In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Utilitarianism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Anthologies
  • Consequentialism
  • Well-Being
  • Act versus Rule Utilitarianism
  • Satisficing
  • Other Forms of Utilitarianism
  • Contrasts with Other Views
  • Utilitarianism and Rights
  • The History of Utilitarianism: John Stuart Mill
  • The History of Utilitarianism: Other Figures

Philosophy Utilitarianism
Ben Eggleston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0431


Utilitarianism is a moral theory that judges actions based on their consequences—specifically, based on their effects on well-being. Most utilitarians take well-being to be constituted largely by happiness, and historically utilitarianism has been known by the phrase “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” As the second part of this phrase suggests, utilitarianism is concerned with the well-being of all people, not just the person who performs an action or the people most directly affected; in fact, because nonhuman animals can also experience pleasure and pain, their well-being also counts in the moral assessment of actions, according to most utilitarians. Thus, a simple statement of the utilitarian view is that an action is right if and only if it brings about at least as much overall well-being as any action the agent could have performed instead. Controversially, this means that, according to utilitarianism, in principle, any type of action—such as lying, stealing, or even killing someone—could conceivably be condoned by utilitarianism if, in the particular circumstances, it would produce at least as much overall well-being as anything else the agent could have done. Utilitarians tend to condemn such actions because they tend to reduce overall well-being, but they hold that the impact on well-being is what makes such actions wrong—not their being prohibited by conventionally accepted moral rules, the commands of a deity, principles of human rights, or other considerations that can conflict with the fundamental moral goal of maximizing overall well-being. In addition to the straightforward form of utilitarianism summarized above, there are other forms of the view, such as ones that judge acts not in terms of their direct effects on overall well-being, but in terms of their compliance with rules whose general acceptance tends to promote well-being. All forms of the view, however, hold that the moral assessment of acts derives directly or indirectly from the fundamental utilitarian moral criterion of the maximization of overall well-being.

General Overviews

For most readers, de Lazari-Radek and Singer 2017 is the best work to start with. They will then be well-situated to enjoy the debate between Smart 1973 and Williams 1973. They can then turn to Brink 2006 to appreciate the place of utilitarianism within consequentialism and several issues that arise there.

  • Brink, David O. “Some Forms and Limits of Consequentialism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Edited by David Copp, 380–423. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195325911.003.0015

    An overview of the general consequentialist approach to ethics, situating utilitarianism within that approach. The chapter is divided into twenty sections, providing clarity of organization and enabling the reader to home in on topics of particular interest. The introduction and sections 1–8 (pp. 380–398) are especially important and accessible.

  • de Lazari-Radek, Katarzyna, and Peter Singer. Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780198728795.001.0001

    A brief and accessible introduction to utilitarianism, by two leading contemporary utilitarian theorists, covering the historical roots of the view, arguments in support of it, objections, different varieties of the view, and its contemporary relevance. Probably the best choice for most readers looking for a brief but substantial introduction presupposing no prior philosophical background.

  • Smart, J. J. C. “An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics.” In Utilitarianism: For and Against. Edited by J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, 3–74. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

    One of the classic defenses of utilitarianism, emphasizing act utilitarianism in particular, and a hedonistic theory of well-being. Brief, direct, and uncompromising. Some aspects of Smart’s view have been superseded by subsequent developments in utilitarian thought, but Smart’s essay is still well worth the time required to read it. Best read just before Williams 1973.

  • Williams, Bernard. “A Critique of Utilitarianism.” In Utilitarianism: For and Against. Edited by J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, 77–150. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

    One of the classic critiques of utilitarianism, by one of the most influential ethicists of the twentieth century, written with his customary verve. The essay’s examples and arguments on two topics—negative responsibility and what has come to be called the integrity objection—have become mainstays of the critical literature on utilitarianism. Even proponents of utilitarianism who consider Williams’s objections misguided generally acknowledge his critique as seminal. Best read just after Smart 1973.

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