The Basic Principles of Utilitarianism

The axioms of the moral theory that seeks to maximize happiness

Painting of David Hume
Allan Ramsey/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Utilitarianism is one of the most important and influential moral theories of modern times. In many respects, it is the outlook of​ David Hume, writing in the mid-18th century. But it received both its name and its clearest statement in the writings of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Even today Mill's essay Utilitarianism remains one of the most widely taught expositions of the doctrine.

There are three principles that serve as the basic axioms of utilitarianism.

1. Pleasure or Happiness Is the Only Thing That Truly Has Intrinsic Value

Utilitarianism gets its name from the term "utility," which in this context does not mean "useful" but, rather, means pleasure or happiness.  To say that something has intrinsic value means that it is simply good in itself. A world in which this thing exists, or is possessed, or is experienced, is better than a world without it (all other things being equal).  Intrinsic value contrasts with instrumental value. Something has instrumental value when it is a means to some end.  E.g. A screwdriver has instrumental value to the carpenter; it is not valued for its own sake but for what can be done with it.

Now Mill admits that we seem to value some things other than pleasure and happiness for their own sake. E.g. we value health, beauty, and knowledge in this way.

But he argues that we never value anything unless we associate it in some way with pleasure or happiness. Thus, we value beauty because it is pleasurable to behold. We value knowledge because, usually, it is useful to us in coping with the world, and hence is linked to happiness. We value love and friendship because they are sources of pleasure and happiness.

Pleasure and happiness, though, are unique in being valued purely for their own sake. No other reason for valuing them needs to be given. It is better to be happy than sad. This can't really be proved. But everyone thinks this.

Mill thinks of happiness as consisting of many and varied pleasures. That's why he runs the two concepts together. Most utilitarians, though, talk mainly of happiness, and that is what we will do from this point on.

2. Actions Are Right Insofar as They Promote Happiness, Wrong Insofar as They Produce Unhappiness

This principle is controversial. It makes utilitarianism a form of consequentialism since it says that the morality of an action is decided by its consequences. The more happiness is produced among those affected by the action, the better the action is. So, all things being equal, my giving presents to a whole gang of children is better than my giving a present to just one. Similarly, saving two lives is better than saving one life.

That can seem quite sensible. But the principle is controversial because many people would say that what decides the morality of an action is the motive behind it. They would say, for instance, that if I give $1,000 to charity because I want to look good to voters in an election, my action is not so deserving of praise as if I gave $50 to charity motivated by compassion, or a sense of duty.

3. Everyone's Happiness Counts Equally

This may strike you as a rather obvious moral principle. But when it was put forward by Bentham (in the form, "everyone to count for one; no-one for more than one") it was quite radical. Two hundred years ago, it was a commonly held view that some lives, and the happiness they contained, were simply more important and valuable than others.  E.g. the lives of masters were more important than slaves; the well-being of a king was more important than that of a peasant.

So in Bentham's time, this principle of equality was decidedly progressive  It lay behind calls on the government to pass policies that would benefit all equally, not just the ruling elite. It is also the reason why utilitarianism is very far removed from any kind of egoism. The doctrine does not say that you should strive to maximize your own happiness.

Rather, your happiness is just that of one person and carries no special weight.

Utilitarians like Peter Singer take this idea of treating everyone equally very seriously. Singer argues that we have the same obligation to help needy strangers in far-off places as we have to help those closest to us. Critics think that this makes utilitarianism unrealistic and too demanding. But in Utilitarianism Mill attempts to answer this criticism by arguing that the general happiness is best served by each person focusing primarily on themselves and those around them.

Bentham's commitment to equality was radical in another way, too. Most moral philosophers before him had held that human beings have no particular obligations to animals since animals can't reason or talk, and they lack free will. But in Bentham's view, this is irrelevant. What matters is whether an animal is capable of feeling pleasure or pain. He doesn't say that we should treat animals as if they were human. But he does think that the world is a better place if there is more pleasure and less suffering among the animals as well as among us. So we should at least avoid causing animals unnecessary suffering.