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Theories of Justice: Utilitarian theory Expository Essay

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Updated: Oct 25th, 2019

Utilitarian Theory

Utilitarian theory is one of the commonly used and analyzed theories by ancient and modern philosophers due to its universal nature in application. Modern philosophers have made several changes in the theory in order for the theory to fit and address the changing needs of the society. The theory has been supported by politicians, economists and the general society since it teaches morals and ethics to the three sectors.

Objectives of the Study

This study aims at investigating the emergence of utilitarian theory of justice, its criticisms, and its effects to the society. The investigation is meant to unravel and clear out all the controversies associated with the theory, including giving a deeper insight of the theory, what inspired its emergence and learning its strengths and weaknesses.

Study Material

In this study, the researcher will use research materials used by other researchers, books written by the modern and ancient philosophers, online sources and case judgments by the courts of law. These sources will provide the researcher with information to understand the application and nature of the utilitarian theory of justice.

Problem Statement

With utilitarian theory being one of the theories of justice, the need to know how the theory offers justice to people, how it determines the conduct between individuals and the challenges the theory is facing in the modern world has made the researcher to undertake the research.


Justice determines just conduct of individuals through moral principal. According to John Rawls, theories of justice emerged from political philosophy and ethics. There are several theories of justice that include utilitarianism theory, justice as fairness theory and libertarianism theory. People who supported utilitarian theory were called utilitarian’s (Rawls 85).

Utilitarian theory holds that if several alternative actions are combined and one of the actions produces the highest utility compared to the other actions, then the action is perceived as morally right. Utilitarianism originated from the United Kingdom due to the rationality of human beings who developed a moral society based on reason.

Utilitarianism was developed after the religious war of between the years 1562 and 1598 in France, at the same period, modern science came to birth. English civil war, which took place between the years 1642 and 1651, demonstrated how human beings were violent and immoral. According to John Rawl, utilitarian theory was lastly revised in the year 1999.

Utilitarian’s answer the moral question of what is good and what is right and the theory believes that rightness is derived from goodness. A disagreement over what is right and what is wrong often arises from modern utilitarian’s.

This disagreement has led to formulation of different forms of utilitarianism in the society; these forms include extreme utilitarianism, restrictive utilitarianism and preference utilitarianism. In either of the three above mentioned forms, utilitarianism is a teleological ethical theory; this means that each action or right is judged according to how it maximizes goods at the end (Rawls 120).

Utilitarianism is consequential since the consequences of an action or a rule is taken to judge whether the action or rule was ethically or morally right or wrong. Morals determine the sober state of a country, the higher the immoral actions in a country, the higher the pain and inhuman actions faced by the residents of the country. Account of utility differs with utilitarian’s and all the goodness is at the bottom of an individual.

Utilitarian’s have adopted the following theories of value: hedonism, eudaimonism and desire satisfaction theory. According to utilitarian, a society relies on the governance so as to promote the greatest happiness to it is members. Happiness is highly valued in human beings life for their peaceful living.

In utilitarian tradition, hedonism is the most influential. Hedonism arises from the state of individuals wanting to live a life full of happiness without any other discomfort that is happiness is a balance of pleasure and pain. Utilitarianism explained that, happiness created both intrinsic value and intrinsic disvalue in the event of an individual trying to balance the pleasure and pain gained from an action.

Some utilitarian’s are opposed to hedonism, some people argued that, in the event of falling extremely ill, they prefer to be taken off life support machines to die despite the fact that the life support units will give them the pleasure of a normal living person and extend their life.

Distributive justice is a branch of Utilitarian theory; distributive justice is further narrowed down into utilitarian justice and non-utilitarian justice. Utilitarians use standards of justice in which the distribution of goods and services if effective only if the outcomes are more than any other existing system.

In non-utilitarian standard of justice, justice will be morally pursued if utility will be maximized by doing so. Before the government chooses the kind of distributive justice to use it must understand its motive first and the consequences of the action (Rawls 100).

Utilitarian Theory of Distribution of Wealth

Utilitarian’s hold several considerations concerning distribution of wealth. They argue that more wealth is usually better to an individual or the government.

A good example to this case could be highlighted by a scenario in which an individual purchases a car but not the happiness that accompanies the purchase and driving of the new car, meaning that the person could only buy things that are related to happiness but not the real product of happiness.

According to utilitarian’s, wealth can acquire external valuables and wishes to its holder, but it is impossible for wealth to acquire internal valuables to its holder. Increase in wealth does not result to an increase in the utility for the individual because an increase in a single unit of wealth has no significance increase in total utility for an individual; this is explained by the principal of diminishing marginal utility of wealth.

