Authors: Bobbio, Matteucci, Pasquino
Summary: The entry distinguishes between empirical and normative approaches to utilitarianism, and looks at examples of each approach. First, the entry notes several empirical approaches: utilitarianism as meta-ethical theory that does not prescribe how we should act but only how acts should be understood; utilitarianism as a social-psychological theory concerning the origins and development of our moral concepts and beliefs; and utilitarianism as an analytical-explanatory theory used to analyze the criteria of moral or ethical behavior.
The more common meaning of the term, however, is the normative approach. Normative approaches share a common feature: the belief that the moral justification of an action depends on its utility, or the value of its consequences. The entry contrasts utilitarianism as a deliberative method and as an ethical system. The former concerns the mental operations a rational being must do to choose among alternatives. This approach envisages an individual taking these steps: formulating alternatives, calculating the probability that each will produce given outcomes, estimating the value of these outcomes, and finally choosing the alternative with the maximum expected utility-calculated by taking into consideration both the value and the likelihood of each outcome. Utilitarianism as an ethical system treats the relevance of effective consequences: the rightness of an action depends on its intention or motive and on its conformity with such specific moral rules. Finally, the entry surveys systems of utilitarian ethics: hedonistic and ideal utilitarianism, total and limited utilitarianism, positive and negative utilitarianism, preferential utilitarianism, and utilitarianism of actions and of norms.