Timeline of utilitarianism

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This is a timeline of utilitarianism, a moral theory that judges the morality of actions based on their ability to promote happiness or well-being for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism was developed by philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 18th and 19th centuries. The theory holds that actions are morally right if they lead to the greatest good or utility for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory, meaning that it evaluates the morality of actions based on their outcomes. It prioritizes the interests of the majority over the interests of the minority, and thus can justify actions that violate individual rights or interests if they promote the greater good. However, some utilitarians argue that individual rights and interests are still important, as they can contribute to overall happiness.

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Time period Development summary More details
17th to mid-18th century Precursors and Early Utilitarianism This period is characterized by the works of philosophers such as Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Jeremy Bentham's father James Bentham, who lays the groundwork for the development of utilitarian thought. During this period, these philosophers develop the basic ideas of utilitarianism, including the concept of the greatest happiness principle and the idea that the morality of an action should be judged by its consequences.
Late 18th to mid-19th century Classical Utilitarianism This period is marked by the work of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who are considered the most influential philosophers of the utilitarian tradition. Bentham develops a comprehensive theory of utilitarianism that includes the principle of utility, the measurement of pleasure and pain, and the idea of maximizing happiness for the greatest number of people. Mill builds on Bentham's ideas and develops a more nuanced understanding of pleasure and pain, distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures and arguing that the aim of utilitarianism should be to maximize happiness and reduce suffering.
Late 19th to mid-20th century Neo-utilitarianism Utilitarianism is already fully articulated.[1] This period is characterized by the work of philosophers such as Henry Sidgwick, G.E. Moore, and R.M. Hare, who seek to refine and develop the ideas of classical utilitarianism. These philosophers address criticisms of utilitarianism, develop more sophisticated theories of ethics, and contribute to the development of the broader philosophical movement of analytic philosophy.
Mid-20th century to present Contemporary Utilitarianism This period is marked by the work of philosophers such as Peter Singer, Derek Parfit, and R. M. Hare, who continue to refine and develop the ideas of utilitarianism in response to new challenges and criticisms. In the 1970s, utilitarian ethics is revived by Singer and Parfit.[2] Contemporary utilitarianism has expanded beyond its original focus on maximizing happiness to include concerns such as animal welfare, environmental ethics, and global justice.

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Google Trends

The chart below shows Google Trends data for Utilitarianism (Topic), from 2004 to October 2022, when the screenshot was taken. Interest is also ranked by country and displayed on world map.[3]

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Full timeline

Year Event type Details
341 BC Notable birth Epicurus is born. His ethical teachings would have an indirect impact on the philosophy of utilitarianism in England during the nineteenth century.[4]
c.470 Notable birth Chinese philosopher Mozi is born. The founder of the school of Mohism, he would held a utilitarian status describing heaven as primary moral authority.[5] Mozi would state: "universal love is really the way of the sage-kings. It is what gives peace to the rulers and sustenance to the people."[6]
1672 Literature English philosopher Richard Cumberland publishes De legibus naturae (On natural laws), which propounds utilitarianism and opposes the egoistic ethics of Thomas Hobbes.
1725 Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson first introduces a key utilitarian phrase in An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue: "when choosing the most moral action, the amount of virtue in a particular action is proportionate to the number of people such brings happiness to".[7][8] Hutcheson is the first to speak of the greatest happiness of the greatest number; more importantly, he is considered the earliest writer to enunciate a philosophy that can without qualification be termed "utilitarian".[9]:53
1728 Susanna Newcome publishes An Enquiry into the Evidence of the Christian Religion, which contains an early formulation of utilitarian thought. Newcome offers a utilitarian account of the nature of ethics and our moral duties by synthesizing contemporary developments in natural theology and moral psychology.[10][11]
1730 Literature English philosopher John Gay publishes essay entitled Preliminary Dissertation Concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Morality, in which he argues that he is the first modern philosopher to claim that universal happiness is the aim of moral action.[12] Gay, who claimed to be a disciple of Locke, can be considered as the founder of utilitarian morality.[13]
1731 John Gay publishes In Concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Morality. Some would claim that he developed the first systematic theory of utilitarian ethics.[14][15]
1739 David Hume publishes his Treatise of Human Nature, in which he writes:
There is no such passion as the love of mankind, merely as such; yet if we are not capable of loving humanity in the abstract, we are able to feel an altruistic concern even about total strangers once we are brought into contact with them.

