Disclaimer: This is an example of a student written essay.
Click here for sample essays written by our professional writers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UKEssays.com.

Utilitarianism As An Ethical Theory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 5391 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

Reference this

Ethics is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality-that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice, etc. It is a conception of right and wrong conduct. It tells us whether our behavior is moral or immoral and deals with fundamental human relationship – how we think and behave toward others and how we want them to think and behave towards us. Ethical Principles are guides to moral behavior. For example in most societies lying, stealing, cheating and harming others are considered as unethical and immoral behavior while honesty, keeping promises, helping others and respecting others is considered as moral and ethical behavior.

Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. It comes from the Greek word ethos, which means “character”. Major areas of study in ethics may be divided into 4 operational areas:

Meta-ethics, about the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions and how their truth values (if any) may be determined;

Normative ethics, about the practical means of determining a moral course of action;

Descriptive ethics, also known as comparative ethics, is the study of people’s beliefs about morality;

Applied ethics, about how moral outcomes can be achieved in specific situations;

Ethics is a conception of right and wrong conduct. It tells us whether our behavior is moral or immoral and deals with fundamental human relationships – how we think and behave toward others and how we want them to think and behave toward us. Ethical principles are guides to moral behavior. For example, in most societies lying, stealing, deceiving and harming others are considered to be unethical and immoral. Honesty, keeping promises, helping others, and respecting the rights of others are considered ethically and morally desirable behavior. Such basic rules of behavior are essential for the preservation and continuation of organized life everywhere.

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Essay Writing Service

These notions of right and wrong come from many sources. Religious beliefs are a major source of ethical guidance for many. The family institution – whether two parents, a single parent, or a large family with brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other kin – imparts a sense of right and wrong to children as they grow up. Schools and school teachers, neighbors and neighborhoods, friends, admired role models, ethnic groups – and, of course, the ever-present print and electronic media – influence what we believe to be right and wrong in life. The totality of these learning experiences creates in each person a concept of ethics, morality and socially acceptable behavior. This core of ethical beliefs then acts as a moral compass that helps to guide a person when ethical puzzle arise.

Ethical ideas are presented in all societies, organizations, and individual persons, although they may vary greatly from one to another. Your ethics may not be the same as your neighbor’s; one particular religion’s notion of morality may not be identical to another’s; or what is considered ethical in one society may be forbidden in another society. These differences raise the important and controversial issue of ethical relativism, which holds that the ethical principles should be defined by various periods of time in history, a society’s traditions, the special circumstances of the moment, or personal opinion. In this view, the meaning given to ethics would be relative to time, place, circumstances, and the person involved. In that case, there would be no universal ethical standards on which people around the globe could agree. For companies conducting business in several societies at one time, whether or not ethics is relevant needs a thorough analysis and detailed discussion. For the moment, however, we can say that in spite of the diverse systems of ethics that exist within our own society and throughout the world, all people everywhere depend on ethical system to tell them whether their actions are right or wrong, moral or immoral, approved or disapproved. Ethics, in this sense is a universal human trait, found everywhere.


Business ethics is a form of applied ethics or professional ethics that examines ethical principles and moral or ethical problems that arise in a business environment. It applies to all aspects of business conduct and is relevant to the conduct of individuals and entire organizations.

Business ethics has both normative and descriptive dimensions. As a corporate practice and a career specialization, the field is primarily normative. Academics attempting to understand business behavior employ descriptive methods. The range and quantity of business ethical issues reflects the interaction of profit-maximizing behavior with non-economic concerns. Interest in business ethics accelerated dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s, both within major corporations and within academia. For example, today most major corporations promote their commitment to non-economic values under headings such as ethical codes and social responsibility charters. Adam Smith said, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Governments use laws and regulations to point business behavior in what they perceive to be beneficial directions. Ethics implicitly regulates areas and details of behavior that lie beyond governmental control. The emergence of large corporations with limited relationships and sensitivity to the communities in which they operate, accelerated the development of formal ethics regimes.

Business ethics reflects the philosophy of business, one of whose aims is to determine the fundamental purposes of a company. If a company’s purpose is to maximize shareholder returns, then sacrificing profits to other concerns is a violation of its fiduciary responsibility. Corporate entities are legally considered as persons in USA and in most nations. The ‘corporate persons’ are legally entitled to the rights and liabilities due to citizens as persons.

