Where there are disadvantaged groups who suffer income inequality or other negative consequences because of a utilitarian-based policy or action, most politicians would try to find a remedy. Utilitarians also assume that it is possible to compare the intrinsic values produced by two alternative actions and to estimate which would have better consequences. In addition, he reasoned that utilitarianism could solve the difficulties and perplexities that arise from the vagueness and inconsistencies of commonsense doctrines. But the utilitarian readily answers that the widespread practice of such acts would result in a loss of trustworthiness and security. His subject areas include philosophy, law, social science, politics, political theory, and religion. Be on the lookout for your Britannica newsletter to get trusted stories delivered right to your inbox. Most companies have a formal or informal code of ethics, which is shaped by their corporate culture, values, and regional laws. Bentham and Mill both believed that human actions are motivated entirely by pleasure and pain, and Mill saw that motivation as a basis for the argument that, since happiness is the sole end of human action, the promotion of happiness is the test by which to judge all human conduct. One such criticism is that, although the widespread practice of lying and stealing would have bad consequences, resulting in a loss of trustworthiness and security, it is not certain that an occasional lie to avoid embarrassment or an occasional theft from a rich person would not have good consequences and thus be permissible or even required by utilitarianism. Premium Membership is now 50% off! Although the appropriate amount of regulation and laws will always be a subject of debate, political and economic policies are geared primarily toward fostering as much well-being for as many people as possible, or at least they should be. Some philosophers in the utilitarian tradition have recognized certain wholly nonhedonistic values without losing their utilitarian credentials. To meet the objection to not permitting an occasional lie or theft, some philosophers have defended a modification labelled “rule” utilitarianism. Utilitarianism also differs from ethical theories that make the rightness or wrongness of an action dependent upon the motive of the agent—for, according to the utilitarian, it is possible for the right thing to be done from a bad motive. For example, say a hospital has four people whose lives depend upon receiving organ transplants: a heart, lungs, a kidney, and a liver. Macroeconomics studies an overall economy or market system, its behavior, the factors that drive it, and how to improve its performance. Thus, the English philosopher G.E. Utilitarianism is mainly characterized by two elements: happiness and consequentialism. It is, then, the total utility of individuals which is important here, the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism holds that the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. "The greatest good for the greatest number" is a maxim of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a reason-based approach to determining right and wrong, but it has limitations. Please select which sections you would like to print: Corrections? In The Methods of Ethics, Henry Sidgwickasked, "Is it total or average happiness that we seek to make a maximum?" The more expensive upper-class seats help to ease the financial burden that the airline created by making room for economy-class seats. In today's Western democracies, policymakers are generally proponents of free markets and some base level of government interference in the private lives of citizens so as to assure safety and security. (Philosophy) the theory that the criterion of virtue is utility Much of the defense of utilitarian ethics has consisted in answering these objections, either by showing that utilitarianism does not have the implications that its opponents claim it has or by arguing against the opponents’ moral intuitions. Act utilitarianism often demonstrates the concept that “the end justifies the means”—or it's worth it. A moralist, he maintained, could sum up the units of pleasure and the units of pain for everyone likely to be affected, immediately and in the future, and could take the balance as a measure of the overall good or evil tendency of an action. The theory of utilitarianism was developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. In liberal democracies throughout the centuries, the progenitors of utilitarianism spawned variants and extensions of its core principles. Cambridge University Press, 1995. Learn more. Companies also must endeavor to keep their promises and put ethics at least on par with profits. Neoliberalism is a policy model that is meant to transfer economic control from public to private sectors. An example of act utilitarianism could be when pharmaceutical companies release drugs that have been governmentally approved, but with known minor side effects because the drug is able to help more people than are bothered by the side effects. Utilitarianism is an effort to provide an answer to the practical question “What ought a person to do?” The answer is that a person ought to act so as to maximize happiness or pleasure and to minimize unhappiness or pain. The Three Generally Accepted Axioms of Utilitarianism State That, Utilitarianism's Relevance in a Political Economy, Everything You Need to Know About Macroeconomics. Investopedia uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. Moreover, utilitarianism is the most common approach to business ethics because of the way that it accounts for costs and benefits. As a normative system providing a standard by which an individual ought to act and by which the existing practices of society, including its moral code, ought to be evaluated and improved, utilitarianism cannot be verified or confirmed in the way in which a descriptive theory can, but it is not regarded by its exponents as simply arbitrary. How is happiness defined? The main idea of utilitarian ethics is: secure the greatest good for the greatest numb… Utilitarianism is a tradition of ethical philosophy that is associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, two late 18th- and 19th-century British philosophers, economists, and political thinkers. Utilitarianism would say that an action is right if it results in the happiness of the greatest number of people in a society or a group. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. Utilitarianism holds that the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. When directed toward making social, economic, or political decisions, a utilitarian philosophy would aim for the betterment of society as a whole. The belief that a morally good action is one that helps, or makes happy, the greatest number of people. English philosopher and economist Jeremy Bentham's preserved skeleton in his own clothes and surmounted by a wax head, at University College London. Utilitarianism is like hedonism in that it has the importance of … Utilitarianism is a theory of morality, which advocates actions that foster happiness and opposes actions that cause unhappiness. The theory asserts that there are two types of utilitarian ethics practiced in the business world, "rule" utilitarianism and "act" utilitarianism. The key passage from this book: "The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. Similarly, monopolistic competition teaches one business to flourish at the expense of others. Mill, in contrast to Bentham, discerned differences in the quality of pleasures that make some intrinsically preferable to others independently of intensity and duration (the quantitative dimensions recognized by Bentham). Limited government is a political system in which legalized force is restricted through delegated and enumerated powers, such as The United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. Some utilitarians, however, have sought to modify the utilitarian theory to accommodate the objections. These ethics also can be challenging to maintain in our business culture, where a capitalistic economy often teaches people to focus on themselves at the expense of others. So, although utilitarianism is surely a reason-based approach to determining right and wrong, it has obvious limitations. Utilitarianism is a species of consequentialism, the general doctrine in ethics that actions (or types of action) should be evaluated on the basis of their consequences. In utilitarian ethics, there are no shades of gray—either something is wrong or it is right. By using Investopedia, you accept our. Such precise measurement as Bentham envisioned is perhaps not essential, but it is nonetheless necessary for the utilitarian to make some interpersonal comparisons of the values of the effects of alternative courses of action. Origin. Mill has sometimes been interpreted as a “rule” utilitarian, whereas Bentham and Sidgwick were “act” utilitarians.