I've seen this way too often. People who claim to be utilitarians use utilitarian arguments to support their own end. Then, they shy away for instances contributing to the common good. This partially is explained through greed, but I still find it inconsistent.

Therefore, is it self-evident that utilitarianism requires ultimate altruism; provided that altruism is required by utilitarian ethics, by sacrificing oneself always for the ultimate good?

I should note that the base of this question is not to prove that altruism is present, but is to question whether or not it could be self-evident.

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    I'm not following the question really. What do you mean by "the utilitarian argument" and what do you mean by "shy away when they just give to the common good." What do you mean by "ultimate altruism"? what is "ultimate good"? Please revise your question to make clearer the question you have for us about philosophy and where you're coming from.
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 6:47
  • There are three possible interpretations I see for this question: a) Is altruism inherent to utilitarianism in the sense that you also have to self-sacrifice if it is "right", following the rule? b) As self-proclaimed utilitarianists do often shy away from sacrificing their own ends although it seems ethical per utilitarianism, are they simply inconsequent? c) As Utilitarianism seems to have unintended side-effects as not enforcing altruistic behavior, should altruism be added to make it complete as a ethical system? In addition, please keep in mind that "utilitarianism" is a set of theories.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 9:55
  • In specifying the question,I would follow "a" from Philip above. Is altruism inherent in the sense that you also have to self-sacrifice if it is "right," following the rule? And if this is true, is it self-evident?
    – Matt
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 12:32
  • If everyone acted the most utilitarianistically, together, we would live the most hedonistic life possible.
    – Probably
    Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 14:51
  • There is a theory called "Egoistic utilitarianism". Many utilitarians are exactly such people (not in the sense they completely disvalue others, but in the sense they value them less than selves or close people).
    – rus9384
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 23:38

6 Answers 6


Both utilitarianism and altruism presume the ability to judge the degree to benefit of an action to oneself and others. Utilitarianism holds that actions should be chosen to maximize the aggregate benefit to all people ("the greatest benefit for the greatest number"). Whereas altruism holds that actions should be chosen to sacrifice your own benefit for the benefit of others.

In both cases the goodness of an action is judged by a weighted aggregate of the benefit of an action to all people in society. In utilitarianism, each person is weighted equally in this aggregation. Whereas in altruism, the benefit to the decision-maker receives a negative weighting (i.e., self-sacrifice of the decision-maker is considered to be good). This difference is described quantitatively in the framework of decision-theory in my answer to a related question here.

There certainly are individual decision-problems where the optimal action under utilitarianism coincided with the optimal action under altruism. This will tend to occur in cases where there is a large aggregate benefit of an action to others, and the benefit of the action to the decision-maker is small enough that it makes no difference whether this is given a positive or negative weighting in the optimization problem.

However, they can also contradict each other. In cases where the benefit of an action to the decision-maker is large, utilitarianism will tend to recommend that this action should be taken (so long as the loss to others is not also large). Altruism will recommend that this action should not be taken.

Summary: Utilitarianism does not require altruism. Although, it will coincide with altruism in some decision problems.

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    Your model suggests that pricking my finger with a needle in a way that affects no-one else is altruistic. I don't think that's an accurate characterisation of altruism. Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 9:41
  • Perhaps, but that is roughly what some religious sects do as a mark of their own commitment to self-abnegation. Christianity certainly advocates the oral philosophy of altruism, and some of its practitioners have used a cilice to cause personal discomfort, with no benefit to others. Evidently, those kinds of people regard the type of activity you describe as being part of the practice.
    – Ben
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 0:10

If I understand you correctly, you take "utilitarianism" (U) to be a theoretical claim about ethical duty. And you take "altruism" (A) to be the practical duties (to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number) that utilitarianism endorses. Are you are saying that it should be obvious that if you believe the theoretical position (U), you must actively live out the practical position (A)?

(The alternative reading is that you're asking whether only people with a psychological predisposition to altruism accept the truth of utilitarianism. Although, that doesn't match what you're saying about your utilitarian friends.)

As a conceptual/ethical issue, I think you're absolutely correct. The fact that many of the supposed "experts" on U do not practice what they preach is a sad testimony to the conceptual problems with U. In essence, arguments for U are very persuasive to a certain sort of person (altruists). Even if they're not very logically convincing or even coherent. So you get the weird situation where (please forgive the vulgar simplification) dumb altruists find U very persuasive (because it appeals to their worldview). Yet, all the arguments they hear for U are devised by smart non-altruists who don't come close to living a life of A. This is precisely the reason the smart altruists, sympathetic to U, try to apply it as A and quickly figure out where the problems lie.

That is my conceptual analysis. Throughout the history of philosophy, there are two reasons why A might not follow from U:

  1. Utilitarians like Mill (following in a tradition going back to Hume) are externalists and don't take logical arguments to have any motivational force in general. If you read the final chapter of Mill's Utilitarianism you'll see that he assumes only people raised as utilitarians will act on its logic.

