In common parlance, pragmatic and utilitarian are very similar ways of doing things. In philosophical traditions, Utilitarians and Pragmatists are very different. In terms of understanding an action deemed "utilitarian" or "pragmatic", what defining contrast is there between the two? Does this contrast relate back to the particular schools of philosophy and, perhaps, their intellectual lineages?

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    Semantics has technical meanings peculiar to formal logic and to philosophy of language; I'm removing the tag.
    – vanden
    Jun 12, 2011 at 21:09

1 Answer 1


At the most basic level, I would argue that the distinction is primarily one of morality. That is, utilitarianism aims to establish the moral worth of an action, where pragmatism's sole intention is to assess the normative truth of a statement or idea.

The original American pragmatists (Charles Sanders Peirce and William James) seemed to be primarily interested in establishing a maxim that could be used to assess truth value. It merely asks whether an ideology or proposition works successfully. The answer to that question is considered sufficient to establish such idea or proposal as true; meaning is found only in the practical consequences of accepting a notion. Drawn to its logical conclusion, unpractical ideas are necessarily rejected, not out of any strict moral code, but merely because they fail to satisfactorily guide the inquiry of knowledge. This is the pragmatic maxim first proposed by Peirce. It is a strictly normative recommendation that sets up a standard for truth.

The primary question asked by a pragmatist could be envisioned as:

What concrete, practical difference would it make if that theory were true and its opposite were false?

They would reject the idea (or at least the relevance of such an idea) that there are facts that are, in principle, unknowable. Talk of inaccessible Kantian "things-in-themselves", or the Nietzschean "True World" that is forever hidden behind the veil of phenomena is considered to be useless, merely idle chat.

By contrast, utilitarianism is a moral philosophy. It holds that the utility of a particular action in providing the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure to sentient beings is both necessary and sufficient to establish its moral worth. It aims to measure the morality of an action, rather than merely assess its normative truth value. The conclusion of a utilitarian calculus is that the action is good or bad, right or wrong, moral or immoral. Pragmatists do not render the same type of judgment; it is not meant to guide moral evaluation or moral decision-making.

The line probably begins to blur as you get into neo-pragmatism, those contemporary thinkers whose work has been widely held to be "pragmatist", like Jürgen Habermas, Hilary Putnam (although, "pragmatically"-speaking, it's awfully hard to nail down what his position actually is), etc. Some of them have drawn moral conclusions from pragmatist rationale. But in general, the distinction is still one of a moral-ethical system, as compared to a normative truth-based system.

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    +1 Excellent answer. This will be the definitive short explanation anyone on the Internet will be using for quite a while.
    – Cerberus
    Jun 9, 2011 at 19:00
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    Yep, nice answer.
    – boehj
    Jun 13, 2011 at 6:54
  • Nice answer, It still leaves a question (for which I'm sure there is an answer), "what would the pragmatists have to say about utilitarianism?"
    – Lucas
    Aug 25, 2013 at 13:17

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