Hedonistic utilitarianism can be synthesized by Jeremy Bentham's statement: "the greatest good [= pleasure] for the greatest number."

However, if it might be true that the drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain is universal in human beings, we need also to recognize that the drive to seek domination is also a fundamental and universal one.

This was done by Voltaire:

All men are born with a sufficiently violent liking for domination, wealth and pleasure, and with much taste for idleness; consequently, all men want their money and the wives or daughters of others, to be their master, to subject them to all their caprices, and to do nothing, or at least to do only very agreeable things. You see clearly that with these fine inclinations it is as impossible for men to be equal as it is impossible for two predicants or two professors of theology not to be jealous of each other. (Voltaire, 1764, Philosophical dictionary, "Equality" article).

Empirical research confirmed that the desire for domination is fundamental and universal in the human species (Anderson et al., 2015).

How does hedonistic utilitarianism rule the problem that people seek for domination, in addition to pleasure (and pain avoidance)?

In other words, how does this fundamental desire for domination fits into the picture of utilitarianism?

Or is it that domination is just another way to attain (a form of) pleasure?


Anderson, C., Hildreth, J. A. D., & Howland, L. (2015). Is the desire for status a fundamental human motive? A review of the empirical literature. Psychological bulletin, 141(3), 574.

Voltaire, F. (1764). Philosophical dictionary.

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    do all people seek domination of others? idt i do
    – user67675
    Oct 23, 2023 at 6:33
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    As you can see from SEP entries, classical hedonism that you cite is mainly of historical interest, and modern utilitarians (typically self-identified as consequentialists) do not subscribe to Bentham's simplicity. One can have utility more complex than net balance of "pleasures" and "pains", or even multiple competing utilities with multi-critireal optimization. And nothing stops even hedonists from counting domination as one of the "pleasures".
    – Conifold
    Oct 23, 2023 at 7:51
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    Domination causes suffering in others. Utilitarianism seeks to minimise suffering (roughly speaking, possibly in addition to maximising pleasure or considering other things). Doesn't seem like much of an issue. Just because something creates pleasure doesn't mean that's sufficient to do or allow it, without considering the suffering it may cause as well. Also, if we're talking about domination by the utilitarian moral agent, they'd be putting their own pleasure above the suffering of others, which tends to be considered contrary to utilitarianism.
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 23, 2023 at 8:11
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    You can see Bertrand Russell, Power: a new social analysis (Taylor and Francis, 1938): "Of the infinite desires of man, the chief are the desires for power and glory. The orthodox economists, as well as Marx, who in this respect agreed with them, were mistaken in supposing that economic self-interest could be taken as the fundamental motive in the social sciences. [...] In the course of this book I shall be concerned to prove that the fundamental concept in social science is Power." Oct 23, 2023 at 8:46
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    this might interest you anyway
    – user67675
    Oct 23, 2023 at 8:55

1 Answer 1


This is solved by the fact that the utility of power (and most other things) suffers from diminishing returns (i.e. the utility function is logarithmic).

If domination yields 100 funpoints for the dominator, but -10 funpoints for at least 10 dominated people, the net result is a negative amount of funpoints, so any proper utilitarian would reject this form of domination.

This is one of the reasons utilitarians are against slavery. The negative utility (more commonly refered to as suffering) experienced by slaves can never be compensated by the positive utility for the slave owner, or even society in general.

So it's really a case of simple math: since utility tends to suffer from diminishing returns (i.e. having 10 times as much money/power/etc provides less than 10 times the utility), the maximum amount of utility is usually achieved by a more or less equal distribution of whatever it is you're distributing. In mathematical terms: When you divide a value into n parts and take the logarithm of each part, the sum of these logarithms is maximized when each part is equal to the original value divided by n.

  • Thx, your answer responds to one very important part of my question. I had in mind that utilitarianism builds upon the belief that all people seek pleasure. From this point of view, it's "easy", we just need to do the maths for how get pleasure to the maximum number of people, as you demonstrated. The problem is: people don't seek only pleasure, but also domination. So that breaks the fundation upon which building this "easy" endeavor.
    – Starckman
    Oct 23, 2023 at 14:23
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    @Starckman I'm not sure I understand your question. The term 'funpoints' is arbitrary: I use it to describe utility in general, not just pleasure. Are you saying that pleasure can be expressed in terms of utility, but domination cannot be expressed in terms of utility? Because if both can be expressed in terms of utility, my answer stands, and if you claim that domination cannot be expressed in terms of utility, then obviously that is a problem for utilitarians... but it is also a strong claim that you will have to provide strong arguments for.
    – Jumboman
    Oct 23, 2023 at 14:44
  • "Are you saying that pleasure can be expressed in terms of utility, but domination cannot be expressed in terms of utility?" it could: on the one hand by saying that domination is a source of pain (from the receiver point of view), and by saying that domination is a source of pleasure (from the experiencer point of view).
    – Starckman
    Oct 23, 2023 at 14:48
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    @Starckman I think it would be less confusing if we just talked about utility as an abstract concept which is well defined, rather than tieing it to pleasure or pain. It suffices to say that power/control/dominance has a certain utility, and having móre power/control/dominance gives you móre utility (although this does not scale linearly). If you accept this, the question is easy like you say.
    – Jumboman
    Oct 23, 2023 at 14:52
  • But still, in my knowledge, utilitarianism starts from the (hedonist) premise that people seek pleasure, which is not true, they seek pleasure & domination. Personnally, I think people search for domination as a means to get pleasure. But I am not sure whether this was what utilitarian philosophers believe
    – Starckman
    Oct 23, 2023 at 14:52

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