctors. People who seek medical treatment must have a high degree of trust in doctors. If they had to worry that doctors might use their organs to help other patients, they would not, for example, allow doctors to anesthetize them for surgery because the resulting loss of consciousness would make them completely vulnerable and unable to defend themselves. Thus, the rule that allows doctors to kill one patient to save five would not maximize utility.

The same reasoning applies equally to the case of the judge. In order to have a criminal justice system that protects people from being harmed by others, we authorize judges and other officials to impose serious punishments on people who are convicted of crimes. The purpose of this is to provide overall security to people in their jurisdiction, but this requires that criminal justice officials only have the authority to impose arrest and imprisonment on people who are actually believed to be guilty. They do not have the authority to do whatever they think will lead to the best results in particular cases. Whatever they do must be constrained by rules that limit their power. Act utilitarians may sometimes support the intentional punishment of innocent people, but rule utilitarians will understand the risks involved and will oppose a practice that allows it.

Rule utilitarians offer a similar analysis of the promise keeping case. They explain that in general, we want people to keep their promises even in some cases in which doing so may lead to less utility than breaking the promise. The reason for this is that the practice of promise-keeping is a very valuable. It enables people to have a wide range of cooperative relationships by generating confidence that other people will do what they promise to do. If we knew that people would fail to keep promises whenever some option arises that leads to more utility, then we could not trust people who make promises to us to carry them through. We would always have to worry that some better option (one that act utilitarians would favor) might emerge, leading to the breaking of the person’s promise to us.

In each of these cases then, rule utilitarians can agree with the critics of act utilitarianism that it is wrong for doctors, judges, and promise-makers to do case by case evaluations of whether they should harm their patients, convict and punish innocent people, and break promises. The rule utilitarian approach stresses the value of general rules and practices, and shows why compliance with rules often maximizes overall utility even if in some individual cases, it requires doing what produces less utility.

2. Maintaining vs. Undermining Trust

Rule utilitarians see the social impact of a rule-based morality as one of the key virtues of their theory. The three cases just discussed show why act utilitarianism undermines trust but rule utilitarianism does not. Fundamentally, in the cases of doctors, judges, and promise-keepers, it is trust that is at stake. Being able to trust other people is extremely important to our well-being. Part of trusting people involves being able to predict what they will and won’t do. Because act utilitarians are committed to a case by case evaluation method, the adoption of their view would make people’s actions much less predictable. As a result, people would be less likely to see other people as reliable and trustworthy. Rule utilitarianism does not have this problem because it is committed to rules, and these rules generate positive “expectation effects” that give us a basis for knowing how other people are likely to behave.

While rule utilitarians do not deny that there are people who are not trustworthy, they can claim that their moral code generally condemns violations of trust as wrongful acts. The problem with act utilitarians is that they support a moral view that has the effect of undermining trust and that sacrifices the good effects of a moral code that supports and encourages trustworthiness.

3. Impartiality and the Problem of Over-Demandingness

Rule utilitarians believe that their view is also immune to the criticism that act utilitarianism is too demanding. In addition, while the act utilitarian commitment to impartiality undermines the moral relevance of personal relations, rule utilitarians claim that their view is not open to this criticism. They claim that rule utilitarianism allows for partiality toward ourselves and others with whom we share personal relationships. Moreover, they say, rule utilitarianism can recognize justifiable partiality to some people without rejecting the commitment to impartiality that is central to the utilitarian tradition.

How can rule utilitarianism do this? How can it be an impartial moral theory while also allowing partiality in people’s treatment of their friends, family, and others with whom they have a special connection?

In his defense of rule utilitarianism, Brad Hooker distinguishes two different contexts in which partiality and impartiality play a role. One involves the justification of moral rules and the other concerns the application of moral rules. Justifications of moral rules, he claims, must be strictly impartial. When we ask whether a rule should be adopted, it is essential to consider the impact of the rule on all people and to weigh the interests of everyone equally.

The second context concerns the content of the rules and how they are applied in actual cases. Rule utilitarians argue that a rule utilitarian moral code will allow partiality to play a role in determining what morality requires, forbids, or allows us to do. As an example, consider a moral rule parents have a special duty to care for their own children. (See Parental Rights and Obligations.) This is a partialist rule because it not only allows but actually requires parents to devote more time, energy, and other resources to their own children than to others. While it does not forbid devoting resources to other people’s children, it allows people to give to their own. While the content of this rule is not impartial, rule utilitarians believe it can be impartially justified. Partiality toward children can be justified for several reasons. Caring for children is a demanding activity. Children need the special attention of adults to develop physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Because children’s needs vary, knowledge of particular children’s needs is necessary to benefit them. For these reasons, it is plausible to believe that children’s well-being can best be promoted by a division of labor that requires particular parents (or other caretakers) to focus primarily on caring for specific children rather than trying to take care of all children. It is not possible for absentee parents or strangers to provide individual children with all that they need. Therefore, we can maximize the overall well-being of children as a class by designating certain people as the caretakers for specific children. For these reasons, partiality toward specific children can be impartially justified.

