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date: 24 February 2018

Utilitarianism and International Ethics

Summary and Keywords

Utilitarianism is inextricably linked to international ethics. The roots of the principle of utility can be traced to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it was first employed by thinkers such as David Hume. However, it was Jeremy Bentham who first formulated utilitarianism in detail and carefully studied its implications. According to Bentham, happiness is a condition in which an individual enjoys more pleasure than pain. There are different varieties of utilitarianism, and what sets them apart from other ethical theories is their stipulation that whatever is of value should be maximized for all and whatever of disvalue should be minimized for all. For Bentham, pleasure is the ultimate value. Later, John Stuart Mill distinguished between higher and lower pleasures and argued that higher pleasures should be given greater weight. In the twentieth century, authors such as R. M. Hare determined that maximal satisfaction of preferences is the value to be sought. The utilitarian emphasis on maximization and its choice of values have generated much criticism from those who espoused human rights theories, such as John Rawls and those influenced by his work. At present, the scholarly literature dealing with issues related to international ethics mostly comes from those who are committed to human rights theory or who are committed to equality of outcomes for human beings.

Keywords: utilitarianism, international ethics, Jeremy Bentham, happiness, pleasure, pain, John Stuart Mill, R. M. Hare, human rights, equality


No survey of international ethics would be complete without an examination of utilitarianism. Utilitarian thinkers have contributed to discussions of the significance of national sovereignty, international law, the obligation to assist people in other nations, the rules of war, and the issue of whether persons are justified in showing greater concern for fellow countrymen than people in other nations.

A brief glance at a typical formulation of the principle of utility shows that it is easily applied to issues of international ethics. Bentham’s statement of the principle of utility is a useful example. As he puts it, “The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation” (Bentham 1843b:142). Bentham understands happiness to be a condition in which an individual enjoys more pleasure than pain. Unhappiness is the reverse (Bentham 1780:ii). Note that what is relevant for Bentham’s principle is the pain or pleasure of individuals, since they alone are capable of being happy or unhappy (Ellis 1992:172–3). The fate of states, ethnic groups, or corporations is irrelevant for utilitarianism, except insofar as their fortunes have consequences for individual lives. As Bentham puts it, “The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting its members. The interest of the community then is, what? the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it” (Bentham 1780:ii–iii). Note as well that utilitarianism mandates that all individuals be shown equal concern. It makes no distinctions of rank, social status, kinship, citizenship, or ethnic affiliation, except, once again, insofar as these associations have consequences for the lives of individuals.

Like several other varieties of ethics, utilitarianism is consequentialist. What matters for such theories are outcomes for individuals rather than intentions or good character. The point, after all, is to improve lives or mitigate suffering. Utilitarians differ from one another in their views of the way in which the principle of utility should be applied. Some, such as Brandt (1972), Hare (1972), and Goodin (1995), believe that the principle of utility should be employed primarily to devise general rules of moral conduct. Others, such as Peter Singer (1972), Peter Unger (1996), and possibly Caspar Hare (2007), believe that individuals should apply the principle of utility directly to single actions. All varieties of utilitarianism differ from other ethical theories in their conception of the value to be sought by policy or action. They also differ from other theories in their stipulation that whatever is of value should be maximized for all and whatever of disvalue should be minimized for all. Utilitarian formulations of the value to be maximized have evolved over the centuries. For Bentham, pleasure is the ultimate value. Later, Mill distinguished between higher and lower pleasures and argued that higher pleasures should be given greater weight. In the twentieth century, R.M. Hare, among others, determined that maximal satisfaction of preferences is the value to be sought. The utilitarian emphasis on maximization and its choice of values have attracted considerable criticism from critics, including non-utilitarian consequentialists.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

It is not difficult to find hints of the principle of utility in Classical Greek and Roman authors and several seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers, Hume most notably, employed it (Ellis 1992:158–9). Nonetheless, Jeremy Bentham was the first to formulate utilitarianism in detail and carefully explore its implications. From the beginning, he considered it a foundation for social and political activism. Since the happiness of Bentham’s utilitarianism is the happiness of single individuals, the good of a human community is simply the sum of the happiness of all the individuals within it. Hence, a government’s decisions should aim to increase the sum of the happiness of the totality of its citizens (Bentham 1780:iii). Bentham defined happiness as a state in which an individual has more pleasure than pain, and he believed that pleasure and pain could be objectively measured. Hence, he argued that legislators should seek to calculate the balance of pleasure and pain resulting from various policies and select the policy which brings the greatest amount of pleasure to the largest number of people (Bentham 1891:31). Bentham was a reformer from first to last, and he viewed the principle of utility as a critically important instrument to serve his goals (Ellis 1992:160–1).

Bentham was, in addition, an Enlightenment thinker. As such, he shared the Enlightenment enthusiasm for science, and he considered utilitarianism to be the application of scientific method to social issues (Ellis 1992:162). After all, determining what brings pain or pleasure to individuals, then seeking ways to minimize the former and maximize the latter, are approaches seemingly well suited to empirical investigation, the methods of science in other words. A significant portion of utilitarianism’s attraction for thinkers of Bentham’s era can be found in this association of utilitarianism with scientific method. In addition, the Enlightenment was a populist, cultural movement (or “movements,” as it took varying forms in different nations). In many regards, the Enlightenment was an affair of ordinary individuals, who prided themselves on welcoming people from all walks of life. Taking inspiration from the recent successes of natural science, these ordinary people determined to employ the scientific method to examine social ills and consider how to address them. The centrally important thing is that they had faith that ordinary people, armed with knowledge and the scientific method, could participate in these larger social matters and seek to resolve them (Brinton 1967:519–25). This too was absorbed by Bentham. He was convinced that the utilitarian political movement was not only for ordinary people but of them.

