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Explanations > Social Research > Philosophies of Social Research > Utilitarianism

Principle | Discussion | See also


People choose that which provides greatest value (usefulness, happiness, utility). Their choices usually include consideration of other people.


Utilitarianism is based in arguments of 18th/19th century economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and has the basic general principle that people will tend to act towards choosing the optimal solution that will make them most happy.

This principle is also extended to views that utilitarianism also applies to groups, and that people will choose actions that will be of most benefit to the most people. This provides a non-ethically-based explanation of altruism and is in opposition to the views of egoism, which assumes that all actions are self-based.

It is based on rational assumptions that an absolute value can be assigned to all things and hence all choices can be made through a hedonistic calculus. As an example, utilitarians view punishment as useful in the prevention of crime, rather than a form of retribution.

The rational and calculable nature of utilitarianism makes it useful for disciplines, notably economics, that seeks to model our entire existence, and government, that seeks to create workable and generally acceptable laws.

Bentham's (1824) principles of utility are:

  • Mankind governed by pain and pleasure: Nature has made us as motivated first by avoidance of pain and attraction to pleasure
  • Principle of utility, what: The principle is that 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'.
  • Utility, what: Utility is 'that property in an object whereby it tends to product benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness ... or ... to prevent the happening of mischief, pain evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered'.
  • Interest in the community: The interest of a community is the sum of the interests of its members.
  • You cannot talk about the interest of the community without considering the interest of the individual.
  • An action is conformable to the principle of utility, what: Conformance of an action is when 'the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it'.
  • A measure of government conformable to the principle of utility, what: Government conforms to the principle when it increases the greater good of the community.

Variations on Utilitarianism include:

  • Ideal utilitarianism: consciousness, knowledge, etc. as intrinsically valuable.
  • Negative utilitarianism: focus first on prevention of suffering.
  • Rule utilitarianism: judging particular acts as right or wrong by a given rule.
  • Act utilitarianism: an act is right or wrong depending on personal value.

Where Utilitarianism falls down is in the way that people have incomplete information and have bounded rationality. They make decisions on emotional bases and split-second events and in a way that confounds utilitarian explanation.

See also

Rationalism, Attraction vs. avoidance preference


Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789; 2nd ed., 1823)

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1861; 4th ed., 1871)


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