Utilitarianism is a moral theory that advocates actions that promote overall happiness or pleasure and rejects actions that cause unhappiness or harm. A utilitarian philosophy, when directed to making social, economic or political decisions, aims for the betterment of society. “The greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people” is a maxim of utilitarianism. The philosophy is associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, two towering British philosophers and political thinkers.
Breaking Down ‘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. On the one hand, the standard of right and wrong, on the other, the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.”
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.”
Relevance in a Political Economy
The progenitors of utilitarianism spawned variants and extensions to the core principles of the moral theory throughout the centuries in liberal democracies. Some of the questions wrestled with through the ages: What constitutes “the greatest amount of good”? How is happiness defined? Should people follow act utilitarianism or rule utilitarianism? How is justice accommodated? Policy makers in today’s Western democracies are generally proponents of free markets and some base level of government interference in the private lives of citizens to assure safety and security. The appropriate amount of regulation and laws will always be a subject of debate, but political and economic policies are mainly geared toward fostering as much well-being for as many people as possible, or at least should be, say believers. Where there are disadvantaged groups who suffer income inequality or another negative consequence due to a utilitarian-based policy or action, remedies are necessitated.