We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy

The Utilitarian Theory

The whole doc is available only for registered users
  • Pages: 15
  • Word count: 3728
  • Category: Society

A limited time offer! Get a custom sample essay written according to your requirements urgent 3h delivery guaranteed

Order Now


The most significant theorists behind utilitarian theory are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The theory is based on the idea that the morality of an act is based exclusively on its utility. Utilitarian theory holds that the right action is the one that brings happiness to the majority. In relation to all other options, the one that results in maximum possible happiness is the right one. It is also the kind of action that assures the wellbeing of the humanity in totality. This is what is referred to as negative utilitarian (Shaw 1999). Negative utilitarian holds that the morality of an action depends with the ability of the action to alleviate human suffering. Utilitarian theory defines ethics according to the resulting happiness and not the innate moral importance of the act itself.

The theory has no provisions for the significance of the action itself, as long as the results are right. This is to say that as long as an act results to maximum happiness, the nature of the act itself does not matter. The morality of an action is based on the results or the outcome. This makes the theory a form of consequentialism. The theory is also referred to as ‘the greatest happiness principle’ (Rosen 2003). The theory can be defined as a life stance with happiness as the final significance. The theory is a controversial one, when applied to modern day social life. It is a theory that has a considerable impact on the society, and at the same time one that is faced with criticism for going against the fundamentals moral principles of the society (Ryder 2001). This paper seeks to find out whether the utilitarian is an attractive theory of political morality.

Act utilitarian asserts that when an individual is faced with an option, he must take into considerations the possible implications of possible decisions and from the options select the one that is believed as capable of providing the greatest happiness. The consideration is only on the end results of an action. Actions will be considered either ethical or unethical of the basis of the good to the majority. Ethical decisions are the ones that will ensure the happiness of the most. The society is made up of many people and the contentment of the majority should be the key consideration in actions and decisions (Ryder 2001).

The theory is a simple one that can be applied to any situation in society. There is a clear cut in what is right and what is wrong. The principle is for the leaders to always go for the act that presents the greatest utility. There is nothing more beneficial in life than promotion of human life and wellbeing. Therefore, the theory is important in governance where it advocates for actions to be carried out for the good of the humanity. It should be the moral duty of people to alleviate human suffering in all situations. To decide on the action or decision to take, there is only the need to look at the one that will result in the good of the society. From this point of view, political decisions based on what is for the benefit of the majority and the ones that will cause the least suffering to humanity are moral and should be the ones sought in any situation. It is crucial that all institutions adapt to utilitarian theory as a way of ensuring that the society is contented and that its wellbeing is taken care of (Rosen 2003).

Morality according to utilitarian theory is a theory that advocates for the use of common sense. It is not possible to identify the right cause to take without first thinking critically. The society requires leaders who can critically analyse a situation and the alternatives available for it thus picking on the most appropriate. Failure to do this would render political decisions impulse, consequently impacting negative to the society. It is from this point of view that the political system has an obligation of considering utilitarian in actions and decision concerning the society.

Rule utilitarian should not be confused with the rule of the thumb. However, utilitarian advocates for the use of the rule of the thumb for the situations that are more complicated. It is not very easy to calculate the results in deciding which action to take. This is where the rule of the thumb is required to decide what action to go for. Nevertheless, where the situation is a straight forward one, that is, where the results can be calculated without much calculation, then the rule of the thumb is not necessary (Shaw 1999).

Rule utilitarian starts by analysing the possible rules of action. To find out whether the rule should be adhered to, there is the need to establish the outcome if the rule is followed continually. If the rule is likely to produce the greatest pleasure to the majority, then it should be the one that is to be adhered to. In other words, it is the one that is moral. The rule that is ethical should be the one that should be adhered to all the time. In this case, the rule is tested and found to be one that generates the most benefit to the majority. When such a rule is being applied to situations, there is no need for speculations. This is because it is a general rule that is already evaluated for moral worthiness and has been found fulfilling. In political situations, it is crucial that such rules are established. This is because there are a lot of similar or related decisions that are always being made in various circumstances. Some decisions might be required within a short time that might not allow leaders to calculate the right or rather the great happiness. In this case, they will be acting morally and in the good of the majority by musing rule utilitarian. It is also important to have the rules that can be applied by the people who are not able to calculate the result and determine the course to take (Dennett 1999).

