Utilitarianism n. - An ethical philosophy where actions are morally right in so far as their consequences make people happy.



  • Utilitarianism n. - An ethical philosophy where actions are morally right in so far as their consequences make people happy.
  • Stopped Mugger
    • Moral Value – Good
  • Returned Briefcase Used to Bribe Politician
    • Moral Value – Bad
  • Bribe Caused Company to Get Government Contract
    • Moral Value – No Idea
  • Government Contract Diverted Funds From Repairs to The Roof of Public School
    • Moral Value – Bad, I guess
  • Utilitarianism, n. - An ethical philosophy where one's lack of complete knowledge makes it impossible to ever know if one's actions are moral.


  1. douglas mcleod Says:

    I don’t think the fact that you cannot see all of the ramifications of an action throughout time means that the method is flawed. If you simply act so as to try to maximise good that is all you can do.
    If you use happiness as the standard then
    stopping the mugger is not necessarily ethically sound, I suppose it would depend on whether or not there was more happiness in the world (including the happiness of the mugger) after a succesful mugging than before.
    I admit that by talking about maximising good rather than happiness it ducks the issue since it calls for a definition of good.

  2. thad Says:

    You are right that one’s inability to know the full consequences of one’s actions doesn’t exactly doom utilitarianism. However, it does make it rather unwieldy.

    In relation to stopping the mugger, it seems the general notion that people will help if you get mugged could make a lot of people quite happy. Preserving this might easily justify stopping the mugger.

  3. oj Says:

    Nice comic, at least for making people think, even if I don’t agree with it.

    An interesting way to look at it is from the mugger’s perspective. Is he helping the greater good? He very well might be in that scenario. So are his actions justified? Does it “count” if it is unintentional? If it is intentional, purposefully hurting or making one person unhappy for the “greater good” is where utilitarianism is in dicey territory. Discussions like this usually end with “is sacrificing a baby to save a hundred more OK”-type questions. eek.

  4. TripleElation Says:

    True enough. The solution to this is that, lacking the knowledge on what would /certainly/ be for the greater good, we settle on doing what would /probably/ be for the greater good.

  5. thad Says:

    oj, that is a good point. If only the mugger had not been thwarted, it is possible he could have been the most moral person in the scenario. Unintentionally, but utilitarianism-wise it works out.

  6. Jester Says:

    Here we meet Sally.

    Sally just got a balloon from her mother because tomorrow was her 7th birthday.

    She was so happy she ran up and down the beach with it, jumping and spinning in the air.

    Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the sadness of a boy about her age as he was slumped down over his spilled ice cream.

    Sally ran over to him and asked his name.

    “Johash”, he said, wiping the tears from his face.

    “Well Johash, please take my balloon” Sally said with her arm stretched over to him.

    Johash took the balloon and a smile creped out from beneath his pouty face.

    “Thank you” Johash said, and turned and ran off.

    On his way home, Johash tripped and the balloon slipped from his fingers.

    He could only see the only happiness he knew at that time, floating off like it had so many better things to do.

    Johash picked up and ran right after it and without looking got hit by a car.

    The driver of the car was a mechanic, about to open his shop.

    Waiting at the shop, was a doctor, who trip to work was delayed.

    The hospital, where the doctor worked, received a patient, who was hit by a car.

    The patient died, a little boy by the name of Johash.

    Sally ran home and told her mom how nice she was.

  7. twitch3z Says:

    “In relation to stopping the mugger, it seems the general notion that people will help if you get mugged could make a lot of people quite happy. Preserving this might easily justify stopping the mugger.”

    “If only the mugger had not been thwarted, it is possible he could have been the most moral person in the scenario.”

    It’s important to keep in mind that first of all, in general people will be unhappier after being mugged and then being helped by passers-by than if they’d never been mugged in the first place.

    One shouldn’t disregard the impact as well on the public psyche of the existence of muggers in general, i.e. the existence of muggers makes people more afraid of going out at night or into certain neighborhoods, and I think everyone can agree that everyone would be happier in a world where muggings did not take place at all.

