Utilitarianism can be used to explain all kinds of environmental protection measures quite well. For example, it can be used to justify why individual factories must clean their wastewater and not simply dispose of it in the nearest lake from which we take our drinking water.

One problem with utilitarianism is the scope to which it is applied. Who do we include in the calculation? The family, the community, the state, the people of the earth, its living beings, the creatures of the universe? What arguments are used here in philosophy? What is the scope of utilitarianism?

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    The IEP has a short section on this question in its article on utilitarianism (iep.utm.edu/util-a-r/#SH1b). It is also worth pointing out that utilitarian philosophers also have a long history of being animal rights advocates, the most famous probably being Bentham, so it makes sense that they must have a very broad view on who's interest is considered when making the calculation.
    – E Tam
    Commented Oct 16, 2022 at 14:19
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    The formula is to make the cumulative sum of everyone's utility change and see if its positive. Therefore the scope is "whomever's utility change is not 0". The real problem is defining what "utility" is, but utilitarian don't agree on this matter. Also, who is impacted by a particular action is not obvious a priori and has to be discovered. Due diligence on this matter is part of utilitarian ethics.
    – armand
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 0:33
  • I don't think you have got utilitarianism in your example, but consequentialism.
    – BillOnne
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 15:50
  • It's common to not hear about the diversity of approaches within utilitarianism, as discussed here: 'Is there a reason that utilitarianism is the "default" moral system of thinking for many humans, and if so, why?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/82220/…
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 21:58
  • See this answer to a related question, it may answer what you are looking for: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/44977/…
    – Dcleve
    Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 18:17

4 Answers 4


The scope of the outcome to consider is the whole.

Stealing a wallet can be considered good, if only the short term and only immediate economic benefits are considered. But we all know that stealing is bad because the total, short+long term consequences (bad reputation, eventual prison, social isolation and rejection, increment of the risk of being caught, lose of the money earning capabilities, losing time, etc.) and the total economic benefit (easy money at the beginning, difficults to get money in the long term due to all previous collateral social damage) are negative.

This is precisely the typical error when assessing the validity of utilitarianism: to consider only the short term and immediate outcome. According to such wrong approach, stealing a wallet can be considered good "because the outcome is positive for the subject".

Now, considering the whole outcome benefits of an act is evidently difficult. Is it good to legalize marihuana? To perform human cloning? But the assessment of such difficulty is a different problem. That is not a problem of utilitarianism.

I believe it is Moore who proposed this approach: not only the sum of the parts must be consider (which is already a nice reference), but the whole as an organic unity.

See the Ideal Utilitarianism entry on the SEP.

Consider also that when confronting the benefits of the subject against the benefits of the whole society, society has the priority due to simple majority. If I like to kill and society rejects murder, it is more probable for me to get the worst total outcome.


There can be no hard and fast rule.

The rule should be that if you are making a utilitarian case, you must state the group for whom the utility will increase - possibly weighted if you are primarily targeting one group but making the case that others will also benefit.

  • This makes it sound as though a utilitarian, in acting, gets to pick and choose who’s worthy of moral consideration for that specific action? The result would be unlike “promote overall happiness” and more like “choose whose happiness to promote today.” Interesting theory—not obviously a form of utilitarianism per se. Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 1:24
  • What I was pointing out was that, to be honest, it is necessary to ensure that your audience knows who will be the main beneficiary for any proposals - and the undesirable impacts on those who would not benefit..
    – PRL75
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 9:53

“At all times, but especially today, man’s innermost being revolts against a philosophy of utilitarianism, the concept of a managed humanity, an anonymous world, and against all tendencies that allow the “toolmaker” — whether scientist or politician —to determine the future of humanity without intelligent regard for human existence.” “Morality is for persons” by Häring, Bernhard, 1912-1998 (1971) Philosophy espoused: Personalism

I think it was JS Mill, Jr’s philosophy of Utilitarianism that I found particularly repugnant, even as a student.

Some of the events of the last three years have caused me to study Hermeneutics, and to also take Heidegger more seriously. I was already very interested in the philosophy of Personalism.

One problem is that we don’t often know “the science”, there is more science yet to be discovered than we have discovered so far. So we have to be cautious before we prescribe grand remedies and schemes for mankind.


For utilitarianism, the one source of value is utility—defined by Mill, for example, as pleasure and the absence of pain. If you follow that sort of utilitarianism, then the set of those who must be considered in evaluating an action is: the set of those beings capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, who are also potentially affected by the action, in terms of their pleasure and/or pain. If you define “utility” slightly differently, then the morally considerable group becomes those who are positioned to have their utility affected by the action.

There may be disagreement about what kinds of entities are capable of happiness—especially with respect to non-human animals. But for the utilitarian, that should be an empirical question, the criterion having been derived from the core concepts of the theory, and the question of who specifically fits it something that requires investigation and observation.

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