Utilitarianism began as a movement in ethics of the late eighteenth-century primarily associated with the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The basic principle of Utilitarianism involves a calculus of happiness, in which actions are deemed to be good if they tend to produce happiness in the form of pleasure and evil if they tend to promote pain. As such, the philosophy is said to derive from the classical concept of hedonism, which values the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. The sophisticated system proposed by Bentham and later expanded by John Stuart Mill and others regards not only the end product of happiness, or utility, in actions, but also considers the motives of actions and the extent to which happiness can be created not only for the individual, but also for the members of society as a whole.

Both Bentham and Mill forwarded a belief in the intrinsic nature of value; thus good or the lack thereof could be regarded as inherent in an act or thing—a concept that allowed for the mathematical calculation of utility. Beginning from this view, the Utilitarians created systems of moral behavior as standards for how an individual ought to act in society. Bentham's principle of utility is frequently regarded as the “greatest happiness principle,” the simple idea behind which is that individuals should endeavor to maximize happiness for the greatest number of people. While Bentham modified this concept over time, critics acknowledge that its essence remains intact throughout his work. Bentham developed this principle throughout a number of writings, including his most significant work of moral philosophy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). Ostensibly a plan for a penal code, An Introduction contains Bentham's view that individuals in society should act for the benefit of the community as a whole, and analyzes the means by which legislation should enumerate the penalties for those who refuse to contribute to the overall benefit of society. In this work, Bentham also sought to specifically record the sources of pleasure and pain, as well as to create a scale upon which the relative effects of individual acts in producing happiness or misery could be examined.

Notable among the Utilitarians to follow Bentham, the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill made considerable contributions to Utilitarian philosophy, beginning with his succinct apologia for the doctrine in Utilitarianism (1861). The essay displays Mill's emphasis on rational calculation as the means by which human beings strive toward personal happiness. Mill's remaining philosophical writings elucidate his Utilitarianism, especially in regard to a number of related practical issues, including women's suffrage, and legislative and educational reform. Following his death, Mill's system was later expanded by his disciple Henry Sidgwick, who in his Methods of Ethics (1874) discussed the means by which individuals may endeavor to achieve moral action through reasoned behavior.

Numerous other individuals contributed to the Utilitarian movement in the nineteenth century, including the British philosophers John Austin and James Mill (J. S. Mill's father). In theory and in practice, Utilitarianism has continued to be influential, with the work of Bentham and Mill proving to be of the greatest importance and interest. Commentators on the writings of both men have continued the process of analyzing and codifying their work in order to more clearly define the doctrine. Among the principal interpretations have been a bifurcation of the philosophy into so-called “rule” and “act” Utilitarianism, the former emphasizing the importance of unbending codes of moral behavior that may not be violated, and the latter allowing for a freer interpretation that permits the breaking of certain Utilitarian rules under individual circumstances. Further criticism of Bentham's and Mill's Utilitarianism has focused on the important concept of justice as it applies to the principles of liberty and utility advocated by both. Additionally, critics have suggested the significant limitations of an ethical system that attempts to reduce human behavior and action to simple rational calculations of pleasure versus pain, but at the same time they acknowledge its considerable impact on nineteenth- and twentieth-century normative ethics.

Representative Works

Jeremy Bentham
An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (philosophy) 1789
Leading Principles of the Constitutional Code (philosophy) 1830

John Stuart Mill
A System of Logic, Ratiocinative And Inductive: Being A Connected View of The Principles Of Evidence, and the Methods of Scientific Investigation (philosophy) 1843
On Liberty (philosophy) 1859
Utilitarianism (philosophy) 1861
The Subjection of Women (philosophy) 1869

Henry Sidgwick
Methods of Ethics (philosophy) 1874

Criticism: J. S. Mill's Utilitarianism: Liberty, Equality, Justice

Jan Narveson (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Rights and Utilitarianism,” in New Essays on John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism, edited by Wesley E. Cooper, Kai Nielson, and Steven C. Patten, Canadian Association for Publishing in Philosophy, 1979, pp. 137-60.

[In the following essay, Narveson explores the conflict between justice and utility in the thought of J. S. Mill.]


Few questions about utilitarianism have been more vexed than that of its relation to rights (and its associated notion, justice). It is commonplace to hold that there are nonutilitarian rights, rights not founded on considerations of utility. And it is even thought that the very notion of...

(The entire section is 11526 words.)

D. A. Lloyd Thomas (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Rights, Consequences, and Mill on Liberty,” in Of Liberty, edited by A. Phillips Griffiths, Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 167-80.