Hume is considered an early utilitarian, but conservative in politics.[9]:59

1743 Notable birth William Paley is born. J. B. Schneewind (1977) would write that "utilitarianism first became widely known in England through the work of William Paley."[16]
1748 Notable birth Jeremy Bentham is born.[1]
1749 Literature David Hartley publishes his Observations on Man, his Frame, his Duty, and his Expectations. While perhaps not definitely preparing the way for the utilitarian doctrine in so far as it would be destined to make possible the formation of autonomous moral sciences, Hartley wishes to found a 'psychology', a theory of human and animal intelligence, a branch of 'natural philosophy', a science which, when once the 'general laws' which govern ' phenomena ' have been discovered by means of ' analysis', will be of a deductive or ' synthetic' character. Hartley openly introduces Newton's method and terminology into psychology.[13]
1751 Literature David Hume publishes An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, in which he views sympathy as the fact of human nature lying at the basis of all social life and personal happiness.[17]
1755 Francis Hutcheson’s book A System of Moral Philosophy is posthumously published. It repeats, in essence, the utilitarian content of his previous work Inquiry, but is notable for its more subtle treatment of the nature of the good life, wherein it anticipates not so much Bentham as J.S.Mill. According to Hutcheson, a crucial aspect of living well is leading a virtuous life. This involves maintaining a sense of equanimity and a broad, all-encompassing love for universal happiness, and being able to prioritize this over more narrow, self-interested concerns. In Hutcheson's view, the ability to control one's narrower emotions in the face of opposing interests and to sacrifice personal interests for the greater good represents the highest level of human virtue.[18][9]:55
1764 Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria's influential treatise on the criminal law advocates "the greatest happiness divided among the greatest number".[19][9]:23
1774 French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius states that "wise laws would be able without doubt to bring about the miracle of a universal happiness".[20] Helvétius, like François-Jean de Chastellux, exemplifies utilitarianism in pre-revolutionary France. Both are deeply committed to the improvement of the condition of the poor and believe that governments have a duty to foster the general good. For these writers, as for others of their compatriots, utilitarianism is primarily a political philosophy and less a theory of personal morality.[9]:50
1774 François-Jean de Chastellux writes: "It is an indisputable point, (or at least, there is room to think it, in this philosophical age, an acknowledged truth)" in his essay De la félicité publique, "that the first object of all governments, should be to render the people happy".[21][9]:50
1776 Literature Jeremy Bentham publishes his Fragment on Government, which first attempts to apply the principle of utility in a systematic and methodical manner to the theory of government.[13]:11[22]
1776 Literature Adam Smith publishes The Wealth of Nations, which tries to solve the economic problem by taking his stand on the principle of utility.[13]
1781 According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the neologism ‘utilitarian’ occurs for the first time in a letter of Jeremy Bentham of this year, where a certain clergyman is described as ‘a very worthy creature…a naturalist, a chemist, a physician’—and ‘a utilitarian’.[9]:4
1785 Literature English philosopher William Paley publishes The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy,[23] which applies the principle of utility to the problems of morals and of theology. Paley defines happiness as a sum of pleasures, which differ only in their duration and intensity, or, more exactly, as the excess of a sum of pleasures over a sum of pains. He thinks that moral actions differ from immoral actions by their tendency, and that the criterium of law is utility.[13] Some identify Paley as a co-developer with Bentham of the principles of utilitarianism.[24]
1787 In his first attempt at political economy, Jeremy Bentham adopts the fundamental ideas of Adam Smith.[13]:88
1789 Literature Jeremy Bentham publishes An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation[25], which defines the principle of utility as “that property in any object whereby it tends to produce pleasure, good or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.”[26] Bentham writes "The principle of utility…approves or disapproves of every action according to the tendency it appears to have to increase or lessen—i.e. to promote or oppose—the happiness of the person or group whose interest is in question."[27]
1793 German philosopher Immanuel Kant defines "Enlightenment" (Aufklärung) as the "exit by man from his own selfimposed minority", when he begins to rely on his own understanding and rejects the guidance of others.[28] According to Scarre (1996), utilitarian moral thought would be "enlightened" in this Kantian sense: utilitarians would refuse to be guided by authority, and insisted on working out their own positions from first principles.[9]:50
1793 English philosopher and political thinker William Godwin declares that "Few things have contributed more to undermine the energy and virtue of the human species, than the supposition that we have a right, as it has been phrased, to do what we will with our own". He also claims that "Every man has a certain sphere of discretion, which he has a right to expect should not be infringed by his neighbours". Godwin feels a deep respect for individual liberty of thought and action which would never quite succeed in squaring with his maximising views. According to Geoffrey Scarre, Godwin would become a less consistent utilitarian than he aspired to be.[9]:70-71
1794 In France, despite living during a time of great violence, and with the guillotine casting its shadow over him, philosopher and mathematician Nicolas de Condorcet envisions a future era where hunger would be eliminated, every illness would have a cure, people's lifespan would have no limit, slavery would be eradicated, women would enjoy equal status with men, war would be eradicated, and education and the arts would thrive.[9]:49
1806 Notable birth John Stuart Mill is born.[29]
1811 Literature Jeremy Bentham publishes Punishments and Rewards, in which he writes "To what shall the character of utility be ascribed, if not to that which is a source of pleasure?".[30]
1815 Jeremy Bentham publishes A Table of the Springs of Action, which seeks to identify and classify the different motives or "springs of action" that drive human behavior. Like Principles of Morals and Legislation (1780), it explores the diverse range of reasons that drive human behavior and seeks to illustrate how these reasons can ultimately be traced back to the influence of two primary forces: pleasure and pain.[9]:73 A Table of the Springs of Action contains an elaborate taxonomy of motives, supplying among other things fifty-four synonyms of the word ‘pleasure’ and sixtyseven of ‘pain’.[31][9]:76
1819 James Mill publishes Essay on Government, written for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The piece presents the utilitarian perspective in a straightforward manner but lacks originality. It argues that the goal of government is to maximize the overall happiness of society by minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure. An individual's level of happiness is determined by the magnitude of their pleasures and the intensity of their pains.[9]:85
