Notes for March 25

Main points

We talked about what utilitarianism is, how the utilitarians argued for their view, and how they defended it against the most prominent type of objection they faced.

What is utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is characterized by two elements:

  1. A hedonistic account of good and bad: good and bad ultimately consist in pleasurable or painful feelings.
  2. A consequentialist account of right and wrong: an action or policy is right if it produces better consequences than the alternatives and wrong if it does not.

You can see how this would work in practice by looking at Bentham, chapter 4, section V.

How did they argue for their view?

Generally speaking, the utilitarians supported their view by arguing that it is implicit in common sense morality, meaning the moral codes that we all follow in our everyday lives. For the most part, they said, moral rules are implicitly utilitarian: they work to produce the best results overall. When they do not work this way, according to the utilitarians, they should be regarded as irrational.

In making their points, the utilitarians had to adopt two different postures towards common sense morality. On the one hand, common sense morality provides the chief support for utilitarianism. The reason we’re given for believing utilitarianism is that it is implicit in our common sense moral codes.

On the other hand, the utilitarians tried to show that our common sense moral codes do not have the kind of status that we think they do. For example, Mill challenges the common sense view of justice. We think that our beliefs about justice reflect independent standards of conduct that we call the principles of justice. In reality, he argues, our beliefs about justice are the product of a variety of internal psychological forces. They are not formed in response to any external standards at all.

Thus when our ideas about justice conflict with utilitarianism, he maintains, only the utilitarian view will actually make sense.


There is a kind of objection to utilitarianism that occurs over and over again. This involves finding some obviously immoral thing that a utilitarian could be required to do. For example, it is possible that we might maximize utility by punishing an innocent person even though this a clearly unjust thing to do by the standards of common sense morality. Perhaps punishing the innocent would deter crime. Or perhaps a mob believes that an innocent person is guilty and they will riot if he is not framed and punished.

There are two ways of responding to this.

  1. Deny that the apparently immoral thing really would maximize utility. In the case at hand, it is highly unlikely that punishing the innocent really would maximize utility. For instance, if punishment is decoupled from wrongdoing, there is little incentive to comply with the law: you’ll be punished either way, after all.

  2. Accept the consequences. If it would be the case that doing the awful thing, like punishing the innocent, really is necessary to prevent disaster, the utilitarian will respond that it makes sense to prevent the disaster.

Key concepts

  1. What utilitarians believe.
  2. The relationship between utilitarianism and common sense morality.
  3. How utilitarians answer the charge of injustice.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted March 27, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy