Consequentialist ethical theories, including utilitarianism, judge the rightness or wrongness of an action solely on the basis of the consequences it produces. Utilitarianism asserts that the moral quality of an action is determined exclusively by its usefulness, its utility, in producing good consequences for the parties it affects. Under utilitarianism, there is only one binding moral principle, the principle of utility, which holds that one should always act so as to maximize the good consequences resulting from one’s action.
There are as many versions of utilitarianism as there are theories of the good. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who first articulated the modern utilitarian theory, believed that the good was identifiable as pleasure and, thus, that moral action required one to act so as to maximize the amount of pleasure in the world. Preference utilitarians, who believe that the good consists of the satisfaction of rational desires, judge actions as right on the basis of their tendency to maximize the ability of human beings to realize their rational desires. Eudaimonic utilitarians, who identify the good with human happiness, assert that proper moral actions are those that maximize the sum total of happiness experienced by human beings. Because this version of utilitarianism is the most widely discussed, the principle of utility is often referred to as the greatest happiness principle.
Utilitarianism is not an altruistic theory in that it does not require individuals to ignore their own interests. Under utilitarianism, the moral quality of an action depends on its consequences for all the parties it affects, including the actor. Utilitarianism is an egalitarian theory, however, because the interests of everyone count equally. The actor’s own good counts as much as, but no more than, anyone else’s.
The essential nature of utilitarian ethics may be captured by the claim that the point of morality is the promotion of overall human welfare by maximizing benefits and minimizing harms or, more colloquially, the promotion of the greatest good for the greatest number. Utilitarianism is inconsistent with all natural or contractual rights-based ethical theories, and hence, it is inconsistent with any version of libertarianism based on such theories. Yet it is by no means incompatible with libertarianism per se. However, because utilitarianism implies that the principle of utility is the only binding moral principle, individual rights can possess no independent moral authority. One can have no duty to respect individual rights as such, but may have a duty to violate rights if doing so would increase the sum total of human happiness. Thus, utilitarianism is incompatible with any version of libertarianism that is based on or demands a strict adherence to individual rights.
Whether utilitarianism is inconsistent with all versions of libertarianism, however, turns on a question of empirical fact. If maximizing human freedom is, in fact, the most effective way to maximize the sum total of human happiness, then utilitarianism would prescribe that human freedom be maximized. In such a case, utilitarianism would not only be consistent with, but would require a libertarian political structure. Thus, libertarian economists such as Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973), Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992), and Milton Friedman (1912–2006), who argue that this is indeed the way the world works, may be characterized as utilitarian libertarians.
Bentham, Jeremy. The Works of Jeremy Bentham. John Bowring, ed. London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1838–1843 .
Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. London: J. W. Parker and Son, 1859.
Paul, Ellen Frankel. “J. S. Mill: The Utilitarian Influence in the Demise of Laissez-Faire.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 2 no. 2 (1978): 135–149.
Rosen, Frederick. Classical Utilitarianism from Hume to Mill. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.
Originally published .