It is the study of what standards businesses should observer in their dealings over and above compliance with the letter of law. This covers questions such as fair dealing with their labor force, customers, suppliers, and competitors, and the impact of their activities on public health, the environment, and animal welfare. If a good reputation helps to gain and retain business, ethical conduct need not necessarily conflict with profit, but there are bound to be cases where it does. Particularly difficult questions of business ethics arise in multinational firms, where practices such as gifts to officials, which are essential to doing business at all in some countries, are regarded as criminal in others.

Apparently, business ethics is the application of general ethical ideas to business behavior. A typical business ethics textbook argues that ‘good ethics is good business’. This is literally true provided that by ethics we mean the ethics of capitalist individuality and civil society. As Milton Freedman has famously argue the only duty of a business is to make the most profit it can – but do so ethically, i.e., in a way not incompatible/incommensurable with society as a whole doing it as well. State intervention is usually justified as a means to redress market failure or as a means to substitute for missing markets. The theory says that a market become efficient the need for state intervention should decline. Practices for improving market performance have to be grounded in capitalist ethics. Philosophers and policy makers seeking to promote organizational integrity seek to ‘enlighten’ firm management so that it internalizes ethical behavior patterns, which synthesize the search for profit maximization of the firm with its commitment to the promotion of aggregate efficient accumulation. Business ethics as it is thought today is basically an attempt to formulate behavioral codes and practices for managers so as to enable them to pursue profit maximization in a manner, which take account of the interest of other members of capitalist society. In sum, business needs ethics because the market is not self- governing and the pursuit of individual self-interest does not lead to the necessary, unintended automatic promotion of the interests of the whole. Men have to be taught to behave in a particular ethical manner for the conduct of capitalist business. Business ethics justifies self-interest orientation. More importantly, it teaches the manager and the employee to be self-interested in a way, which sustains capitalist order, i.e., facilitates maximization of the average rate of return on aggregate accumulation.

Utilitarianism as an ethical theory

The Basic Idea of Utilitarianism


Utilitarianism consists of two doctrines: A theory of what is good, and a theory of what is right. 

Utilitarianism’s theory of what is right is consequentialism, or the doctrine that the morally right option in any circumstance is that option which brings about the most good, or the best consequences; any other option is wrong.

Utilitarians refer to the option that brings about the best consequences, or “maximizes the good”, as being the optimific alternative. Hence, the right option is the optimific option. Note that an option which produces the most good also, and by definition, produces the least bad consequences. Hence, there can be a right alternative even if the only alternatives produce bad consequences (e.g., other things equal, the right dentist to go to is the one who produces the least pain.)

Utilitarians all agree that what is good is “utility”–human well-being or welfare. However, they disagree about what human well-being or welfare is. Classical utilitarians were hedonistic: They held that human well being consists of pleasure. In holding this view, they did not, of course, deny that human well-being consists of community, self-development, wealth, and so on. What they claimed was that each of these things was either a means to, or associated with, pleasure, and it is this association with pleasure which makes them count as parts of human well-being. However, because of the difficulty of measuring, and so maximizing, amounts of  pleasure, few now hold this doctrine, and there are a variety of theories of what is good among contemporary utilitarians. We will discuss this below.

Utilitarians also all agree that what is right is the optimific alternative. They are all consequentialists in this sense. However, they disagree about what things should be evaluated according to the consequentialist criterion — particular actions, character traits, rules and standards of behavior or large-scale institutions. Again, the classical utilitarian view held that particular actions are what must be evaluated according to the consequentialist criterion. Hence, they held that what makes an action right is that it produced the best consequences. However, many disagree with this, as there are a variety of forms of consequentialism that utilitarians hold.

The utilitarian view can be applied either to all spheres of practical life, or can be restricted to some particular sphere. Utilitarianism as a comprehensive doctrine expresses an outlook that can be applied to all practical spheres, for instance, both to the private actions of individuals and to the political structures of societies. Hence, comprehensive utilitarianism is the view that what makes actions right or wrong is determined by the utilitarian standard, and this very same standard also tells us which forms of government, societal institutions, laws and policies are just or unjust. But when utilitarianism is expresses a view only about the latter, it is merely a political doctrine, and we will call it political utilitarianism. Rawls and other political philosophers mainly are concerned with political utilitarianism. Rawls refers to the subject of a political theory as the “basic structure” of society–its form of government, institutions and policies–rather than to the actions of the individuals who live in the society.


