Utilitarianism Argumentative Essay Structure

This essay – or post if you wish – is intended as a concise exploration of utilitarianism, one of many ethical movements within the world of moral philosophy. An understanding of this topic could prove useful to IB philosophy students taking ethics as one of their chosen options. I am focusing here on the nature of utilitarianism and am not considering its weaknesses. These will be looked at in a separate post.

Utilitarianism is a moral theory generally considered to have been founded by Jeremy Bentham, a 19th century English philosopher and social reformer. It is centred around the concept of happiness, and seeks to promote it. The idea here is that all people seek happiness, and that it is the ultimate goal of all human beings to be happy. Therefore, according to classical utilitarianism, when a person wishes to act in an ethically sound manner he or she should strive to bring about the greatest possible amount of happiness for the greatest possible amount of people. This is known as the greatest happiness principle. Another, similar idea is that a person should always strive, if incapable of producing happiness, to reduce unhappiness. As the theory is wholly focused on the outcome of a person’s actions, it is classed as a “consequentialist” theory, i.e. a theory that concerns itself with consequences and not actions in themselves.

Utility: the state of being useful, profitable, or beneficial. – The New Oxford American Dictionary

Utilitarianism can be seen as a highly mathematical theorem, looking at the total units of happiness that a particular action gives rise to. For instance, you might have a choice between taking your sick neighbour’s dog for a walk or going out for drinks with a few of your colleagues. Imagine that the neighbour is desperate to find someone to exercise his canine companion, while your friends are fully capable of enjoying themselves without you. Taking the dog for a walk might add 10 units of happiness to the world’s total stock, whereas going out for drinks would only add a total of 6. Certainly, the latter would make a greater quantity of people happy (the former only benefiting one person), but it is the quantity ofthe happiness produced that is of interest to utilitarians. It is also important to note the impartiality of utilitarianism in this example; your personal relationships are of no importance – it does not matter how close you are to your colleagues, the right thing to do would still be to take the dog for a walk.

But let us look more closely at Bentham’s utilitarianism. To understand his approach more fully, it is vital that one come to an appreciation of exactly what he meant by “happiness”. His ideas here are, really, quite simple. Bentham thought that we should look at happiness as being  based on pleasure. Naturally, it follows from this that he also felt that we should treat unhappiness as something consisting of pain. This view on happiness has led his particular brand of utilitarianism to be seen as a hedonistic theory. Furthermore, Bentham did not distinguish between different forms of pleasure. To him, anything that gave rise to happiness – be it drugs or reading – was fundamentally good.

Other philosophers have striven to develop Bentham’s theories further. One of the more notable of these is John Stuart Mill, who sought to distinguish between what he termed “higher” and “lower” pleasures. Mill disagreed with Bentham’s all-inclusive view on pleasure, feeling that there was a fundamental difference between the varying forms of pleasure available to people, and that some had a finer quality than others. It was Mill who put forth the notion that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”.

Mill’s idea was fairly straightforward, namely that while there are many simple, sensual pleasures in life, such as eating or drinking, there are also certain pleasures which are of a more cerebral nature, such as listening to classical music or reading poetry. According to Mill, these latter pleasures are of a greater quality, and should therefore be considered more important. He posited that someone who has experienced both forms of pleasure would naturally feel inclined to choose the higher pleasures. For instance, a man who is familiar with both tasty food and good poetry would view the latter as something more valuable than the former.

This is a fairly straightforward exploration of the most common forms of utilitarianism. The most important thing to remember about these theories is that they are consequantialist and, above all else, that they are concerned with the greater good. Utilitarians don’t care about your personal agenda or whether your actions happen to hurt some people. As long as the eventual results of your actions lead to more pleasure than pain, you’re in the clear.

Like this:





1. You want to start your paper off with a clear statement of the question at hand. Not only should the question be stated clearly, but it is a good idea in the first paragraph or two to give a good clear statement as to how you are going to answer the question, i.e., what approach to the question you intend to take.