The most fundamental moral principle is that there is always need to escalate happiness and deviate human suffering. The society, both locally and internationally is undergoing a lot of suffering and it is for their good that this suffering is alleviated. Morality must offer the dictate that the actions that result to moral duty finally endorse the social welfare. Contentment is thus the final end of morality. This is because the social welfare, must comprise, and can possibly be described exclusively as happiness. When the people have good social welfare, they have no reason not to be happy. Utilitarian is thus a universally compassionate theory of morality. In this case, self-destructive and damaging moral rules have no place. There is no allowance for the society to encourage political actions and decisions that have no benefit to the society. Political decisions and actions that are grounded on utilitarian ethics are crucial for any political system, both locally and internationally (Ryder 2001).

Rule utilitarian has been criticised for use of rules that might seem moral by with time tend to reduce the happiness. Life and other circumstances that surround are dynamic. Things are always changing, and it might be possible that the rule that produced the greatest happiness, does not lead to the same results today. This means that if such a rule continues to be used, it will be contradicting morality according to the utilitarian theory. However, there is an addition to rule utilitarian that there is common exception rules that allows for the breaking of others if such breaking raises pleasure. This is for instance in self-defence. In this case, the rules remain valid in decisions. This means that where a rule is no longer in a position to produce great happiness, then there is always another rule that allows to the breaking of the previous one (Cornman, et al.1992).

However there are counterarguments to the fact that utilitarian ethics is a proper theory in political matters. One of the arguments is based on rule authoritarian. In handling exceptions, rule utilitarian goes back to act utilitarian. In this case the disadvantages of act utilitarian are reflected in the rule utilitarian. Rules are necessary for good governance, especially if the rules are established for the good of the society. It is important that the society is guided and led through effective rules. Nevertheless, the use of exception rules in rule utilitarian makes exceptions to the existing rules in the name of great happiness. It is possible that the existing rule is the one that is ethical, but as long as it does not provide the greatest happiness it can be replaced by one that is unethical (Rosen 2003).

There is the argument that it is not yet clear what “the greatest good” stands for. For Bentham, this concept applied to the propensity to supplement or reduce happiness, with no differences between happiness and people, all measures are stringently quantitative. For Mill on the other hand, not all pleasures were equally significant (Singer1993).  Mill defined the good in relation to the wellbeing. He differentiated the various kinds of happiness, not only quantitatively but also qualitatively. Either way, the theory describes the moral right objectively. It is argued that the determination of the results as well as the possible consequences is a complicated process that makes the theory unattractive to political morality. There is always the issue of the time and complexity of quantifying the right that will result from an action. Most political decisions may not allow the time to calculate the right. In other cases, some people might not be able to calculate the right, hence leading to actions that negatively affect the society (Dennett 1999).

Judging the action by the outcome is not easy. This is because it is not always easy to tell what the outcome or the consequence of the action will be beforehand. It is also not very possible to know who might be affected by the action beforehand. Political matters are actions that require care because they tend to affect a lot of people. If there is an assurance that the action will result in the good of the humanity, then it is worth taking it. The argument here is that the lives and wellbeing of a nations or nations cannot be based on speculated results. There is always the issue of the results turning out to be the opposite of what is expected. If a political decision is based on a speculation and later turns out to be opposite of what is expected, it can be detrimental and the worst is that the results are irreversible. The society lives with the negative effects of a wrong decision in the name of morality (Shaw 1999).

Based on the fact that the greatest good for the majority is determined in collective terms, the good may be possible to accomplish, but under conditions that are harmful. As long as the damage is countered by a greater good, then the theory advocates for the action. Political decisions based on this view of morality, might at the end be harmful at the long run. Such are decisions that might produce happiness in the short-term and lead to damage in the long-run. One of the examples of such an act is the global issue concerning global warming. It is for the great happiness that political decisions are made to support the increase of industries, as long as the majority continues to benefit from employment and availability of more consumer goods enabling lower prices. According to the utilitarian theory, this decision is ethical for it produces great happiness to the majority. The increase in the number of industries that emit carbon, leads to global warming. This is a very harmful condition that if not dealt with will in future causes a lot of damages to the environment, human and animal lives (Rosen 2003).

