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Moral theories can be divided into two major types, teleological and deontological. In teleological theories, (moral) right is derived from a theory of the (non-moral) good, or what is good or desirable as an end to be achieved. In Greek, telos means ‘goal’ or ‘aim.’ In deontological theories, (moral) right is derived without a theory of (non-moral) good, or what choice is (morally) right regardless of the end consequences. In Greek, deon means ‘duty.’ Utilitarian theories are teleological.

What Utilitarianism is (preliminary statement)

The Creed which accepts as the foundation of morals “utility” or the “greatest happiest 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 (J.S. Mill Utilitarianism, p. 10).

What Utilitarianism is (restatement)

According to the greatest happiness principle...the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable – whether we are considering our own good or that of other people- is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality: the test of quality and the rule for measuring it against quantity being the preference felt by those who, in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with means of comparison. This being according to the utilitarian opinion the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality, which may accordingly be defined as “the rules and precepts for human conduct” (bold print and underline added) 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 admit, to the whole sentient creation” (J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism p. 16).

Classical Version of Utilitarianism (e.g. Mill)

Theory of good (that is, claims concerning what we should desire): The only thing good as such is happiness (i.e. "pleasure"). Everything else is good only as a means.

Theory of right (that is, of what we should do): An act A is right if, and only if, among those mutually exclusive acts open to the agent, A would give the greatest net good overall.

  1. Theory of right requires only comparison of courses of action open to agent. It is a theory of how to act.
  2. "Greatest net happiness", not just "greatest happiness" because costs in unhappiness must also be considered. (Note analogy with profit or efficiency.)
  3. A great pleasure should, of course, count for more than small pleasure; but two pleasures of the same strength are to count the same.
    • Pleasures as such are equal, no matter who is experiencing them.
    • Note: Mill thinks pleasures differ in "quality" as well as strength, but even for Mill pleasures of the same strength and quality are equal, however else they differ.
  4. Who is experiencing a pleasure is, as such, irrelevant.
    • Your pleasures count for no more, and no less, than anyone else's.
    • Utilitarian deliberations are (in this way) "impartial".
    • Indeed, utilitarianism is radically impartial in this respect. Those affected need not even be people; they need only be "sentient beings" (that is, anything capable of experiencing pleasure or pain). All else equal, a dog's pleasure counts as much as yours.
  5. The actual (or "objective") rightness of an act is determined by what actually happens.
    • In this respect, utilitarianism is radically future-oriented, but
    • Since an agent can't know in advance what will happen as a result of what she does (the "objectively good"), she must choose on some other basis (for example, follow the strategy that seems most likely to generate the right act).
    • Utilitarians often call acts so chosen "subjectively right".
    • The common view among utilitarians seems to be that the subjectively right act maximizes "expectable utility", in other words, Uo x Po [(the utility of the outcome) x (the probability of that out
  6. Classical utilitarianism differs from other moral theories primarily in what it omits rather than in what it includes.
    • Some of the other moral theories are utilitarian (but not classical utilitarian). They offer more inclusive theories of the good (for example, counting goods like beauty or justice as independent of happiness or pleasure).
    • Others moral theories are non-utilitarian but still teleological. They understand the good as a certain state of affairs is independent of the right, but do not define right acts as whatever achieves the good.
    • For example: Virtue theory defines the right as acting according to virtue (but then preserves it teleological credentials by defining virtue as a disposition to act in ways tending, in the long run at least, to achieve the good).

Utilitarian Method

  1. Identify all courses of action open to you.
  2. For each course of action, identify parties affected.
  3. For each party, identify contribution of each course of action to that person's net happiness. [Generally, these first three steps must be carried out more or less together.]
  4. Ignoring all other considerations, compare courses of action, taking account of the number of persons affected and how each is affected but not who is affected.
  5. Choose that course of action most likely to maximize overall happiness.

Further Reading:

Rachels, James. Elements of Moral Philosophy. 4th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003. pp. 96-121 (Utilitarianism)

This book is an extremely good introduction to major moral concepts and theories. In this section, the author gives a very succinct and clear description of the theory of Utilitarianism, its history, and examples of the practical approach Utilitarianism provides in two case studies. The second section looks at some of the arguments against this theory, and some ways in which classic Utilitarianism can be revised to satisfactorily answer them.

Optional Further Reading:

Mills, John Stuart. Utilitarianism, 1863.

An online copy of this work is available through the Project Gutenberg website at

Handout from 2001 EAC Workshop, copyright Michael Davis, Illinois Institute of Technology.