2. State your position and defend your answer. The main core of your paper should consist of a defense of the answer you gave. You should carefully define your position (so as to avoid possible misunderstandings) and defend it with reasons, relevant information and arguments.

3. If the paper is in response to a prompt, you will want to use the prompt as your outline, as your guide. Be sure that you answer the question that is asked! A tightly focused paper is always preferable.

4. Identify and formulate the strongest potential objection(s) to your position. Respond to the objection(s) and show how it/they aren't strong enough to refute your position. (This applies primarily to papers of 4 or more pages.)


It is essential that your paper be well organized.

1. There should be a clear thesis statement at the beginning that serves as a road map through your paper.

2. Every paragraph should be directly related to your thesis and should follow the road map put forth in your thesis.

3. The paper should flow smoothly and each paragraph be logically linked to the previous. Guide the reader through as clearly and carefully as possible. BE KIND TO YOUR READER!

4. Each paragraph should be fully developed and deal with only one topic. Beware of anemic paragraphs of only one or two sentences. Chances are, these will be underdeveloped.

5. The conclusion should serve as a wrap up, in which you make it clear that the stated goals in the thesis have been met.


It is crucial that important concepts are clearly defined, especially when you are dealing with topics in which there is some disagreement as to what some term might mean. Just consider the disagreement over what it means to be a person in the abortion debate!


Revising your paper is the most important thing you can do in making it a better paper. Never turn in a first draft!! After writing your first draft, put it down for a day or two, then go back and read it again--critically. Revision should be done for more than just grammatical and spelling errors. Don't be afraid of massive revision. Sometimes it may be necessary to trash entire chunks of the paper, to rearrange paragraphs or to add new material. It is a good idea to let someone else read your paper critically to see if they understand it. If possible, it is a better idea to have your instructor read the paper and make suggestions.


It is often difficult to actually begin a paper with an outline. However, once a draft is actually written, it is quite easy to go back and outline it. Do this. It will give you a sketch of the paper and help you check the paper's organization. Here is an example of a very general outline. (The number of points/arguments may vary from paper to paper.)

 I. Introduction. (Should include a clear statement of the problem and the approach to be taken in the essay.)

II. Reasons/Arguments.

A. Reason/Argument 1 supporting your position.

B. Reason/Argument 2 supporting your position.

C. Reason/Argument 3 supporting your position.

III. Strongest challenge(s) to your position.

IV. Reasons/arguments that show why the strongest challenge doesn't show your position to be incorrect.

V. Conclusion.



Academic integrity demands that whenever you utilize an idea or quotation that is not your own, you must acknowledge the source of that idea or quotation. Different instructors have different preferences for citing sources. Any generally acceptable method is okay with me. However, I will offer one simple method.


When you are citing a text, it is acceptable, when quoting or paraphrasing, to cite the author and page number parenthetically. For example, if you were quoting Pojman's article on affirmative action from Beauchamp and Bowie, it might look like this:

As Pojman defines it, "Prejudice is a discrimination based on irrelevant grounds" (Pojman, 375).

Then on a separate bibliographical page at the end of your essay, you would have:

Pojman, Louis P., "The Moral Status of Affirmative Action" as it appears in Ethical Theory and Business, 5th edition, Tom L. Beauchamp and Norman E. Bowie, editors. Prentice Hall, 1997, pp. 374-379.

Then if you cite another article from Beauchamp and Bowie, say Nagel on affirmative action, your citation in the text might look like:

As Nagel says, "Affirmative action is not an end in itself, but a means of dealing with a social situation that should be intolerable to us all" (Nagel, 374).

Then on your bibliographical page, since this is the second citation (alphabetically by author of the article) from Beauchamp and Bowie you would have:

Nagel, Thomas, "A Defense of Affirmative Action", as it appears in Beauchamp and Bowie, pp. 370-374.


