Different Types of Modern Utilitarianism

Updated on December 10, 2015
It's all about the happiness.
It's all about the happiness. | Source


Utilitarianism, popularised by Jeremy Bentham, has had many great thinkers take it as the basis of their work. As a result, there are currently many modern types (the main 8 of which are listed here) of utilitarianism that are all worth considering. Some of them are very similar to each other and others are very different. Some of them do not allow for other views whilst others leave themselves open to incorporate ideas from other utilitarian ideas.

For clarity's sake, it's important to remember that due to the subjective nature of ethics, there isn't a definitive correct utilitarianism - in fact, perhaps no type of utilitarianism is correct at all.

Having considered the previous, however, read on and decide for yourself which modern utilitarian views seem right to you. At the very least, this humble online writer believes and abides by one of the following utilitarianisms.

Be sure to vote on which you agree with most in the poll at the end.

1. Karl Popper's Negative Utilitarianism (1945)

  • This type of utilitarianism requires us to promote the least amount of suffering for the greatest number of people. This is in contrast with all other types of utilitarianism (general, or 'positive' utilitarianism) which are based on the rule: maximise the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people.
  • The justification for Negative Utilitarianism is that the greatest harms are more consequential (harm is a bigger consequence than pleasure) than the greatest pleasure, and so should have more influence on moral decision-making.
  • Critics have argued that the aim of Negative Utilitarianism would be to cause the quickest and least painful way of killing all humans.
  • This is because after everyone dies, there would be no more suffering at all for humanity, ensuring the least amount of pain is present in the world.
  • The counter-argument to this is that displeasure should be prioritised over pleasure but this causes the problem of how much pain is worth how much pleasure and how can you quantify either.
  • You could also consider the idea that although pain is more consequential than pleasure, death is more consequential than pain.

2. Sentient Utilitarianism

  • This is a type of utilitarianism that gives equal consideration to all sentient beings and not just humans in particular. Therefore, this utilitarian view can be incorporated in with all of the others - when considering a type of utilitarianism, you must ask whether or not it caters for animals other than humans, whether or not it is 'sentient utilitarianism'.
  • Sentient beings are those that are considered to be conscious and feel pain.
  • Thus, equal consideration would be given to higher apes, dogs, cats and other animals.
  • Critics argue that the needs of humans are more important than those of other animals because humans are more intelligent, and it is their intelligence that brings about happiness for everyone.
  • A counter argument to this is that this idea would also apply to humans themselves, classifying more intelligent humans’ needs as more important than less intelligent ones.
  • The response to this is that this idea is acceptable, in fact desirable, and will result in more good for everyone.

3. Average Utilitarianism

  • Part of the debate concerning utilitarianism is just how do we decide how much "utility" as society has so that we can compare and decide how best to act.
  • Average utilitarianism suggests that we measure the utility of a population by calculating the average utility (finding out the utility of all people and then dividing by the amount of people) of that population.
  • A criticism of average utilitarianism is something known as the "mere addition paradox."
  • Take a population where the average utility/happiness is 90 (where the maximum a person can have is a utility of 100). Most people here are very happy, so if you add someone with an average utility/happiness of just 80 (still pretty happy) average utilitarianism would state that this would be an immoral action, since the lower 80 would bring the average utility (90) of that population down.
  • Going to a more extreme level, average utilitarianism advocates the removal of all people who are below average in happiness. This would spiral since after the below average has been removed there will be a new average and therefore some people who were above average before would become below average and need to be removed. This would continue until there are just the few equally happiest individuals.
  • A counter argument to this is that by removing sad people away from the happier individuals, the average utility/happiness of the society will go down and not up at all, since there would be a societal sense of loss and pity for those that were removed (not to mention many guilty consciences!).

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4. Total Utilitarianism

  • This is an alternative view to average utilitarianism and gets around the mere addition paradox by stating that it is best to measure happiness/utility by the total utility/happiness that a society has.
  • This however has its own problems e.g. a society that has 1 million people who all have a low utility, let's say just 1 out of 100, would have a total utility of 1 million which would be much more preferable to a society of just 1,000 people who are all blissfully happy with a utility of 100 each.
  • The conclusion that a larger populated but per average less happy society is more preferable than a happier but less populated one is known as the 'repugnant conclusion'.

5. Motive Utilitarianism

  • This type of utilitarianism incorporates the motives people have for their actions and gives weight to this when deciding if an action is morally right or wrong.
  • If someone is known to be doing a seemingly good action with immoral motives then that action might be deemed as immoral when using motive utilitarianism.
  • Motive utilitarianism also suggests that we instill motives that will be of practical value into ourselves via teaching so that we will do the right thing when it comes to it.
  • In short, motive utilitarianism considers the psychological state of humans when performing actions or wanting to perform actions.

6. Rule Utilitarianism

  • As you may guess by the name, Rule Utilitarianism concerns itself with general moral rules that you should follow when making decisions.
  • These rules should facilitate a moral action that maximises pleasure no matter how it is applied.
  • If a general rule does not do this, then sub-rules or general exception rules are made so that happiness/utility is always maximised.
  • For example, a general rule might be to never to murder a human being and a general exception rule for this general rule (that must always be followed - unless there is another exception rule to it) might be that murder is acceptable when it is done in self-defence.
  • This makes Utilitarianism more practical and usable in our daily lives since there is no need for long winded calculuses or critical analysis.
  • However, many difficult situations will not have rules made for them and perhaps we would never be able to make enough rules to accommodate all situations if we tried.
  • Many critics argue that analysing original general rules in order to add more moral general exception rules is the same process as Act Utilitarianism. However, Act Utilitarianism requires critical thought if the results from calculations would be clear and efficient.

7. Act Utilitarianism or Case Utilitarianism

  • This Utilitarianism requires each case to be taken individually and appropriate calculations made for each one of them.
  • The likelihood of consequences must be calculated for each potential action known and from there the action that will result in the most happiness should be chosen.
  • Act Utilitarians, much like Rule Utilitarians (this is where the confusion comes in) also follow heuristics - general rules that save time and money in investigation - in order to make their Utilitarianism more viable.
  • However, it is obvious that the calculations would not take long or be expensive and the results would be clear, then the heuristics may be ignored and calculations made for that unique case.

8. Two-Level Utilitarianism

  • Level one is using Rule Utilitarianism (based on our intuitions) because it is efficient (in both time and effect).
  • Level two however is using Act Utilitarianism when a situation requires more thought and more critical reflection.
  • This system of using general moral rules for everyday simple decisions and serious analysis and calculation for more important decisions attempts to take the best of both (utilitarian) worlds and make utilitarianism more practical.
  • The obvious problem of this utilitarianism is of course the matter of when to use Rule Utilitarianism and when to use Act Utilitarianism.

Criticisms of Utilitarianism

Of course, as with everything there are many criticisms of utilitarianism. The following are common criticisms (1) and their counter arguments (2).