Similar “division of labor” arguments can be used to provide impartial justifications of other partialist rules and practices. Teachers, for example have special duties to students in their own classes and have no duty to educate all students. Similarly, public officials can and should be partial to people in the jurisdiction in which they work. If the overall aim is to maximize the well-being of all people in all cities, for example, then we are likely to get better results by having individuals who know and understand particular cities focus on them while other people focus on other cities.

Based on examples like these, rule utilitarians claim that their view, unlike act utilitarianism, avoids the problems raised about demandingness and partiality. Being committed to impartialist justifications of moral rules does not commit them to rejecting moral rules that allow or require people to give specific others priority.

While rule utilitarians can defend partiality, their commitment to maximizing overall utility also allows them to justify limits on the degree of partiality that is morally permissible. At a minimum, rule utilitarians will support a rule that forbids parents to harm other people’s children in order to advance the interests of their own children. (It would be wrong, for example, for a parent to injure children who are running in a school race in order to increase the chances that their own children will win.) Moreover, though this is more controversial, rule utilitarians may support a rule that says that if parents are financially well-off and if their own children’s needs are fully met, these parents may have a moral duty to contribute some resources for children who are deprived of essential resources.

The key point is that while rule utilitarianism permits partiality toward some people, it can also generate rules that limit the ways in which people may act partially and it might even support a positive duty for well off people to provide assistance to strangers when the needs and interests of people to whom we are partial are fully met, when they have surplus resources that could be used to assist strangers in dire conditions, and when there are ways to channel these resources effectively to people in dire need.

b. Arguments against Rule Utilitarianism

i. The “Rule Worship” Objection

Act utilitarians criticize rule utilitarians for irrationally supporting rule-based actions in cases where more good could be done by violating the rule than obeying it. They see this as a form of “rule worship,” an irrational deference to rules that has no utilitarian justification (J. J. C. Smart).

Act utilitarians say that they recognize that rules can have value. For example, rules can provide a basis for acting when there is no time to deliberate. In addition, rules can define a default position, a justification for doing (or refraining from) a type of action as long as there is no reason for not doing it. But when people know that more good can be done by violating the rule then the default position should be over-ridden.

ii. The “Collapses into Act Utilitarianism” Objection

While the “rule worship” objection assumes that rule utilitarianism is different from act utilitarianism, some critics deny that this is the case. In their view, whatever defects act utilitarianism may have, rule utilitarianism will have the same defects. According to this criticism, although rule utilitarianism looks different from act utilitarianism, a careful examination shows that it collapses into or, as David Lyons claimed, is extensionally equivalent to act utilitarianism.

To understand this criticism, it is worth focusing on a distinction between rule utilitarianism and other non-utilitarian theories. Consider Kant’s claim that lying is always morally wrong, even when lying would save a person’s life. Many people see this view as too rigid and claim that it fails to take into account the circumstances in which a lie is being told. A more plausible rule would say “do not lie except in special circumstances that justify lying.” But what are these special circumstances? For a utilitarian, it is natural to say that the correct rule is “do not lie except when lying will generate more good than telling the truth.”

Suppose that a rule utilitarian adopts this approach and advocates a moral code that consists of a list of rules of this form. The rules would say something like “do x except when not doing x maximizes utility” and “do not do x except when doing x maximizes utility.” While this may sound plausible, it is easy to see that this version of rule utilitarianism is in fact identical with act utilitarianism. Whatever action x is, the moral requirement and the moral prohibition expressed in these rules collapses into the act utilitarian rules “do x only when not doing x maximizes utility” or “do not do x except when doing x maximizes utility.” These rules say exactly the same thing as the open-ended act utilitarian rule “Do whatever action maximizes utility.”