    So, while in the very restricted view of the scenario, it may seem initially valid to contend that the mugger was “the most moral person” by utilitarianism, that’s forgetting about all of the people who saw the mugging and are now going to be afraid to walk down that street, etc.

    By perpetuating an institution that makes society in general less happy, the mugger can easily offset the “good” done by preventing the school roof funds from being diverted.

    There are many critiques of utilitarianism that are very useful and as subtle as they are elegant; this isn’t one of them. It’s not nearly as black-and-white as more trivial examples make it out to be.

  8. Rash1981 Says:

    Well, if the alternative is giving one’s self up to philosphy we’rethe other dictates the value off your action is the alternative, i’d still go with the possibility of error….

  9. sollipsist Says:

    Morality in utilitarianism is like causality in chaos theory.

    And it tends to fall apart when you consider that no two people (let alone a heterogenous society) ever completely agree on what “the good” consists of.

  10. editec Says:

    Muggers need love, too, I guess.

  11. Adam Says:

    Nothing can be defined as in a certain place in itself. The only way to define its place is to compare it to something else. Eventually when enough concepts are available, it is possible to work out a system that is able to define the placement of something.

    So apply this to right and wrong, or good and bad. The reason we know how to define right, or good, is because we know wrong, or bad. If a system was to be applied where all right, or good, was applied in total, then it would ware down to become neutral because we would adapt to it. We would adapt because eventualy as time passes, our memory of wrong or bad becomes distant, and the new present system becomes more significant, and more attention is payed to it. But because the bad is distant, there is not as much to compare it to, so we “get used to it” and it merely becomes the way of life.

    This applies to the idea that the mugger is the most moral person. The only reason any good came from the situation was because there was a possibility for bad (or you can replace good and bad, with right and wrong).

  12. BJS Says:

    To DM. The part of utilitarianism that is not posted is the fact that one gauges ethics based on happiness for the greatest number of people. I guess one can still make the argument that one needs to know all the people involved to determine whether ethical.

    The biggest problem, however, is the way one gauges happiness. How can we measure one’s happiness against another’s? Who even determined that happiness is of paramount importance to ethics?? Overall, JS Mill just had it wrong.

  13. editec Says:

    There is no right or wrong except that we say it is so, folks.

    Life, even the life conducted by militant atheists, is one ever dependent on faith.

    Our every action, whatever our motive, produces outcomes which we cannot even imagine, some good some bad.

    So our every decision is a leap of faith. We do it in faith (or hope) that it produces a desired outcome and not too many unexpected consquences.

    This is obvious to us all, right?

  14. Edgar Langeveldt Says:

    What wouldn’t Jesus not do… c’mon this is obvious to all the majorities and minorities combined??? Really, people!

  15. James Says:

    Utilitarianism, if we’re talking about act utilitarianism, is determined by acting in a way to cause the most amount of happiness insofar as foreseeable concerned. The method commonly employed to determine this is a fairly arbitrary application of positive numbers to represent utility (happiness) and negative numbers for disutility (unhappiness). Let’s say that getting mugged causes -10 to the mugged, and 4 to the mugger. Overall, that’s -6. Now, getting mugged and getting caught. We may say -2 to the mugged, and -12 to the mugger. Well, that’s -14. Therefore, it causes more disutility to stop the mugger, and is an unethical action.

  16. Edgar Says:

    STOPPED MUGGER (My previous post #14, Oct 29)

    Thanks for getting back to me, Thad!

    1. I simply believe that if the victim is Xtian, he’ll say “Thank you Jesus I only lost 40 quid and am still alive!”
    2. The mugger can mug n billion ++ more victims (ie – n billion ++)!, turn to Jesus (ie accept His redemption) and it’s PLUS INFINTE ONE… mugger TOTALLY forgiven through faith!
    3. We must prevent muggings, rapes and murders ie INTERVENTION on principle & in practice.

