Close up of insect perched on tip of thin grass-like plant


Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that defends that we should act in ways that bring about as much happiness as possible in the world. This theory defends the following four things:

(1) Disvalue (i.e., what is negative) consists in either suffering, that is, negative experiences (for hedonistic utilitarianism) or frustrated preferences (for preference utilitarianism). Positive value consists in either happiness, that is, positive experiences (for hedonistic utilitarianism) or satisfied preferences (for preference utilitarianism).

(2) What is good for individuals is that the amount of happiness minus suffering, or satisfied preferences minus frustrated preferences, is increased. What is bad for individuals is the opposite, that is, that the amount of suffering minus happiness is increased.

(3) What is best overall is that the aggregate sum of happiness minus suffering different individuals have is maximized. What is worse overall is that the aggregate sum of suffering minus happiness different individuals have be is maximized.

(4) We should act in ways that maximize what is best overall and minimize what is worse overall.

One particular form of utilitarianism focuses not on the total sum of happiness minus suffering, but on minimizing the total sum of suffering. This is called negative utilitarianism. Another perspective defends that we should focus not on the total sum of happiness minus suffering (which could lead to one entity enjoying great bliss while everyone else suffers) but on the average happiness enjoyed by all sentient individuals. This theory is known as “average utilitarianism”.

According to utilitarianism, the wellbeing of every individual counts. If in our moral decisions we fail to take into account the interests of someone who has positive or negative experiences, then we are failing to consider the total sum of happiness minus suffering. This means that speciesism, which is the discrimination against those who don’t belong to a certain species, is unjustified according to this view. Discrimination against sentient nonhuman animals, who have positive and negative experiences or preferences, is incompatible with a theory such as utilitarianism. This theory must take into account every bit of suffering and every bit of happiness, which means taking into account the experiences of nonhuman animals as well as humans. For this reason, the first utilitarian theorists, such as Jeremy Bentham,1 John Stuart Mill2 and Henry Sidgwick,3 argued for the moral consideration of nonhuman animals. They stated that the interests of nonhuman animals should be respected as equal to those of humans. However, they failed to see the practical consequences that follow from this, such as the rejection of animal exploitation or concern for wild animal suffering. In recent times, theorists such as Peter Singer4 and Gaverick Matheny5 have examined what follows from the inclusion of the interests of nonhuman animals implied by utilitarianism.

For utilitarianism, the use of nonhuman animals can be acceptable only if the happiness their exploitation causes is greater than the harm it causes. But it is very hard to think of any way in which this could be the case. Nonhuman animals are abruptly and painfully deprived of their lives after having been deprived of most of the positive experiences they could have had, and after having been made to suffer terribly.

Because it takes so much suffering to produce such momentary pleasures as tasting animal products, using animals does not increase the sum of happiness in the world, but actually decreases it, and very much. Therefore, such exploitation cannot be considered morally legitimate according to utilitarianism.

In addition, utilitarianism cannot just accept that we should do nothing about the harms suffered by others even when we aren’t the ones who have caused these harms. Utilitarianism claims we should be concerned with the happiness of all who can be happy. If there is something reducing the happiness of animals, then we should try to work against it, whatever it may be. So, given the many terrible ways in which wild animals are harmed in nature, their plight should be very important to utilitarians, as well as to those who follow certain other ethical approaches.

Further readings

Brandt, R. (1992) Morality, utilitarianism, and rights, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brink, D. (1986) “Utilitarian morality and the personal point of view”, Journal of Philosophy, 83, pp. 417-438.

Darwall, S. (ed.) (2003) Consequentialism, Oxford: Blackwell.

Feldman, F. (1986) Doing the best we can, Boston: D. Reidel.

Feldman, F. (1997) Utilitarianism, hedonism, and desert, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Frey, R. G. (ed.) (1984) Utility and rights, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Geach, P. (1956) “Good and evil”, Analysis, 17, pp. 33-42.

Goodin, R. E. (1995) Utilitarianism as a public philosophy, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Griffin, J. (1986) Well-being, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hare, R. M. (1977 [1963]) Freedom and reason, London: Oxford University Press.

Hare, R. M. (1982) Moral thinking: Its levels, methods and point, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lazari-Radek, K. de & Singer, P. (1965) The point of view of the universe: Sidgwick and contemporary ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lazari-Radek, K. de & Singer, P. (2017) Utilitarianism: A very short introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lyons, D. (1965) Forms and limits of utilitarianism, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

MacAskill, W. & Meissner, D. (2020) Introduction to utilitarianism: An online textbook, Oxford: [accessed on 21 April 2021].

Scarre, G. (1996) Utilitarianism, London: Routledge.

Scheffler, S. (1982) The rejection of consequentialism, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Scheffler, S. (ed.) (1988) Consequentialism and its critics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen, A. (1979) “Utilitarianism and welfarism”, Journal of Philosophy, 76, pp. 463-489.

Sen, A. & Williams, B. (eds.) (1982) Utilitarianism and beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Skorupski, J. (1995) “Agent-neutrality, consequentialism, utilitarianism… A terminological note”, Utilitas, 7, pp. 49-54.

Skorupski, J. (1999) Ethical explorations, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smart, J. J. C. (1956) “Extreme and restricted utilitarianism”, The Philosophical Quarterly, 6, pp. 344-354.

Smart, J. J. C. (1973) “An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics” in Smart, J. J. C. & Williams, B. Utilitarianism: For and against, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3-74.

Smart, R. N. (1958) “Negative utilitarianism”, Mind, 67, 542-543.

Tännsjö, T. (1998) Hedonistic utilitarianism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


1 Bentham, J. (1996 [1781]) Introduction to the principles of moral and legislation, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 282n.

2 Mill, J. S. (1969) Whewell on moral philosophy, in Collected works, vol. X, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 165-201.

3 Sidgwick, H. (1907 [1874]) The methods of ethics, 7th ed., London: Macmillan, p. 414.

4 Singer, P. (2011 [1979]) Practical ethics, 3rd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

5 Matheny, G. (2006) “Utilitarianism and animals”, in Singer, P. (ed.) In defense of animals: The second wave, Malden: Blackwell, pp. 13-25; (2002) “Expected utility, contributory causation, and vegetarianism”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 19, pp. 293-297.

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