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Ethical principle according to which an action is right if it tends to maximize happiness, not only that of the agent but also of everyone affected. Thus, utilitarians focus on the consequences of an act rather than on its intrinsic nature or the motives of the agent (seeconsequentialism). Classical utilitarianism is hedonist, but values other than, or in addition to, pleasure (ideal utilitarianism) can be employed, ormore neutrally, and in a version popular in economicsanything can be regarded as valuable that appears as an object of rational or informed desire (preference utilitarianism). The test of utility maximization can also be applied directly to single acts (act utilitarianism), or to acts only indirectly through some other suitable object of moral assessment, such as rules of conduct (rule utilitarianism). Jeremy Bentham's Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) and John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism (1863) are major statements of utilitarianism.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on utilitarianism, visit Britannica.com.