a consequentialist moral theory that says in particular that, when faced with a moral
decision, we ought to do whatever will maximize total benefit, taking everyone
concerned into consideration. (Note: "utility" is a word that needs to be defined clearly
when you're using this theory. Typically it means 'benefit', 'good' or 'happiness'.)
Utilitarianism can be summed up by the following two claims:
1. The right action in any situation is the one that produces the greatest
balance of benefit over harm.
2. Everybody counts equally.
Each of these components requires some explanation. First, what is meant
by "benefit"? Different utilitarian philosophers have interpreted this term differently.
Some have held that what is important is happiness. That is, we should maximize the
total amount of happiness or pleasure for all concerned. Others have held that what is
important is actual welfare or well-being. They argue that we should maximize the
extent to which we actually help people (and minimize harm) regardless of whether or
not that makes them happy. This distinction will not matter much for us in this course,
but it is good to be aware that there are different interpretations of what it means to
One thing that utilitarians generally agree on, however, is that they are concerned with
all types of benefits, both short-term and long-term. So, utilitarianism asks us to
consider all foreseeable benefits and harms that may result from our actions, not just
ones that will result immediately. One final note about the notion of benefit: utilitarians
are concerned not just with harms and benefits that are guaranteed, but also with harms
and benefits that are possible or likely. When a benefit or harm is possible or likely,
utilitarians tell us to include the degree of possibility in our calculations: a potential harm
or benefit that is very unlikely counts for less than a potential harm or benefit that is very
likely (though they must still be counted to some extent).
Second, what is the significance of the utilitarian's claim that "everybody counts
equally?" For one thing, this means that we are never justified in giving extra weight to
our own preferences just because they are our own. Nor are we justified in giving
preferential treatment to the interests of family or friends; as far as moral decision
making goes, strangers matter just as much. It also means, for example, that the
interests of a poor man ought to count for just as much as the interests of a king.
This does not mean that utilitarianism demands that we all benefit the same amount
from every decision. Sometimes, that won't be possible. What's important to utilitarians
is that in making a decision, everyone's interests are given equal consideration. Note
further that utilitarians do not require that we maximize benefit to each person. What
matters for utilitarians is the total amount of benefit or harm, when we "add up" the
benefits and harms for each person. So an action that harms a few people in order to
benefit a lot of people would likely be endorsed by utilitarians.
At this point it is imperative to point out that utilitarianism is often described as cost-
benefit analysis (CBA). However this is a serious misunderstanding of the