An individual can get the most out of thinning marginal efficacy by distributing it consistently to other individuals.

Diminishing marginal utility is explained by this example, let us consider a working environment, to encourage talented workers to do distasteful, difficult and dangerous work, the employer may choose to pay them different amount of wages to encourage their productivity. This promoted the general utility by increasing their production.

Objections of utilitarian theory of wealth distribution are fairness and rights. According to Rawls, utilitarian premise of wealth does not capture serious difference between persons, that is, the premise lacks fairness. Utilitarian theory of wealth puts all the benefits and non-benefits together for evaluation without considering their distribution.

Utilitarian theory of wealth allows rights of citizens to be violated; the rights are violated through redistributing of their wealth. According to Smart, wealth is created by a few individuals and so it is violation of their rights when the wealth is distributed to other people. Wealth should remain in the hands of its holders without the government or any institution interfering with the way the wealth will be redistributed.

Characteristics of Utilitarianism

There are five main characteristics of utilitarianism. The first trait is that utilitarianism is widespread. The same moral principles apply to each and every character both locally and globally. Moral principles that decide what is right and evil are the same regardless of our disparity. Ethical philosophies are universal yet they uphold the same ethics and morals. This makes utilitarian theory to have universalism as one of its characteristic.

Utilitarian theory is consequential in nature. Utilitarian theory holds that each action has its consequences and individual try to take actions with the best consequences. For example, telling a lies is an offence if it will result in to evil, but it is beneficial if the lies will result in to a benefit.

Utilitarian’s always look at the consequences behind a certain action. Utilitarianism can be further narrowed down according to the consequences of an action in to act, rule, and ideal utilitarianism. The rightness of an act determines the effects of the activity to the society as argued out by utilitarians. Rule utilitarianism argues that, the relevance of any action relies on the universal repercussions if everyone followed it (Rawls 75).

The value achieved in an action is evaluated rather than the deed itself; all dealings should match with the regulations holding the uppermost utility. Abstract principles are expected to match with activities of individuals in the society as pointed out by ideals of utilitarianism.

Welfarism: utilitarian theory defines welfarism as what is good by utilitarian theory. Good actions results in good consequences, which increase the welfare of the people. Well-being is subjective. Welfare arises from happiness, attainment of goals and satisfaction of preferences. Utilitarian theory is characterized by concern for welfare of individuals.

Welfare varies between individuals depending on the amount of welfare each individual desires to achieve. Welfare has grown from hedonistic utilitarianism to a newer version of preference utilitarianism. In preference utilitarianism, utility is taken as a degree of satisfaction of an individual preference.

Individuals are only concerned with their satisfaction, pleasure and pain is of little interest to them as opposed to hedonistic preference, which is concerned with pleasure and pain. In negative utilitarianism, utility is characterized by lack of dreadful things such as pain and the existence of good things such as joy. Joy and pain do not affect the level of individual’s preference in maximizing utility.

Aggregation is the act of summing up different units into a single unit for measurement or valuation. Utility of diverse individuals can be sampled, summed up and compared to determine the overall welfare of the sampled individuals. Aggregation helps utilitarian’s know the amount of utility arising from a given population.

Most philosophers term aggregation as controversial due to the challenges involved in sampling, measuring and determining the unit of measure (Rawls 200). They believe that utility is not measurable. Individuals hold very different views in maximizing utility, some believe in maximizing total utility while others believe in maximizing the average utility.

In maximizing total utility, they believe that an increase in total population will lead to an increase in their total utility. In maximizing the average utility, the average utility between individuals should be maximized through taking the tradeoff between different individuals utility.

Maximization: utilitarian theory is characterized by maximizing utility or welfare of individual’s. In maximization, an individual consumes to his best whatever is good hence gaining the highest possible level of welfare. Individuals should not maximize their welfare in what is bad but should maximize their welfare in what is good.

Given that the utility of an individual is beneficial to the society just like the utility of other members of the society, it is vital and significant to maximize all forms of utilities. Individuals choose either to maximize expected utility or to maximize the actual utility or to be direct utilitarian’s or indirect utilitarian’s (Rawls 125).

In maximizing expected utility, individuals prefer to maximize the quantity of utility estimated in the coming future despite the volatility of the world. Maximization of estimated utility is beneficial to the society in various ways but mainly because it is possible to maximize the utility without perfect prediction of the future events that could affect the society in any manner.