1824 James Mill publishes his two-volume work Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, in which he demonstrates his ability to conduct a detailed examination of mental processes and tendencies. Despite adhering to an associationist theory of the mind, he even endeavors to justify the presence of authentically altruistic emotions.[9]:87
1825 Jeremy Bentham publishes The Rationale of Reward.[32]
1829 T.B. Macaulay publishes paper Mill on government in the conservative Edinburgh Review. Its critiques anticipate many of the objections that J.S. Mill would later make about Benthamism in his works throughout the following ten years.[9]:86
1834 Jeremy Bentham publishes Deontology, in which he acknowledges the existence of a human inclination towards philanthropy and selflessness.[9]:77
1838 John Stuart Mill softens his critique of Bentham and acknowledges that he has contributed to ethical thought by proposing a straightforward and clear standard for assessing the moral worth of actions in terms of their ability to generate pleasure or pain. Although this criterion was insufficient, it was an improvement over the imprecise and untestable appeals to moral intuition that dominated the work of most moral philosophers. Nevertheless, there is still a significant omission in Bentham's work: he failed to recognize that human beings are capable of striving for spiritual perfection as an end in itself and of aspiring to align their own character with their own standards of excellence without external incentives or disincentives beyond their own conscience, a shortcoming that Mill identified in his 1838 writing.[9]:88
1843 Literature John Stuart Mill expresses his opinion about the significance of character in human life in his book A System of Logic. He believes that a person's character should be the ultimate goal in life because possessing ideal nobleness of character or coming close to it would contribute more towards making human life happy than anything else. This happiness can be achieved in two ways, firstly by experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain, and secondly by giving life a higher purpose that is significant and meaningful to human beings with highly developed abilities.[9]:90
1851 British philosopher Harriet Taylor Mill publishes The Enfranchisement of Women, in which she argues for equality in all rights, political, civil, and social, with male citizens of the community. Taylor Mill promotes a companionate model of marriage based on mutual attraction and opposed contemporary forms of marriage, which she likens to slavery based on the threat of physical force (domestic violence). Married to John Stuart Mill, both would form a close intellectual partnership, with her making significant contributions to his thought, which he would systematize into a utilitarian framework.[33] Harriet Taylor Mill writes:
We deny the right of any portion of the species to decide for another portion what is and what is not their 'proper sphere'. The proper sphere for all human beings is the largest and highest which they are able to attain to.[30]
1859 Literature John Stuart Mill publishes Dissertations and Discussions. Mill writes "That the morality of actions depends on the consequences which they tend to produce, is the doctrine of rational persons of all schools; that the good or evil of those consequences is measured solely by pleasure or pain, is all of the doctrine of the school of utility, which is peculiar to it."[30]
1859 Literature John Stuart Mill publishes On Liberty.[34] Mill writes: A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury. The latter case, it is true, requires a much more cautious exercise of compulsion than the former. To make any one answerable for doing evil to others, is the rule; to make him answerable for not preventing evil is, comparatively speaking, the exception. Yet there are many cases clear enough and grave enough to justify that exception.[30]
1861 "Mill drafted, in the early 1850s, two essays on utility and justice which came to form the basis of the Frazer’s Magazine articles of 1861.4 ‘Utilitarianism’, as it finally appeared in the pages of Frazer’s, is a highly puzzling work. Many of its ideas and arguments could have flowed from the pen of Bentham himself. Mill begins with an unblushing statement of pure Benthamism: 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 (J.S.Mill 1861:210)."[9]:91
1863 Literature John Stuart Mill publishes Utilitarianism, which first appeared as a series of three articles published in Fraser's Magazine in 1861.[35][36] Mill acknowledges in a footnote that, though Jeremy Bentham believed "himself to be the first person who brought the word 'utilitarian' into use, he did not invent it. Rather, he adopted it from a passing expression" in John Galt's 1821 novel Annals of the Parish.[37] Mill emphasizes in making clear that he included in “utility” the pleasures of the imagination and the gratification of the higher emotions; and to make a place in his system for settled rules of conduct.[38] He also writes:
The Greatest Happiness Principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness and wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.[30]
1868 Notable quote John Stuart Mill states:
It is not human life only, not human life as such, that ought to be sacred to us, but human feelings. The human capacity of suffering is what we should cause to be respected, not the mere capacity of existing.[30]
1869 Literature John Stuart Mill publishes The Subjection of Women, in which he writes: "What, in unenlightened societies, colour, race, religion, or in the case of a conquered country, nationality, are to some men, sex is to all women; a peremptory exclusion from almost all honourable occupations, but either such as cannot be fulfilled by others, or such as those others do not think worthy of their acceptance."[39][30]
1871 Literature Charles Darwin publishes The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, in which he writes:
As all men desire their own happiness, praise or blame is bestowed on actions and motives, according as they lead to this end; and as happiness is an essential part of the general good, the greatest-happiness principle indirectly serves as a nearly safe standard of right and wrong.[30]
1873 Literature John Stuart Mill publishes his Autobiography, in which he writes:
The "principle of utility" understood as Bentham understood it, and applied in the manner in which he applied it...fell exactly into its place as the keystone which held together the detached and fragmentary component parts of my knowledge and beliefs. It gave unity to my conceptions of things. I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy...the inculcation and diffusion of which could be made the principal outward purpose of a life. And I had a grand conception laid before me of changes to be effected in the condition of mankind through that doctrine.[30]
1874 English utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick publishes The Methods of Ethics, which some consider to be the most lucid and comprehensible presentation of the classical utilitarian doctrine. Happiness, according to Sidgwick, is determined by the overall balance of pleasure versus pain or the balance of agreeable versus disagreeable consciousness.[40] Sidgwick writes:
