Tag Archives: Utilitarianism


Zena Gainsbury took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘utilitarian’ as a keyword, from John Stuart Mill to modern fashion magazines….

(Courtesy: ImaxTree) 2014 Paris Fashion Week: Utilitarian style by (Left-Right) H&M, Isabel Marant, Balenciaga, Balmain, and Lanvin.

When flicking through Grazia magazine on a Tuesday evening (I receive the joy of this subscription in my postbox weekly) nothing puzzles me more than the use of ‘utilitarian’ against a backdrop of khaki, pockets, and wrap belts. Between reading about Taylor Swift’s squad and the trivialities of Harry Styles love life I am more than surprised to see a nod towards the utilitarians. I swiftly imagine J.S. Mill, Grazia in hand, fighting for the ‘Mind the Pay Gap Campaign’ outside the Houses of Parliament alongside the likes of Gemma Arterton. Perhaps, the use of ‘utilitarian’ amongst celebrity gossip is a product of the evolution of women’s magazines like Grazia, who now, rather than print stories focused merely on the latest popstar include informed cultural pieces. But as I scan my Grazia for a ‘normal’ use of the word ‘utilitarian’ amongst these more serious pieces on women’s rights and the plight of Syrian refugees the only use of ‘utilitarian’ is to connote a fashion trend. Such a mainstream use of ‘utilitarian’ in British popular culture seems ultimately surprising – severing the white middle class figures of Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill from use of the word Utilitarian seems somewhat impossible. How then, has the fashion industry appropriated its use to connote something which appears to diverge completely from the utilitarian’s intentions?


(Courtesy of Wikipedia) The utilitarian and not so fashion conscious J.S. Mill.

Although the image of J.S. Mill as utilitarian philosopher and fashion darling is an amusing and somehow pleasing image this isn’t the usual picture that the word Utilitarian (dating back to 1781 to describe Jeremy Bentham himself) evokes in philosophical uses as either adjective of noun.  As a noun Utilitarian refers to ‘one who holds, advocates, or supports the doctrine of utilitarianism; one who considers utility the standard of whatever is good for man; also, a person devoted to mere utility or material interests.’[1] And, again, when used as an adjective the earliest usage, is again, attributed to Jeremy Bentham; defined as ‘Consisting in or based upon utility; that regards the greatest good or happiness of the greatest number as the chief consideration or rule of morality.’ From these definitions, however, we do not gather a complete sense of what it is, or was, to be a ‘utilitarian’.

To really grasp what it is to be, or to be described as a utilitarian in pre-20th Century Britain it is best to consult the literature of the utilitarians. Bentham formulated this ethical system in a number of his life’s works which approves, or disapproves any action according to whether it augments of diminishes ‘the two sovereign masters’ pain and pleasure. [2] ‘Utility’ itself, for Bentham, refers to the ‘property’ in any object which produces any of the following: advantage, benefit, pleasure, good, happiness or the prevention of pain in regards to the interests of the individual, or the interests of the whole community. The interest of the community is calculated by taking the ‘sum’ interest of its members. Bentham argues the case for his formulation of utilitarianism by asking the question: is there any other motive a man can have which is distinguished from the motive of utility? Perhaps there isn’t, but defining ‘utility’ becomes problematic, and many condemn Bentham’s approach as merely exemplifying hedonistic principles.


‘The Auto-Icon’ courtesy of: Existential Comics – the Utilitarian Bentham and the ‘faults’ of Utilitarianism.

The hedonism in Bentham’s approach was critiqued and redeveloped by his utilitarian successor J.S. Mill. Mill, who grew up under the influence of Bentham, criticised him for ‘neglected character in his ethics’ and a focus on ‘self-interest’ and a formidable lack of ‘inspiration’ in which Mill attempted to remedy in his formulation of the Utilitarian theory. Namely, Mill’s utilitarianism differs from Bentham’s in its emphasis on quality over quantity in regards to pleasure:

‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’[3]

Bentham’s utilitarianism was criticised as debasing the object of human life as nothing but pleasure: ‘a doctrine worthy of swine.’ Mill tackles this criticism of Bentham by arguing that a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conception of happiness; and goes so far as to argue that ‘few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures’ and thus making a distinction between human and animal pleasures. Mill justifies this by suggesting that the possession of higher faculties in humans entails a greater measure of happiness for fulfilment, and as such, the fulfilment of a beast’s pleasures for a human provides no fulfilment, or pleasure, at all.