  1. Many people find it difficult to believe that you can quantify happiness and even more difficult to believe you can compare different people's levels of happiness.
  2. The counter argument to this is that we make rough estimates in real life that work out for us - we know when someone is behaving more sad than someone else or are behaving happier than others.
  1. Some forms of utilitarians consider the pleasure of a sadist is equal to the pleasure of an altruist.
  2. Sadism results in short term pleasure but in the long run also results in long term suffering and pain, and therefore allowing any kind of sadistic pleasure will actually result in less pleasure in the future. Altruistic actions on the other hand result in long and short term pleasure and satisfaction and so must be given more weight than sadistic actions.
  1. Additionally, a lot of effort is needed to reach some conclusions using utilitarianism. The time, money and effort could have been spent better somewhere else.
  2. The counter argument here would be that decisions that need a lot of thought to ensure that the right choice is made will naturally cost a lot of time and money because of the nature of its importance. To make an uneducated guess at the answer could result devastating consequences for millions if not billions of people.
  1. Some people disagree with the idea that utilitarianism does not consider the motive of actions (except for motive utilitarianism) and only consider the consequences. If somebody tries to do a bad thing on purpose but accidentally causes good, utilitarians would look upon the result as equal to a result that would have been caused by good intentions.
  2. An argument back to this is that as long as the person who is known to have had bad intentions is dealt with appropriately, the consequence for the world remains useful - regardless of how it happened. It can be looked upon as mere serendipity - what difference does it actually make to anyone how something good happened? The only pleasure taken away is that there is no knowledge that someone tried to make the good thing happen to someone else which would have caused pleasure in seeing the kindness of another human being. Though this does not apply to all situations (people might not know that it was a person who caused the good thing to happen).
  1. Some people do not agree with the idea that causing happiness is the right thing to do and claim that there is no basis for stating that this is the case.
  2. Utilitarians would argue that happiness is what we naturally seek and it is what drives us to act - therefore it makes logical sense to attempt to maximise this for everyone. In addition, there are not many people who, given the opportunity, would deny happiness (since denying that happiness and getting what they want would give them happiness from the satisfaction of getting what they want). In short, we cannot escape wanting happiness because our very physiognomy is built on the principle that 'if it will cause happiness either mentally or physically, you should do it'.
  1. Some say that although happiness is important, there are other things that we should consider when making decisions such as equality and justice.
  2. Utilitarians may argue that the main purpose of striving for any other consequences like equality and justice would essentially be to maximise happiness, since most people feel happy when they feel that they are equal and know that justice is present in their lives.

Which is your favourite type of modern utilitarianism?

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    • profile image


      2 weeks ago

      6026 Camino De La Trl

    • profile image

      5 years late 

      10 months ago

      I realise this article is just a short and sweet overview of different theories on the topic, but there are some issues. The most glaring one is:

      "This is an alternative view to average utilitarianism and gets around the mere addition paradox by stating that it is best to measure happiness/utility by the total utility/happiness that a society has."

      The mere addition paradox is directly related to the repugnant conclusion, and total utilitarianism leads to it, not the other way around. Average utilitarianism is actually a way to avoid it.

    • profile image


      12 months ago

      I have never realized that the concepts of utilitarianism would be so interesting and easy unless I land on this page.

      By learning the kinds of utilitarianism, we could help this society by acting in the best possible way. The use of conscience in our actions is what I believe in. I support motive utilitarianism and very well consider Karl Popper's Negative Utilitarianism. Thinking differently is what matters most of the time. Your writings have indeed updated my views. Thanks for meaningful contributions.

    • breathing profile image


      4 years ago from Bangladesh

      A great post on the different types of utilitarianism. Also the author has successfully used the debunking of the logic that are brought up against utilitarianism. No matter what ever the kind of utilitarianism it is, its’ ultimate goal is to deal with the pleasure of the societies people. So you have the option of choosing any kind of utilitarianism but all have something to say about peoples’ pleasure. I think there are specific applications of different kinds of utilitarianism in different societies. One kind of utilitarianism that is applicable in a specific kind of society may not bring the desired results in another kind of society. So to get desired outcome the right one should be carried on in the right society.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Most help articles on the web are inaccurate or ineetorcnh. Not this!

    • Susan S Manning profile image

      Susan S Manning 

      6 years ago

      Of all the pieces I've read on Utilitarianism, I think I enjoyed this one the most. As I was reading, I was thinking about what Utilitarianism means to me. Then I got to Two Level Utilitarianism. I might add a touch of motive, since I think it's important to start with a general desire to be a good force in the world. Most of us do desire to leave a positive impact, I think. I suppose sometimes we all have to work at it.

      One of the things I like most about Utilitarianism is that it is not perfect, nor is it easy to define. Just like people. We just do the best we can with what we have and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong and have to contend with the consequences either way. Successes and failures are hard to measure and sometimes hard to differentiate, and happiness is impossible to quantify. We simply cannot know for sure how we measure up in the grand scheme of things, so there is no judgement either. We just live, learn and keep trying.

      Nice job addressing the criticisms too.

    • Philanthropy2012 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from London

      Thank you so much Karmallama :)

      Have a nice day!


    • Karmallama profile image

      Dreen Lucky 

      6 years ago from St. Paul, minnesota

      Very Interesting! I like the subject and it is very well thought out. Good Job; Voted up.


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