ethical theory which holds that the right action is the one that maximizes aggregate well-being

Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the moral action is the one that maximizes utility. Utility is defined in various ways, including as pleasure, economic well-being and the lack of suffering. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, which implies that the "end justifies the means". This view can be contrasted or combined with seeing intentions, virtues or the compliance with rules as ethically important.

Those proud Islanders are never in earnest with anything that goes beyond palpable utility. All knowledge they have robbed of life and use only as dead wood to make masts and helms for their life's voyage in pursuit of gain. ~ Friedrich Schleiermacher

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  • By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency 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.
    • Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1798.
  • By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case come to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party who whose is considered: if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community; if a particular individual; then the happiness of that individual.
    • Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1798.
  • Dr. Priestley published his Essay on Government in 1768. He there introduced ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ It was by that pamphlet, and this phrase in it, that my principles on the subject of morality, public and private together, were determined. It was from that pamphlet and that page of it, that I drew the phrase, the words and import of which have been so widely diffused over the civilized world. At the sight of it, I cried out, as it were, in an inward ecstasy, like Archimedes on the discovery of the fundamental principle of hydrostatics, eureka!
    • Jeremy Bentham, “Deontology, or the Science of Morality”, The British Critic, Quarterly Theological Review, and Ecclesiastical Record, vol. 16, no. 32 (1834), pp. 279-280
  • The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversible animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
  • The utilitarian behaves sensibly in all that is required for preservation but never takes account of the fact that he must die. He does everything reasonable to put off the day of his death—providing for defense, peace, order, health and wealth —but actively suppresses the fact that the day must come. His whole life is absorbed in avoiding death, which is inevitable, and therefore he might be thought to be the most irrational of men, if rationality has anything to do with understanding ends or comprehending the human situation as such.


  • In the case of the lower animals it seems much more appropriate to speak of their social instincts, as having been developed for the general good rather than for the general happiness of the species. The term, general good, may be defined as the rearing of the greatest number of individuals in full vigour and health, with all their faculties perfect, under the conditions to which they are subjected. As the social instincts both of man and the lower animals have no doubt been developed by nearly the same steps, it would be advisable, if found practicable, to use the same definition in both cases, and to take as the standard of morality, the general good or welfare of the community, rather than the general happiness; but this definition would perhaps require some limitation on account of political ethics.
  • As all men desire their own happiness, praise or blame is bestowed on actions and motives, according as they lead to this end; and as happiness is an essential part of the general good, the greatest-happiness principle indirectly serves as a nearly safe standard of right and wrong.



  • I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people.
  • the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one's neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.
  • The ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (...), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, (...) This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.
  • The utilitarian morality does recognise in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others. It only refuses to admit that the sacrifice is itself a good. A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted. The only self-renunciation which it applauds, is devotion to the happiness, or to some of the means of happiness, of others; either of mankind collectively, or of individuals within the limits imposed by the collective interests of mankind.
  • The utilitarian doctrine is, that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end.
  • Granted that any practice causes more pain to animals than it gives pleasure to man; is that practice moral or immoral? And if, exactly in proportion as human beings raise their heads out of the slough of selfishness, they do not with one voice answer 'immoral,' let the morality of the principle of utility be for ever condemned.
    • John Stuart Mill, Dr. Whewell on Moral Philosophy (1852), in Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and Historical, vol. 2, London: John W. Parker and son, 1859, p. 485.
  • The satisfaction of the much stigmatized ''animal propensities," or ''carnal desires," whatever they are, may be just as exemplary and noble as the satisfaction of the desire for knowledge or opulence; and they are, in fact, frequently more so. The only rational characterization of a low desire is one incapable of yielding to the universe in its satisfaction large returns of happiness. And a high desire is simply one affording to the universe in its satisfaction wide and profound welfare. The only reason why any desire, so-called "high" or so-called ''low," should be kept in abeyance is that its satisfaction will not contribute to the utilities. There is no reason why any desire capable of satisfaction possessed by a living being should not be satisfied, except that its satisfaction may interfere with the satisfaction of other more valuable desires possessed by the being himself or by other beings.
  • Each living being of the universe, therefore, sustains to every other living being the relation of possible right and wrong, but to the insentient universe no such relation exists. Right is that relation which is conducive to happiness, or welfare, or complete living, or whatever synonym is preferred. Wrong is that which conduces to the opposite of happiness—misery, ill-fare, maladaptation.
  • Why should living beings struggle against each other, except as they struggle to advance the general welfare? Happiness is just as valuable and just as beautiful a thing in one being as in another. Some have greater talent for it than have others but it is a state of sweetness and elation always and everywhere. And each living being, in deliberating on the problem of the proprieties, should realize the fact that, as a matter of fact, it is a matter of indifference whether this relation belongs to his sensorium or to some other sensorium. It is insane for each being to insist that he, as an organism, is the one organism to whom pleasure is indispensable. The only indispensable is that pleasure be maximized. If a definite amount of happiness is to be experienced, it is, in the eyes of the absolute, a matter of indifference whether this happiness is experienced by one individual or by another, by self or by some other conscious portion of the universe.
  • Those things, thoughts, beings, acts, and instincts which help us to the pleasurable experiences of life we call good, and those which deprive us of pleasure or which bring upon us painful experiences we call bad. This is the supreme standard—Utility. Is the thing, thought, being, act, or impulse useful? Does it lead directly or indirectly to happiness and well-being? If it does, it is right, proper, and good. If it does not, it is wrong, improper, and bad.
  • The well being of others is on an average as important as our own, and should as a general thing be appraised at the same value. If a certain amount of happiness is scheduled to fall to the lot of the earth, it makes absolutely no difference whether it falls on me, or on you, or on somebody a thousand miles away. It would serve the ends of absolute ethics quite as well if it fell on an insect or a horse as if it fell on a man. The only important thing from the standpoint of universal good is that the pleasure be experienced. It is not important what particular individual or species is the beneficiary. It might even go to another world, and be just as satisfactory to a universal well-wisher, who looked at Cosmos from the serene altitudes of pure reason, without any prejudices whatever one way or another in the matter. This is the ideal. It is a long, long way from our natures. But only in so far as we approximate this ideal do we rise above those imperfections of our being which have been ground out by the methods that have operated in the development of life on earth.