Courtesy: Grazia 29th Feb 2016 Issue Fashion Utilitarianism.

(Courtesy: Grazia 29th Feb 2016) ‘Fashion Utilitarianism’ in magazines included in a report on London Fashion Week.

In 20th and 21st Century philosophy this is problematic – Mill’s reference to ‘lower pleasures’ ridicules those with lower mental capacities who Peter Singer infers as ‘a person with an intellectual disability.’[4] It is interesting here to go back to what I will call ‘Fashion Utilitarianism’ – what end of the scale would Mill propose that this was situated? Looking perhaps at the catwalk of Paris, Madrid or London, maybe these would be considered as ‘higher pleasures’ alongside other privileged activities including opera and theatre. What about high-street ‘Fashion Utilitarianism’? I imagine that Primark sits at the bottom of Mill’s scale. Or is the consideration and pleasure taken in choosing agreeable clothing whether it is off an Essex high street or hot off the Versace catwalk a higher pleasure in itself? The problematic subjectivity inherent in both Mill and Bentham’s utilitarianism is clear here.

Peter Singer’s approach to utilitarianism is inspired by his vegetarianism and animal rights activism which makes his ‘preference’ utilitarianism more inclusive. A case that demonstrates this inclusiveness in Singer’s ethics is included in his article Famine, Affluence and Morality (1972).[5] Singer, writing after the cyclone in Bangladesh in 1971, argued that physical proximity should not be a factor when establishing one’s moral obligations to others. He argues that it makes no difference whether he helps his neighbour or someone whose name he will never know and in essence compromising the relationship between duty and charity. Hence, Singer’s utilitarian approach proposes that any act becomes duty if it will either prevent more pain that it causes or cause more happiness than it prevents. But how can this apply to fashion? It seems as if ‘Fashion Utilitarianism’ has modelled its utilitarian approach even further from Mill, Bentham and Singer’s definitions of a utilitarian ethics.

Courtesy of ASOS - Fashion Utilitarianism and Utility

(Courtesy of ASOS) – Fashion Utilitarianism and Utility as shown on one of the leading fashion retailer’s site.

The only thing that I can see relating to these khaki adorned, boiler suit and pocket embellished page spreads is that word ‘utility’ of which utilitarianism and utilitarian derive. The other common factor that arises when looking through these glossies is the intertwining and juxtaposed use of the words ‘utilitarian’ and ‘military’ to describe a fashion trend which seems bounds away from the ethical theory proposed by Jeremy Bentham, and later J.S Mill. Magazine writers flit between using ‘utilitarian’ to describe a look to ‘military’ two words that, when thinking about the principle of utility as the minimisation of pain and maximisation of pleasure seem exceptionally polarised terms. Maybe if we go back to the definition of the word ‘utility’ this use in the fashion industry may become clearer:

‘The fact, character, or quality of being useful or serviceable; fitness for some desirable purpose or valuable end; usefulness, serviceableness.’[6]

Here I can find links between the use ‘utility’ and ‘military’ which relate to the fashion world and illuminate the meaning of ‘Fashion Utilitarianism’. The words ‘serviceable’ and ‘usefulness’ stand out in the definition of ‘utility.’ Serviceableness as the ‘utility’ of a garment links to the use of ‘military’ interchangeably with ‘utility’ or ‘utilitarian’ – what we’re really looking at is a fashion which is easy to maintain, whether this be the look, or the garment itself (which I presume is how ‘military’ comes in). ‘Usefulness’ has a much broader spectrum of connotations than utilitarianism and hence seems to resonate much more with the fashion and designers described as ‘utilitarian’. It infers a practical look; and finally those oversized pockets seem to make sense. ‘Fashion Utilitarianism’ seems to have adopted the language of the utilitarians but arguably not the semantics. However, the evolution of the word ‘utility’ resonates with words like ‘wearability’ and ‘practicality’ which relate more obviously to fashion and hence underline how the word ‘utilitarian’ has evolved in modern use. And as for the pockets, their existence on the garment is beneficial to the wearer and serves a purpose – how very utilitarian.


[1] “utilitarian, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 28 February 2016.

[2] Jeremy Bentham, ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’ in Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. Alan Ryan (London: Penguin Classics, 1987) p. 65.