If rule utilitarianism is to be distinct from act utilitarianism, its supporters must find a way to formulate rules that allow exceptions to a general requirement or prohibition while not collapsing into act utilitarianism. One way to do this is to identify specific conditions under which violating a general moral requirement would be justified. Instead of saying that we can violate a general rule whenever doing so will maximize utility, the rule utilitarian code might say things like “Do not lie except to prevent severe harms to people who are not unjustifiably threatening others with severe harm.” This type of rule would prohibit lying generally, but it would permit lying to a murderer to prevent harm to the intended victims even if the lie would lead to harm to the murderer. In cases of lesser harms or deceitful acts that will benefit the liar, lying would still be prohibited, even if lying might maximize overall utility.

Rule utilitarians claim that this sort of rule is not open to the “collapses into act utilitarianism” objection. It also suggests, however, that rule utilitarians face difficult challenges in formulating utility-based rules that have a reasonable degree of flexibility built into them but are not so flexible that they collapse into act utilitarianism. In addition, although the rules that make up a moral code should be flexible enough to account for the complexities of life, they cannot be so complex that they are too difficult for people to learn and understand.

iii. Wrong Answers and Crude Concepts

Although rule utilitarians try to avoid the weaknesses attributed to act utilitarianism, critics argue that they cannot avoid these weaknesses because they do not take seriously many of our central moral concepts. As a result, they cannot support the right answers to crucial moral problems. Three prominent concepts in moral thought that critics cite are justice, rights, and desert. These moral ideas are often invoked in reasoning about morality, but critics claim that neither rule nor act utilitarianism acknowledge their importance. Instead, they focus only on the amounts of utility that actions or rules generate.

In considering the case, for example, of punishing innocent people, the best that rule utilitarians can do is to say that a rule that permits this would lead to worse results overall than a rule that permitted it. This prediction, however, is precarious. While it may be true, it may also be false, and if it is false, then utilitarians must acknowledge that intentionally punishing an innocent person could sometimes be morally justified.

Against this, critics may appeal to common sense morality to support the view that there are no circumstances in which punishing the innocent can be justified because the innocent person is a) being treated unjustly, b) has a right not to be punished for something that he or she is not guilty of, and c) does not deserve to be punished for a crime that he or she did not commit.

In responding, rule utilitarians may begin, first, with the view that they do not reject concepts like justice, rights, and desert. Instead, they accept and use these concepts but interpret them from the perspective of maximizing utility. To speak of justice, rights, and desert is to speak of rules of individual treatment that are very important, and what makes them important is their contribution to promoting overall well-being. Moreover, even people who accept these concepts as basic still need to determine whether it is always wrong to treat someone unjustly, violate their rights, or treat them in ways that they don’t deserve.

Critics object to utilitarianism by claiming that the theory justifies treating people unjustly, violating their rights, etc. This criticism only stands up if it is always wrong and thus never morally justified to treat people in these ways.  Utilitarians  argue that moral common sense is less absolutist than their critics acknowledge. In the case of punishment, for example, while we hope that our system of criminal justice gives people fair trials and conscientiously attempts to separate the innocent from the guilty, we know that the system is not perfect. As a result, people who are innocent are sometimes prosecuted, convicted, and punished for crimes they did not do.

This is the problem of wrongful convictions, which poses a difficult challenge to critics of utilitarianism. If we know that our system of criminal justice punishes some people unjustly and in ways they don’t deserve, we are faced with a dilemma. Either we can shut down the system and punish no one, or we can maintain the system even though we know that it will result in some innocent people being unjustly punished in ways that they do not deserve. Most people will support continuing to punish people in spite of the fact that it involves punishing some people unjustly. According to rule utilitarians, this can only be justified if a rule that permits punishments (after a fair trial, etc.) yields more overall utility than a rule that rejects punishment because it treats some people unfairly. To end the practice of punishment entirely—because it inevitably causes some injustice—is likely to result in worse consequences because it deprives society of a central means of protecting people’s well-being, including what are regarded as their rights. In the end, utilitarians say, it is justice and rights that give way when rules that approve of violations in some cases yield the greatest amount of utility.

5. Conclusion

The debate between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism highlights many important issues about how we should make moral judgments. Act utilitarianism stresses the specific context and the many individual features of the situations that pose moral problems, and it presents a single method for dealing with these individual cases. Rule utilitarianism stresses the recurrent features of human life and the ways in which similar needs and problems arise over and over again. From this perspective, we need rules that deal with types or classes of actions: killing, stealing, lying, cheating, taking care of our friends or family, punishing people for crimes, aiding people in need, etc. Both of these perspectives, however, agree that the main determinant of what is right or wrong is the relationship between what we do or what form our moral code takes and what is the impact of our moral perspective on the level of people’s well-being.

