I assume utilitarianism to be the doctrine that one should act to maximize the overall amount of "happiness".

Next to the fact that it's not quite clear

  • what happiness is supposed to be and how it could be measured (to maximize it)

  • what the target group should be (whose overall amount of happiness is to be maximized)

it's also unclear

  • what the overall amount should be and

  • if this is the relevant target size.

Maximizing the overall amount means maximizing the arithmetic mean. But this is possibly not what one wants to achieve. As more often than not, the median would be a better target size, i.e. the "happiness in the middle".

But maybe this still isn't the whole story: happiness - even when the median is maximized - could nevertheless be distributed unfairly, e.g. in the case of too many or too extreme outliers or possibly measured as some kind of Gini coefficient.

Is there a modern version of utilitarianism that takes all of this into account?

  • As for target group - here it is pretty clear that we should maximize happiness and minimize the suffering of everyone who is able to experience happiness and/or suffering (therefore including animals). It would not be logical nor meaningful to talk about maximizing happiness of a rock or a cellar door because they can't experience these states.
    – kukis
    Jun 14, 2019 at 14:08
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    It really makes little sense to fuss over means and medians when cross-personal comparisons of "happiness", and values generally, are largely seen as hopeless. Even defenders do not profess to give a workable calculus, see e.g. Klocksiem's 2009 thesis On the Measurability of Pleasure and Pain.
    – Conifold
    Jun 14, 2019 at 15:07
  • @Conifold: There are lots of attempts to measure happiness and life satisfaction today. Jun 15, 2019 at 10:47
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    @Hans-PeterStricker Sure, if self-reporting happiness or lack thereof amounts to "measuring" it. Even taking this at face value, it is unclear what different factors contribute to this overall happiness, and how self-reporters compute the "score", or whether "very happy" and "rather happy" denote comparable things for different people. Which is exactly what a calculus would have to explain, at least theoretically.
    – Conifold
    Jun 16, 2019 at 9:29
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    "Maximizing the overall amount means maximizing the arithmetic mean." - This is only true if the population size is held constant. But people can choose whether to have children, and we might want to evaluate the moral weight of that choice. This inference is invalid in that case.
    – Kevin
    Jun 18, 2019 at 16:48

3 Answers 3


We do not need to understand utility as increasing happiness (and minimizing pain) in a narrow sense. It is probably best to understand “happiness” or “pleasure“ here in a wide sense as „good feeling“. Measuring this could be done with surveys or other scientific methods or by inference from your own experiences etc., i.e. by taking your best intuitive guess.

The target group are all beings able to experience pleasure or pain. When you commit a certain action, the target group to be considered are all beings who are possibly affected feelings-wise by the action.

The overall amount is the maximal utility you can achieve. That is, do the action that seems most probable to increase overall utility. So we sum all the pleasure of all the beings who experience it and subtract all their pain. In classical utilitarianism we do not use the median or mean.

As for the fair distribution of utility or happiness: Yes, this is not directly included in utilitarianism itself, i.e. in the classical version. In order to possibly make it fit with classical utilitarianism you would have to say that in all possibly realistic situations where unfairness seems to be a problem for classical utilitarianism, it actually isn’t. For example, often a kind of thought experiment is used to show that classical utilitarianism is incompatible with our intuitions of fairness. So it is supposed to show that classical utiliatrianism is unfair and that this is intuitively problematic. In this kind of thought experiment you have people who suffer, all to the enjoyment of many others, and that enjoyment is so large that it outweighs (if a number where given to the enjoyment) the overall suffering.

To try to keep up a classical utilitarian view and still respect intuitions of fairness you could suggest that there are in real life other ways for these people to get to their enjoyment without anyone having to suffer, (or at least without anyone having to suffer so much). In this case we are not maximizing utility here by making a part of the people suffer at all (or so much), since there would be a better utilitarian alternative.

Of course we can always create thought experiments that manage to get around such a reply. However, I think that we will have to ask ourselves how useful these thought experiments are for creating a moral theory, if they are so unrealistic that we cannot even imagine them being real anytime now or in the future.

If some realistic one was found, one may be willing to bite the bullet in that thought experiment and accept unequal or otherwise deemed “unfair” distribution of utility/ happiness (we may maybe then no longer want to call it “unfair”). And so classical utilitarianism then could be upheld without it supporting (apparently) unfair action on a large or substantial scale.

Of course, if one does not agree about thought experiments having to be realistic in this way or if one finds a realistic thought experiment where the classical utilitarian would face a situation judged as unfair and unacceptable, the problem would (to some degree) remain.

However and moreover, there are still other ways to deal with the problem. It‘s probably best to look up literature that deals with the aggregation problem in utilitarianism. An other interesting option would be to read up on negative utilitarianism, or suffering-focused ethics (e.g. on the website of the foundational research institute).

what happiness is supposed to be and how it could be measured (to maximize it)

We can't measure it directly so we use voting instead in democracies

what the target group should be (whose overall amount of happiness is to be maximezed)

The group is the total number of people impacted by the action you're considering

But maybe this still isn't the whole story: happiness - even when the median is maximized - could nevertheless be distributed unfairly, e.g. in the case of too many or too extreme outliers or possibly measured as some kind of Gini coefficient.

Unfair distribution of happiness is only a problem if it creates jealousy. So ideally you'd take jealousy into account when making a choice

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    Suppose a majority votes to make the minority take the burden? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ones_Who_Walk_Away_from_Omelas
    – puppetsock
    Feb 3, 2020 at 21:12
  • @puppetsock if such a situation disturbs you and me, why would you expect a majority to enjoy it ? Feb 4, 2020 at 16:39
  • Because it's what is happening today. "The top 1 percent paid a greater share of individual income taxes (37.3 percent) than the bottom 90 percent combined (30.5 percent)." taxfoundation.org/…
    – puppetsock
    Feb 4, 2020 at 17:12
  • Because I have principles. That's how I dare.
    – puppetsock
    Feb 4, 2020 at 17:21
  • well your principles are clouding your judgement to say the least. Are there rich people living in filth, darkness and misery due to tax ? Is their money so rightfully deserved as the child freedom, light and hygiene is ? Obviously there are thresholds to the injustice we can tolerate for the common good. And these thresholds can be discussed and justified for a fruitful conversation. Feb 4, 2020 at 17:37

There is no way to make happiness comparable from one person to another. Happiness is an internal state that is largely dependent on the things going on inside the individual's head. The identical outward experiences will make one person hugely happy, and bore the next person to discomfort. I want to attend this lecture on moral philosophy, but my friend wants to go shopping for shoes.

We shopped for shoes.

The problem with utilitarianism is that it defines "the good" as "the good." What is good? Acting for the good. What good? The greater good.

But what actually is the good? If we had convincing answers to that then we would not need to be told to maximize it. We would not need to vote on it. We would be impelled to do it by our own conclusion that it was the good.

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