In the twenty-first century, it has become obvious that utilitarian philosophy can readily be applied to issues of international ethics. But, Bentham, along with others of his era, did not have a conception of international ethics and so did not recognize that their ideas could be used to address such issues. According to scholars, Bentham addressed a question of international ethics once only, in a work titled, “International Law,” first published in 1798. As might be supposed from his title, Bentham strongly favored a system of international law to codify the standards of relations between nations. He also endorsed the creation of an international court to arbitrate differences between nations. He was confident that such an arrangement would eliminate any nation’s motives for resorting to warfare, with obvious benefit to the general good (Bentham 1843a:537–40). Of course, the plausibility of such schemes, reasonable though they may be, is heavily dependent on the goodwill and honest dealing of the world’s nations. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is notable that Bentham presumed without question that nation states were the only relevant agents or patients of global ethics. The benefits which he predicted would follow from his schemes of international law and court would be of direct benefit to nations – with the reasonable hope, it may be supposed, that these would trickle down to the benefit of ordinary persons.

That said, Bentham did address the conditions of European colonies. In a letter to the French National Convention, he nearly shouts, “I say again, emancipate your Colonies. Justice, consistency, policy, economy, honour, generosity, all demand it of you” (Bentham 2002:291). He argued with some fervor that colonies should be liberated on grounds that liberation would bring significant benefit both for colonizers and the colonized. He held the view that colonies could not bring any economic benefit to their colonizers. In fact, he was confident that colonies were an economic burden to their colonizers. Bentham was convinced that nations possess a fixed amount of capital to invest. In consequence, capital invested in colonies is not available for investment at home, to the detriment of the home economy. He noted as well that it is difficult to govern distant colonies effectively, and, therefore, it is difficult to maintain them in good order. To his credit, he also asserted that colonials are far better situated to govern themselves than the colonizers and therefore likely to benefit from self-rule (Bentham 1843a:546–8; Ellis 1992:164–5).

Nonetheless, it did not occur to Bentham to wonder whether individual people in scattered corners of the world have moral claims to assistance from people in prosperous corners of the world. Neither did he consider the question of whether national sovereignty may occasionally be overridden or whether its importance may depend on the benefits which governments provide to their citizens or the world in general. Likely it would be asking too much to expect him to see any of this, but, again, with benefit of over 200 years of theoretical work, it is apparent that these are implied by the principle of utility.

James Mill, disciple of Bentham and parent of John Stuart Mill, contributed a lengthy article on international law to a supplement of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The accepted view among scholars is that James Mill simply gave voice to Bentham’s own thought on such matters (Ellis 1992:164). James Mill was convinced that the principle of utility should be employed to formulate both the institutions and principles of international law (Mill 1825:17). He believed that principles of international law could not be genuine law without the establishment of an international tribunal to enforce them, for he believed that a law which is not supported by sanctions is not a law worth the name (Mill 1825:9–10, 27–33). He did believe that international law should establish legal rights of individuals both to property and personal security. Mill considered these to be negative rights, that is, as legal rights of individuals to be left alone in the enjoyment of their property and personal security (Mill 1825:11–3). He did not wonder whether individuals might have strong utilitarian claims to receive assistance from others in their efforts to gain and protect property or personal security. James Mill differed from Bentham in one significant detail. As noted earlier, Bentham hoped that a system of international law could remove the grievances that led nations to war. In contrast, James Mill did not seek means to remove the causes of war. Instead, he devoted himself to formulating the principles which should guide the justification of war and its conduct.

John Stuart Mill, a social and political activist like Bentham and engaged reformer, was also, like Bentham, a utilitarian. He modified Bentham’s utilitarianism by distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures and between civilized and barbaric peoples. However, like Bentham once again, he generally did not consider the implications of utilitarian theory for people in distant lands. An exception is a piece which appeared in a popular magazine on the justification of intervention in foreign nations. “A Few Words on Non-Intervention” first appeared in Frazier’s Magazine in December 1859. It is an unfortunate work in several regards. It is jingoistic, for one. For another, a conceit which makes a brief appearance in On Liberty is much in evidence here, that of Mill’s distinction between civilized and barbaric nations. He argued that the commonplace principle of international law, viz. nations should not interfere in the affairs of other nations, should be modified. As may be surmised, Mill wished to preserve the principle in the relations of civilizations to one another but believed that civilized nations not merely may but ought to intrude in the affairs of the barbaric. He believed that these intrusions would be justified as a way to introduce them to the advantages of advanced culture. He had in addition a modestly complex view of the question of whether nations are justified in intervening when the peoples of a nation are struggling to overthrow their leaders. If the nation’s leaders are foreign invaders who have taken power by force, Mill believed outside intervention is warranted. But if the rulers are domestic, Mill argued that intervention is unwarranted on grounds that rulers have the obligation to maintain the loyalty of their citizens. If rulers can maintain sufficient support from their own citizens to fight off a rebellion, they deserve to maintain their position. If, however, they are unable to successfully resist a domestic revolution, they have demonstrated that they have not succeeded in maintaining the loyalty of their citizens and so deserve to be removed from office. Notice, however, that Mill believed that the only way to determine whether domestic opposition is sufficiently strong to overthrow a nation’s leaders is to allow the uprising to run its course, so foreign intervention would be unjustified (Mill 1859).