The good of any one person is no more important from the point of view...of the universe than the good of any other; unless there are special grounds for believing that more good is likely to occur in the one case than in the other.[30]
1879 Literature John Stuart Mill publishes Chapters On Socialism, in which he writes: "No longer enslaved or made dependent by force of law, the great majority are so by force of poverty; they are still chained to a place, to an occupation, and to conformity with the will of an employer, and debarred, by the accident of birth both from the enjoyments, and from the mental and moral advantages, which others inherit without exertion and independently of desert. That this is an evil equal to almost any of those against which mankind have hitherto struggled, the poor are not wrong in believing."[30]
1879 Literature John Stuart Mill publishes The Establishment of Ethical First Principles, in which he writes:
I may begin by laying down as a principle that 'all pain of human or rational beings is to be avoided'; and then afterwards may be led to enunciate the wider rule that 'all pain is to be avoided'; it being made evident to me that the difference of rationality between two species of sentient beings is no ground for establishing a fundamental ethical distinction between their respective pains.[30]
1900 Literature English author Leslie Stephen publishes The English Utilitarians.[41]
1902 Literature Ernest Albee publishes A History of English Utilitarianism.[42]
1903 Literature In his book Principia Ethica, G.E.Moore strongly criticizes the hedonistic utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill for reducing everything that matters to pleasure, which he believes misrepresents human nature. However, Moore's own moral theory is consequentialist, and it differs from earlier versions of utilitarianism mainly in its broader understanding of value. Moore argues that the good is not only pleasure or any other exclusively human state or quality, but also includes the existence of particular objective features of the universe, such as the beauty of its constituents.[9]:114
1906 Literature American engineer and philosopher James MacKaye publishes The Economy of Happiness. MacKaye writes:
Quantities of pain or pleasure may be regarded as magnitudes having the same definiteness as tons of pig iron, barrels of sugar, bushels of wheat, yards of cotton, or pounds of wool; and as political economy seeks to ascertain the conditions under which these commodities may be produced with the greatest efficiency–so the economy of happiness seeks to ascertain the conditions under which happiness, regarded as a commodity, may be produced with the greatest efficiency.[30]
1907 Literature English philosopher Hastings Rashdall publishes The Theory of Good and Evil.[43] The description of ideal utilitarianism is first used in this book.
1912 Literature G. E. Moore publishes Ethics.[44] While tending to be overshadowed by his famous earlier work Principia Ethica, it is unique in its detailed discussions of utilitarianism, free will, and the objectivity of moral judgements.[45]
1936 R.F.Harrod publishes paper entitled Utilitarianism revised, which is considered an important attempt to restore a fairer view of utilitarianism.[9]:122
1949 Serbian political philosopher John Plamenatz claims that "utilitarianism is destroyed".[9]:2
1949 According to Prichard, the rightness of actions is knowable through an intuitive faculty, and consequentialist reasoning is both unnecessary for moral decision-making and apt to yield conclusions running contrary to the grain of ordinary moral thought.[9]:122
1953 British philosopher J. O. Urmson publishes an influential article arguing that Mill justified rules on utilitarian principles.[46] Urmson is, perhaps, the first to argue in any sustained way that Mill was a rule utilitarian.[47]
1958 The term "negative utilitarianism" is introduced by R. Ninian Smart in his reply to Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies. Smart also presents the most famous argument against negative utilitarianism:[48] that negative utilitarianism would entail that a ruler who is able to instantly and painlessly destroy the human race would have a duty to do so. Furthermore, every human being would have a moral responsibility to commit suicide, thereby preventing future suffering.[49]
1959 American philosopher Richard Brandt publishes his Ethical Theory defines rule-utilitarianism.[9]:123 "Brandt was a prominent exponent of utilitarianism, the view that morally correct action is action that maximizes utility. His ideas about what utility is changed over the years. In Ethical Theory (1959), he adopted a pluralistic view that included pleasure, knowledge, virtue, and equality of welfare as intrinsic values." "Brandt's most important contribution to normative ethics was his formulation and defense of an ideal rule utilitarianism, or "ideal moral code" theory. According to ideal rule utilitarianism, an act is right if and only if it would not be prohibited by the ideal moral code for a society."[50]
1963 Literature British moral philosopher R. M. Hare publishes Freedom and Reason, in which he writes:
The rules of moral reasoning are, basically, two, corresponding to the two features of moral judgment...When we are trying, in a concrete case, to decide what we ought to do, what we are looking for...is an action to which we can commit ourselves (prescriptively) but which we are at the same time prepared to accept as exemplifying a principle of action to be prescribed for others in like circumstances (universalizability)...[I]f we cannot universalize the principle, it cannot become an 'ought'.[30]
1963 Richard Brandt publishes Towards a credible form of utilitarianism, in which he defends a version of rule utilitarianism.
1965 Literature William T. Blackstone publishes Francis Hutcheson and Contemporary Ethical Theory.[51]
1965 Louis Lyons and David Lyons publish Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism.[52]
1966 Sir Karl Popper states:
Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all.[53][9]:17
1969 Sir Isaiah Berlin publishes essay John Stuart Mill on the ends of life, which is perhaps one of the most influential of several works which have rightly given center stage to Mill’s ideas on the ethical centrality of self-development.[9]:95
1971 Literature American philosopher John Rawls publishes his antiutilitarian book A Theory of Justice, which rejects utilitarianism as an acceptable foundation for principles of justice.[54] The objection that "utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons" comes to prominence with the publication of this book.[55] Rawls writes:
During much of modern moral philosophy the predominant systematic theory has been some form of utilitarianism…Those who criticized them [i.e. the great utilitarians such as Hume, Smith and Mill] often did so on a much narrower front. They pointed out the obscurities of the principle of utility and noted the apparent incongruities between many of its implications and our moral sentiments. But they failed, I believe, to construct a workable and systematic moral conception to oppose it. The outcome is that we often seem forced to choose between utilitarianism and intuitionism. Most likely we finally settle upon a variant of the utility principle circumscribed and restricted in certain ad hoc ways by intuitionistic constraints. Such a view is not irrational; and there is no assurance that we can do better. But this is no reason not to try.[56]