[In the following essay, Thomas offers philosophical and moral justifications for Mill's liberty principle as contained in his essay, On Liberty.]

Mill says that the object of his essay On Liberty is to defend a certain principle, which I will call the ‘liberty principle’, and will take to say the following1: ‘It is permissible, in principle, for the state (through law) or society (through social pressure) to control the actions of individuals “only in respect to those actions of each,...

(The entire section is 6474 words.)

Mark Strasser (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Mill's Moral View,” in The Moral Philosophy of John Stuart Mill: Toward Modifications of Contemporary Utilitarianism, Longwood Academic, 1991, pp. 23-53.

[In the following essay, Strasser evaluates Mill's moral stance and characterizes Mill primarily as an “act-utilitarian.”]

Both the quantity and the quality of pleasures must be considered in utility calculations. However, Mill's theory needs further explication, since we must discuss whose happiness should be promoted. For example, Mill might claim that an individual acts rightly if her action promotes her own happiness. Or, he might claim that an individual acts rightly if her action promotes...

(The entire section is 10684 words.)

Roger Crisp (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Utilitarianism and Equality: The Subjection of Women,” in Mill on Utilitarianism, Routledge, 1997, pp. 201-15.

[In the following essay, Crisp considers the implications of Mill's utilitarianism with regard to the equality of women.]


… [The] cornerstone of Mill's practical view is the principle of utility. According to this principle, the right act is that which maximizes overall welfare. Some of our acts involve our taking part in the practices of everyday, or ‘customary’, morality. Because my child is less likely to attack others if I encourage her to feel proud at her...

(The entire section is 5097 words.)

Henry R. West (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Mill's ‘Proof’ of the Principle of Utility,” in Mill's Utilitarianism, edited by David Lyons, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997, pp. 85-98.

[In the following essay, West asserts the logical plausibility of Mill's proof of his utility principle.]

Utilitarianism, in every one of its forms or formulations, requires a theory for the evaluation of consequences. Whether the units of behavior being judged are acts, rules, practices, attitudes, or institutions, to judge them by their utility, that is, by their contribution to good or bad ends, requires a theory of what count as good or bad ends. In the philosophies of the classical utilitarians,...

(The entire section is 5902 words.)

Criticism: Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism: The Science Of Happiness

David Lyons (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Bentham's Utilitarianism: A Differential Interpretation” in In the Interest of the Governed: A Study in Bentham's Philosophy of Utility and Law, Clarendon Press, 1973, pp. 19-34.

[In the following excerpt, Lyons explores Bentham's basic principle of utility and its relationship to morality, ethics, and government.]


The principle of utility, Bentham says, is the foundation of his work on morals and legislation. This is so, and in a variety of ways. The criterion of utility shapes his attitudes and judgements in every area of life. No philosopher has embraced a doctrine more consistently; none has...

(The entire section is 6107 words.)

Frederick Rosen (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “The Greatest Happiness Principle,” in Jeremy Bentham and Representative Democracy: A Study of the ‘Constitutional Code,’ Clarendon Press, 1983, pp. 200-20.

[In the following essay, Rosen analyzes Jeremy Bentham's greatest happiness principle, focusing particularly on the related ideal of equality.]

There is no necessary connection between utilitarianism and democracy. Many democrats have not been utilitarians and many utilitarians (including Bentham himself during a considerable portion of his life) have not been democrats. Nevertheless, the democratic principles of the Constitutional Code rest on a utilitarian foundation, and this study of...

(The entire section is 7998 words.)

James E. Crimmins (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Ethics and the Science of Legislation,” in Secular Utilitarianism: Social Science and the Critique of Religion in the Thought of Jeremy Bentham, Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. 66-98.

[In the following excerpt, Crimmins views the scientific basis of Bentham's utility principle and its hostility toward religious ethics.]

Weak reasoners in morals, by a kind of instinct, take shelter behind the altar. Yet not even this shall save [them]. Mankind is too deeply interested in the display of those truths which [they] would keep concealed … to make it pardonable to desist from the pursuit. The Sanctuary is in its own nature common ground, unless...

(The entire section is 12074 words.)

Further Reading


Johnson, Edgar. “A Christmas Carol Criticizes England's Economic System.” In Readings on Charles Dickens, edited by Clarice Swisher, pp. 86-93. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 1998.

Views Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol as “an attack upon both the economic behavior of the nineteenth-century businessman and the supporting theory of doctrinaire utilitarianism.”

Kelly, P. J. Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice: Jeremy Bentham and the Civil Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, 240 p.

Begins a revisionist assessment of Bentham's moral theory that takes into account the...

(The entire section is 262 words.)