The Twentieth Century

G.E. Moore ranks with the most talented and influential philosophers in the English-speaking world in the early part of the twentieth century. As Mary Warnock observes, “G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica was first published in 1903. It has become the custom to regard it as the source from which the subsequent moral philosophy of the century has flowed, or at least as the most powerful influence upon this moral philosophy”(Warnock 1960:16). Moore’s ethical position shared several important features with utilitarianism. He stated that, “In asserting that the action is the best thing to do, we assert that it together with its consequences presents a greater sum of intrinsic value than any possible alternative” (Moore 2004:25). As the above shows, Moore was convinced that the rightness of actions is determined by their consequences and that the best act brings about the maximum amount of the good. Both the emphasis on the moral importance of consequences and the view that goodness should be maximized are shared by utilitarian theories. However, Moore’s view of the good differed starkly from that of the utilitarians. He was convinced that goodness is a simple, non-natural property of things (Moore 2004:6–14). Those, utilitarians in particular, who held that the good is identical with some natural quality, such as pleasure, were guilty of the Naturalistic Fallacy, the fallacy of confusing a natural quality with the non-natural property of goodness (Moore 2004:17–21). Moore’s influence was such that utilitarianism became quiescent until the years after World War II. In addition, Moore asserted that judgments of what is intrinsically good must be based on intuition and could not be supported by reasons (Moore 2004:148). This position cuts the ground out from under normative ethics, since, if Moore’s intuitionism is correct, it is pointless to offer reasoned arguments in support of moral assessments (Ellis 1992:168–9). The lack of interest in utilitarianism and normative ethics changed decisively only with the advent of the American war in Vietnam. Many philosophers, along with other academics and intellectuals, vigorously opposed the war and deplored its toll on human life and wellbeing (Held et al. 1974:vii–viii; Wasserstrom 1980:1–4). Though enormously unpopular, both in the US and abroad, it was also the longest war in US history. US military involvement began with the dispatch of military advisers in 1955 and ended only in 1975. Organized American opposition to the war began in 1962 and continued to its end. The length of the war and the scale of opposition to it allowed time for philosophers to recognize that their skills could be employed to examine issues which the war prompted and suggest ways to address them. Hence, philosophical attention decisively shifted back to issues of practical import.

With this history, it is likely no surprise that utilitarian philosophers initially examined the justification of the rules of warfare. Both R.B. Brandt and R.M. Hare, among the most prominent twentieth-century utilitarians, applied their attentions to matters relating to the rules of war. Doing so, however, required them to employ a refinement of utilitarian theory (or possibly a corruption, depending on one’s point of view). Bentham presumed that his principle of utility would be applied to each particular instance of decision making. John Stuart Mill introduced the notion that in some circumstances the principle of utility should be applied to the choice of rules of conduct rather than to each individual instance of decision making. The idea is that rules, correctly chosen, would maximize utility over the long run and do so more efficiently than applying the principle directly to each individual choice. People are often forced to act in haste or in states of emotional disturbance or without complete understanding of relevant fact. Further, large, complex institutions must function smoothly in the manner of organic wholes. To allow this, they must employ rules that all will follow. This distinction was reintroduced to philosophical discussion by J.O. Urmson in 1953 (Urmson 1953). Hence, both Brandt and Hare set to work on utilitarian analyses of the rules of warfare. Given the ancient lineage of these rules and of their examination, the work of Brandt and Hare was not groundbreaking.

Brandt’s major concern was to demonstrate that rule utilitarianism is well suited to provide justification for commonly accepted rules of war such as the Hague Conventions and the provisions of the US army’s Department of the Army Field Manual PM 27-10. He took the idea of a rational contract from John Rawls and employed it to derive the non-Rawlsian conclusion that rational and impartial individuals would choose to be bound by a set of rules of warfare that would maximize likely utility for all (Brandt 1972:149–50). In addition, he argued that rule utilitarian principles offer clear guidance on several difficult issues of warfare, such as the justification of military action likely to kill or harm noncombatants (Brandt 1972:154–61). Though Brandt was convinced that individuals can generally expect to maximize utility in time of war by following the rules of warfare, he acknowledged that it is possible, at least in theory, for an individual to conclude that violating those rules may, in exceptional cases, bring about maximal utility (Brandt 1972:162–4).

Hare, too, addressed the issue of the justification of rules of war. His approach was to compare rule utilitarianism with the other prominent theories of the day, including deontology (the branch of ethics which asserts that some things are inherently good and it is our duty to bring them about) and absolutism (the view that certain moral principles determine conduct always and without exception). He argued that the results of applying each different type of principle to particular cases will generally be the same. However, he believed that utilitarianism has a significant advantage over deontological or absolutist theories in that utilitarianism is able to offer a philosophical justification for common moral standards, whereas the other theories must simply accept such rules as given. In addition, Hare posited two levels of moral thinking, the abstract level in which different principles of conduct are formulated and debated and the practical level on which they are applied. He asserted that the principle of utility should be reserved for the abstract level of moral deliberation. In war, or in civilian life, ordinary troops and ordinary people will simply have the rules arrived at by moral deliberation inculcated and will not be expected to engage in significant moral deliberation (Hare 1972).

From a quite different perspective, one of R.M. Hare’s students, Peter Singer, produced an article that was both groundbreaking and widely influential. His brief, non-technical article, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” appeared in 1972. From the time it appeared, this essay riveted the attention of philosophers and the general public as have few other philosophical works (Ellis 1992:177–8). The core of Singer’s analysis is contained in a simple but compelling argument that can be summarized as:

  1. 1 Suffering is bad.