[3] J.S. Mill, ‘Utilitarianism’ in Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. Alan Ryan (London: Penguin Classics, 1987) p. 281.

[4] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) p. 108.

[5] Peter Singer, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ in Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1972), pp. 229-243 [revised edition] <http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972—-.htm> [accessed: 26/02/2016]

[6] “usefulness, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 29 February 2016.

Further Reading:

Existential Comics: http://existentialcomics.com/

In Our Time ‘Utilitarianism Episode: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05xhwqf

Jeremy Bentham, ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’ in Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. Alan Ryan (London: Penguin Classics, 1987)

Katie Davidson, ‘Army Green Marches Down the Runway at Paris Fashion Week’ – http://www.livingly.com/Fashion+Trend+Report/articles /jqtgypb2__3/Army+Green+Marches+Down+Runway+Paris+Fashion

J.S. Mill, ‘On Liberty’ in On Liberty and other writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

J.S. Mill, ‘Utilitarianism’ in Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. Alan Ryan (London: Penguin Classics, 1987)

Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)

Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)


Lauren Purchase took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘Vegetarian’ as a philosophical keyword.

Undoubtedly, I was just one of the 1.2 million individuals who the Vegetarian society recognises to abstain from both meat and fish within the United Kingdom who were recently targeted by the January 2016 advertising campaign for the restaurant chain Gourmet Burger Kitchen. The marketing campaign perpetuated the dominant societal attitude that eating meat is both the tastiest and most natural food option through multiple images, including the one below, being present on public transport.

This campaign inevitably caused backlash from vegetarians, resulting in public media attention from significant papers such as the Independent and a subsequent withdrawal by GBK of the most offensive images. However, the damage had already been fully effected to the image of the contemporary vegetarian. That the undermining of the vegetarian extended far beyond GBK’s public images and their connotations is concluded in the statement released by Gourmet Burger itself on their Facebook page. Although GBK attempted to apologise, the company evidently did not understand the hostile reaction by the population’s vegetarians, claiming the campaign was ‘light-hearted’. The reception of the vegetarians to the campaign was thereby presented as melodramatic and representative of their humourless nature which has continuously been portrayed in modern British culture.

Vegetarians themselves undeniably recognised the existence of this stereotypical image in the 1960’s with the 1961 formation of the meatless restaurant Cranks. Crank was evidently a derivative of the word cranky which therefore deemed all vegetarians simultaneously as ill-tempered, odd and sickly. The term crank was thereby adopted ironically by vegetarians in the 1960’s in order to gain a form of control over their own image and humorously combat negative associations.

Despite the best intentions in the 60’s, however, to literally bend or ‘crank’ societal attitudes towards vegetarians, it is evident that derision has still continually prevailed. Vegetarianism has long been mocked through public culture through many different mediums, obviously including advertising images, such as those demonstrated by GBK, but also through theatre, television and popular public personalities. The ability of all of the three latter forms to ascribe a negative image to vegetarians is demonstrated in the later televised 1999 stand-up comedy performance by comedian Jack Dee at London’s Gielgud Theatre in which he claimed that the only point vegetarians were able to ‘muster enough energy to smile for the day’ was upon the discovery of mad cow disease which was able to reinforce their case for vegetarianism. This sketch evidently again highlights the vegetarian as being miserable and sickly from a poorer diet.

Nevertheless, the negative portrayals of vegetarians within the media could also be argued to have the ability to raise awareness of vegetarianism and hint at the potentially persuasive philosophical reasoning behind its adoption. This is true even in the case of the GBK marketing campaign, especially with regard to the image caption ‘they eat grass so you don’t have to.’ The contemporary Australian moral philosopher, Peter Singer, for example, has recognised that ‘a reduction in the amount of animal flesh consumed by Westerners would release enormous amounts of grain, soybeans and other high-quality plant foods, now being fed to animals, for hungry and malnourished humans.’ [1]  Singer believes this argument proves that the theory of utilitarianism, in which pain is minimised and pleasure maximised, naturally leads to the necessity for one to become a vegetarian. Although there exists inconveniences with abstaining from meat, including great losses for animal producers, Singer argues that the positive long term consequences of vegetarianism in easing world hunger far outweigh any drawbacks, concluding vegetarianism logical.

