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Utilitarianism: Classical Theory and Defense

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Utilitarianism is one of the most popular classic theories for philosophical discussion. This sample philosophy paper explores the origins of the theory, as well as the major defenses, offered to protect the theory from critics.

Understanding the utilitarianism argument

Utilitarianism is the notion that all of human activity is to be assessed according to how human happiness is impacted by it.

In other words, utilitarian values are effectuated when actors consider whether the act to be undertaken will produce “the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness.” (Rachels 100).

In a sense, we come to understand Utilitarianism through the manner in which it contrasts with the Judeo-Christian moral ethic typically employed by my most. Whereas Christian ethics suggests an order in which actions are undertaken strictly so as to further a morality that dictates universal bad or good.

Utilitarianism asks whether each human act is done so as to generate the most positive outcome, as applied to whomever the act itself will most profoundly impact and irrespective of whether the act might be perceived as good or bad according to a one-size-fits-all moral hierarchy.

As such, Utilitarianism’s theoretical seeds operate practically to achieve net happiness by attending first to the individual, as opposed to first attending to a socio-moral infrastructure and then attending to the individual in such a way as comports with this infrastructure. However, in operating thusly, Utilitarianism risks the expression of immorality in the course of achieving its stated ends.

Origins of the utilitarian point of view

The classical theory of Utilitarianism was developed by three of the 19th Century’s greatest thinkers, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick. We can best understand Utilitarianism in its classical form as a kind of measured hedonism, in which consequences are desirable if they are pleasure-producing and undesirable if otherwise (Rachels 110).

Accordingly, the greatest challenge to Utilitarianism is that it does not account for human morality and free will. This is true because Utilitarianism allows for unjust actions to produce desirable consequences by its terms and while it allows for justice to operate, it does not condemn immorality as an improper means towards the ends of pleasure and happiness (Rachels 111-112).

As such, Utilitarianism consequences-based orientation is often incompatible with contemporary notions of ethics and morality, in addition to contemporary notions of human interactivity, implicating the concepts of natural or granted rights.

Creating a need for human compassion and equality

Utilitarianism also insists upon an interactive standard of humanity in which all humans must at all times be concerned equally with each other’s happiness (Rachels 116). In this sense, each of any individual’s actions must be considered relative to how they might impact or create the consequences that will befall another.

As such, Utilitarianism risks the world in which humans are unable to cultivate personal relationships of an intimate nature (Rachels 117). Perhaps more importantly, this tenet of Utilitarianism seems to follow the secular philosophy and places happiness above all things. If the strictly adherent Utilitarian must never strictly attend to his own happiness,

He or she is simply not honoring the underlying basis of Utilitarianism by simply endeavoring to honor them. By the same token, in endeavoring to honor Utilitarianism, one inevitably risks dishonoring his or her commitments and obligations that might interfere with Utilitarian ideals (Rachels 115).

Defending utilitarian philosophies

There are three defenses to Utilitarianism that exist today for modern philosophers.

  • Utilitarian ideals are merely unresponsive to hypothetical scenarios but not necessarily with regard to authentic “real-world” events
  • Utilitarianism proposes rules or guidelines for acts and does not mandate acts themselves
  • Though it contradicts with common sense at times, Utilitarianism need not conform to common sense, which itself is an inherently questionable concept

This defense suggests that all values are Utilitarian in nature, as we can only survive if we bear our best interests in mind (Rachels 121). It also follows a more secularist philosophy and encourages others to fill the gap left by our gut instincts, which themselves are too ambiguous to be trusted in anomalous or hitherto inexperienced scenarios, and asks that we consider a more holistic approach to consideration of an action’s consequences, evaluating them from a more universal perspective (Rachels 122).

Realistic expectations for utilitarian success

Ultimately, no theory can be practically applied in such a way as guarantees that its theoretical foundations will yield exclusively positive outcomes. For example, the Judeo-Christian principles of moral and ethical behavior that ostensibly guarantee more just outcomes than does Utilitarianism also guarantee that those who wish to be euthanized will continue to suffer painfully.

While Utilitarianism has its ills if slavishly followed to its most logical conclusion, ethical behavior “should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death” (Einstein 2).

Accordingly, Utilitarianism merely challenges human beings to live within themselves and consciously engage with the world in order to determine the net impact of their functioning within it. Practical examples illustrate the extent to which doing otherwise would yield disastrous moral consequences.

A Roman Catholic raised in a strictly observant home may, for example, feel that he or she is gay and wants to marry someone of the same sex. He or she may then spend the entirety of his or her life believing that they would be sinning in perpetuity were it not for the moral order supplied by the Roman Catholic Church; that all that prevents them from being cruel or wrong or depraved is the existence of a particularized conception of G-d and that which this being wishes to be done.

This mode of existence presumes that humans are inherently bad and that all that keeps us from transforming into monsters are rules that ensure that our humanity stays in check. This conceptualization strips the human condition of even the mere potential for productivity, as it is predicated on the notion that human beings do not exist in and of themselves, but only in relation to and for the unknown purpose of some higher order. Such an existence is surely one more morally bankrupt than any existence rooted in the principles of Utilitarian thought.


While Utilitarianism’s classical foundations possess the potential for mis-application and irrelevancy, as applied to our modern world, these shortcomings do not amount to a basis for wholesale rejection of Utilitarian principles. Ultimately and essentially, Utilitarianism simply asks that we consider how our actions might evolve to create certain consequences for ourselves or others that might not yet be readily apparent.

Utilitarianism brushes up against our conceptualizations of morality and justice, among other things derived from platonic Christian beliefs. However, these ethical or moral guideposts themselves insist that humans consider their conduct according to some standard that explicitly denies the exercise of free-will in projecting notions of universal bad and good.

While Utilitarian ideas often contradict commonly accepted Judeo-Christian ones, they are predicated upon the belief that humans should be actively engaged in their own, personal assessment of their actions, from an honest and practical perspective that is not necessarily exclusive of morality and justice. In any event, a great deal of human blood has been spilled in the names of “morality” and “justice,” which suggests that we might consider being less arrogant in the oftentimes unfounded faith we place in these conceptions for purposes of conducting our existence.

Works Cited

Einstein, Albert. “Religion and Science.” NYTimes.Com. New York Times Magazine, Pp. 1-4, Nov. 9 1930. Web. Dec. 5, 2013.

Rachels, James. “The Utilitarian Approach” and “The Debate over Utilitarianism.” The Elements of Moral Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 1986. Print.



Ultius, Inc. "Utilitarianism: Classical Theory and Defense." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. Ultius Blog, 16 Oct. 2014. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/utilitarianism-classical-theory-and-defense.html

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Ultius, Inc. "Utilitarianism: Classical Theory and Defense." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. October 16, 2014 https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/utilitarianism-classical-theory-and-defense.html.

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