Rawls calls the ‘primary goods’—‘things that every rational man is presumed to want’—such as health, vigour, intelligence, imagination, political freedoms and social opportunities, adequate income and a basis for self-respect.[9]:p16

1972 English philosopher Stuart Hampshire laments that utilitarianism is no longer the bold, innovative, and even subversive doctrine that it has once been.[57]
1972 Literature Peter Singer publishes Famine, Affluence, and Morality, in which he presents his view that we have the same moral obligations to those far away as we do to those close to us. This text would rapidly become one of the most widely discussed essays in applied ethics.[58] Singer writes:
If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.[30]
1973 In Principles, R. M. Hare accepts that rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism but claims that this is a result of allowing the rules to be "as specific and un-general as we please."[59] He argues that one of the main reasons for introducing rule utilitarianism was to do justice to the general rules that people need for moral education and character development and he proposes that "a difference between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism can be introduced by limiting the specificity of the rules, i.e., by increasing their generality."[59]
1973 Literature British-Australian philosopher J. J. C. Smart and B. Williams publish Utilitarianism For and Against, a book consisting in two essays on utilitarianism, written by J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams. Smart advocates for a modern and sophisticated version of classical utilitarianism, arguing that the rightness and wrongness of actions are determined solely by their consequences for human happiness. Williams, in contrast, offers a sustained critique of utilitarian assumptions, arguments, and ideals, finding the theory of action implied by utilitarianism inadequate and arguing that it fails to engage with real problems of moral and political philosophy.[60]
Smart writes:
The sentiment to which [the utilitarian] appeals is generalized benevolence, that is, the disposition to seek happiness, or...good consequences, for all mankind, or perhaps for all sentient beings.[30]
1973 P.Gay calls utilitarianism the dominant philosophy of the mature Enlightenment.[61][9]:49
1974 Literature Robert Nozick publishes Anarchy, State and Utopia, which claims that utilitarianism ignores the basic fact of human life – namely, our 'separate existences'.[54]
1976 Motive utilitarianism is first proposed by Robert Merrihew Adams.[62] It refers to a normative theory about right motivation, much as act utilitarianism is a normative theory about right action.[63] "R.M. Adams has argued that utility is better promoted by people who act from Utilitarianism and Personality 197 certain kinds of worthy motivation than on the basis of consequentialist reasoning (Adams 1976). He suggests that people who act from praiseworthy motives (for example, love, friendliness, spontaneity, a taste for beauty) will sometimes do things which an act-utilitarian would judge to be wrong, or fail to do things which he would judge to be right. But in general, acting from laudable motives produces more utility than acting on act-utilitarian reasoning does, and we should consider people to be acting rightly when they act on such motives. (Adams names his theory of right action ‘motive-utilitarianism’.)"[9]:196-197
1976 British philosopher Richard Mervyn Hare publishes his article Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism, which examines utilitarianism as a moral theory and evaluates its strengths and weaknesses.
1977 J.B.Schneewind publishes Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy[9]:106, a comprehensive study of the philosophical work of Henry Sidgwick, a prominent British philosopher and ethicist of the late 19th century. Sidgwick adhered to John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism in philosophy, and incorporated Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative ethical principle. He utilized the ideas of both philosophers in his primary work, The Methods of Ethics.[64]
1978 "If all utilitarians had taken the same line, there might have seemed to be some justification for Stuart Hampshire’s verdict that ‘The utilitarian habit of mind has brought with it a new abstract cruelty in politics, a dull, destructive political righteousness’ (Hampshire 1978:4)."[9]:70
1977 Concept development The concept of preference utilitarianism is first proposed by John Harsanyi in Morality and the Theory of Rational Behaviour,[65][66] however the concept is more commonly associated with R. M. Hare,[67] Peter Singer,[68] and Richard Brandt.[69]
1979 Literature Peter Singer publishes Practical Ethics, in which he writes:
If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that the suffering be counted equally with the like suffering – in so far as rough comparisons can be made – of any other being. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing to be taken into account. This is why the limit of sentience...is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others.[30]
1979 In relation to the ability of moral evaluation to be reduced to a conceptually simple matter of calculation, According to Sen, the difficulty arises when the sum-ranking idea —that one set of individual utilities is at least as good as another if, and only if, it has at least as large a sum total— is quite insensitive to the question of how the utilities are distributed.[9]:p15
1980 Elizabeth Telfer remarks that being happy involves, among other things, being pleased with one’s life.[9]:140
1981 Literature R.M. Hare publishes Moral Thinking[70] which attempts to provide, out of the logical and linguistic theses of his earlier books, a full-scale but readily intelligible account of moral argument.[71]
