Online College Courses for Credit

3 Tutorials that teach Utilitarianism
Take your pick:


Author: Glenn Kuehn

Identify the characteristics and descriptors of utilitarianism

See More
Fast, Free College Credit

Developing Effective Teams

Let's Ride
*No strings attached. This college course is 100% free and is worth 1 semester credit.

29 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

312 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 27 of Sophia’s online courses. Many different colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.


Source: Image of Socrates, Creative Commons,

Video Transcription

Download PDF

Hello. I'm Glenn. And this is the ethics tutorial on utilitarianism. Let's look at a couple of key terms and then the content for this tutorial. Key terms to keep in mind are utilitarianism-- a system of ethics that maintains that good is proportionate to total probable utility. And utility-- the increase or decrease in the total happiness consequent to an action.

In this tutorial, we will be looking at some of the basic elements of utilitarianism and of the principle of utility. We'll also be looking at the relationship of utilitarianism to consequences, how the notion of good functions for utilitarians, and its inclusiveness. So let's begin.

Starting with the basics of utilitarianism, this is an ethical theory based on happiness, which really kind of makes sense. And it is important to remember and keep in mind that utilitarianism is about increasing happiness while simultaneously decreasing unhappiness. It is not merely about increasing happiness alone as that can lead us down some very destructive paths sometimes.

Utilitarianism is also an objectivist theory. In that, it says that everyone ought to act to increase happiness. This applies to everyone. Even if we do it in different ways, the idea of increasing happiness and decreasing unhappiness is applicable to everyone.

So an example of two people having the same duty or obligation to increase happiness but doing it in different ways could be the following. Let's say you have two people working in a kitchen to cater a wedding. Both are under the duty to provide food that is appropriate and tasty and fulfills the needs of the guests for the wedding and so forth. However, one happens to be a line cook, and the other one happens to be a baker.

Now, since utilitarianism is about increasing happiness and decreasing unhappiness, it is all about consequences. And therefore, anything that affects possible consequences is ethically relevant. Now, we need to remember-- and this is important for all of us-- that the consequences of our actions, while largely predictable, are never 100% certain.

And so therefore, our ethical measuring in terms of what we should and should not do is in the range of what we want to call practical certainty. We're probably never going to get 100% certainty. Practical certainty is the level or the critical mass of certainty that we can reach when it is acceptable to engage in an action based upon the principle of utility of increasing happiness.

For utilitarians, the notion of good or happiness is proportionate. This is how it works. We can think of it in terms of actions being good and more or better and being bad or less and worse.

And here are some examples for that. We can think of good as being the basics, and then better and worse are more dramatic. There's a sense of correspondence to their degree. And therefore, they are proportionate.

So a couple of examples-- a good action could be cleaning up after yourself after you cook dinner. A better one would be cleaning the whole kitchen. A bad action would be taking a paperclip off of someone's desk, a minor instance of stealing. A much worse one would be taking someone's printer off their desk, or if you want to go to an extreme, taking the entire desk away from them.

And utilitarianism takes into the total utility, all the positive and negative possible consequences that we can conceive of. And this is what we do in a lot of our decision making throughout the day. And so it's naturally suited for utilitarian debates inside ourselves. We consider what we're going to do, and we think of the positives and negatives.

For example, if you want to take an afternoon nap, you think, well, it's going to be comforting. And it'll be refreshing, and I'll enjoy it. But it probably could take me away from completing work that I need to do. It might take me away from my duties and obligations of the day. So in deciding whether or not to take the nap, I need to think about the pros and cons of that action.

Another important aspect of utilitarianism is its inclusiveness. Utilitarianism is about everyone, everyone who is possibly affected by the outcomes of an action. And so it's not all about me. This is not egoism. We need to consider the wants, the needs, the cares, and concerns of everyone who might be affected.

So a couple of examples of what may be good for me but is not good for the group or not good for the whole could be the following. It's good for me to stock up on food. And so let's say I want to stock up on butter, and it's a good thing for me to do. So I go to the grocery, and I buy a whole ton of butter. Well, maybe not a ton.

But if I take all the butter that's available, then no one else gets any. And so that's not good for everyone. Utilitarianism would tell me not to do that.

It's good for me to wrap myself up in a blanket at night when I want to sleep because I'm warm and comfortable. But if there's someone else there and my partner is therefore deprived of covers while he tries to sleep, then that's going to cause a problem. So it's not merely my concerns that are taken into consideration.

However, when we consider the inclusiveness and how inclusive we want to be for utilitarians, the question of how we include animals in that consideration is not clear. There are some who say that we need to include all animals, some who say we need to include a few animals, and some who say that we need to include no animals. It's really difficult to do because there's no precise way that we can measure the happiness or unhappiness of animals.

Certainly, any of all of us who have had pets can tell when our cat or dog or hamster is feeling better or worse. And we can tell, certainly, if it's in pain. I've had four cats, and I've stepped on all of their tails because cats get under your feet. And if I step on my cat's tail, then obviously it howls and runs away, and that's unpleasant.

But does my cat suffer like I might suffer in terms of loneliness or depression? Or we hear about animals having separation anxiety. There is really no effective way to measure that. And one of the main reasons is that we can't communicate with them. I can't ask my cat, how are you feeling today?

OK. I do ask my cat this. But the thing is my cat doesn't respond in English. So I don't know what he's saying.

The point is it's really difficult to tell. And so whether or not animals need to be included in the total utility of the possible consequences of an action is up for debate. But it is nevertheless something to consider.

And in that light, there are helpful categories to help us trying to consider all possible utility of an action. Sometimes it's in terms of the quantity how much pleasure is caused. Sometimes it's the degree or the intensity of the pleasure. In other times, it's the type of pleasure, its quality. It could be the scope-- how many people, how many things, overall are affected, also the likelihood of the consequences, the probability of what's going to happen, and then the likelihood of further consequences that we cannot see.

Examples of these two latter ones are-- it's pretty likely that I can predict the consequences of buying a Big Mac. What I pay for the Big Mac is going to contribute to the workers' salaries who work at McDonald's. However, the unforeseen consequences that may not be going through my mind are that buying a Big Mac means I'm going to be buying a meat product. And that's going to be contributing to the persistence of industrial cattle farms, which are largely inhumane and highly polluting.

In this tutorial, we have seen some of the basic understandings and elements that go into utilitarianism and the principle of utility. We understood that there is an intimate connection between utilitarianism and consequences, how the notion of good functions in terms of proportionality and degree, and also the inclusiveness that utilitarian considerations involve.

Terms to Know

A system of ethics that maintains that good is proportionate to total probable utility


The increase or decrease in the total happiness consequent to an action