 It is argued that utilitarian goes against some of the moral principles of the society. The question that many ask is whether pleasure is the only element that matters in determining the morality of an action. There is also the question on whether happiness is in a position to fully define morality. These questions lead the society to wonder the possibility of majority experiencing happiness out of an immoral action. In this case, just by producing great happiness, an immoral act ceases to be immoral and be comes moral. An illustration of this is provided in a case of a sheriff whose decision is to frame a black man who is not guilt of rape. The sheriff claims that the man has committed the crime against a white woman. The rationale behind his act is to avoid race demonstrations and possible loss of lives. The people in the town are obviously happy that the perpetrator is apprehended. The majority are happy and the action of the sheriff alleviates human suffering. Despite the fact that the action is right according to the theory, in the society’s standards the act is morally wrong (Silverstein 1972).

Decisions based on happiness are short-term. Looking at the case of the sheriff and the rapist, the sheriff was able fix the problem. This is because the rapist was arrested, the people got happy and there were no riots or loss of lives. Questions come up in that what would happen if the people got to realise that the supposed rapist was not the right one. What would happen to the people in the town if they realised what the sheriff had done? Would he be in a position to prevent the situation that would come up as a result? This are the issues that the theory fails to address. In case the people realised that the real rape is still free, it is possible that the kind of riot would be worst than if it had taken place the first time. In most cases, political decisions based on act utilitarian are made at the spur of the moment and for solving the situation at hand. They tend to solve present problems. The problem also comes up when the decisions are carried out in ignorance. In this case, when the society realises what is really happening, there are major problems as a result (Rosen 2003).

Utilitarian decisions are sometimes very hard decisions to make. They also leave people wondering the significance of such decisions. It is possible to look at the consequences at the moment and fail to regard the consequences at the inexperienced future. There are situations where the consequences are not clear. In such a situation, use of utilitarian theory to base the decision is not right. This means therefore that a political system based on this idea of morality, might at times make decisions that are not right and that can end up causing more harm than good. For example, people still question the decision to use atomic bomb in Japan to end the war. From the utilitarian perspective it was a moral action because the end of the war was for the good of many. However, the action is controversial even to date for the suffering and harm it caused people in that country (Quinton 2003).

Act utilitarian in its fixed pursuit of pleasure, can cause ignorance to the fundamental human rights and freedoms. If an action produces great happiness, it will not matter whether the action infringes on the human rights and freedoms. The stand of this theory is that ‘end justifies the means.’ It does not matter how the end is attained, what matters is that it is attained and that it is one that produces greatest happiness. An action despite of its non-utilitarian understanding will be right as long as it provides pleasure to the majority, more than other actions. This means that in a situation where there are two choices, one that is likely to produce the greatest happiness at the expense of human rights and the other that respects human rights but does not produce maximum happiness, it is morally right as per the theory to pick the former. This can be backed up by the case of the sheriff and the arrest of the innocent black man. By apprehending the innocent man, the sheriff violated his right to freedom, but his action was right for it was for the pleasure of the majority (Simmons 1981).

It is argued that an act can be moral in its own right independent of the outcome. These kinds of acts are ignored by the utilitarian theory. Those moral acts that are not in a position to produce the greatest happiness are generally wrong as per the theory. It is possible that the means have significance in themselves independent from the ends. This means that actions can have inherent meaning in themselves (Kay 1997).

The theory does not provide any account of political obligation. This is because it is a ‘one ideal’ theory. It is right to break a promise, if this is what will produce happiness to the majority. This reveals that there is no political obligation to the fulfilment of promises. It is easier and right to break a promise if the situation will produce greater happiness in breaking it (Quinton 2003).

