Utilitarianism argues that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, which is defined as maximizing happiness. According to utilitarianism, the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome. In simple terms, utilitarianism is achieving the greatest outcome for the greatest number of people.
Utilitarianism was proposed by two influential contributors, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mills (1). Originally, utilitarianism was viewed as hedonistic. As it has evolved over time it has been associted more with consequentialism than hedonism (1).
There is a difference between motive and intention, where motives are not in themselves good or bad but can be referred to because of their tendency to produce pleasure or pain. John Stuart Mill suggests that, “Motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent. He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty, or the hope of paying for his trouble” (2).
There are many criticisms for utilitarianism because it has so many parts to its theory and has developed for so long. One criticism of utilitarianism is that it ignores justice. Punishing an innocent person for the greater good is one of the main problems with utilitarianism. A pure utilitarian would argue that punishing the innocent person is the right thing to do since it increases the pleasure or happiness of everyone else in society. With our modern interpretation of justice, utility has no part whatsoever.
Another criticism is that utilitarianism predicts consequences. It has been argued that it is impossible to do the calculation that utilitarianism requires because consequences are inherently unknowable (1).
(1) Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. “Consequentialism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
(2) Mill, John Stuart (1998). Crisp, Roger, ed. Utilitarianism. Oxford University Press. p. 65.