In maximizing the actual utility, individuals must maximize what is on hand and produces the superlative results. Utilitarianisms prefer among a range of courses of acts depending on the quantity of utility created and single out the action that maximizes their utility.

Indirect utilitarian’s believe that people are poor in calculating and the results obtained are never perfect. Indirect utilitarian’s argue that people should use the rule of thumb in maximizing their utility.

Advantages and Strengths of Utilitarian Theory

Utilitarian theory treats all people equally without special consideration and helps people in making moral decisions, utilitarian theory gives a simple methodology. Utilitarian theory advocates that we value all moral terms like self- sacrifice, justice and honesty.

Utilitarian theory helps people understand the happiness in their mind and help them understand that not all happiness can be bought and so helps the government and other major institutions formulate on how to maintain the happiness enjoyed by people. Utilitarian theory helps people understand the due consequences of their actions, this helps in building a civilized and just society.

Utilitarian theory is simple to use due to its clear systematic approach to ethics, this makes people understand the consequences of ethics with ease.

Utilitarian theory supports a democratic approach in decision-making. The theory allows the majority to dominate over the minority and therefore granting the majorities their democratic right. Lastly, utilitarian theory relies on verifiable claims and principals such as the morality, ethics and utility and it is accessible to all people.

Disadvantages and Weaknesses of Utilitarian Theory

Utilitarian theory does not count anything else apart from happiness, which it equates with pleasure. Utilitarian theory includes calculations, collection of the data, calculating and predicting the results to most people is difficult with an increased challenge of daily collection of data. Utilitarian theory makes people do the right actions for the wrong reasons.

Utilitarian theory does not consider the preferences of people since it assumes that people have common nature and desires. Utilitarian theory presents difficulty in predicting the consequences. For example, when someone is hit, the probability of getting upset is 99.9%, while at the same time, the person may tend to enjoy being hit and getting pleasure out of it.

This confuses the predictability of the consequences. Utilitarianism is a demanding premise in that, purchasing as easy as a candy may be deemed immoral for the reason that the same cash may be spent in a different way to acquire the most utility.

Effects of Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism has wide spread effects both positive and negative in different fields of the government, society and lifestyles of individuals. Utilitarianism has a great influence in law of a country, economics of the world and people’s politics. In these three fields, utilitarianism has highly influenced how policies are formulated, the way of doing things are done and people perception towards certain issues.

In the field of law, utilitarian theory opposes retributive theory. In retributive theory, penalty is instilled to make a criminal pay for his offense but not to engender pain in him (Bentham 50). Under utilitarianism, punishment is justified as it helps the society prevent escalation of criminal activities in the society.

This could be the protection of the individual members of the society from the undisciplined individual or discouraging other people from involving themselves in such criminal actions. This has helped the court of law in case judgments to be able to give the best judgment to a criminal.

In political philosophy, utilitarian theory gives individuals an open mind to think of the right government bearing in mind that the best government has the best consequences. Utilitarian theory also brings to light the government’s authority to its citizens and their rights, these provides an option to theories of natural rights and natural law (Smart and Williams 150).

Utilitarian’s have supported democracy because democracy makes the government’s interest coincide with the citizen’s general interest. Since each individual is the best judge of himself, democracy brings together their interest and hence forming a common interest in all.

Utilitarian theory also challenges democracy, it argues that, strong administration need to test out a man’s selfish welfare, any adjustment in the basic selfish welfare will terrorize the stability of the administration.

Classical economists received a lot support from utilitarian’s especially in implementation of economics policies. Utilitarian’s were opposed to government interference in trade and industry; utilitarian’s assume that the economy would adjust itself according to the pressure of the markets.

Later on, utilitarian supported government move of regulating trade and industry after the private sector began taking advantage of utilitarian policies of limited government control and oppressed the consumers. Government regulates the kind of trade to take place in the country; the country mostly favors its residents through guarding them from exploitation by the private sector (Goodin, Robert, 154).

Criticisms of Utilitarian Theory

Utilitarian theory has been extremely criticized by leaders, managers, community and philosophers. Some of the criticisms include utilitarian theory offers resolutions, which are contrary to human beings moral intuitions. Moral intuition is a personal view towards the morality of an issue in the society.

Fundamental evidences of morality are contained in moral intuitions that guide humans on what to do and not to do as argued by many philosophers. Philosophies cannot be justified with moral intuitions due to their moral dilemmas. Moral dilemma occurs when an individual does not know what is right or wrong.