In the view of the negative utilitarian that advocates for the act that will result to the least suffering, it is not proper for utilitarian to be used in leadership. This is because it would be ethical to wipe out the entire humanity if the act is aimed at relieving them from suffering. For example, if a community is about to face an epidemic like a plague, it would be morally right to wipe out the community in a less painful way, than let them wait for the epidemic. It is common for human beings to live longer even if it means living in suffering. No one wants to die even when it is inevitable. People are always hoping to survive through the face of suffering in hope that their situation will improve. No one will accept the idea of quick and painless death even as a solution to a long life full of pain. It would be an ethical political decision to use technological means to reduce the population. This means that part of the world will be sacrificed to lessen the suffering of those that will be left. And from the point of view that the world would be at a better state with less population, it obviously does not follow that a political movement should be put in place to ensure that this comes to pass. Such a political movement will obviously be counterproductive (Kay 1997).


Where there is a moral political system, the society becomes a perfect one. The political structure should therefore be such that the leaders act morally and in such a way that is for the benefit of the society. Despite the fact that what may seem like a perfect society is one where there is happiness for the members and there is minimum human suffering, these are not the defining aspects of a perfect society (Kay 1997). Human beings can be contented either in ignorance or in knowledge, as a result of unethical actions and political decisions. It is possible to consider a community where the members are contented for all the wrong reasons.

People can be deprived, face lack of freedom and acts of violence and still be happy. As long as the majority are happy it does not matter the conditions that are making this possible. It is also possible for people to lack happiness where there are moral conditions like compassion, forgiveness, and philanthropy. The point here is that happiness does not reveal morality. It is possible therefore for leaders who base morality on happiness to manipulate the situation as long as the majority are happy. Looking at happiness as the basis for decisions is not proper for decisions that are so important to the society. Evaluating morality using happiness results in absurd and anti-intuitive decisions that might not benefit the society in the long-run, and should not be used in the political system. Utilitarian theory is thus unattractive to political morality (Quinton 2003).


This paper seeks to find out whether the utilitarian is an attractive theory of political morality. It is evident that utilitarian is a positive theory that would be capable of producing positive results where actions are carried out for the good of all. It is possible to carry out actions that produce happiness to the majority, as well as alleviate suffering to the humanity. Regardless of these facts it is not for anyone’s benefit that social morality is twisted in the name of greatest happiness. This is happiness that cannot be quantified and where that happens, it might not be possible to determine the act that will produce the happiness. It is possible that the action that produces that outcome is infringing the human rights that people have fought for years to protect. Political actions and decisions especially those that are affecting a lot of people cannot be based on mare speculations. The theory is therefore unattractive in political morality.


Cornman, J., et al.1992, Philosophical Problems and Arguments – An Introduction, 4th edition

Hackett Publishing Co., Indianapolis, IN.

Dennett, D. 1999, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Simon & Schuster, London.

Kay, C. 1997, Notes on Utilitarianism. Available on April 27 2010 from


Quinton, A. 2003, Utilitarian Ethics: Second Edition, Duckworth Publishers, London.

Rosen, F. 2003, Classical Utilitarianism from Hume to Mill. Routledge, New York.

Ryder, R. D. 2001, Painism: A Modern Morality. Centaur Press, Sussex

Shaw, W. H., 1999, Contemporary Ethics: taking account of utilitarianism. Oxford: Blackwell

Publishers Inc.

Singer, P.  1993, Practical Ethics, 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Silverstein, H. S. 1972, A Defence of Cornman’s Utilitarian Kantian Principle, Philosophical

Studies vol 23, pp. 212–215.

Simmons, J. 1981, Moral principles and political obligations, Princeton University Press, New


Related Topics

We can write a custom essay

According to Your Specific Requirements

Order an essay
Materials Daily
100,000+ Subjects
2000+ Topics
Free Plagiarism
All Materials
are Cataloged Well

Sorry, but copying text is forbidden on this website. If you need this or any other sample, we can send it to you via email.

By clicking "SEND", you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We'll occasionally send you account related and promo emails.
Sorry, but only registered users have full access

How about getting this access

Your Answer Is Very Helpful For Us
Thank You A Lot!


Emma Taylor


Hi there!
Would you like to get such a paper?
How about getting a customized one?

Can't find What you were Looking for?

Get access to our huge, continuously updated knowledge base

The next update will be in:
14 : 59 : 59