Revision:As philosophy - ethics


Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory; that is, assessing the merits of an act based on its consequences.

Problems as a whole:

  • Utilitarianism rests on the principle that we desire happiness for ourselves but seems to assume that we desire happiness for other people.
  • Is-ought gap: just because we desire it doesn't mean we ought to pursue happiness.

There are different variations:


Devised by Jeremy Bentham (HEDONIST). Involves assessing every act individually based on the consequences; will it bring more pleasure than pain to more people? Example: shall I steal this c.d.? It will bring pleasure to you but not to the shop owner who will lose money, you might get caught which will bring pain to you, etc so I should not do this act. Egalitarian- every person is equal, one person's pleasure or pain is not any more important than another's. Also talked about the felicific calculus in order to work out the pleasure and pain of an act - how much pleasure/pain, how many people, how long will it last.

Good points:

  • egalitarian is very fair, doesn't assume one person to be any more important than another.


  • If a group of child abusers were to torture a child without being found out then this would bring the most pleasure to the most people and would therefore be right; but no-one can believe this is a right act!

Utilitarians respond that it is very likely that people will get found out and so it is wrong, but this is an uncomfortable response; surely there is just something wrong about this? Also, if they definitely would not get found out then it would still be right according to act utilitarianism.

  • It is a very time consuming theory, weighing up the consequences of every single act. also means that you would never be able to do anything nice for yourself as it would always bring more pleasure to give money to charity than to buy an ice cream. (point that is somewhat erased by rule)


Devised by John Stuart Mill who was not as much of an egalitarian as Bentham. Mill came up with idea of higher and lower pleasures, saying that it is "better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides."

Rule says that, instead of weighing up every single act we should just devise a set of rules to follow that are designed to bring the most pleasure to the most people. We should follow these all the time.

Good points:

  • gets away from the impracticality of act.


  • Who devises the rules, and how can we all agree on them?
    • Mill says a group of competent judges who have experienced all types of pleasures but this is very elitist and how can we be sure they will agree?
  • In a situation where terrible things would happen if you kept the rule what are you supposed to do? eg if someone would die unless you lied. Mill says we should always keep the rule but this seems undoable.
  • What happens when two rules conflict? e.g. don't break a promise and don't lie, looking at Kant's example of a murderer at the door with the intended victim inside; do you lie or break your promise to your friend?
    • Mill says there are secondary principles which are rules that have shown through experience that they cause the greatest happiness. Mill's examples are don't cause injury to others, don't deceive or lie. So this answers this criticism.


It is still consequentialist because it insists that the only thing that matters in assessing an act are its consequences but says that instead of promoting happiness we should be promoting intrinsically good things. G.E. Moore says that these things are friendship and aesthetic pleasures.


  • why only friendship and aesthetic pleasures? These are valuable but surely there are other things?
    • However Moore was only one ideal utilitarian, there were others with different views on what was intrinsically good so we need not be confined by Moore's view.
  • is-ought gap; these things might be intrinsically good but where is our motivation to pursue them without involving happiness in the equation?


Says we should aim to satisfy our preferences first, this will cause most happiness.


  • satisfying preferences is not always good, e.g. children don't have a preference to learn to read but it is good in the long term. Sometimes it is good to have desires frustrated.

Positive & negative

Positive says we should focus on maximising happiness rather than decreasing unhappiness, negative vice-versa.


  • negative: means that if we killed everyone in the world we would be reducing unhappiness as no one would be alive to feel pain.
  • reducing unhappiness means we do not get a broad spectrum of emotions, only mediocre ones.