1981 Peter Singer publishes The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress[72], in which he writes:
The only justifiable stopping place for the expansion of altruism is the point at which all whose welfare can be affected by our actions are included within the circle of altruism. This means that all beings with the capacity to feel pleasure or pain should be included; we can improve their welfare by increasing their pleasures and diminishing their pains.[30]
1981 Organization The Anti-utilitarian Movement in the Social Sciences (Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales) is founded as a French intellectual movement.[73]
1981 R. M. Hare outlines the theory of preference utilitarianism[74], which in his view, synthesizes intuitionism and utilitarianism. Hare maintains that there are two levels of moral thinking: intuitive and critical. Intuitive moral thinking is not enough because moral conflicts may arise, so we must resort to critical moral thinking, which involves considering people's preferences. Hare's brand of utilitarianism arises as a response to the criticisms of traditional utilitarian theories by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, G.E. Moore, and other utilitarians.[75]
1982 Literature R. M. Hare publishes Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism, in which he writes:
What the principle of utility requires of me is to do for each man affected by my actions what I wish were done for me in the hypothetical circumstances that I were in precisely his situation; and, if my actions affect more than one man...to do what I wish, all in all, to be done for me in the hypothetical circumstances that I occupied all their situations.[30]
1982 Criticism According to Samuel Scheffler, classic utilitarianism demands too much, because it requires us to do acts that are or should be moral options (neither obligatory nor forbidden). For instance, consider a situation where an individual has a pair of old but usable shoes and desires a new $100 pair. If the individual were to give the $100 to a charity that could use the money to save a life, it would be the best option to maximize overall utility. However, if the individual is obligated to do what maximizes utility, then buying the shoes would be morally wrong. Yet, purchasing the shoes doesn't appear to be morally wrong; it may simply be a case where giving the money to charity is a morally commendable act that goes beyond what is expected.[76][77]
1984 Literature British philosopher Derek Parfit publishes Reasons and Persons, which is considered a classic work in ethics and personal identity.[78] It covers topics related to ethics, rationality, and personal identity. The book is structured into four parts which cover self-defeating theories, rationality and time, personal identity, and responsibility for future generations. Parfit writes:
Classical Utilitarians...would claim, as Sidgwick did, that the destruction of mankind would be by far the greatest of all conceivable crimes. The badness of this crime would lie in the vast reduction of the possible sum of happiness.[30]
1984 Fred Berger publishes the book Happiness, Justice and Freedom: The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Stuart Mill. It is considered one of the most influential works that have correctly highlighted John Stuart Mill's views on the significant importance of self-development in ethics.[9]:95
1986 Griffin suggests that "a fairly small amount of misery will turn out to make life worse to a greater degree than a fairly large amount of happiness makes it better".[79]If this is so , the finite energies we possess for promoting the public weal may be better directed at righting wrongs than at multiplying goods.[9]:17-18
1989 U.S. philosopher Shelly Kagan publishes The Limits of Morality, in which he discusses the belief held by most people that there are limits to the sacrifices that morality can demand. While it may be good to promote overall good, it is not always morally required. Certain acts are also considered morally off-limits, even if necessary for promoting the overall good. The author argues that these views cannot be adequately defended and offers a sustained attack on two basic features of ordinary common sense morality.[80] According to Kagan, classic utilitarianism reduces all morally relevant factors to consequences.[81][76]
1990 Literature American philosopher Alastair Norcross publishes article entitled Consequentialism and the Future.[82] Norcross writes:
Morality really is very demanding, in precisely the way utilitarianism says it is. But doesn't this fly in the face of common sense? Well, perhaps it does, but so what? Until relatively recently, moral "common sense" viewed women as having an inferior moral status to men, and some races as having an inferior status to others. These judgments were not restricted to the philosophically unsophisticated. Such illustrious philosophers as Aristotle and Hume accepted positions of this nature. Many utilitarians (myself included) believe that the interests of sentient non-human animals should be given equal consideration in moral decisions with the interests of humans. This claim certainly conflicts with the "common sense" of many (probably most) humans, and many (perhaps most) philosophers. It should not, on that account alone, be rejected.[30]
1990 Timothy Sprigge noted that it's "absurd consequence that the best thing to do would be to exterminate all life in which there is any distress at all".[83][9]:17
1990 Brittan describes utilitarianism as ‘a member of the family of moral doctrines which judge actions neither by their motives nor their intrinsic qualities, but by their consequences’. This gives the misleading impression that utilitarians take no account of motives in the appraisal of actions.[9]:p10
1992 Literature British philosopher John Broome publishes Counting the Cost of Global Warming, in which he writes:
