This is an online textbook aiming to provide a concise, accessible, and engaging introduction to modern utilitarianism, targeted at the undergraduate level.
For a high-school level introduction, see Utilitarianism: Simply Explained.
Introduction to Utilitarianism
This chapter introduces utilitarianism, and its major costs and benefits as a moral theory.
Elements and Types of Utilitarianism
After defining utilitarianism, this chapter offers a detailed analysis of its four key elements (consequentialism, welfarism, impartiality, and aggregationism). It explains the difference between maximizing, satisficing, and scalar utilitarianism, and other important distinctions between utilitarian theories.
Arguments for Utilitarianism
This chapter explains reflective equilibrium as a moral methodology, and presents several arguments for utilitarianism over non-consequentialist approaches to ethics.
Theories of Well-Being
Explores the three major theories of well-being, or what makes a life good for the individual living it: hedonism, desire theory, and objective list theory.
Population ethics tackles questions like how we should weigh new lives against existing lives, and how we should balance quantity and quality of life (when comparing different-sized populations). This chapter critically surveys five major approaches to population ethics: the total view, the average view, variable value theories, critical level (and critical range) theories, and person-affecting views.
Utilitarianism and Practical Ethics
Utilitarianism has important implications for how we should think about leading an ethical life. Despite giving no intrinsic weight to deontic constraints, it supports many commonsense prohibitions and virtues in practice. Its main practical difference instead lies in its emphasis on positively doing good, in more expansive and efficient ways than people typically prioritize.
There are several ways to reject aspects of utilitarianism while remaining on board with the general thrust of the theory (at least in practice). This chapter explores a range of such near-utilitarian views, to demonstrate the robustness of utilitarianism's practical recommendations. Even if you think the theory is technically false, you may nonetheless have good grounds to largely agree with its practical verdicts.
Objections to Utilitarianism and Responses
This chapter presents a toolkit of general strategies for responding to objections to utilitarianism, before introducing the most influential specific objections to the theory.
The Rights Objection
Many find it objectionable that utilitarianism seemingly licenses outrageous rights violations in certain hypothetical scenarios, killing innocent people for the greater good. This article explores how utilitarians might best respond.
The Mere Means Objection
Critics often allege that utilitarianism objectionably instrumentalizes people—treating us as mere means to the greater good, rather than properly valuing individuals as ends in themselves. In this article, we assess whether this is a fair objection.
The Separateness of Persons Objection
The idea that utilitarianism neglects the 'separateness of persons' has proven to be a widely influential objection. But it is one that is difficult to pin down. This article explores three candidate interpretations of the objection, and how utilitarians can respond to each.
The Demandingness Objection
In directing us to choose the impartially best outcome, even at significant cost to ourselves, utilitarianism can seem an incredibly demanding theory. This page explores whether this feature of utilitarianism is objectionable, and if so, how defenders of the view might best respond.
The Alienation Objection
Abstract moral theories threaten to alienate us from much that we hold dear. This article explores two possible defenses of utilitarianism against this charge. One recommends adopting motivations other than explicitly utilitarian ones. The second argues that suitably concrete concerns can be subsumed within broader utilitarian motivations.
The Special Obligations Objection
Relationships like parenthood or guardianship seemingly give rise to special obligations to protect those who fall under our care (where these obligations are more stringent than our general duties of beneficence towards strangers). This article explores the extent to which impartial utilitarianism can accommodate intuitions and normative practices of partiality.
The Equality Objection
Utilitarianism is concerned with the overall well-being of individuals in the population, but many object that justice requires an additional concern for how this well-being is distributed across individuals. This article examines this objection, and how utilitarians might best respond.
The Cluelessness Objection
Is utilitarianism undermined by our inability to predict the long-term consequences of our actions? This article explores whether utilitarians can still be guided by near-term expected value even when this is small in comparison to the potential value or disvalue of the unknown long-term consequences.
The Abusability Objection
Some argue that utilitarianism is self-effacing, or recommends against its own acceptance, due to the risk that mistaken appeals to the 'greater good' may actually result in horrifically harmful actions being done. This article explores how best to guard against such risks, and questions whether it is an objection to a theory if it turns out to be self-effacing in this way.
Resources and Further Reading
Resources and further reading about utilitarianism.