    BTW The little “nice balloon girl” was nice, kind even. That ultimately her kindness CAUSALLY led to her “victim of niceness”‘death is surely out of her hands?

  17. James Says:

    I feel the anecdote of the little girl is an interesting hypothetical, but ultimately it strays away from the topic of utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill only asks that one consider the foreseeable consequences of one’s actions. The death of the boy wouldn’t fall under that category.

    Though there is the potential for the mugger to mug more people, we don’t especially know for certain whether or not he will, so the issue becomes very subjective. Also, it’s hard to determine how much unhappiness is caused to his victims in relationship to how much unhappiness time in prison would bring him. So far as accepting Jesus, and all that jazz, I don’t know that we can consider that among foreseeable consequences (beyond the soundness of mind it may give one), as it’s based on faith more than foresight.

  18. Quotes Says:

    Interesting illustration. Let’s see one about Kant’s categorical imperative.

  19. Buddha65 Says:

    Neither the girl nor the balloon were a cause of the boy’s death. The direct cause was the boy’s choices. In this case, the choice to put a material posession before one’s own safety. There are some people you can’t help, but you can help be happy for the moment as the girl did. Certainly there was utility in her action.

  20. Isaac Says:

    Having not read all the comments, I don’t know if I have earned the right to post one of my own. Having said that, I find it amazing how many people decided to defend utilitarianism–an outdated, out-moded, simplistic (and therefore), untenable model of morality. Instead of criticizing utilitarianism for being unclear regarding outcome (or the possiblity of knowing an ultimate outcome–read “Given Time”), we should criticize this dogma for an reduction of ‘goodness’ or ‘happiness’ to a measurable, comparable quality, so that one could figure out which path of action would produce the ‘most’ happiness or goodness.

    In short, I can’t wait for utilitarians to start to assign number values to a child’s life vs. a 10% increase in the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, or more simply, the pleasure of eating an ice cream cone vs. the health benefits of broccoli. How do you propose we compare these?

    Having looked at more comments, I noticed that James (comment #15) has done this…How did you come by those numbers, exactly?

    In the end, I have to even disagree with editec (comment #13)…While you’re argument is close to the truth, we should remember the difference between faith and dogma. Faith must be constantly renewed in the face of uncertainty. Dogma is that uncertainty made certain. For example, the faithful believer always knows that it is possible that he will turn out wrong; the dogmatic never accepts this possibility. Therefore, I would argue that most, if not all, actions are performed out of dogma; and that ethics is *always* dogma, since the study of ethics attempts to make the uncertainty of action (that the desirability of a particular action is always uncertain is a point well made by editec) certain, this is dogma as I’ve defined it, rather than in inherent uncertainty of faith.

    The fact that many people confuse dogma and faith continues to erode popular discourse on religion in the West–since many people think that to be dogmatic is to be faithful (and vice versa), it appears to many (both secular and religious) that a religious life is one of dogma; thus, one of irreverence towards Others, of an unreflective life, and, combined, into a world-view that cannot bend or alter itself to incorporate others (eg. Creationism vs. Natural Selection).


  21. editec Says:

    I make no claim that faith is the same thing as dogma, Isaac.

    In fact my assertion implies something quite the opposite.

    A leap of faith we must take because we cannot know all the possible outcomes of our actions.

    Knowing that we cannot know, knowing that it is a leap of faith is hardly dogmatic.

    Thinking that we can pierce that veil of future outcomes from our actions, Having the hubris to imagine that we can know results beyond the most obvious cause and effect, now THAT requires not so much dogma, but almost a child like naiveté.

    Appropriate closings to this range from

    “Suffer unto me the little children” to “the stupid will always be among us”.

    Both are appropriate depending on who we’re talking about.

  22. editec Says:


    depending on whoM we are talking about.

  23. dodo Says:

    sometimes an action does not always give back an equal opposite reaction

    so contradicts Newton’s 3rd law in physics:
    for every action there’s an equal opposite reaction.

  24. Don Says:

    Negative utilitarianism FTW.