Utilitarianism: Types and Characteristics

Utilitarianism is an ethical and philosophical position that differentiates between good and bad actions according to the welfare generated in people. Below we'll detail what it consists of, its types and how it is applied.
Utilitarianism: Types and Characteristics
Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati

Written and verified by the philosopher Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati.

Last update: 23 February, 2023

Utilitarianism is an ethical doctrine initiated by Jeremy Bentham at the end of the 18th century and developed by John Stuart Mill in 1863. According to this philosophical stance, the best actions are those that guarantee happiness and well-being for the greatest number of people.

This perspective is usually very common in the business and financial sphere, when costs and benefits are taken into account. But how can this philosophy be applied to other aspects of life? Is it possible to do so? Below, we’ll answer these and other questions about this philosophical movement.

What is utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is an ethical stance that establishes utility as a moral value. In this sense, any human action that is useful is morally good.

But what does utility mean in this context? According to Bentham, it is everything that produces happiness. Consequently, morally good and correct actions are those that produce happiness.

Following this reasoning, utilitarianism establishes that the most ethical action will always be the one that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. For happiness is the only good in itself. Having said this, one can see the relationship that this doctrine has with hedonism.

Now, how do we determine the morality of our actions? By their consequences. According to this position, there are no intrinsically good or bad actions. Instead, they are assumed to be good if they’re capable of guaranteeing happiness for the greatest number of people.

Every human act, however controversial and contrary to common sense it may be, will be correct if it fulfills the maxim of social welfare. These evaluations of results make this doctrine a version of consequentialism.

A writer.
This ethical theory is attributed to Jeremy Bentham, who developed it at the end of the 18th century.

What types of utilitarianism matter?

Utilitarianism can take different forms. The best-known classification categorizes four types.

1. Act and rule utilitarianism

Act utilitarianism is known as the traditional form, and is the one we have been developing so far.

This type establishes that morally good actions are those that guarantee maximum utility. But it’s important to emphasize that, within this classification, desires, dispositions, norms, rewards, punishments and institutions are also included.

2. Negative utilitarianism

This consists of preventing the greatest amount of pain or harm for the greatest number of people. This ethical position recognizes that guaranteeing the well-being of the greatest number of beings is not the most effective formula. For with it there are more possibilities of creating harm than benefits.

In this sense, negative utilitarians affirm that the most important and necessary thing is to avoid suffering. Furthermore, they assume that the absence of happiness doesn’t imply suffering.

For a better understanding, we can cite the example of antinatalism. This position recognizes that the reproduction of human beings usually generates happiness and pleasure, but it also entails greater suffering for the majority. Consequently, the best way to avoid it is not to continue reproducing.

For the antinatalist, the unborn child is not an event to be regretted. Or, at least, it doesn’t involve more intense suffering than what human overpopulation can cause. Thus, the greatest evil is recommended to be avoided.

3. Preference utilitarians

Preference utilitarians define utility in terms of preference satisfaction. Thus, the right thing to do will be that which guarantees the best consequences.

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4. Ideal utilitarianism

This presupposes that beauty, friendship, and pleasure are aspects that utilitarianism should recognize and maximize with its actions.

Can utilitarianism be applied as a philosophy of life?

The answer to this question is yes, it can. It depends a lot on each person and the degree of happiness and satisfaction that the application of this ethical model generates. The ultimate goal is to make this world a better place and there are many ways to achieve it.

Like any philosophical position, utilitarianism has its followers and retractors. This is because no theory is perfect. They all have their strengths and weaknesses.

The ideal way is to know as much as we can about the philosophies we profess and be able to compensate for possible flaws. In this way, we will also avoid falling into dogmas that cloud good judgment.

Utilitarianism and freedom.
Freedom plays a preponderant role in this philosophy, along with happiness.

How do I take into account other people’s happiness?

As we have already said, utilitarianism believes that the best action is the one that considers and guarantees the happiness of other people. But how do we determine this when everyone has a different concept of happiness?

The answer that utilitarians usually give to this dilemma is the following. It isn’t a matter of contributing to each person’s happiness as such, but of making sure that we don’t impede the happiness and freedom of others. In this case, things that are useful also imply guaranteeing the greatest freedom to the greatest number of people.

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