Utilitarianism and Liberty

  • William Stafford
Part of the British History in Perspective book series (BHP)


In his essay Utilitarianism, Mill writes that The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’ (CW, vol. X, p. 210). By itself this formulation could have come from the pen of Utilitarianism’s founding father, Jeremy Bentham. We may unpack Bentham’s classic Utilitarianism into three central ideas. First, actions are judged right or wrong with reference to their consequences; Utilitarianism is a consequentialist moral theory. Actions are right if they produce good consequences, wrong if they produce bad ones. Second, good and bad ultimately mean happiness and unhappiness. Bentham’s Utilitarianism therefore is a form of hedonism. Third, in judging actions or types of actions, we are invited to add up the sum of happiness produced and the sum of unhappiness, and to compare the sums. The rightness is determined by the surplus of happiness over unhappiness. Utilitarianism, then, is an aggregative moral theory.


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Copyright information

© William Stafford 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • William Stafford
    • 1
  1. 1.University of HuddersfieldUK

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