  2. 2 If we can prevent bad things from happening with only a moderate cost to ourselves, we ought to do so.

  3. 3 ∴ We ought to prevent suffering (Singer 1972:231).

The simplicity and force of Singer’s argument may obscure its important shift of focus. Singer clearly believed that the principle of utility implies obligations for every human being and that all individual human beings, no matter where they live or what culture they practice, have claim to the concern of all other individuals. Singer did not examine the obligations of nation states, transnational organizations, or even the United Nations. He was interested in the obligations individual people have to other individual people. It is quite possibly this insight that helped set the foundation of international ethics, which, as it happens, emerged in full force later in the 1970s (Unger 1996:v–vi; Jones 1999:1; Hare 2007:162n).

Nonetheless, Singer’s philosophical and theoretical work did not occur in a vacuum. The long, agonized focus on wartime suffering of the Vietnamese helped direct people’s attention to the idea that the suffering of other human beings, no matter where they live, is a matter of moral concern for all.

Robert Goodin has employed utilitarian theory to address a different range of issues. He has produced a series of articles in which he seeks to undermine the common belief that individuals have greater obligations of assistance and care to fellow citizens than citizens of remote states. He has also discussed nuclear deterrence, arguing, as might be expected, that consequences are of greater concern than intentions. Also, he has examined the relation between international ethics and environmental issues.

Nonetheless, Goodin wished to nudge utilitarian theory in a very different direction than Singer (Goodin 1995). Goodin argued that utilitarianism should be a guide for institutional policy only. He was convinced that it is unsuited to be a principle of individual conduct. He reasoned that common counterexamples to utilitarian theory, such as that it would require killing one innocent person if doing so would save the lives of five others, arise only when the principle is applied by single individuals to particular cases. Though Goodin retained Singer’s concern for the welfare of individuals, he claimed that their personal conduct should not be directly guided by the principle of utility. He was convinced that, if the principle of utility is employed only to formulate institutional policy, it would not sanction killing one person to save others. That is because no society could function if individuals could be killed whenever doing so may be of benefit to others (Goodin 1995:8–23). In this way, Goodin returned to Bentham’s enthusiastic use of utility to formulate social policy.

Main Avenues of Criticism

Because utilitarianism has been prominent in the English-speaking world for 200 years, several lines of criticism are well developed. It has been modified in response to some of them but mobilized to combat others. These strands of criticism were revived in the 1970s in part in response to the renewed emphasis on applied philosophy in general and issues of international ethics in particular. But, the critical response to utilitarianism was fed by another source as well. John Rawls wrote his path-breaking work, A Theory of Justice, in significant part to devise a viable alternative to utilitarian theory (Rawls 1971:22). The resulting theory included a conception of human rights founded on decisions that Rawls believed people would make in an idealized choice situation. Because he believed that people in idealized choice situations would place a high value on secure access to the basic requirements of a worthwhile human existence, they would not choose utilitarian principles but would instead opt for a version of rights theory (Rawls 1971:17–22). Since the principle of utility mandates seeking the maximum amount of positive value, it allows the possibility that some would be deprived of the basic necessities of life in service of seeking the maximum value for all.

Rawls also asserted that utilitarian theory does not take sufficient account of the differences between persons. Rawls certainly understood that utilitarians are aware that people have varying interests and that they may gain satisfaction from widely different modes of life. John Stuart Mill discussed this matter in detail. Instead, Rawls’s complaint is that utilitarians do not take sufficient account of the fact that the vital interests of different people may come into conflict (Rawls 1971:28–30). Rawls’s work had an immediate and significant impact on philosophical thought. One consequence is that a number of the works on international ethics following Rawls’s work were influenced to a greater or lesser degree by Rawls’s approach of basing rights on some variety of contract theory. A practical consequence is that various theories of rights occupied the center of gravity of philosophical discussion over the next several decades while utilitarian theory received attention primarily as a counterpoint to rights-based theories.

As a result, one important genre of criticism of utilitarian theories has been devised by those, such as Rawls and those influenced by his work, who espoused human rights theories. They have constructed or revived three major avenues of criticism: Utilitarianism demands both too much and too little of people, and it does not give sufficient weight to equality of outcomes.

In addition, criticism of Rawls from a different perspective prompted development of another loose-jointed movement, that of communitarianism (Bell 2001:1). The communitarian response to Rawls was prompted by what the communitarians perceived as insufficient emphasis on the importance of bonds of family, culture, ethnic group, and nation and an overemphasis on the solitary individual. The values individual human beings possess, according to communitarian partisans, largely derive from human social ties. In addition, these bonds constitute a significant portion of what makes life worthwhile for individual humans (Bell 2001:13–21). As might be surmised, the communitarian movement is in broader fashion also a response to what they believe is the excessive individualism of contemporary life and contemporary philosophy. Of course, utilitarianism commits the same sin of excessive individualism in their eyes. So, communitarians argue that it does not give proper moral weight to the ties of culture, family, and nation that bind individuals to one another.

Utilitarianism Demands Both Too Much and Too Little

At first glance, this charge perplexes: Utilitarianism suffers both from excess and deficiency. However, closer examination reveals a coherent pattern of thinking. A time-honored complaint against utilitarian theory, one revived in response to Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” is that it demands too much from people. Taken at face value, utilitarian theory requires that individuals in even modestly comfortable circumstances should donate what they have to the poor until they near the boundary of destitution.

