What Is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is concerned about climate change. Above, climate activists at the U.S. Capitol in 2009.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

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Answer by Peter Singer, philosopher, author:

Utilitarianism says that we should always do what will have the best consequences for all those affected by our actions. “Best consequences” generally refers to well-being, in some sense, although utilitarians differ on whether this means happiness and the reduction of suffering or something like the satisfaction of preferences.

Utilitarians don’t just focus on their friends, family, or fellow citizens. They are concerned about distant strangers. They are concerned about future generations (so utilitarianism tells us why climate change matters, for example, even if its most severe effects won’t be felt for another century). And “all affected” includes all sentient beings, so the suffering of animals matters too.

That’s a clear and straightforward ethical position. Virtually everyone agrees that it’s better for sentient beings to be happier and have less suffering. That’s not enough to make everyone a utilitarian, because some people think that in addition, there are absolute moral rules one must never break. Most moral rules are useful guides to what will bring about the best consequences. But if they are not—if we really know, with certainty, that obeying a moral rule will have worse consequences than breaking it—should we still obey it? Why? That’s the challenge utilitarianism poses to other views.

Utilitarianism changes people’s lives in many ways. For example, it leads many people to support effective altruism, a growing movement of people who want to be as effective as possible in making the world a better place. They want to do the most good they can do. That doesn’t mean that all EAs are utilitarians, but utilitarians are, or ought to be, EAs.

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