Last Updated on March 16, 2021

There are three principles that serve as the basic axioms of utilitarianism. (An axiom is a statement or principle that is generally accepted to be true).

The Three Generally Accepted Axioms of Utilitarianism

Pleasure, or happiness, is the only thing that has intrinsic value.

Actions are right if they promote happiness, and wrong if they promote unhappiness.

Everyone’s happiness counts equally.

Three Axioms of Utilitarianism

In a defining doctrine, Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill writes:

The creed which accepts as the foundations of morals ‘utility’ or the ‘greatest happiness principle’ holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.

John Stuart Mill

Thought experiments

I do love to bring up these classic ethical/philosophical thought experiments at parties! Caveat: be aware of differences between reported versus actual behavior, (I think some people are utilitarians in theory but not in practice).

The trolley problem

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

What is the right thing to do?

 Judith Jarvis Thomson

The fat man on the bridge

A runaway train is racing toward five men who are tied to the track. Unless the train is stopped, it will inevitably kill all five men. You are standing on a footbridge looking down on the unfolding disaster. However, a fat man, a stranger, is standing next to you: if you push him off the bridge, he will topple onto the line and, although he will die, his chunky body will stop the train, saving five lives. Would you kill the fat man?

Would you kill the fat man?

Get more of these great ethical thought experiments.

Ethical systems

Utilitarianism can be thought of as an ethical system, and is most interesting when compared to other ethical systems.

Deontological ethics, ethical theories that place special emphasis on the relationship between duty and the morality of human actions. The term deontology is derived from the Greek deon, “duty,” and logos, “science.”

By contrast, teleological ethics (also called consequentialist ethics or consequentialism) holds that the basic standard of morality is precisely the value of what an action brings into being. [Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism]

Brittanica Ethics

This is a nice deeper dive – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Deontological Ethics.