However, contemporary philosophical debate exists with regard to vegetarianism, with American philosopher Tom Regan challenging Singer’s argument. Regan claims that Singer’s utilitarianism stance fails to justify his adoption of vegetarianism due to his lack of proof and therefore has instead offered an ethical theory based on rights to substantiate vegetarianism. Regan believes that the population should become vegetarians as all living things ‘have equal inherent value and an equal prima facie right not to be harmed.’ [2] Evidently, both Singer and Regan have become influential in the British philosophical debate for the adoption of a vegetarian diet.

Nonetheless, Britain is not solely dependent upon notable foreign philosophers to publicly discuss vegetarianism as British moral philosopher Mary Midgley has also made significant contribution to the debate. Midgley has criticised the natural superiority which humans believe they have over animals due to the continuing existence of ‘the model of concentric circles dividing us from them[3], despite the fact that ‘we are not just rather like animals; we are animals.’ [4]

The philosophical debate over the righteousness of vegetarians, however, has long preceded contemporary philosophers, with 6th century Pythagoras being ‘the father of philosophical vegetarianism.’ [5] In fact, Pythagoras was so influential in the defensive argument for a meatless diet that ‘Pythagoreanism or the Pythagorean diet were synonymous for vegetarianism well into the nineteenth century.’ [6] As the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, the word vegetarian was only in general use from 1847 onwards through the formation of the Vegetarian Society in the same year at Ramsgate. Pythagoras undeniably remains a representative of many modern vegetarians by putting forth the three main arguments which still act as paramount in our reasoning for the justification of vegetarianism – namely religion, health and ethics. Firstly, Pythagoras believed in transmigration which formed the foundation for his religious basis of vegetarianism as this doctrine recognised the ability of the soul post death to be transferred into another body, including that of an animal. Furthermore, Pythagoras believed that it was morally wrong to cause unnecessary pain to harmless animals, even more so when the aim was purely for edible purposes which would result in an unhealthier body and mind.

Although the work Ethical Vegetarianism: From Pythagoras to Peter Singer has noted that the reasoning behind vegetarianism has undergone changes from antiquity to the present day, it is indisputable that the three key arguments of Pythagoras continued, and still continue, to be utilised to give credence to vegetarianism.  For instance, the predominant arguments for vegetarianism were ethical in antiquity, religious in the Middle Ages and renaissance period, increasingly ethical again during both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and multiple in the modern day, including both health and ethical concerns.[7] Perhaps, more importantly, this historical study of vegetarianism highlights the constant presence and discussion of a vegetarian diet, thereby undermining the previously demonstrated societal attitude deeming vegetarians as unnatural.

The means through which vegetarians substantiated their position inevitably initially revolved around literature, including Percy Shelley’s 1813 A Vindication of Natural Diet’, however in more recent times vegetarians have increasingly been able to utilise more creative means to both portray their beliefs and attempt to persuade others to embrace their lifestyle.

In the case of the contemporary English illustrator, Sue Coe, art has been effectively utilised to both evidence and justify her adoption of a meatless diet in this 2011 image:

Sue Coe's 2011 pro-vegetarian artwork, Image from http://www.troutgallery.org/exhibitions/detail/15

Sue Coe’s 2011 pro-vegetarian artwork, Image from http://www.troutgallery.org/exhibitions/detail/15

Music has also acted as an important medium through which vegetarianism has been promoted and the societal status quo has been questioned. This is most explicitly evident in the 1985 song Meat is Murder by the Manchester band, The Smiths. Within this song the lead singer Morrissey sings ‘the flesh you so fancifully fry is not succulent, tasty or kind, its death for no reason, and death for no reason is murder.’


Despite the methods of the presentation of vegetarianism evolving, however, as it has already been noted, key elements of vegetarianism remained consistent throughout history. Not only did the reasoning behind a meatless diet largely remain consistent but furthermore vegetarians have continuously been linked to subversive movements which have challenged the highest societal authorities. Tristram Stuart has noted that during the middle ages the two key heretical sects opposing the Church, namely the Cathars and Manicheans, had adopted a meatless diet and even the 1789-1799 French Revolution became associated with vegetarianism as it represented equality by denouncing the privileged aristocratic carnivorous diet. [8] That vegetarians continue in modern society to be linked to causes which challenge the societal norm is concluded in the works of American feminist Carol Adams. Adams claims that feminism and vegetarianism are intrinsically linked as both women and animals are viewed by the current patriarchal society as merely possessions which are to be dominated and controlled. [9]

