In the history of English philosophy, some historians have
identified Bishop Richard Cumberland, a 17th-century moral philosopher, as the first to have a Utilitarian philosophy. A generation later, however,
Francis Hutcheson, a British “moral sense” theorist, more clearly held a Utilitarian view. He not only analyzed that
action as best that “procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers” but proposed a form of “moral
arithmetic” for calculating the best consequences. The Skeptic David Hume, Scotland's foremost philosopher and historian, attempted to analyze the origin of the virtues in terms
of their contribution to utility. Bentham himself said that he discovered the principle of utility in the 18th-century
writings of various thinkers: of Joseph Priestley, a dissenting clergyman famous for his discovery of oxygen; of the Frenchman Claude-Adrien Helvétius, author of a philosophy of mere sensation; of Cesare Beccaria, an Italian legal theorist; and of Hume. Helvétius probably drew from Hume, and Beccaria from Helvétius.
Another strand of Utilitarian thought took the form of a
theological ethics. John Gay, a biblical scholar and philosopher, held the will
of God to be the criterion of virtue; but from God's goodness he inferred that God willed that men promote human happiness.
Bentham, who apparently believed that an individual in governing his own actions would always seek to maximize his
own pleasure and minimize his own pain, found in pleasure and pain both the cause of human action and the basis for a normative
criterion of action. The art of governing one's own actions Bentham called “private ethics.” The happiness
of the agent is the determining factor; the happiness of others governs only to the extent that the agent is motivated by
sympathy, benevolence, or interest in the good will and good opinion of others. For Bentham, the greatest happiness
of the greatest number would play a role primarily in the art of legislation, in which the legislator would seek to maximize the happiness of the entire community by creating an identity of interests
between each individual and his fellows. By laying down penalties for mischievous acts, the legislator would make it unprofitable
for a man to harm his neighbour. Bentham's major philosophical work, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and
Legislation (1789), was designed as an introduction to a plan of a penal code.
With Bentham, Utilitarianism became the ideological
foundation of a reform movement, later known as “philosophical radicalism,” that would test all institutions and policies by the principle of utility. Bentham attracted
as his disciples a number of younger (earlier 19th-century) men. They included David Ricardo, who gave classical form to the science of economics; John Stuart Mill's father, James Mill; and John Austin, a legal theorist. James Mill argued for representative government and universal male suffrage
on Utilitarian grounds; he and other followers of Bentham were advocates of parliamentary reform in England in the early 19th century. John Stuart Mill was a spokesman for women's
suffrage, state-supported education for all, and other proposals that were considered radical in their day. He argued on Utilitarian
grounds for freedom of speech and expression and for the noninterference of government or society in individual behaviour
that did not harm anyone else. Mill's essay “Utilitarianism,” published in Fraser's Magazine (1861), is an elegant defense of the
general Utilitarian doctrine and perhaps remains the best introduction to the subject. In it Utilitarianism is viewed as an
ethics for ordinary individual behaviour as well as for legislation.
Historical survey > Late 19th- and 20th-century Utilitarianism
By the time Sidgwick wrote, Utilitarianism had become one of the foremost ethical theories of the day. His Methods of Ethics (1874), a comparative examination of egoism, the ethics of
common sense, and Utilitarianism, contains the most careful discussion to be found of the implications of Utilitarianism as
a principle of individual moral action.
The 20th century has seen the development of various modifications
and complications of the Utilitarian theory. G.E. Moore argued for a set of ideals extending beyond hedonism by proposing that one imaginatively compare universes in
which there are equal quantities of pleasure but different amounts of knowledge and other such combinations. He felt that
he could not be indifferent toward such differences. The recognition of “act” Utilitarianism and “rule”
Utilitarianism as explicit alternatives was stimulated by the analysis of moral reasoning in “rule” Utilitarian
terms by Stephen Toulmin, a British philosopher of science and moralist, and by Patrick Nowell-Smith, a moralist of the Oxford linguistic school;
by the interpretation of Mill as a “rule” Utilitarian by another Oxford Analyst, J.O. Urmson; and by the analysis by John Rawls, a Harvard moral philosopher, of the significance for Utilitarianism of two different conceptions of moral rules.
“Act” Utilitarianism, on the other hand, has been defended by J.J.C. Smart, a British-Australian philosopher.
Effects of Utilitarianism in other fields
The influence of Utilitarianism has been widespread,
permeating the intellectual life of the last two centuries. Its significance in law, politics, and economics is especially
The Utilitarian theory of the justification of punishment stands in opposition to the “retributive” theory, according to which punishment is intended to make
the criminal “pay” for his crime. According to the Utilitarian, the rationale of punishment is entirely to prevent
further crime by either reforming the criminal or protecting society from him and to deter others from crime through fear
In its political philosophy Utilitarianism bases the authority
of government and the sanctity of individual rights upon their utility, thus providing an alternative to theories of natural
law, natural rights, or social contract. What kind of government is best thus becomes a question of what kind of government
has the best consequences—an assessment that requires factual premises regarding human nature and behaviour.
Generally, Utilitarians have supported democracy as a way of making the interest of government coincide with the general interest; they have argued for the greatest
individual liberty compatible with an equal liberty for others on the ground that each individual is generally the best judge
of his own welfare; and they have believed in the possibility and the desirability of progressive social change through peaceful
With different factual assumptions, however, Utilitarian
arguments can lead to different conclusions. If the inquirer assumes that a strong government is required to check man's basically
selfish interests and that any change may threaten the stability of the political order, he may be led by Utilitarian arguments
to an authoritarian or conservative position. On the other hand, William Godwin, an early 19th-century political philosopher, assumed the basic goodness of human nature and argued that the
greatest happiness would follow from a radical alteration of society in the direction of anarchistic Communism.
Classical economics received some of its most important statements from Utilitarian
writers, especially Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. Ironically, its theory of economic value was framed primarily in terms of
the cost of labour in production rather than in terms of the use value, or utility, of commodities. Later developments more
clearly reflected the Utilitarian philosophy. William Jevons, one of the founders of the marginal utility school of analysis, derived many of his ideas from Bentham; and
“welfare economics,” while substituting comparative preferences for comparative utilities, reflected the basic
spirit of the Utilitarian philosophy. In economic policy, the early Utilitarians had tended to oppose governmental interference
in trade and industry on the assumption that the economy would regulate itself for the greatest welfare if left alone; later
Utilitarians, however, lost confidence in the social efficiency of private enterprise and were willing to see governmental
power and administration used to correct its abuses. As a movement for the reform of social institutions, 19th-century Utilitarianism was remarkably successful in the long
run. Most of their recommendations have since been implemented unless abandoned by the reformers themselves; and, equally
important, Utilitarian arguments are now commonly employed to advocate institutional or policy changes.