Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that declares that what is right or good is that which brings the greatest happiness for the most people. This view is often known as the “Greatest Happiness Principle,” since it focuses on what brings the most happiness to the most people. The two founders of Utilitarianism are Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873).
With Utilitarianism, the focus is upon the potential consequences of an action. When faced with a dilemma in which there are two or more choices, Utilitarianism instructs us to choose the course of action that would produce the greatest amount of happiness for the most people.
Many are drawn to utilitarian ethics and this approach appears to coincide with democratic principles in which the overall will and good of the majority is given high consideration.
Utilitarianism has also come under criticism. Some have argued that it is difficult to measure happiness. Plus, it is also difficult to measure the happiness of different groups.
Another criticism of Utilitarianism is that it is often difficult to predict the consequences of an action. We may choose a course of action that we think will bring the greatest happiness to the most people, but our predictions are often wrong. What if we think a potential action is best but it ends up being a disaster? For example, what if a world leader thinks that going to war with a neighboring nation ruled by a madman will eventually bring great good to the world, but in doing so he triggers a nuclear war? Can that leaders action be declared “good.”
Lastly, some have expressed concern that Utilitarianism can be used to justify actions that are usually considered immoral. What if hanging an innocent man would greatly deter crime in a society? John Stuart Mill, a co-founder of utilitarianism, worried that utilitarianism had the potential to lead to what he called the “tyranny of the majority” in which the rights of minority groups were trampled for the alleged good of the majority. To his credit, Mill attempted to put forth a utilitarian approach that respected the rights of minorities and encouraged tolerance of minority groups and views.