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An explanation of utilitarianism

What is utilitarianism?

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Utilitarianism is an ethical approach that was originally outlined by the philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It falls under the umbrella of a family of approaches referred to as ‘consequentialism’, which includes ethical theories that judge the moral status of actions primarily on the basis of the consequences that they produce rather than, for example, the intentions of the actor. The metric and method for assessing those consequences differs from theory to theory.

The original formulations of utilitarianism measured the outcomes (and therefore the moral rightness) of actions in hedonistic terms – that is, according to the pleasure or suffering that is felt as a consequence. ‘Good’ actions – the actions that we should take – are in this way defined as those actions that produce the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people, whilst reducing the total amount of suffering as much as possible. Judging the moral rightness of an action therefore involves a degree of ‘hedonic calculus’, in which the affected individuals’ prospective states are weighed up against those of others in a quasi-quantitative manner.

An important feature of utilitarianism is that when carrying out such calculations, the good of each person is considered to be equal in weight to the good of any other – including the person that is making the decision to act. In this sense, utilitarianism can be said to be egalitarian, since it treats everybody the same, and also impartial, since it does not prioritise subjective interests over those of others that might be affected.

While hugely influential, these original formulations of utilitarianism had some significant flaws and more robust formulations have been created to replace them. Despite this, utilitarianism remains one of the defining paradigms of western ethical thought.