- The ethical theory advanced by Bentham, both James and J. S. Mill, Sidgwick, and many others, that answers all questions of what to do, what to admire, or how to live, in terms of maximizing utility or happiness. As well as an ethical theory, utilitarianism is, in effect, the view of life presupposed in most modern political and economic planning, when it is supposed that happiness is measured in economic terms. In J. S. Mill's statement of the doctrine, ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’. The view is a form of consequentialism, in which the relevant consequences are identified in terms of amounts of happiness. Different conceptions of happiness separated Mill's version (‘better a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’), which recognized qualitative differences between different kinds of pleasure, from Bentham's forthright attempt to reduce all questions of happiness to presence of pleasure or pain (‘other things being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry’). Bentham's version aims to render the basic concepts of ethics susceptible of comparison and measurement (see felicific calculus, hedonism ), but this goal will not be met in Mill's system. Critics of this aspect of the doctrine also query whether there is a conception of human happiness that stands sufficiently apart from general conceptions of behaving and acting well, to act as an independent target of action (see eudaimonia, virtue ethics ).The doctrine that applies utilitarianism to actions directly, so that an individual action is right if it increases happiness more than any alternative, is known as direct or act utilitarianism. Indirect versions apply in the first place to such things as institutions, systems of rules of conduct, or human characters: these are best if they maximize happiness, and actions are judged only in so far as they are those ordained by the institutions or system of rules, or are those that would be performed by the person of optimal character. Indirect versions of the doctrine overcome some of the problem that we are not likely to know, on individual occasions, which action will in fact maximize happiness. Even if we do not know that, we may know of the general impact institutions, rules, and character have on the happiness of those affected by them.
Philosophy dictionary. Academic. 2011.