What is utilitarianism?

You’ve probably heard the term “utilitarianism” thrown around before, but do you know what it really means?

People often discount it as a shorthand for supporting eugenics, but it’s really grounded in the notion of maximising wellbeing and minimising suffering.

Read on to learn more!
Some moral systems, like the Catholic Church, treat various rules as inviolable – for example, “you must not take the life of an innocent person.”

Well, in the past if a woman had an obstructed birth, the only way to prevent both her and the baby dying was to dislodge the baby’s skull. This would most likely kill the child.

Although this meant one person dying instead of two, it was prohibited based on the strict enforcement of that rule…

At the core of utilitarianism is the idea of impartial beneficence – that we must impartially maximise the wellbeing of all sentient beings on the planet in such a way that-

“[e]ach is to count for one and none for more than one”

Jeremy Bentham, 1789/1983
– not privileging compatriots, family members, or ourselves over strangers – or even enemies.

Another core concept of utilitarianism is instrumental harm: a willingness to cause harm in order to bring about the greater good, including –

“It is morally right to harm an innocent person if harming them is a necessary means to helping several other innocent people”.

Jeremy Bentham, 1789/1983
See Peter Singer Live
Learn more about utilitarianism from the world’s most influential living philosopher, Peter Singer!

Come and learn how to apply ethics to your everyday life, and make the greatest impact you can on society at our August 2021 AU/NZ tour.