Total and average utilitarianism are very different theories, and where they differ most is over extinction. If global warming extinguishes humanity, according to total utilitarianism, that would be an inconceivably bad disaster. The loss would be all the future wellbeing of all the people who would otherwise have lived. On the other hand, according to at least some versions of average utilitarianism, extinction might not be a very bad thing at all; it might not much affect the average wellbeing of the people who do live. So the difference between these theories makes a vast difference to the attitude we should take to global warming. According to total utilitarianism, although the chance of extinction is slight, the harm extinction would do is so enormous that it may well be the dominant consideration when we think about global warming. According to average utilitarianism, the chance of extinction may well be negligible.[30]
1992 Literature U.S. philosopher Richard Brandt publishes Morality, utilitarianism, and rights, a collection of essays spanning nearly 30 years of the author's work. It includes classic pieces in metaethical and normative ethical theory. Brandt's approach to justifying what is good or right focuses on moral psychology and valuing, rather than intuition or theories about moral words. This collection is aimed at both those familiar with Brandt's work and those unfamiliar, and is notable for its clear and weighty contributions to important topics in moral philosophy.[84]
1992 Literature (article) Dirck Vorenkamp publishes an article responding to Dennis Ahem's argument on the presence of utilitarianism in Mo-Tzu's thought. Ahem distinguishes between two types of utilitarianism, with the first being "strong utilitarianism," which prioritizes utility as the final criterion for actions and values. The author engages with Ahem's analysis and presents his own interpretation of Mo-Tzu's utilitarianism.[85][86]
1993 Irish philosopher Philip Pettit defines utilitarianism is a consequentialist (or, to use an older term, a ‘teleological’) doctrine in the sense that it maintains that the proper response to its values is to promote them.[9]:p10
1994 Literature Necip Fikri Alican publishes Mill's Principle of Utility: A Defense of John Stuart Mill's Notorious Proof, which constitutes a detailed examination and defense of John Stuart Mill's proof of the principle of utility, responding to criticisms and providing arguments in favor of utility as the first principle of morality.[87]
1995 Literature David Pearce publishes The Hedonistic Imperative, which attempts to outline how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.[88] Pearce writes:
I predict we will abolish suffering throughout the living world. Our descendants will be animated by gradients of genetically pre-programmed well-being that are orders of magnitude richer than today's peak experiences.[89]
2002 Literature Peter Singer publishes Animal Liberation, which would inspire a global movement to transform attitudes towards nonhuman animals and eliminate cruelty inflicted upon them. Singer exposes the realities of "factory farms" and product testing procedures, offering alternatives and dismantling justifications for such practices.[90] Singer writes:
Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favoring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.[30]
2003 Frederick Rosen warns that descriptions of utilitarianism can bear "little resemblance historically to utilitarians like Bentham and J. S. Mill" and can be more "a crude version of act utilitarianism conceived in the twentieth century as a straw man to be attacked and rejected."[91]
2003 Concept development Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom coins the term “astronomical waste” to describe the opportunity cost of delayed technological development. Bostrom argues that utilitarians should not aim to maximize the rate of technological progress “but rather that we ought to maximize its safety, i.e. the probability that colonization will eventually occur”.[92][93] Bostrom writes:
For standard utilitarians, priority number one, two, three and four should consequently be to reduce existential risk. The utilitarian imperative "Maximize expected aggregate utility!" can be simplified to the maxim "Minimize existential risk!".[30]
2006 Michael Ridge publishes an article presenting an alternative version of rule-utilitarianism called "variable-rate rule-utilitarianism," which aims to address the dilemma faced by traditional rule-utilitarianism in characterizing "general acceptance" as either 100% or something less. The author argues that this new version can evade the charges of utopianism and arbitrariness, and lack of philosophical depth that are leveled against traditional rule-utilitarianism.[94][95]
2007 Eric Wiland publishes an article discussing the concept of indirect utilitarianism, which is a form of utilitarianism that rejects direct utilitarianism and argues that the optimal decision procedure may differ from the criterion of rightness for actions. The author distinguishes between six different versions of indirect utilitarianism and argues that weaker versions of IU still fall prey to the paradox of utilitarianism, while stronger versions violate a moral principle that one ought to act intentionally.[96][97]
2008 Brad Hooker and Guy Fletcher publish an article discussing the debate between fixed-rate and variable-rate rule-utilitarianism, with fixed-rate evaluating rules based on the expected net value of a particular level of social acceptance, and variable-rate evaluating rules based on their expected net value at all levels of social acceptance. Brad Hooker supports fixed-rate, while Michael Ridge argues in favor of variable-rate. The article examines the implications of each approach on doing good for others. The debate is ongoing.[98][99]
