How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
People choose that which provides greatest value (usefulness, happiness, utility). Their choices usually include consideration of other people.
Utilitarianism is based in arguments of 18th/19th century economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and has the basic general principle that people will tend to act towards choosing the optimal solution that will make them most happy.
This principle is also extended to views that utilitarianism also applies to groups, and that people will choose actions that will be of most benefit to the most people. This provides a non-ethically-based explanation of altruism and is in opposition to the views of egoism, which assumes that all actions are self-based.
It is based on rational assumptions that an absolute value can be assigned to all things and hence all choices can be made through a hedonistic calculus. As an example, utilitarians view punishment as useful in the prevention of crime, rather than a form of retribution.
The rational and calculable nature of utilitarianism makes it useful for disciplines, notably economics, that seeks to model our entire existence, and government, that seeks to create workable and generally acceptable laws.
Bentham's (1824) principles of utility are:
Variations on Utilitarianism include:
Where Utilitarianism falls down is in the way that people have incomplete information and have bounded rationality. They make decisions on emotional bases and split-second events and in a way that confounds utilitarian explanation.
Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789; 2nd ed., 1823)
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1861; 4th ed., 1871)