The Greatest Happiness Principle


“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” -John Stuart Mill


Happiness      =    pleasure, and the absence of pain

Unhappiness  =    pain, and the absence of pleasure


Happiness is the only thing that has intrinsic value “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends…all desirable things are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.”

Background on Utilitarianism


English philosophers John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) were the leading proponents of what is now called “classic utilitarianism”.

The Utilitarian were social reformers. They supported suffrage for women and those without property, and the abolition of slavery.  Utilitarian argued that criminals ought to be reformed and not merely punished (although Mill did support capital punishment as a deterrent).  Bentham spoke out against cruelty to animals. Mill was a strong supporter of meritocracy.

Proponents emphasized that utilitarianism was an egalitarian doctrine. Everyone’s happiness counts equally.

Utilitarianism and the Enlightenment


The science of the Enlightenment featured theories with a very small number of general laws and vast explanatory power.  Newton’s laws, for example, seemed able to account for all of the motion in the universe.  Utilitarianism fit right in:  it was an ethical theory compatible with science and featuring a single law of morality with great explanatory power.  It was a sort of science of morality.

Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism

Consequentialism:  Whether an action is morally right or wrong depends entirely on its consequences.  An action is right if it brings about the best outcome of the choices available.  Otherwise it is wrong.

The Good:  Things (goals, states of affairs) that are worth pursuing and promoting.

The Right:  the moral rightness (or wrongness) of actions and policies.

Consequentialists say that actions are Right when they maximize the Good.

Rhetorical argument:  How could it be wrong to do what produces the most good?  Wouldn’t it be irrational to insist that we ought to choose the lesser good in any situation?


Utilitarianism defines the Good as pleasure without pain. So, according to Utilitarianism, our one moral duty is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

Basic Insight of Utililitarianism

The purpose of morality is to make the world a better place.

Morality is about producing good consequences, not having good intentions

We should do whatever will bring the most benefit (i.e., intrinsic value) to all of humanity.

The purpose of Morality

The utilitarian has a very simple answer to the question of why morality exists at all:

The purpose of morality is to guide people’s actions in such a way as to produce a better world.

Consequently, the emphasis in utilitarianism is on consequences, not intentions.

Fundamental Imperative

The fundamental imperative of utilitarianism is:

Always act in the way that will produce the greatest overall amount of good in the world.

The emphasis is clearly on consequences, not intentions.

The emphasis on the overall good

We often speak of “utilitarian” solutions in a disparaging tone, but in fact utilitarianism is a demanding moral position that often asks us to put aside self-interest for the sake of the whole.

Utilitarianism is a morally demanding position for two reasons:

It always asks us to do the most, to maximize utility, not to do the minimum.

It asks us to set aside personal interest.

The Dream of Utilitarianism: Bringing Scientific Certainty to Ethics

Utilitarianism offers us a powerful vision of the moral life, one that promises to reduce or eliminate moral disagreement.

If we can agree that the purpose of morality is to make the world a better place; and

If we can scientifically assess various possible courses of action to determine which will have the greatest positive effect on the world; then

We can provide a scientific answer to the question of what we ought to do.

Intrinsic Value

Utilitarianism offers us a powerful vision of the moral life, one that promises to reduce or eliminate moral disagreement.

If we can agree that the purpose of morality is to make the world a better place; and

If we can scientifically assess various possible courses of action to determine which will have the greatest positive effect on the world; then

We can provide a scientific answer to the question of what we ought to do.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

Bentham believed that we should try to increase the overall amount of pleasure in the world.


Definition: The enjoyable feeling we experience when a state of deprivation is replaced by fulfillment.


Easy to quantify

Short duration



Came to be known as “the pig’s philosophy”

Ignores higher values

Could justify living on a pleasure machine

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Bentham’s godson

Believed that happiness, not pleasure, should be the standard of utility.



A higher standard, more specific to humans

About realization of goals


More difficult to measure

Competing conceptions of happiness

G. E. Moore (1873-1958)

Ideal Values

G. E. Moore suggested that we should strive to maximize ideal values such as freedom, knowledge, justice, and beauty.

The world may not be a better place with more pleasure in it, but it certainly will be a better place with more freedom, more knowledge, more justice, and more beauty.

Moore’s candidates for intrinsic good remain difficult to quantify.


Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel Prize winning Stanford economist, argued that what has intrinsic value is preference satisfaction.

