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Utilitarianism vs. Pragmatism: What's the Difference?

Edited by Harlon Moss || By Janet White || Updated on October 14, 2023
Utilitarianism is a moral theory focusing on outcomes that maximize happiness and well-being, while pragmatism is a philosophical approach emphasizing practicality and real-world results.

Key Differences

Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics that posits the best action is the one that maximizes overall happiness or pleasure. It is fundamentally consequentialist in nature, meaning it concerns itself with the consequences of actions, emphasizing the greatest good for the greatest number. On the other hand, pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that considers thought as an instrument or tool for prediction, problem-solving, and action, emphasizing practical applications and results as opposed to abstract entities and ideas.
The core idea behind utilitarianism is to evaluate actions based on their outcomes, particularly in terms of happiness or pleasure generated. The moral worth of an action is determined by its resulting utility in maximizing happiness or minimizing suffering. In contrast, pragmatism isn’t necessarily a moral theory but rather a method of inquiry and an epistemological theory, emphasizing the practical consequences and utility of belief and action as the criteria for their truth and value.
While utilitarianism provides a clear guideline for moral actions – maximize happiness and minimize suffering – it sometimes fails to account for justice and individual rights, focusing solely on the end results of actions. Pragmatism, conversely, is more adaptable and flexible, addressing problems and solutions in a more context-dependent manner, relying on empirical methods and experiential learning to understand the world.
Utilitarianism often involves a quantitative approach to ethics, trying to measure happiness and suffering to determine the rightness or wrongness of an action. Pragmatism, however, is more concerned with how concepts, theories, and beliefs can be applied to achieve practical results, making it a more qualitative and context-dependent approach to solving problems and understanding the world.
Both utilitarianism and pragmatism are concerned with the practical implications and consequences of actions and beliefs. However, utilitarianism primarily operates within the realm of ethics, seeking to delineate right from wrong based on the pursuit of happiness, while pragmatism transcends the ethical domain, providing a broader framework for understanding and interacting with the world in a practical and effective manner.

Comparison Chart


Moral theory focusing on maximizing happiness.
Philosophical approach emphasizing practicality.


Outcomes, particularly happiness and suffering.
Practical consequences and real-world results.


Philosophy, method of inquiry, epistemology.

Consideration of Rights

May overlook individual rights for greater good.
More adaptable, considers context and experience.


Quantitative approach to happiness and suffering.
Qualitative, context-dependent approach.

Utilitarianism and Pragmatism Definitions


A normative ethical theory assessing the rightness or wrongness of actions by their outcomes.
Utilitarianism would argue that an action is right if it leads to the most happiness for the most people.


A method of inquiry emphasizing experience, experimentation, and practical consequences.
Pragmatism encourages adapting strategies based on the results of real-world application.


A philosophical stance prioritizing the overall well-being and happiness in ethical decision-making.
Utilitarianism plays a significant role in shaping policies aimed at overall societal welfare.


A philosophy valuing practical consequences as the criteria for truth and value of ideas.
In pragmatism, an idea is considered true if it works satisfactorily and resolves problems effectively.


A consequentialist approach in ethics emphasizing the greatest good for the greatest number.
Utilitarianism can be used to justify actions that benefit the majority, even if they harm a minority.


An empirical methodology focusing on practical results and real-world solutions.
Pragmatism relies on experiential learning to adapt and refine theories and practices.


An ethical doctrine that happiness or pleasure is the only intrinsic good.
John Stuart Mill is known for his defense of utilitarianism.


A philosophical approach that assesses the truth of beliefs by their practical applications and results.
Pragmatism values solutions that are practically effective over ideologically consistent ones.


The belief that the value of a thing or an action is determined by its utility.


A philosophical tradition emphasizing action, practicality, and problem-solving.
Pragmatism is flexible and adaptable, allowing for varied approaches to addressing issues.


The ethical theory proposed by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill that all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.


(Philosophy) A movement consisting of varying but associated theories, originally developed by Charles S. Peirce and William James and distinguished by the doctrine that the meaning or truth value of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequences.


The quality of being utilitarian
Housing of bleak utilitarianism.


A practical, matter-of-fact way of approaching or assessing situations or of solving problems.


(philosophy) A system of ethics based on the premise that something's value may be measured by its usefulness.


The pursuit of practicality over aesthetic qualities; a concentration on facts rather than emotions or ideals.


(philosophy) The theory that action should be directed toward achieving the "greatest happiness for the greatest number of people" (hedonistic universalism), or one of various related theories.


(politics) The theory that political problems should be met with practical solutions rather than ideological ones.


The doctrine that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the end and aim of all social and political institutions.


(philosophy) The idea that beliefs are identified with the actions of a believer, and the truth of beliefs with success of those actions in securing a believer's goals; the doctrine that ideas must be looked at in terms of their practical effects and consequences.


The doctrine that virtue is founded in utility, or that virtue is defined and enforced by its tendency to promote the highest happiness of the universe.


The habit of interfering in other people's affairs; meddlesomeness.


The doctrine that utility is the sole standard of morality, so that the rectitude of an action is determined by its usefulness.


The quality or state of being pragmatic; in literature, the pragmatic, or philosophical, method.
The narration of this apparently trifling circumstance belongs to the pragmatism of the history.


Doctrine that the useful is the good; especially as elaborated by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill; the aim was said to be the greatest happiness for the greatest number


(philosophy) the doctrine that practical consequences are the criteria of knowledge and meaning and value


A moral theory focusing on actions that maximize overall happiness or pleasure.
Utilitarianism would endorse policies that alleviate the most suffering for the most people.


The attribute of accepting the facts of life and favoring practicality and literal truth


Does utilitarianism always require sacrificing individual rights for the greater good?

Not always, but it can lead to overlooking individual rights to achieve the greatest overall happiness.

Is pragmatism about solving problems?

Yes, pragmatism emphasizes solving problems by focusing on practical applications and real-world results.

Is utilitarianism concerned with intentions?

Utilitarianism is more focused on the outcomes of actions rather than the intentions behind them.

Can pragmatism include moral considerations?

Yes, pragmatism can incorporate moral considerations within its focus on practical consequences and solutions.

Can pragmatism be applied to ethics?

Yes, pragmatism can be applied to ethics, emphasizing the practical implications and consequences of moral actions.

Can utilitarianism justify unethical actions?

It can, if the action leads to the greater overall good or happiness, even if considered unethical individually.

Does pragmatism reject absolute truths?

Pragmatism often questions absolute truths, focusing instead on the practical utility and applicability of ideas.

Can utilitarianism be applied to policymaking?

Yes, it can guide policies aiming to maximize societal welfare and happiness.

Is utilitarianism a form of pragmatism?

No, while both value practical outcomes, utilitarianism is a moral theory, and pragmatism is a broader philosophical approach.

Can utilitarianism and pragmatism coexist in philosophical discourse?

Yes, they can coexist and even complement each other in discussions on practical and ethical implications of actions.

Is utilitarianism solely about maximizing happiness?

Primarily, yes, it focuses on actions that maximize happiness or pleasure and minimize suffering.

Can utilitarianism value individual happiness?

Yes, but it prioritizes the overall happiness of the majority over individual happiness.

Does pragmatism value experiential learning?

Yes, pragmatism highly values learning through experience and experimentation.

Is pragmatism a relativistic philosophy?

Pragmatism can be seen as relativistic as it values context-dependent, practical solutions over absolute truths.

Is pragmatism flexible in its approach?

Absolutely, pragmatism’s focus on practical results makes it adaptable and flexible.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.

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