DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L109-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 03, 2024, from

1. Introduction and history

Defining utilitarianism is difficult, partly because of its many variations and complexities, but also because the utilitarian tradition has always seen itself as a broad church. But before offering a history, we must supply a working definition. First, utilitarianism is, usually, a version of welfarism, the view that the only good is welfare (see Welfare). Second, it assumes that we can compare welfare across different people’s lives (see Economics and ethics). Third, it is a version of consequentialism (see Consequentialism). Consequentialists advocate the impartial maximization of certain values, which might include, say, equality. Utilitarianism is welfarist consequentialism, in its classical form, for instance, requiring that any action produce the greatest happiness (see Happiness).

The concern with welfare, its measurement and its maximization is found early, in Plato’s Protagoras. In the process of attempting to prove that all virtues are one, Socrates advocates hedonism, the welfarist view that only pleasurable states of mind are valuable, and that they are valuable solely because of their pleasurableness (see Plato §9; Socrates §24; Hedonism).

The debate in the Protagoras is just one example of the many discussions of welfare in ancient ethics (see Eudaimonia). Some have seen Greek ethics as primarily egoistic, addressing the question of what each individual should do to further their own welfare (see Egoism and altruism §4). Utilitarianism, however, is impartial.

The Stoics, who followed Plato and Aristotle, began to develop a notion of impartiality according to which self-concern extended rationally to others, and eventually to the whole world (see Stoicism §18). This doctrine, allied to Christian conceptions of self-sacrifice, and conceptions of rationality with roots in Plato which emphasize the objective supra-individual point of view, could plausibly be said to be the source of utilitarian impartiality (see Impartiality).

In the modern period, the history of utilitarianism takes up again during the Enlightenment. The idea of impartial maximization is found in the work of the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1755) (see Hutcheson, F. §2). The work of his contemporary, David Hume (1751), also stressed the importance to ethics of the notion of ‘utility’ (see Hume, D. §4.1). A little later, the so-called ‘theological utilitarians’, Joseph Priestley (1768) and William Paley (1785), argued that God requires us to promote the greatest happiness (see Priestley, J.; Paley, W.). Meanwhile, in France, Claude Helvétius (1758) advocated utilitarianism as a political theory, according to which the task of governments is to produce happiness for the people. He influenced one of the most extreme of all utilitarians, William Godwin (1793) (see Helvétius, C.; Godwin, W.).

It was Jeremy Bentham, however, who did most to systematize utilitarianism. Bentham’s disciple, J.S. Mill, was the next great utilitarian, and he was followed by Henry Sidgwick. G.E. Moore (1903) distanced himself from Mill’s hedonism, and offered an influential ‘ideal’ account of the good. One of the most important recent versions of utilitarianism is that of R.M. Hare (see Moore, G.E.; Hare, R.M.).

Citing this article:
Chappell, Tim and Roger Crisp. Introduction and history. Utilitarianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L109-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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