The advantage of Arrow’s approach is that, in effect, it lets people choose for themselves what has intrinsic value. It simply defines intrinsic value as whatever satisfies an agent’s preferences. It is elegant and pluralistic.

The Utilitarian Calculus

Math and ethics finally merge: all consequences must be measured and weighed.

Units of measurement:

Hedons: positive

Dolors: negative

What do we calculate?

Hedons/dolors may be defined in terms of





For any given action, we must calculate:

How many people will be affected, negatively (dolors) as well as positively (hedons)

How intensely they will be affected

Similar calculations for all available alternatives

Choose the action that produces the greatest overall amount of utility (hedons minus dolors)

Example: Debating the school lunch program

Utilitarians would have to calculate:


Increased nutrition for x number of children

Increased performance, greater long-range chances of success

Incidental benefits to contractors, etc.


Cost to each taxpayer

Contrast with other programs that could have been funded and with lower taxes (no program)

Multiply each factor by

Number of individuals affected Intensity of effects

How much can we quantify?

Pleasure and preference satisfaction are easier to quantify than happiness or ideals

Two distinct issues:

Can everything be quantified?

Some would maintain that some of the most important things in life (love, family, etc.) cannot easily be quantified, while other things (productivity, material goods) may get emphasized precisely because they are quantifiable.

The danger: if it can’t be counted, it doesn’t count.

Are quantified goods necessarily commensurable?

Are a fine dinner and a good night’s sleep commensurable? Can one be traded or substituted for the other?

“…the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Utilitarianism doesn’t always have a cold and calculating face-we perform utilitarian calculations in everyday life.



Utilitarianism =  Hedonism?


Objection: There is more to life than pleasure; knowledge, virtue and other things are important too.  Utilitarianism is a doctrine worthy only of swine.

Reply:  Utilitarianism requires that we consider everyone’s pleasure, not just our own.   Also, says Mill, there is more to life than physical pleasure. Pleasures of the “higher faculties” (including intellectual pleasures inaccessible to lower animals) are of higher quality than physical pleasures (and thus count for more). 


Mill:  “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question”.


Is Utilitarianism too Demanding?


Objection: Utilitarianism implies that we should always act in order to maximize happiness; this is too strict a requirement.  It is asking too much of people to be always motivated to promote the general happiness.


Mill’s Reply:  “…no system of ethics requires that the sole motive of all we do shall be a feeling of duty; on the contrary, ninety-nine hundredths of all our actions are done from other motives, and rightly so…the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action…the great majority of good actions are intended not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up.”


Many people have questioned whether this reply is adequate.  Regardless of motivation, Utilitarianism does require that people always act to maximize overall happiness.


Not enough time?


Objection: In the real world, we don’t have the time to calculate the effects of our actions on the general happiness.  Therefore, utilitarianism is useless.


Mill’s Reply:  “There has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species.  During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience …the effects of some actions on their happiness; and the beliefs which have thus come down are the rules of morality…”

In other words, we don’t need to do direct utility calculations in most cases; we can apply subordinate rules, which are rules of thumb for maximizing happiness.

Find Out How UKEssays.com Can Help You!

Our academic experts are ready and waiting to assist with any writing project you may have. From simple essay plans, through to full dissertations, you can guarantee we have a service perfectly matched to your needs.

View our services

Subordinate Rules



                        Keep your promises

                        Don’t cheat

                        Don’t steal

                        Obey the law


Subordinate rules are what we would normally call “commonsense morality”.

According to Mill, these are rules that tend to promote happiness, so we should internalize them as good rules to follow. They have been learned through the experience of many generations.


But subordinate rules are just that: subordinate.  If it is clear that breaking a subordinate rule would result in much more happiness than following it, then you should break it.

Breaking Subordinate Rules


In some cases it may be necessary to do a direct utility calculation:

When you are in an unusual situation that the rules don’t cover.

            When the subordinate rules conflict.

            When you are deciding which rules to adopt or teach.


Euthanasia or “mercy killing” (the killing of an innocent in order to end pointless suffering) is a good example of something that violates a subordinate rule (Don’t kill innocents) but can be justified on utilitarian grounds in unusual circumstances.

Predicting the Future


Objection:  Utilitarianism requires that we know what the consequences of our actions will be, but this is impossible.  We can’t predict the future.


Reply:  It’s true that we can’t predict the future with certainty.  So, we should perform the action that we have most reason to believe will bring about the best consequences of the alternatives available.


