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(yo͞o'tĭlĭtr`ēənĭzəm, yo͞otĭ'–), in ethics, the theory that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its usefulness in bringing about the most happiness of all those affected by it. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, which advocates that those actions are right which bring about the most good overall. Jeremy BenthamBentham, Jeremy,
1748–1832, English philosopher, jurist, political theorist, and founder of utilitarianism. Educated at Oxford, he was trained as a lawyer and was admitted to the bar, but he never practiced; he devoted himself to the scientific analysis of morals and
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 identified good consequences with pleasure, which is measured in terms of intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent. John Stuart MillMill, John Stuart,
1806–73, British philosopher and economist. A precocious child, he was educated privately by his father, James Mill. In 1823, abandoning the study of law, he became a clerk in the British East India Company, where he rose to become head of the examiner's
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 argued that pleasures differ in quality as well as quantity and that the highest good involves the highest quality as well as quantity of pleasure. Herbert SpencerSpencer, Herbert,
1820–1903, English philosopher, b. Derby. In 1848 he moved to London, where he was an editor at The Economist and wrote his first major book, Social Statics (1851), which tried to establish a natural basis for political action.
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 developed an evolutionary utilitarian ethics in which the principles of ethical living are based on the evolutionary changes of organic development. G. E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica (1903), presented a version of utilitarianism in which he rejected the traditional equating of good with pleasure. Later in the 20th cent., versions of utilitarianism have been propounded by J. J. C. Smart and R. M. Hare.


See J. J. C. Smart and B. Williams, Utilitarianism (1973); A. Sen and B. Williams, ed., Utilitarianism and Beyond (1982).


a philosophical school of thought which holds that UTILITY entails the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It is usually associated with Jeremy BENTHAM (1748-1832) and John Stuart MILL (1806-73), although some would argue that the earlier philosophical works of HOBBES, HUME and LOCKE are also utilitarian. This philosophy holds that the realization of utility should be the proper goal in life, but may be hindered by selfish prejudice and ignorance. Behaviour which enhances happiness and reduces pain ought to be encouraged and behaviour which increases unhappiness ought to be proscribed. Utilitarianism, therefore, implies a model of social action in which individuals rationally pursue their own self-interests, with SOCIETY being no more than the aggregation of individuals brought together in the realization of their individual goals. Bentham applied these principles to ECONOMICS, SOCIAL POLICY and LAW. Utilitarianism influenced the creation of many of the 19th-century institutions, many of which still survive, such as the prison and the asylum (see PANOPTICAN). SPENCER was influenced by utilitarian ideas, although DURKHEIM was critical, arguing that SOCIAL ORDER is the outcome of cultural traditions that are not reducible to individual interests. See also JUSTICE.



(1) The principle of appraising all phenomena from the point of view of their usefulness or ability to serve as a means for achieving some purpose.

(2) A trend in ethics that considers usefulness to be the basis of morality and the criterion of human behavior. It enjoyed wide popularity in Great Britain in the 19th century, reflecting the viewpoint of certain elements of the English liberal bourgeoisie.

J. Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, considered the basis of morality to be usefulness, which he identified with pleasure, or happiness. Departing from the naturalistic and extrahistorical understanding of the nature of man, Bentham saw the final purpose of morality as aiding the natural urge of man to experience pleasure and avoid suffering. According to Bentham, the essence of ethical norms and principles consisted in bringing about “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of individuals.” He considered the general prosperity to be the sum of the good of all individuals. In the words of Marx, Bentham “takes the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man. Whatever is useful to this queer normal man, and to his world, is absolutely useful” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 623, note).

The bourgeois point of view is further reflected in Bentham’s ethics in that he brings the problem of moral choice down to the simple calculation of profit and loss—the pleasure and suffering that various acts may entail. John Stuart Mill tried to modify the egoistic features of utilitarian ethics and, as a result, arrived at an eclectic combination of various principles.


Mill, J. S. Utilitarianism, 3rd ed. St. Petersburg [1900]. (Translated from English.)
Stephen, L. The English Utilitarians, vols. 1–3. London, 1900.
See also references under BENTHAM, JEREMY, and MILL, JOHN STUART.



1. the doctrine that the morally correct course of action consists in the greatest good for the greatest number, that is, in maximizing the total benefit resulting, without regard to the distribution of benefits and burdens
2. the theory that the criterion of virtue is utility
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