The objection that utilitarianism demands too much may be construed in several ways. One thought is that, though this may be a noble goal for saints and ascetics, it is far too demanding for the great mass of people (Singer 1972:237). However, a moral principle which is ineffectual is of little value. Further, its excessive demands would make the principle of utility self-defeating, since, if the great majority of people ignore it, there will be less good in the world than otherwise. The view here, then, is that utilitarianism is simply unrealistic.

A second way to flesh out the objection is that it conflicts with people’s common intuitions about the scope of their moral obligations. Or, to put the matter differently, most ordinary people feel no compelling obligation to provide nearly all their resources to assist needy individuals in far corners of the world. Quite possibly, the thought behind this objection is Rawls’s judgment that philosophical reflection must have a starting point and a natural candidate is the untutored but broadly held moral judgments of ordinary people (Rawls 1971:18–21). Hence, a view wildly out of joint with ordinary beliefs can safely be rejected.

Utilitarians have several avenues of response to the claim that Singer’s, or any other utilitarian, position is unrealistic. To begin with, all moral systems address the matter of how people ought to behave rather than actual behavior. So, if people do not act in accordance with Singer’s mandate, they are simply failing to honor their moral obligations. In these matters, numbers are irrelevant. It is of no consequence if the great majority of people fall short, and it doesn’t matter if these lapses are nearly universal. After all, Western European thought has a long tradition of considering human beings to be born in sin.

Singer is well aware of the charge that utilitarianism is futile because it demands too much of people (Singer 1972:241–2). He notes in response that, if humans cannot be expected to donate resources to the boundary of their own poverty, then the principle of utility requires that another, more practical, mandate be formulated. In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Singer gave no specific answer to the question of how much well-off individuals should contribute to the destitute. He said only that they should at minimum give to the level that would require them to sacrifice something morally significant (Singer 1972:241). Singer retains this view to the present day, though he has recently given additional attention to the issue of how much money would be required to remove the world’s destitute from life-threatening poverty and what portion of the income of comfortable people in the US would be required to achieve this purpose. His calculations reveal that the cost of such aid would be surprisingly modest. It would range from a third of the incomes of the extraordinarily wealthy to 10 percent of the incomes of the comfortably off (Singer 2006). As always, utilitarianism is at the mercy of fact. If the theoretical maximum of value is unlikely to be achieved, the theory allows for adjustment. Singer has done exactly that.

In addition, the charge that Singer’s mandate fails because it is out of joint with ordinary people’s intuitions received an ingenious and sophisticated response some years ago. Robert Unger’s Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence of 1996 employs an array of carefully contrived cases, many of them variations of Judith Jarvis Thompson’s famous trolley case, but including a number of original and fanciful cases of his own (Unger 1996:85–118). Thomson imagines a runaway trolley car headed at five people. In one version of that case, an observer can turn a switch to shunt the car down a different track, killing one person only. In another version, the observer is on a bridge over the tracks and can save the five only by pushing a fat person off the bridge and into the path of the trolley. In both cases, one person is sacrificed to save five others. The first version of the case seems untroubling, and Thomson believes that most people are comfortable with the decision to turn the switch in order to kill one person but save five others. However, the second version is troubling indeed, and Thomson believes that pushing the fat person off the bridge is wrong even though it too will save five lives (Thomson 1985:1395–7, 1409–10). A striking feature of Thomson’s trolley cases is that both sacrifice one life to save five, but her response is quite different, approval in the first but disapproval in the second. Unger devises a large number of cases, including those with two trolleys circling around in loops, going over bridges, etc., to illustrate different instances in which some may be sacrificed to save others. He also has an array of examples in which a far smaller sacrifice is required, such as slicing off someone’s foot, to save 60 others or ruining an automobile’s upholstery to rush a badly bleeding stranger to help. In addition, he has cases in which there are more than simply two choices. Unger reports that he has tried these cases out on his students and found the intuitions of these ordinary people to be highly malleable. That is, varying the order of presentation of a series of cases can alter students’ judgments of individual cases. Further, Unger devises an analysis in which he argues that such ordinary intuitive judgments are commonly driven by factors that he believes to be morally irrelevant, matters such as saliency, proximity, or futility. If Unger’s analysis is correct, spontaneous moral intuitions should not be granted the moral weight they have commonly been assigned (Unger 1996:10–3). However, one response, that offered by Peter Singer himself, notes that Unger’s approach has not been tested through the use of rigorous scientific methods. Unger’s results come simply from trying out cases on students in classrooms. Though Singer is obviously sympathetic to Unger’s approach, he concludes that Unger’s work should be subject to scientific verification before it can be confidently employed as the basis of philosophical reflection (Singer 1999:187).

Recently, however, Caspar Hare formulated a complex and subtle response to the charge that utilitarianism is wildly out of harmony with ordinary intuitions. As Hare notes, his analysis is based on the premise that we are sometimes unaware of our relation to people whom we are in a position to assist (Hare 2007:162). One facet of this ignorance is that we may be unaware of whether these needy people are nearby or far away. Hare argues at some length and with considerable ingenuity that those who fail to act in accordance with Singer’s mandate must face the dilemma of being either irrational or morally callous. He notes that Singer’s critics commonly acknowledge a strong moral duty to help children in mortal danger who are in their immediate vicinity, but they deny the existence of a similar duty to assist children who are in mortal danger but are far removed from them. Hare argues that such people have disordered preferences in the sense that their choices will be inconsistent unless they jettison either rational consistency or moral decency (Hare 2007:168). He employs a number of examples to illustrate this claim. One vivid example presents an individual with the choice of either making a small sacrifice to assist an unseen but nearby child or making the same small sacrifice to assist a child who is far away. In one form, the near-at-hand child has fallen into icy water and will die from hypothermia unless it is covered by the bystander’s coat. The distant child will contract rubella unless it receives a vaccination and will die from the disease. Hare then notes that death resulting from rubella takes a long time and causes intense suffering. Death from hypothermia is in comparison relatively quick and pain free. So, if the bystander has the principle of helping only those nearby, he or she will condemn the far-away child to a terrible death. Hare then asserts that only a morally callous person can choose that one individual suffer a terrible death. The only option is to candidly agree that the choice of helping only the nearby is rationally inconsistent (Hare 2007:171–4). Particular individuals may be willing to pay one of these prices, Hare notes, but each is a significant cost.

