Utilitarian Theory: How to Understand Fairness, Justice, Morality, and Ethics in the State.

On this page, we discuss the concepts of fairness, justice, morality, and ethics as they relate to Utilitarianism.

In simple terms, the concept underlying of all these terms in this sense is the same, “the Highest Good is that which leads to the most happiness, and least pain, for the most people.”

In words, Utilitarianism says happiness is the first principle, and the ends, of a moral theory of fairness, justice, morality, ethics, etc.

Or, in other words, it says that which is the most fair, just, moral, ethical, etc is that which leads to the most happiness.

At least that is the simple version of what some great thinkers have tried to express over the ages.

The reality is, my words aside, any argument on this page can be understood by closely reading UTILITARIANISM by John Stuart Mill (1863).

That said, Mill’s theory is not substantially different from Plato’s happiness theories from his Republic and other works from around 380 BC, or John Rawls’ theories of justice from his Theory of Justice from the 1970s.

It turns out that while people change, the basic first principle of morality and ethics according to some of the greatest thinkers of history does not (although each has their own take on how to understand this concept).

As generally noted, each ethics theory of this type is an attempt to express the idea that “justice, morality, ethics, fairness, etc.” are all defined best as “that which does the greatest good, brings the most happiness, and avoids the most pain, for the most people.”

Here however one has to be careful on how they understand the above, especially what is meant by “happiness.”

This isn’t just about a pain like physical pain, or a happiness like physical pleasure, but about moral, ethical, and logical pain and pleasures too… and this isn’t just a theory to apply to human action, but to all things from the soul to the state (see more on happiness understood in this sense).

Further, this theory isn’t meant to mean “the ends justify the means” or that the only principle is “happiness,” it only says that [paraphrasing] that the first principle of happiness is a guiding light. Happiness is “the Highest Good,” not the only good, and it is a “first principle,” not an only principle.

It is a key to finding balance in ourselves and the state, but life isn’t so simple that it is all that is needed.

Utilitarianism: Crash Course Philosophy #36. John Stewart Mill’s take on Utilitarianism isn’t the end-all-be-all, but it is one of the better-stated sociopolitical theories and a good starting point. 

TIP: See our page on “what is justice?” and “what is fairness?” for a different take on the theory.

A Utilitarian Theory of Justice; What is Fairness?

We all tend to have an ingrained sense of what is fair and equitable, what is right and wrong, good and evil, etc. but abstract concepts like these are difficult to define or prove.

Can you hold “a wrong” in your hand, show me “a fair,” or tell me what “an evil” sounds, tastes, feels, looks, or smells like?

You can present empirical data and facts, but part of an idea like “justice” is conceptual and not easily shown.

We have to look for the intersect of pure reason and empiricism to spot the constructs manifesting on the physical plane and knowing that we’ll never fully be able to illustrate the abstract in concrete terms. TIP: See Plato’s Theory of Forms as it equates to his Theory of Justice contained in his Republic.

Thus, we get the field of philosophy in which reason is paired with empirical evidence to find “truths that cannot be fully proven.”

The idea that Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness are unalienable rights, the ideas of freedom of speech and separation of church and state, the idea of the ten commandments are all rational and moral ideas. They require us to accept some amount of reason and philosophical argument alongside our facts, statistics, and pure empirical data.

You can’t show someone “an inalienable right,” except through arguments that use the concept.

We can’t hold the purpose of law in our hands, but we are bound to it by implicit and explicit social contracts and take for granted that we could face legal consequences for breaking a rule we had perhaps have never heard of before or never even realized we agreed to follow.

We consider these things just, but what is justice? And, how do we prove it?

Well, to the above point, Utilitarianism gives an answer.

Utilitarianism says [very roughly] “justice is that which causes the most happiness, because systems work best when they are in balance, and happiness brings balance to systems like the self and state.”

When Plato sets out his theory of how to create a balanced state in the Republic, he doesn’t try to balance it because balance feels good, he tries to balance it because that balance is the most effective state for the system.

If that which does the most good, is that which brings the most balance, is that which causes the most happiness, and is that which is the most fair, then the idea is Justice is that which ensures all this.

There are many ways to say this, and in fact as I’ve noted books have been written on it, but the concept is actually very simple once you accept what Utilitarianism is trying to express and think on it.

What it is trying to say is that all these concepts happiness, balance, justice, fairness, morality, ethics, etc are all linked.