2011 Anthony Skelton publishes an article in which he examines the concept of ideal utilitarianism, which posits that the fundamental requirement of morality is to promote intrinsic goods. The author critically evaluates the arguments presented by Hastings Rashdall in support of ideal utilitarianism and compares them to those presented by G.E. Moore. The article is divided into four sections, which outline Rashdall's ethical outlook, evaluate his arguments for the theory of rightness, discuss his defense of a pluralist theory of value, and argue that Rashdall makes a lasting contribution to the defense of ideal utilitarianism.[100][101]
2012 Literature American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt publishes The Righteous Mind, which challenges conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion by drawing on Haidt's 25 years of research on moral psychology. The book argues that moral judgments arise not from reason, but from gut feelings, and shows why liberals, conservatives, and libertarians have different intuitions about right and wrong. Haidt argues that each side is actually right about many of its central concerns. The book aims to provide a key to understanding human cooperation and to help readers trade in anger for understanding.[102] Haidt writes:
I don't know what the best normative ethical theory is for individuals in their private lives. But when we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism.[30]
2013 Literature American experimental psychologist Joshua Greene publishes Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Greene writes:
Utilitarianism is a great idea with an awful name. It is, in my opinion, the most underrated and misunderstood idea in all of moral and political philosophy.[30]
2013 Literature (paper) Kevin Tobia publishes Rule Consequentialism and the Problem of Partial Acceptance, an article discussing the problem of partial acceptance in moral theories and explores various approaches to addressing it, including three forms of Rule Utilitarianism: Fixed Rate, Variable Rate, and Optimum Rate. The author proposes a new approach called Maximizing Expectation Rate Rule Utilitarianism, which he argues is a better solution to the issue of partial acceptance.[103]
2014 Literature Ben Eggleston and Dale E. Miller publish The Cambridge Companion to Utilitarianism, which provides a comprehensive examination of utilitarianism. The book traces the origins and evolution of utilitarianism, examines its formulation and various interpretations, compares it with other ethical theories, and discusses its modern relevance in contemporary debates such as global warming and military conflict. It is a resource for students and scholars of moral philosophy, political philosophy, political theory, and history of ideas.[104]
2015 Literature Peter Singer publishes The Most Good You Can Do, which introduces the concept of effective altruism. The book argues that living ethically involves doing the most good that one can do, and that charitable giving should be based on reason and evidence rather than emotions. Singer introduces readers to people who are practicing effective altruism by choosing careers that allow them to donate more and giving half their income to effective charities. The book argues that effective altruism can change the world and provides hope for tackling the world's most pressing problems.[105] He writes:
Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.[30]
2015 Literature Robin Barrow publishes Utilitarianism: A Contemporary Statement, in which he claims that utilitarianism is the most coherent and persuasive theory available. Barrow argues succinctly and persuasively for a specific form of rule-utilitarianism.[106][107]
2017 Literature Bart Schulz publishes The Happiness Philosophers: The Lives and Works of the Great Utilitarians, in which he writes:
Happiness, for [the great English-language utilitarian philosophers] was more of a cosmic calling, the path to world progress, and whatever was deemed 'utilitarian' had to be useful for that larger and inspiring end, the global minimization of pointless suffering and the global maximization of positive well-being or happiness.[30]
2017 Notable quote Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö states:
Once we realise that utilitarianism comes with the idea of blameworthy rightdoing (such as when you push a big man onto the tracks in order to save five lives) and blameless wrongdoing (such as when you don't push a big man onto the tracks in order to save five lives), then utilitarianism all of a sudden appears to give the right answers.[30]
2020 Jonathan Harrison discusses two versions of utilitarianism: rule utilitarianism and cumulative-effect utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism is a form of utilitarianism where moral rules are established, and actions are judged based on whether they conform to those rules. The moral rules are chosen based on the principle of utility, which seeks to maximize overall happiness or pleasure. Cumulative-effect utilitarianism, on the other hand, focuses on the cumulative effect of individual actions on overall happiness or pleasure. Under this form of utilitarianism, actions are judged based on their long-term impact on overall happiness, rather than their conformity to moral rules. Harrison notes that while rule utilitarianism has gained more attention in recent years, cumulative-effect utilitarianism remains a valid form of utilitarianism that has not received as much attention.[108]

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Base literature

  • Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction, by Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer.[57]
  • The Political Economy of Progress: John Stuart Mill and Modern Radicalism, by Joseph Persky.[24]

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See also

External links


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