The Utilitarianism Argument For Public Policy


Utilitarianism holds that an action that is morally right should result in the most good. The theory of Utilitarianism refers to a type of consequentialism, which indicates that actions are understood based on the consequences produced. A Utilitarian view aims to maximize the overall good of others as well as own good. Adam Smith expected the natural economics law to cause happy outcomes. However, economic and political thinkers discovered that the natural laws of economics did not cause happy outcomes. As a result, they started looking for answers to crises caused by the industrial revolution, such as extreme poverty (Matthews & Hendricks, 2019). Utilitarianism supports actions that increase happiness and opposes actions that cause unhappiness with the ultimate goal of making the whole society better.

Jeremy Bentham and Happiness

Classical Utilitarians such as John Mill and Jeremy Bentham were interested in social and legal reforms. The fundamental motivation for developing Classical Utilitarianism was the desire to experience the change of corrupt, useless social practices and laws. A normative theory of ethics was needed as an essential tool to accomplish such a goal (Matthews & Hendricks, 2019). To explain what makes actions or policies morally right, the Classical Utilitarians needed to develop a theory explaining right and wrong in society. Thus, it is critical to review Bentham’s and Mill’s arguments on increasing or decreasing unhappiness for the highest number of people possible.

Inspired by earlier theorists, Bentham held that people were ruled by the fundamental qualities of pain and pleasure as humans seek to avoid pain and gain pleasure. Bentham promulgated the utility principle as a proper action for individuals and governments. Actions should be approved when promoting pleasure or happiness and condemned when they cause pain or unhappiness. Such an argument is seriously incompatible with psychological egoism. When Bentham endorsed the Hobbesian psychological egoism, he created problems for those trying to understand his moral theory. Psychological egoism does not advocate for the promotion of overall well-being at the expense of one’s own (Matthews & Hendricks, 2019). Ultimately, Bentham pulled back from his complete support of psychological egoism and admitted that individuals act benevolently, sometimes considering the good of humanity.

Bentham vehemently rejected the idea of the social contract and natural rights and provided a way to remedy the problems caused by the natural law of economics. If a limited government like Adam Smith suggested caused bad outcomes, Bentham proposed to increase the government scope to enable policies that cause better outcomes to be pursued. The best society provides the greatest happiness for as many people as possible. Thus, good policies should increase happiness or decrease pain (Matthews & Hendricks, 2019). For instance, if a majority of society is poor, with few wealthy people, then such a society can be considered unhappy.

John Stuart Mill and Happiness

Mill argued that while the happiness of one individual is essential, an action that leads to happiness for most people should be the correct answer. Mill sought changes to various parts of Bentham’s views that were often criticized. For instance, Bentham argued that there were only quantitative differences between happiness and pleasures. Harming people and puppies is terrible, but many people view hurting individuals as worse. Such intuitions could be accommodated using a new theory. Ultimately, Mill uses Bentham’s theory and hedonic calculus and adds a qualitative feature, which refines the quality of happiness produced by the action instead of relying on quantity alone. In addition, Mill distinguishes between rule- and act-Utilitarianism (Matthews & Hendricks, 2019). Rule-Utilitarianism focuses on rules covering various acts, whereas act-Utilitarianism focuses on specific acts.

The qualitative distinction happens between lower and higher pleasures or physical and intellectual pleasures. Some pleasure types are more fitting than others as intellectual pleasures are ranked higher than sensual ones. Generally, Mill argued that complex and simple pleasures are based on their quality. For example, pleasures that require intellectual capacities are better than sensual ones. Each type of happiness is intended to produce the highest happiness possible while promoting the least suffering (Matthews & Hendricks, 2019). Ultimately, adding a qualitative feature increased the understanding of pain and pleasure, expanding the framework for maximizing pleasure and reducing pain for the greatest number of persons.

Utilitarianism and Equality

Utilitarians argue that pleasure has intrinsic value and should be provided equally to many people possible. Utilitarianism originated from the word “utility,” meaning happiness or pleasure instead of usefulness. If something has an intrinsic value, it is considered an asset or commodity. Most persons value friendship and love because they are linked to happiness and pleasure. The best action will always produce more happiness than other actions. Furthermore, the happiness of everyone counts equally. As a result, governments must consider policies that lead to better outcomes for many people instead of focusing on every citizen’s interests. Sometimes, due to social class and other factors, some people and their happiness may have been considered more valuable and essential. For instance, the lives of masters were more valuable than those of the enslaved (Matthews & Hendricks, 2019). In Bentham’s time, the principle of equality was progressive as it lay on the government to implement policies that benefited the highest number of people equally.

Contributions to Public Policy

Most Utilitarians sought to utilize Utilitarianism and inform social policy and law. The goal of happiness increment underlies the arguments that most Utilitarians made. Bentham views the law as immutable and not monolithic. The impacts of a given policy may alter; thus, a policy’s moral quality may also change. For laws, a government does not implement good laws and leave them unchanged over long periods. Lawmaking should be a continual process that may be altered due to changing and diverse desires. A law may be good at one point and become bad at another point in time. Thus, Bentham’s theory allows lawmakers to know they should be sensitive to varying social circumstances (Berry, 2018). Although most laws may need to be updated, some of them reflect that action is intrinsically wrong irrespective of the consequences.

Mill also sought to inform public policy and law, as evidenced by his arguments for free speech and women’s suffrage. People have access to certain rights which are supported by utility. If people can show that alleged rights or duties are harmful, such rights are ungenuine. Since women were often denied suffrage rights in the past, such an act can be deemed harmful. Thus, improving women’s social status was important because they could be happier. Furthermore, denying women access to development opportunities and education is forgoing happiness (Berry, 2018). Men who deny women education, political expression, and self-improvement make such women unhappy.

Mill’s recommendations for social policy show the influences of his liberal theory training and education. He argued that everybody deserves education because it enables practical reasoning and shows the interrelationships between society and individuals’ long-term interests. Governments can use regulation, education, and taxation to alter social behavior. If the working classes are educated, they would voluntarily understand the need to have fewer children. As a result, new industries would increase labor prices, and no surplus labor would be available to cause a wage reduction (Berry, 2018). Mill did not depend on educating the working classes alone to improve society.

Universal education can ensure that most people understand Utilitarian ethics logic and the need to fulfill their long-term interests. Governments could establish laws that prevent landlords from getting unearned rents. Furthermore, governments can prevent worker exploitation and ensure each household has sufficient education, shelter, and food. Mill’s writings provide the basics of a modern welfare state. Contemporary civil rights and social welfare programs like unemployment compensation, free public education, subsidized medical care, housing, food, and regulations that improve worker safety (Berry, 2018). By giving the government positive roles in society, Mill’s policy recommendations aimed to maximize the happiness of multitudes of people.


It is critical to understand that Utilitarianism recognizes happiness as a good which should be equally maximized for the greatest number of people for a decision to be right. Two Classical Utilitarians are crucial to understanding the basics of Utilitarianism theory. Bentham and Mills made important arguments that inform social and law reforms. Both theorists aim to deliver social policies that result in the greatest happiness for as many people as possible. Public policies influenced by Utilitarianism include free housing, food, and education. Women’s rights form a fundamental part of explaining why an action that deprives people of happiness should be disapproved of. Universal education is a great social reform that can significantly improve the lives of millions of people. Such people would increase their knowledge, gain intellect, and increase their earning capabilities.


Berry, M. (2018). Morality and power: On ethics, economics and public policy. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Matthews, G., & Hendricks, C. (Eds.). (2019). Introduction to philosophy. Rebus Community.