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utilitarianism (yo͞oˌtĭlĭtrˈēənĭzəm, yo͞otĭˌ–), 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 Bentham identified good consequences with pleasure, which is measured in terms of intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent. John Stuart Mill 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 Spencer 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 were 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).

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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.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(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.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


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
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
Among those who maintain that ethics cannot be computed, there are those who question the action-based approach to ethics that is assumed by defenders of act utilitarianism, Kant's categorical imperative, and other well-known ethical theories.
Another possibility is that Barnett believes that conception-of-justice utilitarianism is preferable to legal-rule utilitarianism or act utilitarianism because of problems of knowledge, interest, or power.
The direct/indirect distinction could be used synonymously with the distinction between act and rule utilitarianism.(30) But this distinction is also used to reflect a related but different distinction, that between principles "for use in practical moral thinking"(31) and decisions that "would be arrived at by leisured moral thought in completely adequate knowledge of the facts, as the right answer in a specific case."(32) If Barnett's approach were indirect in this sense, this would mean that the foundational moral theory is act utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism would be the theory that would be used to evaluate the individual actions made as a result of legal rules from the point of view of leisured moral thought unconstrained by problems of knowledge and interest.
Act utilitarianism seems committed to holding that he should, for it is intuitively obvious that it is better that five live and one die than vice versa.
Act utilitarianism is rejected because each of its core concepts--"act," "maximize," and "utility"--are ineluctably vague, and its prescription that an act is right if and only if it maximizes aggregate social utility is both too complex for individual calculation and too shallow to account for the close personal relationships, loyalties, and activities that make life worthwhile.
They, like private persons, should adhere not to act utilitarianism but to a rules or indirect utilitarianism, a version concerned with principles, rules, institutions, attitudes, and even character traits.