Yet, on the other hand, one of the most pervasive criticisms of utilitarianism is that it demands too little. That is, it would allow individual persons to be killed, defamed, or impoverished in cases in which it could be demonstrated that the greatest good for the greatest number of people required it. Presently, a common thought is that there is an array of fundamental moral entitlements (i.e., rights) that each individual person enjoys, and that a moral theory which allows justification of treating people in ways that deprive them of fundamental moral entitlements must be morally deficient.

R.M. Hare is sensitive to this charge and formulates a careful response that employs the example of a utilitarian justification for human slavery. Hare notes that the principle of utility cannot rule human slavery completely out of court. It is possible, in other words, that the greatest good for the greatest number of people will indeed be achieved in certain cases by employing the practice of human slavery. Since this result seems abhorrent, critics commonly conclude that a theory which allows it should be rejected (Hare 1979:104). Hare’s response is to take the charge seriously by constructing an instance of human slavery that he believes would genuinely bring about the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. As Hare notes, he has some credibility on this matter since, as a Japanese Prisoner of War toiling on the Burma Railroad, he was at one time essentially a slave (Hare 1979:103).

By carefully fleshing out an example of human slavery that would genuinely meet this standard, Hare believes that he can demonstrate that slavery of that sort would not be reprehensible at all. To begin with, Hare notes, it must be shown that a practice of slavery that genuinely satisfied the utilitarian standard must genuinely bring greater good to more people than social practices that did not employ slavery. Second, the slaves themselves would have to lead decent and rewarding lives and would also enjoy significant legal protection, since a system of slavery that meets these requirements clearly produces greater good than one which maintains slaves in misery (Hare 1979:112–13). In consequence, Hare is able to portray a slave-holding society that is attractive and comfortable for slaves and clearly produces more benefit for all than any alternative practice. Of course, since slaveholders, those in the American South, for example, commonly claimed that their slaves were content and well treated, observers are inclined to be doubtful. But, the point of Hare’s example is that the slave-holding society such as he envisages would genuinely meet these standards and would not do so in minimal fashion – since a society which had higher standards of treatment would produce more good and therefore receive the endorsement of utility.

Hare’s response is unlikely to satisfy critics. They may well have two grounds for discontent. First, Hare’s example does not demonstrate that it is impossible for a practice of human slavery to produce the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people yet still contain many of the elements which contemporary opinion finds reprehensible. Hare and other utilitarians must rely on facts about states of affairs, and Hare’s example cannot demonstrate that there is no state of affairs that would be in accord with the utilitarian mandate yet contain elements that are reprehensible. And that is sufficient to convince many critics that utilitarianism should be rejected.

But, second, even if Hare could successfully address the difficulty of the above paragraph, many critics would likely remain unmoved. They may well assert that the problem with human slavery is that it is a violation of a fundamental right of human dignity, and it remains a violation even if slaves are comfortable, well treated, and content with their lives (Wasserstrom 1964:639–41). That response homes in on the nub of criticism of the utilitarian principle: It must rely on facts regarding maximal human welfare. It cannot rule any particular treatment or human practice (such as slavery or torture) out of court because any otherwise abhorrent practice may under the proper circumstances result in maximal human welfare. That is part of Rawls’s complaint about utilitarianism in A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971:30–1).

As noted earlier, Robert Goodin formulates a response in Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy that he believes neutralizes the critics’ charge. There he argues that applying the principle of utility to single isolated cases (that is, act utilitarianism) may well have the repulsive results which critics decry. However, Goodin believes that the solution is to restrict the principle to broad types of cases (that is, rule utilitarianism) and further restrict its employment to human institutions. Goodin is convinced that these restrictions will neutralize the common criticisms of utilitarian theory since he believes that rules formulated according to utilitarian principles will as a matter of fact rule out the types of conduct critics decry (Goodin 1995:18–23).

Nonetheless, critics are unlikely to be mollified by this maneuver. They may well insist that it does not completely evade the objections noted above. It cannot rule out the practice of human slavery in all circumstances, and, worse, it cannot rule such a practice out as a matter of principle. That is, Goodin is unable to demonstrate in principle that no human society could discover that the greatest good for the greatest number is served best by establishing a law which allowed singling out one or a few of its members to be subjected to abusive treatment. For example, political leaders in authoritarian nations commonly determine that singling out one or several dissidents for punishment on trumped-up charges has the useful consequence (from their perspective) of keeping the rest of the population quiet. If it is the case that social stability and harmony are the highest values, as a fair number of people believe, then such practices would indeed bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Goodin has not completely eliminated this possibility and cannot do so in a way that is consistent with utilitarianism.

