Utilitarianism is a theory of consequences. A Utilitarian believes that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good/happiness.

As special as you are, you are no more special than anyone else


It is not ego-based however, personal good is not considered – it is the scope of the relevant consequences that determine the morality of the choice. Maximising overall “good/happiness” is the path to an ethical life for a Utilitarian.

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.


While not fully articulated till the 19th century, variants of this normative ethic have have been present throughout the history of philosophy and various refinements have occurred, or been conflated with, Utilitarianism since the proposal of “Classical Utilitarianism”. The most common of these are:

  • Act Utilitarianism
  • Rule Utilitarianism
  • Ideal Utilitarianism
  • Consequentialism

Crash Course considers “act” and “rule” utilitarianism to be “meta categories” for Utilitarianism, their discussion of this starts here in the video below, if you wish to skip to it.

As with everything in philosophy – the nuance is in the discussion. This classification of approaches to Utilitarianism being “Act vs Rule” was the result of analysis done from a “Rule” utilitarian framework 2. As someone who does not have a deep understanding of the history or philosophical underpinnings of Utilitarianism, it seems important to me to question whether using a using a binary framework to determine a meta-classification system predicates a binary outcome to said analysis though 🤔

Areas in which there appears to be general agreement on Utilitarianism include:
– impartiality
– agent-neutrality
– everyone’s happiness counts the same

There seems to be less agreement in the debate around why “happiness” is privileged over other “values” important to society. Some philosophers have asked what happens to Utilitarianist frameworks if happiness is replaced, with “personhood” or “beauty” – for example – and how does the social construction of ideas around and understanding of the value/virtue “happiness” itself within a community impact on how a Utilitarian view ought to “maximise the overall good”?

So, if people are interested in further Campfire Discussions about Utilitarianism, there is a lot to unpack. As one of the most persuasive approaches normative ethics, and a philosophy we can sometimes feel like we should understand more easily. Scratching the surface unveils a wealth of thought exercises that challenge and perplex.

  1. Driver, Julia, “The History of Utilitarianism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2022/entries/utilitarianism-history/.sophy
  2. West, Henry R. and Duignan, Brian. “utilitarianism”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Invalid Date, https://www.britannica.com/topic/utilitarianism-philosophy. Accessed 12 February 2023.

Published by Korin

Pronunciation: [K oh R ih N]

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