  2. The original utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham didn't consider U a principle for personal ethics; it was a principle for social institutions. Part of the argument was that there could be no appeal, in public discussions of whether something was good or not, other than to the common good of all the discussants. Obviously this foundation makes U unsuitable as an argument for A. (Although that does not exclude it.)

  3. Many modern utilitarians like RM Hare built elaborate utilitarian systems that fix the traditional problems with U by sacrificing the idea that U should directly guide individual actions; in this case, what makes a certain rule an ethical rule might be that the rule satisfies U, while not necessarily having one follow the rule derived from A. (For example, the rule might be "Work hard to support your family".)

The second and third are self-explanatory. Adding to [1], Mill's approach differs from contemporary U in that Mill really believed what he said: He did not expect U theories to convince anyone to act in a U or A way by force of logic; he is different from contemporary U since he really does try to use U-principles to pressure people to act a certain way (even though the ideologues in question do not themselves act on the principles and have no principled explanation of why that is).


No, utilitarianism does not require altruism.

No country or community ever purely subscribe to a single moral system like utilitarianism, but we can possibly say legal systems are somewhat based on consequentialism, in that we expect everyone to behave hedonistically except in situations where restrictions would be for the greater good for the rest of the community. Stealing, murder, defamation all have consequences under law. Lying, cheating, lack of manners have societal consequences. If we can make laws and incentives perfectly align with utilitarianism, we should expect people to behave accordingly.

So an evil man can always behave in his own self interest and seek his own pleasures, and the consequences in a utilitarian system will drive the man to utilitarianism choices. It's absolutely reasonable for a selfish man play the system to ensure maximal benefits; we just need to make sure that the selfish choices also align with utilitarian choices. Given perfect incentivized utilitarian system, we should expect every sane reasonable individual to be utilitarian.

Obviously, no country has perfect laws and we know our economic/workplace/societal incentives go against the greater good by default, so every society requires most of its citizens to behave altruistic or be empathetic to achieve some kind of utilitarianism. That said, in theory, individuals do not need altruism for utilitarianism.


Utilitarianism says that pursuing the "greater good" will on benefit the most people (including the individual). Therefore the altruism that utilitarianism requires, is mostly grounded in self interest. It is not gratuitous like some regular altruism could be.

The problematics of such altruism centered in self interest is also called "tragedy of the commons"


Nothing in philosophy is self-evident (except some areas of logic), but professional philosophers generally agree that acting according to "strong" utilitarianism requires altruism.

To use Sidgwick's language, strong utilitarianism demands that you adopt the "the point of view of the universe". In other words, when you act to increase utility, you must be totally impartial to whose utility you aim to increase.

Ignoring your actual behavior, this viewpoint itself is fundamentally altruistic since it doesn't differentiate between yourself and others.

When you try to make the jump to actual behavior, the argument becomes more complicated because there is no certain way to measure utility, nor to know the best course of action for increasing it.

I think most professional philosophers would agree that strong utilitarianism does demand altruism, but there are actually many steps in the argument, some of which make claims that can't be known for sure. Often, this hinges on claims from economics and psychology about diminishing marginal utility. It's definitely not self-evident.

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    To your comment about "People who claim to be utilitarians... shy away for instances contributing to the common good.", see ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25460392 -- there is some empirical evidence that picking the "utilitarian" option in a trolley problem does not make you a utilitarian! Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 19:14

Altruism and pity can be used synonymously in the context of utilitarianism. Non-profit organisations, being vehicles of pity and altruism are the results of utilitarian maximum profit. It is thus part of the same system, which should change in total.

Nietzsche described the problem as follows:

"The hour when we say: 'What good is my pity! Is not pity the cross on which he is nailed who loveth man? But my pity is not a crucifixion.'" (Nietzsche 1997: 7)

Rousseau promoted pity as follows:

"It is therefore certain that pity is a natural sentiment, which, by moderating in every individual the activity of self-love, contributes to the mutual preservation of the whole species. It is this pity which hurries us without reflection to the assistance of those we see in distress; it is this pity which, in a state of nature, stands for laws, for manners, for virtue, with this advantage, that no one is tempted to disobey her sweet and gentle voice: it is this pity which will always hinder a robust savage from plundering a feeble child, or infirm old man, of the subsistence they have acquired with pain and difficulty, if he has but the least prospect of providing for himself by any other means: it is this pity which, instead of that sublime maxim of argumentative justice, Do to others as you would have others do to you, inspires all men with that other maxim of natural goodness a great deal less perfect, but perhaps more useful, Consult your own happiness with as little prejudice as you can to that of others. It is in a word, in this natural sentiment, rather than in fine-spun arguments, that we must look for the cause of that reluctance which every man would experience to do evil, even independently of the maxims of education." (Rousseau 2004:21)


NIETZSCHE; F. 1997. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited.

ROUSSEAU; J. 2004. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Mineola: Dover.

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    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 10:11
  • @SwamiVishwananda answer adjusted. Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 11:33
  • Can they? Seems like you are shoe-horning your concerns in
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 21, 2018 at 0:48

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