Some Definitions of Utilitarianism

Here are some basic definitions of fairness, justice, morality, and ethics that use a basic utilitarian theory. We use the following definitions here on this site when we claim something is fair, just, moral, ethical, etc.

  • Utilitarian Theory: Utilitarianism is an idea first put forth by Aristotle in his Ethics, it is the idea that “that which is the best for the greatest number of people is what is best,” or as Mill puts it “that which brings the happiness to the greatest number of people is best.” The happiness of mind and soul trumps happiness of the flesh; passion should not rule this rule and reason should. Later theories point out that we have to be careful and consider caveats. For example, genocide can’t fit in with an enlightened utilitarian theory which seeks the greatest good as an end but isn’t so one-dimensional that it could be used as an excuse to bring great suffering to the minority.
  • Morality: Following the natural law in a way that generally would be considered ethical, just, fair, and compassionate. Religions touch upon morality, but religion is not morality itself.
  • Ethics: Following wisely established law and custom in a way that is informed by morality. Ethics describes real-world “good behavior.”
  • Fairness: Fairness can be thought of as a modern catch-all word that implies that something is moral, just, ethical, and utilitarian. It doesn’t mean it is perfect; it means that it is ethical, just, and moral enough to be “equitable” and “fair.”
  • Justice: An outcome that is fair, ethical, and moral in which reason and the commonly accepted law, both natural and civil, was applied wisely.

None of the above terms alone can tell us “what is good” or “what is arete (what is the highest good)” or “what is virtue and vice.” When considered together, along with the empirical evidence from our senses and reason, they can be said to have meaning that is applicable to the world around us.

Ultimately however this all a work of philosophical theory, and a not only that, but a philosophical theory that many have taken issue with.

So while understanding these concepts is important, we all have to consider them for what they are, and that is “a matter of philosophy as defined by specific philosophers”… which means this is all up for debate.

TIP: On our site, we claim “an estate tax is fair” and “a progressive tax is fairer than a flat tax.” Here we are saying that “these things are for the greater good” and are just, moral, and ethical. I don’t have a fair-o-meter that I can use to get a specific reading. Instead, we must fall back at least partially on such philosophical concepts as ethics, morality, justice, law, right, wrong, good, and happiness.

PHILOSOPHY – Political: Original Position [HD]. John Rawls presents a well thought-out experiment in modern political science regarding justice. In simple terms, if you had to be born in any nation today, but you couldn’t pick who you would be, what nation would you pick? Or what state? What period? The idea is to take yourself out of your shoes and think about the “greatest good” using statistics, from another angle. Watch the video as it explains the veil of ignorance and original position clearly. 

Criticisms of Utilitarianism

Although I won’t go over each criticism of Utilitarianism here, generally you should know that many other great thinkers have picked apart Utilitarianism.

Generally the criticism tends to be that 1. Utilitarianism is too idealist and not realist enough, and 2. Utilitarianism can force someone to act unethically and immorally if it will cause the most happiness (the same criticism one might have over the phrase “the ends justify the means”).

My general response, and I think the response that Plato, Mill, and others clearly already cover in their works is this: 1. no, the whole point is that real systems function best when they are in balance, it isn’t an ideal as much as a statement on the obvious, and 2. no, Utilitarianism doesn’t ever have you act this way, happiness is a first principle meant to be applied with wisdom, it isn’t a categorical imperative and only principle meant to be applied like a blunt tool in any situation even when it will cause pain.

In short, there is great debate to be had, and certainly not everyone will accept the idea that happiness understood correctly is the first principle of moral philosophy… but generally speaking greats like Plato and Mill did think this, and there is some logic in using their definitions of fairness, justice, morality, etc.


"Fairness, Justice, Morality, Ethics, and Utilitarianism" is tagged with: Equality, Ethics, Happiness, Liberalism and Conservatism, Liberty, Metaphysics, Morality, Virtue Theory

Leave a Reply to Thomas DeMichele Cancel reply

Steve on

A rather gushing and uncritical presentation of utilitarianism, that ignores the well known criticisms.

Thomas DeMichele on

I can’t fully argue there, I tend to think utilitarianism understood correctly presents are darn good take on what justice is. Further, I tend to find that criticisms of utilitarianism tend to focus on this overly simple version of what it is and not on what for example Mill and Plato actually say in their works.

That said, I thought the article could use a facelift and certainly I do think people should be critical when thinking. Thus, I’ve given it an edit and noted that. Thanks for the feedback.