So, the fundamental divide between utilitarianism and its rights theorist critics remains. Neither appeals to rule utilitarianism nor Goodin’s maneuver of restricting the use of the principle of utility to decisions of social policy can absolutely rule out practices which decent human beings are likely to find abhorrent. The principle of utility must remain at the mercy of the facts of the world. It cannot completely rule out any particular mode of conduct. The principle of utility must endorse conduct that as a matter of likely fact brings about the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. Rights theorists, among others, contend that certain types of conduct must be definitively ruled out of contention by any acceptable ethical theory. Murder, slander, and torture, among others, cannot be condoned by any competent moral theory. Recent generations of ethicists, likely influenced at least in part by Rawls, have been inclined to agree with this view. It is likely a portion of the explanation for the ascendancy of rights theories and the ebbing influence of utilitarianism. In consequence, it is unlikely that any defense of utilitarian theory that fails to address this issue directly will have broad influence.

The dismal history of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first is part of the problem that utilitarian apologists face. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries hold the Nazi atrocities, the Soviet gulags, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, My Lai in Vietnam, Pol Pot’s reign of terror in Cambodia, genocide in Rwanda, Abu Ghraib, and far too many others. Decent people across the world were horrified by these events and rightly concluded that they should never be allowed to occur again. Hence, people came naturally to the view that there should be strict limits to human conduct. It is impossible to say with certitude that this response has propelled the movement to espouse human rights. Nonetheless, it is certainly a factor that any persuasive utilitarian theory must address. To respond simply that the principle of utility would certainly condemn all the above atrocities does not address the demand that such actions should be ruled out in principle and not simply as a matter of fact.

It is simply impossible for any recognizable principle of utility to meet that demand. Does that imply that utilitarianism is fatally flawed and should be rejected? It is not obvious that it does. It is widely understood that human beings commonly find themselves in extraordinarily difficult conditions in which they face agonizing alternatives. There is a story about World War II that is undocumented but sufficiently plausible that it could well have taken place. It is a case in which a French mother with a group of people in hiding from Nazi soldiers strangled her baby to keep the group from being discovered. Clearly she faced a terrible choice, and it is equally clear that her chosen course can be defended on moral grounds. Any useful system of moral principle must have some means of addressing such terrible cases, since those are the circumstances where clear moral guidance is most needed. Further, it appears both otiose and morally callous to insist that innocent human beings can never be killed, not even in such dismal circumstances. At least one rights theorist, Robert Nozick, is sensitive to such difficulties, and he proposes as a solution a utilitarianism of rights (Nozick 1974:28–9). By this, he means that rights may be overridden in service of other rights though not for other human values, such as prosperity or ease. That is most certainly an attractive option, and it allows a way to gracefully address the case of the French mother. The difficulty is that this solution may allow the utilitarian camel’s nose into the tent. Presumably, the rights balancing would need to be grounded somehow. Any attempt to do so on the basis of respect for persons or a conception of that which is due each human individual will not allow the utilitarian balancing that Nozick envisages. This balancing can only be supported by an appeal to human welfare. But, if that is so, utilitarianism is fully inside the tent, since the ultimate appeal is to human wellbeing.


Utilitarianism is most certainly egalitarian in one fundamental way. As Bentham insisted, each should be treated as one and none as more than one. By that, he meant that the welfare of each individual must be taken into consideration in all moral deliberation. But, to several critics, this is inadequate. Though utilitarianism demands equality during the process of decision making (since each should be counted as one and no one as more than one), it does not demand equality of outcomes. As before, the difficulty is that seeking to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number may well require that some, or even most, be deprived in order to serve the greatest good overall – and the greatest good overall might consist of an enormous amount of good supplied to a small number of people at the expense of the mass of people.

It should be apparent that this objection is a near kin of the concern that utilitarianism demands too little. Because utilitarian theory must depend on findings of matters of fact, it cannot guarantee equality of outcome for all individuals. However, it is not necessarily the case that this is a terrible thing. Even John Rawls, though a determined critic of utilitarian theory, is not completely wedded to strict equality of outcome. Rawls’s famous Difference Principle allows an enormous degree of difference in outcome for different individuals so long as these differences yield the best outcome for those who are least well off (Rawls 1971:75–83). Rawls’s critics have been quick to note that this allows enormous differences to result, since a particular distribution of goods may yield a very small benefit for the worst off but a very significant benefit for the most privileged. That is so, but Rawls is able to avoid lapsing into utilitarianism only with the proviso that the locus of concern should be the benefit of the least well off.

As always, the difficulty is that utilitarianism is necessarily in hostage to matters of fact, while vigorous proponents of equality will insist that equal outcomes for all should be a fundamental concern. For this reason, it is highly unlikely that there is anything utilitarians can say to completely satisfy their concerns. At this juncture, it is common for utilitarians to resort to the principle of diminishing returns. That is to say, a given quantity of good will typically be of far greater benefit to the underprivileged than to the comfortably situated. Proponents of strict equality are unlikely to be mollified by this since, once again, it allows disparity of outcomes.

But, once again, it is possible to wonder whether it is inevitably reasonable to insist on strict equality of outcomes. As Rawls’ Difference Principle illustrates, it would appear short-sighted to insist on equality of outcome either when a different arrangement would bring greatest benefit to the worst off or when an inequality of distribution would be of benefit to all.

Personal and Community Ties

From the perspective of communitarianism, but also that of some others unaffiliated with it, the great deficiency of utilitarianism is that it gives little moral weight to the strongly felt bonds which individual persons have to their families, their communities, their ethnic groups, or to their nation (Walzer 1983:261–2). Because these ties are so exceedingly important to persons and because they constitute a significant portion of what makes life worthwhile to them, a moral theory that fails to account for them is immediately suspect.

