Utilitarianism vs. Consequentialism: What’s the Difference?

The two ethical theories of utilitarianism and consequentialism share many similarities, but each has its own distinct identity.

Jul 18, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
utilitarianism vs consequentialism differences


Utilitarianism and consequentialism are two ethical theories which are so closely related that they are often treated interchangeably. Yet this has often led to a conflation of important distinctions, and a failure to see how non-utilitarian consequentialisms might suitably refine some of utilitarianism’s simplifications. We begin with an attempt to characterize these two theories and lead on to some historical context for each, before introducing and discussing the idea of hedonism and welfare consequentialism.  


What Is Utilitarianism?

John Stuart Mill 1870
John Stuart Mill, 1870, via Wikimedia Commons


Utilitarianism is one of the most prominent ethical theories, along with virtue ethical and Kantian approaches, currently held by practicing moral philosophers in the English speaking world. Often, utilitarianism is summarized thus: ‘the best thing is that which does the greatest good (or the least harm) to the greatest number (or the least number) of people.’


Although the major historical figures of the utilitarian tradition – Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill – are separated from us by a difference of roughly 200 and 150 years respectively, utilitarian moral philosophy has developed greatly since then. In particular, modern day utilitarians are often concerned with problems of ‘practical ethics’ – focusing on specific moral quandaries, or attempting to solve real world ethical issues within a utilitarian framework. 


What Is Consequentialism?

Jeremy Bentham Henry William Pickersgill 1829
Jeremy Bentham, Henry William Pickersgill, 1829, via Wikimedia Commons


Consequentialism is the theory which holds that what matters (or what matters most) from a moral point of view, is what consequences result from our actions. Whereas Immanuel Kant (or one of his followers) might say that what matters is in the nature of those actions in themselves, and a virtue ethicist that the kind of character which produces such actions is what really matters, the consequentialist says that no concern matters more than the kinds of consequences our actions produce. 

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Of course, it isn’t quite so simple to say just what a consequentialist has to focus on, even if they think that consequences are what matter most. Certain consequentialists focus on particular acts – that is, on the consequences which result from particular actions. However, many consequentialists believe that what we should focus on are rules, even if what really matters isn’t following the rules as such, but the consequences which will most often result when we do so. This kind of theory – one which would have us focus on something other than that which really matters when making moral decisions – is called a self-effacing ethical theory. Rule consequentialism is one such theory. 


Utilitarianism and Consequentialism: Key Similarities 

Bar of Consequences Jacqueline Lamba 1935
Bar of Consequences, Jacqueline Lamba, 1935, via WikiArt


Utilitarianism is often characterized as consequentialism plus hedonism. In other words, there is a theory of what kind of thing matters (consequences), and a way of evaluating those consequences (hedonism). In the context of philosophical ethics, hedonism is the doctrine that the kinds of consequences that matter can be evaluated in terms of the pleasure and pain they produce. 


For quite a classical formulation of hedonism, we can turn to Jeremy Bentham and the two most famous lines of The Principles of Morals and Legislation: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain, and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do”. 


Part of the appeal of both utilitarianism and of consequentialism in general is suggested by Bentham’s title – it is a theory which gives a plausible account both of political-legal philosophy and of moral philosophy. In many ways, hedonism and consequentialism are extremely compatible ideas. Hedonism seems like a very straightforward way of evaluating consequences. It should be no surprise that most consequentialists practice some version of hedonism.


Utilitarianism and Consequentialism: Key Differences

Pleasure Anton Raphael Mengs 1754
Pleasure, Anton Raphael Mengs, 1754, via The Met


As our definition of utilitarianism implies, consequentialism does not necessarily imply hedonism. There are other forms of consequentialism. Consequentialism and utilitarianism might diverge, and diverge substantially. Certain theories of consequentialism take a view of what is good for human beings, what they should value, and so what it is for actions which affect human beings to have good consequences, which goes beyond pleasure and pain. Consequentialist theories which proceed from a theory of human welfare are known as ‘welfarist’ consequentialisms. 


Of course, a hedonist thinks that for a human being to have a good life they should experience minimal pain and maximal pleasure. This is a theory of human welfare (of a kind). Those who describe themselves as welfarist are generally attempting to draw a contrast between what we might want, and what is good for us. Certainly, many ethicists would suggest that it is easier to claim that we always want pleasure and never want pain, than that pleasure is always good for us and pain is never bad. 

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.