Utilitarianism Doesn’t Work. Here’s Why.

Steven Yates
9 min readJun 9, 2023
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

The first major utilitarians were Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (there are hints of the philosophy in David Hume’s ethical writings). Bentham was more of a reformer who wanted to improve workers’ lot in the emerging industrial economy of Great Britain. He realized that couching calls for reform in moral language would carry more emotive and persuasive baggage than cold efficiency. So his moral philosophy was a means to an end, not an end in itself.

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), the genius son of Bentham’s colleague James Mill, saw ethics as more than a means to an end. His accomplishments ranged across inductive logic, epistemology, and political economy as well as ethics. A systematic thinker, he presented his results as an integrated package, of which two of his most important works On Liberty (1859) and Utilitarianism (1863) were just parts.

Utilitarianism has remained one of the most popular secular ethical theories among both academic philosophers and public intellectuals. The most famous and visible of the latter, Peter Singer (b. 1946), calls himself a preference utilitarian.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, utilitarianism is probably the weakest of the contemporary ethical theories out there.

The first reason is something the younger Mill tried to grapple with — in my humble opinion, unsuccessfully. The second: it totally misconstrues the things it considers bad or evil, because they aren’t necessarily that at all. There are other reasons for rejecting utilitarianism, but we’ll stick with these two.

First, What Is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is the main species of consequentialism, which holds that actions (or rules for actions) are good or bad by virtue of their results or their consequences. Actions are not good or bad all by themselves, intrinsically, as with deontologists such as Kant.

Mill’s elaborates: actions are good to the extent that they bring about a greater balance of happiness over unhappiness, and bad to the extent that they bring about the opposite. By happiness Mill means pleasure, including (and this distinguishes him from Bentham) not just the pleasures of eating, drinking, and sexuality but the greater pleasures of the intellect: the…

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Steven Yates

I am the author of What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory. I write about philosophy (especially the Stoics), health and systems, and the future if we have one.