6. References and Further Reading

a. Classic Works

  • Jeremy Bentham.  An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, available in many editions, 1789.
    • See Book I, chapter 1 for Bentham’s statement of what utilitarianism is; chapter IV for his method of measuring amounts of pleasure/utility; chapter V for his list of types of pleasures and pains, and chapter XIII for his application of utilitarianism to questions about criminal punishment.
  • John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism, available in many editions and online, 1861.
    • See especially chapter II, in which Mill tries both to clarify and defend utilitarianism. Passages at the end of chapter suggest that Mill was a rule utilitarian. In chapter V, Mill tries to show that utilitarianism is compatible with justice.
  • Henry Sidgwick. The Methods of Ethics, Seventh Edition, available in many editions, 1907.
    • Sidgwick is known for his careful, extended analysis of utilitarian moral theory and competing views.
  • G. E. Moore. Principia Ethica, 1903.
    • Moore criticizes aspects of Mill’s views but support a non-hedonistic form of utilitarianism.
  • G. E. Moore. Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912.
    • Mostly focused on utilitarianism, this book contains a combination of act and rule utilitarian ideas.

b. More Recent Utilitarians

  • J. J. C. Smart. “An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics” in J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge University Press, 1973.
    • Smart’s discussion combines an overview of moral theory and a defense of act utilitarianism. It is followed by Bernard Williams’, “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” a source of many important criticisms of utilitarianism.
  • Richard Brandt. Ethical Theory. Prentice Hall, 1959. Chapter 15.
    • Brandt, who coined the terms “act” and “rule” utilitarianism, explains and criticizes act utilitarianism and tentatively proposes a version of rule utilitarianism.
  • Richard Brandt. Morality, Utilitarianism, and Rights. Cambridge University Press, 1992.
    • Brandt developed and defended rule utilitarianism in many papers. This book contains several of them as well as works in which he applies rule utilitarian thinking to issues like rights and the ethics of war.
  • R. M. Hare. Moral Thinking. Oxford University Press, 1981.
    • An interesting development of a form of rule utilitarianism by an influential moral theorist.
  • John C. Harsanyi. “Morality and the Theory of Rational Behavior.” in Social Research 44.4 (1977): 623-656. (Reprinted in Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams, eds., Utilitarianism and Beyond, Cambridge University Press, 1982).
    • Harsanyi, a Nobel Prize economist, defends rule utilitarianism, connecting it to a preference theory of value and a theory of rational action.
  • John Rawls. “Two Concepts of Rules.” In Philosophical Review LXIV (1955), 3-32.
    • Before becoming an influential critic of utilitarianism, Rawls wrote this defense of rule utilitarianism.
  • Brad Hooker.  Ideal Code, Real World: A Rule-consequentialist Theory of Morality. Oxford University Press, 2000.
    • In this 21st century defense of rule utilitarianism, Hooker places it in the context of more recent developments in philosophy.
  • Peter Singer. Writings on an Ethical Life. HarperCollins, 2000.
    • Singer, a prolific, widely read thinker, mostly applies a utilitarian perspective to controversial moral issues (for example, euthanasia, the treatment of non-human animals, and global poverty) rather than discussing utilitarian moral theory. This volume contains selections from his books and articles.
  • Peter Singer. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” in Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1972), 229-43. Reprinted in Peter Singer. Writings on an Ethical Life. Harper Collins, 2000.
    • This widely reprinted article, though it does not focus on utilitarianism, uses utilitarian reasoning and has sparked decades of debate about moral demandingness and moral impartiality.
  • Robert Goodin. Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
    • In a series of essays, Goodin argues that utilitarianism is the best philosophy for public decision-making even if it fails as an ethic for personal aspects of life.
  • Derek Parfit.  On What Matters. Oxford University Press, 1991.
    • In a long, complex work, Parfit stresses the importance of Henry Sidgwick as a moral philosopher and argues that rule utilitarianism and Kantian deontology can be understood in a way that makes them compatible with one another.

c. Overviews

  • Tim Mulgan. Understanding Utilitarianism. Acumen, 2007.
    • This is a very clear description of utilitarianism, including explanations of arguments both for and against. Chapter 2 discusses Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick while chapter 6 focuses on act and rule utilitarianism.
  • Julia Driver, “The History of Utilitarianism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
    • This article gives a good historical account of important figures in the development of utilitarianism.
  • Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “Consequentialism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
    • This very useful overview is relevant to utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism.
  • William Shaw. Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism. Blackwell, 1999.
    • Shaw provides a clear, comprehensive discussion of utilitarianism and its critics as well as defending utilitarianism.
  • John Troyer. The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill. Hackett, 2003.
    • Troyer’s introduction to this book of selections from Mill and Bentham is clear and informative.
  • Ben Eggleston and Dale Miller, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Utilitarianism. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
    • This collection contains sixteen essays on utilitarianism, including essays on historical figures as well as  discussion of 21st century issues, including both act and rule utilitarianism.

