What Is Utilitarianism?

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“What is Utilitarianism?”
Ask a passerby to describe his personal morality, and you’ll likely get a complicated explanation filled with ifs, ands, and buts. Ask a utilitarian, and he can give a six-word response: greatest good for the greatest number. Of course, utilitarianism is not that simple. Like any philosophical system, it is the subject of endless debate. Still, for the average reader who is unfamiliar with the jargon that characterizes most philosophy, utilitarianism can be a useful tool in deciding before an action whether or not to carry it out or, after an action, whether or not a moral choice was made.

Most credit the economist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) as utilitarianism's principal author. Bentham described his thinking as the “greatest happiness principle,” and his idea was elaborated upon in the nineteenth century by John Stuart Mill in his classic work, Utilitarianism (1863). In that book, Mill develops three critical components of utilitarianism: an emphasis on results, individual happiness, and total happiness (by which he means the happiness of everyone affected by an action).

Results: Mill expanded Bentham’s definition of utilitarianism to argue that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”[1] This means that utilitarians care only about the results of an action. Other factors that we typically consider when making moral judgments about an action, including a person’s motive or his expectations about the results, do not matter in utilitarianism. A utilitarian would say that a man who shoots another by accident is guilty of murder, whether or not the shooting was an accident. Conversely, the man with "murder in his heart" who tries to shoot another but misses cannot be held morally accountable for the act. In utilitarianism, only the results matter.

Individual happiness: The second component of utilitarianism is Mill’s idea of happiness, by which he...
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