Rayees Ahmed Wani
Author is Senior lecturer at KCEF Law College Pulwama

Lessons From The Law

What Is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a theory of morality that advocates actions that foster happiness or pleasure and oppose actions that cause unhappiness or harm. When directed toward making social, economic, or political decisions, a utilitarian philosophy would aim for the betterment of society as a whole.

Utilitarianism would say that an action is right if it results in the happiness of the greatest number of people in a society or a group.

Understanding Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a tradition of ethical philosophy that is associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, two late 18th- and 19th-century British philosophers, economists, and political thinkers. Utilitarianism holds that an action is right if it tends to promote happiness and wrong if it tends to produce sadness, or the reverse of happiness—not just the happiness of the actor but that of everyone affected by it.

At work, you display utilitarianism when you take actions to ensure that the office is a positive environment for your co-workers to be in, and then make it so for yourself.

The Three Generally Accepted Axioms of Utilitarianism State That

  • Pleasure, or happiness, is the only thing that has intrinsic value.
  • Actions are right if they promote happiness, and wrong if they promote unhappiness.
  • Everyone’s happiness counts equally.

From the Founders of Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham describes his “greatest happiness principle” in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, a 1789 publication in which he writes: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”1

John Stuart Mill had many years to absorb and reflect on Jeremy Bentham’s thoughts on utilitarianism by the time he published his own work, Utilitarianism, in 1863. The key passage from this book:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure


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