d. J. S. Mill and Utilitarian Moral Theory

  • J. O. Urmson. “The Interpretation of the Moral Philosophy of J. S. Mill,” in Philosophical Quarterly (1953) 3, 33-9.
    • This article generated renewed interest in both Mill’s moral theory and rule utilitarianism.
  • Roger Crisp. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism. Routledge, 1997.
  • A clear discussion of Mill’s Utilitarianism with chapters on key topics as well as on Mill’s On Liberty and The Subjection of Women.
  • Henry. R. West, ed. The Blackwell Guide to Mill’s Utilitarianism. Blackwell, 2006.
    • This contains the complete text of Mill’s Utilitarianism   preceded by three essays on the background to Mill’s utilitarianism and followed by five interpretative essays and four focusing on contemporary issues.
  • Henry R. West. An Introduction to Mill’s Utilitarian Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
    • A clear discussion of Mill; Chapter 4 argues that Mill is neither an act nor a rule utilitarian. Chapter 6 focuses on utilitarianism and justice.
  • Dale Miller. J. S. Mill. Polity Press, 2010.
    • Miller, in Chapter 6, argues that Mill was a rule utilitarian.
  • Stephen Nathanson. “John Stuart Mill on Economic Justice and the Alleviation of Poverty,” in Journal of Social Philosophy, XLIII, no. 2.
    • Drawing on Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, Nathanson claims that Mill was a rule utilitarian and provides an interpretation of Mill’s views on economic justice.
  • Wendy Donner, “Mill’s Utilitarianism” in John Skorupski, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Mill. Cambridge University Press, 1998, 255–92.
    • A discussion of Mill’s views and some recent interpretations of them.
  • David Lyons. Rights, Welfare, and Mill’s Moral Theory. Oxford, 1994.
    • In this series of papers, Lyons defends Mill’s view of morality against some critics, differentiates Mill’s views from  both act and rule utilitarianism, and criticizes Mill’s attempt to show that utilitarianism can account for justice.

e. Critics of Utilitarianism

  • David Lyons.  Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism. Oxford, 1965.
    • Lyons argues that at least some versions of rule utilitarianism collapse into act utilitarianism.
  • David Lyons. “The Moral Opacity of Utilitarianism” in Brad Hooker, Elinor Mason, and Dale Miller, eds. Morality, Rules, and Consequences. Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.
    • In a challenging essay, Lyons raises doubts about whether there is any coherent version of utilitarianism.
  • Judith Jarvis Thomson. “The Trolley Problem.” Yale Law Journal 94 (1985), 1395-1415. Reprinted in Judith Jarvis Thomson. Rights, Restitution and Risk. Edited by William Parent. Harvard University Press, 1986; Chapter 7.
    • An influential rights-based discussion in which Jarvis Thomson uses hypothetical cases to show, among other things, that utilitarianism cannot explain why some actions that cause killings are permissible and others not.
  • Bernard Williams, “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” In J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge University Press, 1973.
    • Williams’ contribution to this debate contains arguments and examples that have played an important role in debates about utilitarianism and moral theory.

f. Collections of Essays

  • Michael D. Bayles, ed. Contemporary Utilitarianism. Garden City: Doubleday, 1968.
    • Ten essays that debate act vs. rule utilitarianism as well as whether a form of utilitarianism is correct.
  • Samuel Gorovitz, ed. John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism, With Critical Essays. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1971.
    • This includes Mill’s Utlitarianism plus a rich array of twenty-eight (pre-1970) articles interpreting, defending, and criticizing utilitarianism.
  • Brad Hooker, Elinor Mason, and Dale Miller, eds. Morality, Rules, and Consequences. Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.
    • Thirteen essays on utilitarianism, many focused on issues concerning rule utilitarianism.
  • Samuel Scheffler. Consequentialism and Its Critics. Oxford, 1988.
    • This contains a dozen influential articles, mostly by prominent critics of utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism.
  • Amartya Sen, and Bernard Williams, eds. Utilitarianism and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
    • This contains fourteen articles, including essays defending utilitarianism by R. M. Hare and John Harsanyi, As the title suggests, however, most of the articles are critical of utilitarianism.


Author Information

Stephen Nathanson
Email: s.nathanson@neu.edu
Northeastern University
U. S. A.


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