Preference utilitarianism

Version of utilitarianism which contrasts with both hedonistic utilitarianism and ideal utilitarianism by specifying the end to be pursued in terms neither of pleasure nor of other specific values, but in terms of maximizing the satisfaction of desires or preferences, whatever their objects.

This answers at least some of the objections to the rival versions mentioned above, and some form of preference utilitarianism is probably the most common form of utilitarianism in recent years.

J J C Smart and B Williams, Utilitarianism For and Against (1973)


Unlike classical utilitarianism, in which right actions are defined as those that maximize pleasure and minimize pain, preference utilitarianism entails promoting actions that fulfil the interests (preferences) of those beings involved.[2] The beings may be rational, that is to say, their interests may be carefully selected based on future projections, but this is not compulsory; here “beings” extends to all sentient beings, even those living solely in the present (that is, those without the intellectual capacity to contemplate long-term needs or consequences).[3] Since what is good and right depends solely on individual preferences, there can be nothing that is in itself good or bad: for preference utilitarians, the source of both morality and ethics in general is subjective preference.[3] Preference utilitarianism therefore can be distinguished by its acknowledgement that every person’s experience of satisfaction is unique.

The theory, as outlined by R. M. Hare in 1981,[4] is controversial, insofar as it presupposes some basis by which a conflict between A’s preferences and B’s preferences can be resolved (for example, by weighting them mathematically).[5] In a similar vein, Peter Singer, for much of his career a major proponent of preference utilitarianism and himself influenced by the views of Hare, has been criticised for giving priority to the views of beings capable of holding preferences (being able actively to contemplate the future and its interaction with the present) over those solely concerned with their immediate situation, a group that includes animals and young children. There are, he writes in regard to killing in general, times when “the preference of the victim could sometimes be outweighed by the preferences of others”. Singer does, however, still place a high value on the life of rational beings, since killing them does not infringe upon just one of their preferences, but “a wide range of the most central and significant preferences a being can have”

2 thoughts on “Preference utilitarianism

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