The link between the oppression of both animals and women is constantly expressed throughout everyday culture, as is evidenced in the advert for the Manchester burger restaurant, Filthy cow:

The Burger Chain Filthy Cow's 2016 Advertising Campaign, Image from: https://twitter.com/filthycowuk?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

The Burger Chain Filthy Cow’s 2016 Advertising Campaign, Image from: https://twitter.com/filthycowuk?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

Yet even though vegetarianism has consistently been associated with radicalism, it has never been able to gain enough adherents within Britain to bring about a revolutionary wide-spread adoption of vegetarianism and a subsequent mass decline of both animal deaths and industrial livestock production. This is perhaps due to its connotations with revolution which has threatened society and thereby led to its constant undermining and mocking throughout history. Furthermore, many significant authorities have also denied the necessity of adopting a vegetarian diet, including St. Thomas Aquinas, who believed that humans were naturally superior to animals, being more rational.

Nevertheless, undeniably I can fortunately conclude that there still exists both a point and hope for individuals who have made the choice to become vegetarian. As Singer has acknowledged, the philosopher Jonathan Glover has proven ‘the absurdity of denying that we are each responsible for a share of the harms we collectively cause’ [10], confirming that with each vegetarian a slight reduction occurs in the demand for slaughtered animal meat. Conclusively, although the 2% of the British population who are vegetarians are not realistically making a great impact upon the supply and demand of animal meat, ultimately ‘becoming a vegetarian is a way of attesting to the depth and sincerity of one’s belief in the wrongness of what we are doing to animals.’ [11] It is, therefore, only from the position of a vegetarian that one can begin to persuasively encourage others to stop consuming meat which could eventually create real change.

Further Reading

David DeGrazia, Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism, ed. by Margaret Puskar-Pasewicz (California: Greenwood, 2010)

Tom Regan, ‘Utilitarianism, Vegetarianism and Animal Rights’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 9/4 (1980), pp. 305-324

Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (London: Pimlico, 1995)

Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996)


Books and Articles

Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat (New York: Bloomsbury, 1990)

Daniel Dombrowski, The Philosophy of Vegetarianism (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1984)

Mary Midgley, Animals and Why They Matter (Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1998)

Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (London: Routledge, 2002)

Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (California: University of California Press, 2004)

Peter Singer, ‘A Vegetarian Philosophy’, in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, ed. by Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998)

Peter Singer, ‘Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 9/4 (1980), pp.325-337

Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007)

Ethical Vegetarianism: From Pythagoras to Peter Singer, ed. by Kerry Walters and Lisa Portmess (New York: State University of New York Press, 1999)

Websites and Online Databases

The Vegetarian Society, https://www.vegsoc.org/[accessed 7 February 2016]

Definition of vegetarian in the OED, http://0-www.oed.com.catalogue.ulrls.lon.ac.uk/view/Entry/221880?redirectedFrom=vegetarian#eid, [accessed 8 February 2016]

Internet Archive, Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Vindication of Natural Diet, 1813, https://archive.org/details/vindicationofnat00shelrich,  [accessed 6 February 2016]


YouTube, Jack Dee Live and Uncut, 1999, https://youtu.be/luEPXmRJwxA?t=2m8s, [accessed 10 February 2016]

YouTube, The Smiths, Meat is Murder, 1985, https://youtu.be/xacRTqk5QFM,  [accessed 10 February 2016]


[1] Peter Singer, ‘Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 9/4 (1980), pp.333-334

[2] Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (California: University of California Press, 2004), p. 324

[3] Mary Midgley, Animals and Why They Matter (Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1998), p.32

[4] Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (London: Routledge, 2002), p.xxxiii

[5] Daniel Dombrowski, The Philosophy of Vegetarianism (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), p.35

[6] Ethical Vegetarianism: From Pythagoras to Peter Singer, ed. by Kerry Walters and Lisa Portmess (New York: State University of New York Press, 1999), p.13

[7] Ethical Vegetarianism: From Pythagoras to Peter Singer, ed. by Kerry Walters and Lisa Portmess (New York: State University of New York Press, 1999)

[8] Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007)

[9] Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat (New York: Bloomsbury, 1990)

[10] Peter Singer, ‘A Vegetarian Philosophy’, in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, ed. by Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), p.75

[11] Peter Singer, ‘Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 9/4 (1980), p.337