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  A moral theory which proposes the maximization of human well-being (utility or welfare) as the goal of life. It originated in the work of the eighteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham and his nineteenth-century successor John Stuart Mill (see Mill, 1962). Utilitarianism was a radical Enlightenment challenge to the prevailing beliefs in divine will, aristocratic authority and superstition as the principle guides to how people should act. It still has its followers, and is deeply implicated in some contemporary understandings of economic and social affairs.

Utilitarianism proposes that the only sound basis for normative appraisal is the promotion of human well-being. Other terms may be substituted for well-being, and take on special meaning in some versions of utilitarianism, e.g. pleasure, happiness, utility and welfare (cf. utility theory). Utilitarianism finds application in the appraisal of political and economic institutions and public policies, as well as guiding individual conduct.

A distinction is made between act utilitarianism, which concerns the direct link between an individual action and the good it generates, and rule utilitarianism, which concerns the rules or institutions which mediate between action and their consequences with respect to human welfare. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory, with acts judged by their good or bad consequences in the promotion or otherwise of human well-being. Utilitarianism requirs impartiality, giving the same weight to each person\'s well-being and asking each to consider everyone else equally with themselves in deciding what to do. A further important property is to maximize, i.e. to achieve or promote as much aggregate or total well-being as possible, subject to some constraint such as personal budget or society\'s available resources.

In classical utilitarianism what was to be maximized was pleasure, or the absence of pain. More contemporary versions of utilitarianism are closely related to neo-classical economics and its welfare theory (see welfare geography). The focus here is on individual (consumer) preferences, the satisfaction of which yields utility. People act so as to get as much utility as possible from their limited resources, within the general structure of market exchange. While this notion is often confined to commodities acquired by spending money, it is in principle capable of generalization to all things from which people derive satisfaction, either positive or negative. The aggregate of individual utility is welfare, which is what society is supposed to maximize. With respect to social justice, whatever distribution maximizes welfare is deemed to be just.

The concept of utility and the utilitarian calculus are replete with problems The most obvious is the unreality of the behaviour postulated: real human beings do not engage in precise calculations of how to maximize their satisfaction. The difficulty of measuring utility is compounded when moving beyond market transactions to all things from which we derive satisfaction. Other problems arise with the interpersonal comparisons of utility required to aggregate individual experience into collective welfare. And to assert that whatever distribution maximizes aggregate welfare is socially just, no matter how unequal, is open to serious objections. (DMS)

Reference Mill, J.S. 1962: Utilitarianism, ed. M. Warnock. London: Collins.

Suggested Reading Brown, A. 1986: Modern Political Philosophy: theories of the just society. Harmondsworth: Penguin, ch. 2. Kymlicka, W. 1990: Contemporary Political Philosophy: an introduction. Oxford: Clarendon Press, ch. 2. Smith, D.M. 1994: Geography and social justice. Oxford: Blackwell, 58-64 .



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