Classical utilitarianism Notes for March 30

Main points

We read Bentham and Sidgwick as early and late exponents of utilitarianism in general. In the next class, we will look at Mill’s attempt to apply of utilitarianism to the question of how much individual liberty societies should permit.


The utilitarians were social reformers. They thought that irrational restrictions in common sense morality and in the law retarded social progress and permitted unwarranted cruelty. Historically speaking, they are liberal heroes.

Nonetheless, they tend to wear a black hat in political philosophy courses. Their utilitarian philosophy, it is often said, is only imperfectly aligned with their liberal politics. That, in any event, is the theme of Rawls’s book, A Theory of Justice. But before we get into that, let’s meet our utilitarians. Utilitarians tend to hold:

  1. Hedonistic views of the good. They think that pleasure (happiness, the satisfaction of desires, utility, etc.) is ultimately the only good thing and that pain is ultimately the only bad thing.
  2. Consequentialist views of right and wrong. They think that the right action or policy is the one that brings about better overall consequences than the alternatives. When we couple their consequentialism with their hedonism, we see that they seek to maximize happiness overall.
  3. A tendency towards esotericism.** The previous two features define utilitarianism. This is just a tendency. The tendency to treat utilitarianism as a view that only an elite can safely know. If the unwashed masses came to believe that utilitarianism is true, they would act in ways that are worse than if they continued with their false beliefs about morality. Therefore, good utilitarians will encourage them to believe what they know to be false, all in the name of promoting utilitarian ends. This is discussed with characteristic insight by Sidgwick.

Utilitarianism and commonsense morality

Since they were reformers, it is not surprising to discover that the utilitarians often disagreed with received views about morality. You think that it’s immoral to dissect human bodies? Nonsense, look at all the good that can come from it.†† This was the cause that inspired Bentham’s famous Auto-icon. You think it’s acceptable to punish people for harmless pleasures? Don’t be silly. And so on.

Still, it is disconcerting that utilitarians are willing to violate almost any received moral rule if the circumstances call for doing so. Promising? Killing the innocent? Torture? You name it, it’s fair game because the only question that matters is what will maximize utility. Any action could, if the conditions are right, be the one that produces the best overall consequences.

Since morality, as we commonly think of it, is not so flexible, utilitarianism appears to many people to be morally objectionable.

Utilitarians have two ways of replying to any objection raised along these lines.

  1. Utilitarianism almost always favors abiding by the common sense rule. Utilitarians generally refuse to lie, kill, or torture because of the bad consequences of doing so.
  2. It’s true that, in extraordinary circumstances, utilitarians will recommend breaking the common sense moral rule. But, in these circumstances, that’s the right thing to do. Sticking with the common sense rule, by contrast, would be irrational.

Frequently, both arguments apply.


The main complaint about utilitarianism that we are going to discuss concerns the distribution of benefits and burdens in a society. Rawls is going to object to utilitarianism on the grounds that it allows the benefits for the many to outweigh the rights of the few. If oppressing or treating a few people unfairly would produce a positive net benefit to society as a whole, the utilitarianism would say that it is right to do so.

Rawls objects to that and his theory of justice was meant to offer a theoretically rigorous alterantive to utilitarianism that would give more weight to considerations of justice, fairness, and rights.

Becka said something interesting about the utilitarians that pushes back against what Rawls will say. She said that we can distinguish two parts of the famous utilitarian slogan: “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”‡‡ Jeremy Bentham, A Fragment on Government, Preface.

The first part seems to lead to the problem that will occupy Rawls. The second part might, if it could be spelled out, lead to the answer. Why? Because it seems to be sensitive to the distribution of happiness.

Of course, a utilitarian who wanted to combine a concern with the greatest aggregate happiness with a concern for its distribution would have to show how to combine the two. You can’t maximize two different dimensions at the same time. Perhaps that is why neither Mill nor Sidgwick used that formulation. In any event, it’s worth keeping in mind. You could accept a hedonistic theory of the good without the utilitarian’s indifference to the distribution of goods. We’ll have to remember that when talking about Rawls.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted March 30, 2009.
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