Example:  You need $2000 to pay some medical bills.  To get the extra $, you can either (a) borrow some money now, and pay it back later by working extra hours, or (b) spend all of your money on lottery tickets and hope that you win big.  It’s possible that you will win the lottery, but this isn’t likely.  Given the probabilities, it is more reasonable to believe that borrowing money will bring more happiness.


Individual Rights

Objection:  Just because something makes people happy doesn’t make it right.  Specifically, it is wrong to harm certain individuals in order to make other people happy.


A Thought experiment:  The Case of the Inhospitable Hospital

Suppose that Jack is in the hospital for routine tests, and there are people there who need vital organs right away.  A doctor has the opportunity to kill Jack and make his death look natural.  It would maximize happiness to cut Jack up and give his heart to one patient, his liver to another, his kidneys to still others, and so on.  (We are supposing that the organs are good matches, and the other patients will die if they don’t get them).  Utilitarianism seems to imply that the doctor should kill Jack for his organs.  But that would be morally wrong.

Thought Experiments


Scientific Experimentation:  Scientists create situations in laboratories in order to test their theories.  They want to find out what would happen when certain conditions hold-if what actually happens under those conditions agrees with what their theory predicts will happen, and then the theory is confirmed.  Otherwise, the theory is falsified.


A thought experiment is a hypothetical situation that we create in our minds in order to test a philosophical theory.  The hypothetical situation should be something that could actually happen (and in many cases, it is something that has actually happened, or will happen in the future).  So that we can test the theory, the theory must have an implication about what would be true if the hypothetical situation were real.  We can then compare this implication to our own beliefs about the thought experiment.  If the implication of the theory agrees with our own beliefs, then the theory is confirmed (to some extent).  If it does not, then we must ask ourselves, “Which is wrong:  the theory or my beliefs?” It is reasonable to stick with our beliefs until the evidence is against them.


Important Note:  It doesn’t matter whether the hypothetical situation is likely to happen.  If a theory has a false implication about something that could happen, then the theory is wrong (on that point, at least).


More examples involving Individual Rights


Exploitation:  The ancient Romans used slaves as gladiators, forcing them to fight to the death for entertainment.  Is it right to force a small number of people to be gladiators if it gives millions of people pleasure?  Would it be morally acceptable to pay people to fight to the death?

Ruthlessness:  President Truman ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, knowing that many thousands of non-combatants would be killed, in order to save more lives by ending the war.  Assume that the decision did result in fewer lives lost.  Was it morally right? 

Paternalism:  Suppose that banning certain kinds of fast food and snack foods would result in millions of people living longer, healthier lives.  Would such a ban be morally justified?


Utilitarian Responses

Denial:  Examples like The Inhospitable Hospital often involve some error of calculation, or some failure to take all the consequences into account. For example, what would happen to the ability of that hospital to deliver adequate health care should word get out that a healthy person has been cut up for his or her organs?

But:  The examples don’t always involve mistakes.

“Biting the Bullet”:  If there is no error in calculation and all of the consequences have been taken into account, but there is still a discrepancy between what utilitarianism implies and what commonsense morality tells us, then so much the worse for commonsense morality. Commonsense morality gives us good rules of thumb, but they are subordinate to the Greatest Happiness Principle.

The Doctrine of Negative Responsibility


We are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of the choices we make.

Sometimes we choose to act, and sometimes we choose not to.  Either way, we are making a choice that has consequences.

Therefore, we are just as responsible for the foreseeable consequences that we fail to prevent as for those that we bring about directly.


This means that “I didn’t do it” is not necessarily a good defense. The best defense is “I couldn’t have prevented it.”

Negative Responsibility?


Hostage Dilemma Thought Experiment:


Terrorists are holding you and fifty other people as hostages inside a building. The only exit has been blocked and three of the hostages have been strapped to the door, attached to explosives.  The terrorist leader offers you a choice.



(i) you can activate a detonator that will blow up the exit, killing the three

 hostages strapped to it but allowing the others to escape, or

(ii) you can decline and the terrorists will kill everyone. 


You believe (and have good reason to believe) that the terrorist leader is sincere.  What should you do?


Some people would argue that:

“It is terrible that everyone will be killed, but I have no right to kill anyone myself.  I am responsible for my own actions; the terrorist is responsible for his.  If he kills everyone, then that is his evil, not mine.  But if I activate the detonator, then I will have committed an act of evil.  Therefore, I am morally obligated to take option (i


Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on UKEssays.com then please: