Utilitarianism sets out to have "the greater good for a greater number of people," but what if someone's definition of good is committing something like mass genocide (something on the lines of the Holocaust with the belief that it causes greater good for a greater number of people ). How is "good for a greater number of people" defined according to utilitarainism, considering the pleasure aspect.

  • In the case of mass genocide, it's pretty trivial that what utility can be obtained from the perpetrators is counterbalanced by the loss of utility for the millions who suffer and die. A more interesting case would be slavery: is the suffering of a small number of slaves can make a great number of people live in abundance, is it acceptable from a utilitarian perspective ?
    – armand
    Sep 19, 2021 at 14:54
  • well according to these people committing genocide would be providing better utility for the greater number of people because they see wiping out this race as better for future generations Sep 19, 2021 at 18:43
  • If you are asking about Mill specifically, his definition of "good" is, like Bentham's, pleasure, a psychological state, although, unlike Bentham, he distinguishes higher (intellectual) and lower (sensual) pleasures, see SEP, Mill. As for fans of genocide, their pleasures will presumably be of the lower sort, and in any case outweighed by the suffering of their victims in the final calculation of "the greatest good for the greatest number".
    – Conifold
    Sep 20, 2021 at 2:44
  • @Conifold: The problem with subjective utility is that it's... subjective. How do we know that mental states are even possible to quantify and compare from one human being to another? What if happiness is a quale, which can only be experienced, not quantified or enumerated? And then you run into problems with utility monsters, wireheading, and that sort of thing.
    – Kevin
    Sep 21, 2021 at 17:58
  • Since it is totaled or averaged over all people it is no longer subjective. What "happiness" is is what we say it is, the real question is whether that produces a workable ethics. And yes, utilitarianism has problems of those sorts and many others, which are discussed under the link along with responses to them. Answer boxes are not big enough to rehash all of that here.
    – Conifold
    Sep 21, 2021 at 19:26

1 Answer 1


Utilitarianism is driven by "what is useful or designed for use" (Webster's definition for utility). While mass genocide might be useful for those who remain, it is not beneficial for those who were killed--was genocide the best option for all? It might have been the easier option, but not the best one. Utilitarianism must struggle with temporality--what's useful now might not be useful later. The best form of utilitarianism not only pursues the most useful option, it considers "the greater good for a greater number of people" over time.

Utilitarianism considers the interests of all humans equally, but there are three distinct camps when it comes to useful. Happiness or pleasure led the way (Benthem 1780), until morality and ethics jumped in (Mill 1861). Sidgwick (1874) tried to add reason to the mix, but now we have the benefits of science that show us pleasure is biological and morality is causal, so useful is Determined. As long as these three camps remain, defining useful depends on which one feels better, is reasonably good, or has already been determined.

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