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A very short exposition of Utilitarianism

Michael Jhon M. Tamayao



How can we know whether an act is good or bad? Many moral norms have been formulated in response to this question. One norm states that the morality of an act is measured by its “consequences.” If the consequences of an act are generally pleasurable, then the act is good. But if the consequences of an act are generally painful, then the act is bad. Why is smoking bad for example? It is because its painful consequences outweigh its pleasurable consequences. The painful consequences include innumerable diseases and health issues, not just for the smoker but for the entire populace. The pleasurable consequence, on the other, includes only the transitory sensual satisfaction of the smoker. Be that there are other pleasurable consequences, the overwhelming judgment is that there is a dominance of pain over pleasure.

This ethical norm is called “Utilitarianism.” This criterion for making moral judgment finds its roots in the philosophic writings of Epicurus (341-270 BC), which was then rediscussed later in the works of David Hume (1711-1776), and found its full development and most famous versions in the works of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

Utilitarianism as a Consequentialist theory…

The theory that judges the morality of an act by what results from it is called a Consequentialist theory. Utilitarianism is also a consequentialist theory because it determines the goodness and badness of an act through its consequences. The consequentialist theory is contrasted from Deontological theories, which determine the morality of the act through the “oughfulness” of the act itself. While for the consequentialist, on the one hand, “Loving your neighbor” is good because there are more pleasurable consequences in the act than there are painful consequences, for the deontologists, on the other hand, the act is good because it is good in itself and must ought be done (duty).

The reason why these theories were created was for the objectivity of laws, whether moral, political, or religious. As Bentham and Mill state, there must be a rational, secure, and objective foundation for moral judgments; that “adultery is bad,” for instance, because it is objectively evaluated as a bad act, and not because I only declare it to be so.

Utilitarianism is Hedonistic…

Hedonism is a belief that declares pleasure is the end of man. Pleasure is the good that accounts for human happiness. Pain, on the other, is what man avoids in life. This is based on the idea that man, being part of Nature, is under two sovereign forces only, pain and pleasure. His natural inclination is towards pleasure, and his natural declination is away from pain. Bentham and Mill embrace this hedonistic philosophy of man and as a result they developed their ethical theories based on this philosophy.

Utilitarianism is the ethical norm that results from this hedonistic philosophy. The utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill is hedonistic because it measures the goodness and badness of an act according to how it maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. The resulting amount of pleasure and pain in an act is the ultimate basis for our moral judgment.

Bentham’s Felicity Calculus…

In order to avoid ethical relativism, Bentham, in his work An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, crafted a measuring devise that will calculate the precise or objective “units” of the consequent pleasure and pain. This measuring devise includes seven criteria of pleasure or pain, which are as follows:

1. Intensity – the strength of the experience

2. Duration – how long the experience will last

3. Certainty – the probability that the act will give the expected consequences

4. Propinquity – how soon the expected consequences are going to occur

5. Fecundity – the probability of the act leading to other pleasures or pains

6. Purity – the probability of the act not leading to other pleasures or pains

7. Extent – the number of people effected by the act

Quality is more important than quantity…

James Mill was a close admirer of Bentham’s utilitarianism. However, his son, John Stuart Mill, criticized Bentham for failing to distinguish the quantity and quality of pleasures. Stuart Mill distinguishes two types of pleasures: physical pleasures, such as eating, drinking, and sex; and intellectual pleasures, such as reading philosophical works, appreciating artworks, and engaging in a debate. Physical pleasures are the “lower” forms of pleasures, while intellectual pleasures are the “higher” forms of pleasures. For Stuart Mill, one must prefer the higher pleasures over the lower pleasures because the former has a higher quality than the latter. After all, man has the natural inclination for the higher pleasures and disfavor for the lower pleasures. Consequently, Bentham’s Felicity Principle was inadequate for Mill because it sometimes prefers quantity over quality.

Two Types of Utilitarianism…

There are two types of utilitarianism; these are “act utilitarianism” and “rule utilitarianism.” An act utilitarian acts by calculating all possible choices and choosing from a list the best possible options. A rule utilitarian, on the other, acts by setting himself general rules, which are deduced from the principle of utility, and constantly follows them. While an act utilitarian is required to calculate all the time, a rule utilitarian only needs to follow the rules established for the common good. Although these terms came after Bentham and Mill, we could say that Bentham was an act utilitarian and Mill was a rule utilitarian.

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2009 by in Modern Philosophy.




Tuguegarao City, Cagayan Atty. MICHAEL JHON M. TAMAYAO manages this blog. He is currently starting his private law practice. Contact:; Tel. No. 09353343739. PROFILE: Atty. Tamayao is currently teaching law, philosophy and social sciences at the Cagayan State University. He finished his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy degree at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Santo Tomas and graduated in 2005, garnering the highest academic honors in that Academic Year. He pursued Licentiate in Philosophy and Master of Arts in Philosophy degrees at the same university, completing them both in 2007. In 2009, he took up Bachelor of Laws and Letter at the Cagayan State University, where he also teaches. He passed the 2013 bar exams, and now currently taking up Master of Laws and Letters at the San Beda Graduate School of Law.

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