Classical Utilitarianism

So-called Classical Utilitarianism (CU) consists of the following principle:

Principle Classical Utilitarianism

An action A is morally right iff A promotes at least as much of a balance of happiness over unhappiness for the greatest number of people, considered equally, as any alternative to A.

An example of CU

Suppose Stacy is trying to decide whether to go out on a date with John or help her friend Lewis study for his calculus midterm. Suppose furthermore that Stacy has promised to help Lewis and the moral problem is whether or not she should break her promise . If she is a Classical Utilitarian, then she might reason as follows:

  Keep Promise Break Promise
Stacy 3 10
Lewis 5 -5
John -4 8
Total 4 13

It follows on CU grounds that Stacy should break her promise to help Lewis study, since that is the action that maximizes utility.

As a theory, CU has a number of important properties which you should keep in mind as we discuss UET.

Properties of CU


No one is excluded from possibly being included in utility calculations. Contrast this to DCT or NLT, where non-believers are automatically excluded from consideration.


Everyone is weighted the same in the utility calculations. Stacy's happiness, for example, does not count any more or less than anyone else's.


In each case, that action is right which maximizes utility.


The utility of an action is determined by its consequences.


The sole intrinsic good is happiness. ("Eudaimon" is, roughly, Greek for "happiness".)


Our utility-calculations only consider the consequences of actions.