  • Hedonism, pessimism, utilitarianism, or eudaemonism, all those modes of thinking which measure the worth of things according to pleasure and pain, ... are plausible modes of thought and naïvetés, which every one conscious of creative powers and an artist’s conscience will look down upon with scorn. ... We regard your seriousness as more dangerous than any kind of levity. ... Well-being, as you understand it—is certainly not a goal; it seems to us ... a condition which at once renders man ludicrous and contemptible.


  • Perfect the Will, the Mind, Feeling, their corporeal organs and their material tools; be useful to yourselves, to your own ones, and to others; and Happiness, insofar as it exists on this earth, will come of itself.


  • In their time, Bentham's ideas promoted progress, reform, wider democracy, and the amelioration of undesirable social conditions. Bentham lived... when common people, the "labouring poor," had little voice and no vote... Their toil and sacrifices enhanced the power of the nation, the glory of its rulers, the wealth of industrialists and merchants, and the indolent ease of the aristocrats. Yet here was a philosopher who said that people are people regardless of their social position. ...[L]egislators ought actively to augment the total happiness of the community. Instead of the people serving the state, the state should serve the people. ...[H]is slogan for government was "Be quiet." But he did not worship laissez-faire as a principle to be accepted blindly. ...[T]he state should monopolize the issue of paper money, thereby saving interest on its borrowing. It should... operate life and annuity insurance, and tax inheritance, monopolies, [etc.] ...Bentham's idea of diminishing marginal utility of money suggested an argument for the redistribution of income. ...[M]ore happiness will be gained by the poor... than will be lost by the wealthy... Bentham's devotion to the greatest good for the greatest number led him to... advocate for.. democratic reforms. He supported universal (male) suffrage, equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, and the secret ballot. He opposed the monarchy and the House of Lords, arguing that only in a democracy do the interest of the gonernors and the governed become identical. ...Bentham urged a system of national education, even for pauper children. Frugality Banks... should... stimulate saving by the poor. Public works should provide jobs for unemployed workers during slack times. ...He designed ...a model prison that would reform criminals rather than punish them. No wonder Bentham and his circle of intellects (including James Mill, John Stuart Mill, and Ricardo) were called "philosophic radicals."
    • Jacob Oser, Stanley L. Brue, The Evolution of Economic Thought (1963, 1988) 4th edition, pp. 122-123.


  • It appeared to me obvious that the happiness of mankind should be the aim of all action, and I discovered to my surprise that there were those who thought otherwise. Belief in happiness, I found, was called Utilitarianism, and was merely one among a number of ethical theories. I adhered to it after this discovery.


  • This utilitarian view of the mind ... is an external view only, which marks the place and conditions of the mind in nature, but neglects its specific essence. ... If the intellect is a device produced in organic bodies to expedite their processes, these organic bodies must have interests and a chosen direction in their life; otherwise their life could not be expedited, nor could anything be useful to it.
  • Utility is the great idol of the age, to which all powers must do service and all talents swear allegiance.
  • Those proud Islanders whom many unduly honour, know no watchword but gain and enjoyment. Their zeal for knowledge is only a sham fight, their worldly wisdom a false jewel, skilfully and deceptively composed, and their sacred freedom itself too often and too easily serves self-interest. They are never in earnest with anything that goes beyond palpable utility. All knowledge they have robbed of life and use only as dead wood to make masts and helms for their life's voyage in pursuit of gain.
  • It's the flock, the grove, that matters. Our responsibility is to species, not to specimens; to communities, not to individuals.


  • Before the age of adulteration it was held that behind each work there stood some conception of its perfect execution. It was this that gave zest to labor and served to measure the degree of success. To the extent that the concept obtained, there was a teleology in work, since the laborer toiled not merely to win sustenance but to see this ideal embodied in his creation. Pride in craftsmanship is well explained by saying that to labor is to pray, for conscientious effort to realize an ideal is a kind of fidelity. The craftsman of old time did not hurry, because the perfect takes no account of time and shoddy work is a reproach to character. But character itself is an expression of self-control, which does not come of taking the easiest way. Where character forbids self-indulgence, transcendence still hovers around.
When utilitarianism becomes enthroned and the worker is taught that work is use and not worship, interest in quality begins to decline. … There is a difference between expressing one’s self in form and producing quantity for a market with an eye to speculation. Péguy wished to know what had become of the honor of work. It has succumbed to the same forces as have all other expressions of honor.
  • Knowledge conceived as an instrument is a means to the end of power. The goal of philosophy, however, is not to gain power over the Absolute but to know it as it truly is.

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