According to Rawl, utilitarian theory argues that, some actions are right or wrong, but the moral intuition holds a different belief. Rawl added that utilitarian’s conclusions should match with the human beings intuition to avoid conflict of interest between the theory and the belief of human beings.

Utilitarian theory does not give a full account of how human beings are commitment to observing their rights. Utilitarian theory does not give any consideration to individual’s rights in certain moral issues.

Utilitarian theory always gives more weight on welfare in the event of conflict between rights and welfare of an individual, utilitarian’s believed that individual welfare gives an individual maximum utility while rights give no utility to an individual. Even though utilitarian’s believe that some rights are fundamental in attaining welfare, they rarely account for the rights in attainment of the welfare.

Utilitarian theory is criticized and termed as unfair because utilitarian’s main concern is maximizing individual’s utility. Utilitarian theory support equitable distribution of wealth by maximizing the general welfare of people. Utilitarian’s in their defense argued that; equality promotes the benefits and general welfare of every individual.

According to John Rawl who was a strong supporter of utilitarian theory, said that “inequality is only permissible when it increases the welfare of the least well off members of the society.” John Rawl also added that it is better to have a society where all people are poor other than to have a society with a combination of both poor people and rich people.

Utilitarian theory is criticized for failing to realize that individuals should be punished for their actions but not for increasing present and future utility. It is the belief of many people with the utilitarian culture that justice promotes the welfare of the people and the entire society.

According to utilitarianisms, if a punishment will lead to a decrease in people’s welfare then it should not be administered, but if it leads to increase in people’s welfare then it should be administered.

Utilitarian theory claims that a criminal should not ideally be punished if the punishment will not reduce his future crimes (Williams and Smart 100). Criticizers of this theory believe that punishment should be severe even if it will not deter or prevent future crimes.

Utilitarian theory is criticized for its focus on the consequences of actions without considering the motives behind the actions. Critiques explain that each Individual motive following an action is essential to the community since the motive can explain the reason behind taking a certain action.

For example, in politics, an individual may publicly help another person in order to gain publicity and use that publicity to his political advantage, the beneficiary may not condemn such a negative motive in order to enjoy the short term benefits.

Utilitarian theory criticizer’s claim that; utilitarian theory does not consider what is motivating an individual to take a certain action and the theory should not only look at the consequences of an action (Williams and Smart 80).

Utilitarian theory is criticized because it treats pleasure as utility. Criticizer’s of the theory argue that; utilitarian’s contradict themselves in their explanation about treating pleasure as utility. In hedonistic utilitarianism, individuals desire only for happiness and pleasure because happiness and pleasure maximizes their utility.

This desire leads to maximization of joy, but in some situations, trying to exploit happiness of a group of individuals may lead to a result that the individuals did not anticipate for. Happiness is not the only thing that people desire to maximize in the society; individuals still need to maximize their power (William and Smart 105).

Utilitarian theory is criticized for viewing people as saints; it argues that people should undertake only all the actions that maximize their utility. In utilitarian theory, morality is not viewed as right or wrong, but it is viewed as the welfare of the society. Utilitarianism also argues that, for a government, it is morally preferable to perfectly utilize utility.

Lack of perfect knowledge among people will lead to an arbitrary altruistic behavior in utility-maximizing. Utilitarianism interpretation of the criticism means that, the theory advocates people to live a self-sacrificing life that is full of hardships and service to others and this will not be possible.

Utilitarian theory was criticized for its impracticality. Criticizers claim than utilitarian’s never tested their theory practically and address on how to collect data of wide range of individuals with different preferences, tastes and the uncertainty associated with the society (Williams and Smart 85).


As discussed, utilitarianism theory in philosophy argues about “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. This theory determines the preference and utility of individuals and explains how they can be maximized. The theory as seen, shows what is moral and ethical in the society hence promoting peace and democracy in the society.

In conclusion, government continued use of the utilitarian theory of justice is advantageous to the government because the residents maximize their utility and the government manages to control exploitation of the poor through equitable distribution of wealth.

In addition, there is peaceful coexistence between people because every person knows what is right and wrong, they can predict the consequences of breaching peace, and thus utilitarian theory of justice serves as an effective tool of management for the government.

Works Cited

Bentham, Jeremy. The introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. London: Athline Press, 1970. Print.

Goodin, Robert. Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print.

Rawls, John. A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999a. Print.

Smart, John. An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973. Print.

Williams, Ben. A Critique of Utilitarianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973. Print.

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