In particular, the communitarians are critical of international ethics generally because it fails to give sufficient weight to the importance of the nation state. Though these criticisms apply to several versions of international ethics, they are quite pertinent to utilitarian versions, because the principle of utility grants no intrinsic importance to the bonds of national citizenship. Nation states matter for the utilitarian only insofar as they have implications for the welfare or illfare of the particular individual. Of the recent utilitarians, Robert Goodin has given most sustained attention to this issue.

Goodin offers a twofold analysis. First, he offers evidence that it is not inevitably the case that citizens of one nation are more obliged to look after the welfare of their fellow citizens than aliens. He cites instances in which resident aliens have clearly defined rights and protections that are unavailable to citizens (Goodin 1988:665–71). He observes as well that even in cases where citizens are deemed to have greater obligations to fellow citizens, there must be some justification for the distinctive treatment. On a more basic level, he then points out that the most commonly offered justification for the view that individuals have greater moral obligations to fellow citizens than aliens is that a nation can be viewed as mutual benefit societies, in which individuals cooperate with one another in social structures on the understanding that they will receive benefits in return for the benefits they provide to others (Goodin 1988: 675–8). Goodin finds several difficulties with this view. One is that it is rarely the case that the boundaries of these mutual benefit structures coincide with national boundaries. In addition, some individuals, such as the handicapped or elderly, contribute little to society but receive a great deal from it. Also, Goodin notes that it is commonly difficult to determine just who is within the boundaries of such a mutual benefit structure and who is not. In consequence, Goodin concludes that the mutual benefit society model is ill-suited to explain any particular obligations individuals may have to one another.

More generally, he is convinced that there are no distinct classes of specific duties to particular individuals. Instead, he asserts that human beings have only the general obligation to help others when they are able to do so (Goodin 1988:683–5). The various human associations, such as family, community, or nation, have moral sanction only insofar as they are required to fulfill this obligation. For example, human infants desperately need the constant attention of others. Goodin believes that the institution of the family is warranted morally only insofar as it carries out this general obligation to care for helpless infants. It would be impossible for all competent adults to successfully look after all children. However, they can fulfill this obligation by tending to their own offspring and supporting the institution of the family to allow other children to receive vital care.

Not incidentally, this argument provides support for the view that nations of the world, organizations, or individuals may intervene in the affairs of a nation state if it is a danger to its own citizens or fails to provide them with the conditions which will allow them to lead fulfilling lives.

It is not unlikely that communitarians will be dissatisfied with the argument above. They may well claim that a utilitarian argument is unable to account for the obvious value that social organizations have for human individuals. While humans are welcome to value family or nation for its utility, they also value these social bonds for themselves and are inclined to believe that their lives are vastly enriched by their association such ties (Walzer 1983:261–2). However, utilitarians have a reply to criticism of this sort. It is certainly true that human beings have such ties and that close emotional bonds with others are critically important facets of a fulfilling human life. Darwinian theory tells us that millions of years of evolution have developed these emotional bonds. Human beings, like other primates, thrive in groups. To do so, they need to have certain personal qualities to preserve group cohesion. An ever-expanding number of scientific studies attest to this (Hauser 2006:163–241). Nonetheless, a utilitarian will respond that such bonds are not therefore morally sacrosanct. If they are to receive moral sanction, they must be examined and evaluated. They cannot be taken as moral bedrock. After all, it is no difficult matter to find instances where putting ties of family or clan ahead of the welfare of other human beings has resulted in enormous harm. Furthermore, there are ample instances where such emotional bonds have come into conflict with one another, as where family ties come to loggerheads with those of clan or nation. If such bonds are moral bedrock, there is no reasonable way to adjudicate such conflicts. But, if such bonds do indeed play a central role in human lives and bring enormous value to them, these bonds have considerable weight when utilitarian theorists labor to bring the greatest good to the greatest number.

Prospects for the Future

At present, most work on issues related to issues of international ethics is undertaken by those who are committed to human rights theory or who are committed to equality of outcomes for human beings. Comparatively few authors employ utilitarian theory these days. The story of why this is so is complex and likely incomplete. One possible view is that utilitarianism has been developed to the limit of its capacity and has addressed all the issues it is capable of addressing. Likely another part of the explanation is that utilitarian theory has been on the scene for a sufficiently long time that its weaknesses are fully known and widely accepted. Another part of the story is that many are now convinced that an adequate moral theory must establish some minimal standards of decent treatment for human beings, as Rawls insisted. In addition, the rhetorical power of appeals to rights should not be underestimated. People who appeal to rights commonly believe they have made exceedingly strong claims with strong claim to satisfaction. Those eager to gain support or respect for a particular cause are well aware of the rhetorical advantages of appealing to rights. Several years ago, humanity was solemnly informed that each individual had the right to a unique genome. While that may or may not be welcome news, it is likely that humanity was entirely unaware of this significant entitlement during the entire course of its previous history.

Currently, it is difficult to predict what is likely to become of utilitarian theory in the future. In the past decade, there have been no landmark works that apply the principle of utility to issues of international ethics. The scholarly journals devoted to examination of issues related to utilitarian theory and its application have little to offer on the issue of international ethics. Nonetheless, it is safe to expect that it will remain among the roster of prominent theories that will need to be canvassed in expositions of international ethics. It presently appears unlikely that it will soon return to preeminence among moral theories or that it will become a hotbed of theoretical activity with a large number of adherents. A change in these circumstances would require a compelling restatement of utilitarian theory and likely further modification along with demonstrations that there are problems of international ethics it can address more adeptly than other theories on the scene.


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