The Social Science Encyclopedia

Authors: Kuper & Kuper
Summary: The entry defines the term, notes its intellectual origins, and considers some criticisms of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a normative theory, meant to serve as the basis for sound evaluation of human actions and to guide conduct. It has many variations, but all center on the proposition that the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure (however understood) are the best standards of behavior. The founders of modern utilitarianism were Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham's hedonistic utilitarianism called for the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain. Mill complicated matters by distinguishing between lower and higher pleasures. He held that human good consists in the free development of individuals' distinctive, and distinctively human, capacities.
With some exceptions, utilitarians have generally favored social reforms. Income transfers from rich to poor, for example, are often seen as promoting the general welfare. Similarly, utilitarians have tended to champion political rights and personal liberty. Critics charge that utilitarianism distorts sound moral judgment. They argue that utilitarianism fails to take obligations seriously, and that the idea that moral principles express only more or less arbitrary attitudes is based on an exaggerated contrast between ethics and science.