Here is another example that might appear on your bibliographical page:

Gutek, Barbara A. "Sexual Harassment: Rights and Responsibilities," as it appears in Ethics in the Workplace, Edward J. Ottensmeyer and Gerald D. McCarthy, eds. McGraw-Hill, 1996.

When citing this essay in the text, you would cite it parenthetically with the author's name just as you would do according to the previous example.

If you are citing a text written by one author as opposed to an anthology, an example of how your citation should look is as follows:

Bok, Sissela. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

Again, you would cite the author and page number parenthetically in the text.

Note: If you have two citations by the same author, you should include the year of publication in your parenthetical citation. For example, if you had two bibliographical references to works by Sissela Bok, you would cite the one above like this: (Bok 1978, 23).

Note again: When you cite a source, you must give sufficient information for the reader to go directly to the cited page. If the page you cite is a web page, then you should write the full URL of the document you are citing from. For example, if you were citing from an online copy of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, your text would look like this:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. (Mill, Chapter 2)

Then on your bibliographical page, you might have:

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter Two, from: http://www.library.adelaide.edu.au/etext/m/m645u/util02.html

Remember, you must cite a source any time you use someone else's idea--even if you are paraphrasing that idea. Things that are considered "common knowledge" do not need to be cited.



In the real world, how you express yourself is as important as what you say. Careful expression is especially important in philosophy, where problems frequently arise because of imprecise language. I offer this handout as an aid to more effective philosophical writing.


Writing is always a struggle for people. In the real world, the way you write the things you say is just as important as what you have to say. It is an undeniable truth that this is especially important in philosophy, where, frequently, people have problems because you are not being precise enough. This handout is offered with this in mind.

1. Write with an ignorant (but not stupid) reading in mind. Ask yourself, "Would this paper be intelligible to someone outside of the course?" Keep clarifying what you've written until the answer is "yes."

2. Have a clear thesis in mind. Express it in one or two sentences, preferably at the beginning of your paper. Furthermore, have a definite plan in mind for the steps you will take to prove your thesis (preferably in the form of an outline).

3. Cut to the chase. Students tend to spend too much time "throat clearing"at the beginning of essays. Often, the first few paragraphs of an essay can be deleted without any loss in content (and with a corresponding gain in effectiveness). In other words, eliminate fluff for more effective writing.

4. Make the paragraph the unit of composition. Each paragraph should express one and only one main idea. Keep them short and simple.

5. Summarize your overall argument, even if you don't include the summary in your essay. If, after completing your essay, you can construct a clear outline of your overall argument (either in your head or on paper), chances are you reader can, too. If not, your argument is likely either confused or unclear. (This point relates to (1) and (2)).

6. Make your transitions clear. For example, consider the opening phrases of six successive paragraphs from Charles Landesman's Philosophy: An Introduction to the Central Issues: An argument against hedonism was developed by G. E. Moore.... The hedonist has two responses to Moore. First... Second....

Another argument against hedonism....

The hedonist replies....

Thus hedonism is not refuted....

Without even seeing the essay, we know where the author is going and how he is getting there. Your reader will appreciate similar clarity. (This example is taken from Martinich's Philosophical Writing (cited at end of handout), p. 97.

7. Don't write anything you yourself don't understand. Although this point seems obvious, consider the following sentence, which I once received in a student's paper:

Aquinas believed that God was omnipotent as Lao Tzu believed that the Tao was omnipotent as Aristotle believed that his Unmoved Mover was the purpose of all things, this in itself is a manifestation of the definition of infinity, for there is no limit to any of their power and energy.

When I asked the student what he meant by "manifestation of the definition of infinity," he couldn't tell me. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that fancy or obscure writing will sound more philosophical. It won't.

8. Avoid using "this" as a pronoun. This is confusing. "What is confusing?", you ask, and rightly so. This practice is confusing. See how much clearer it is to use "this" as an adjective? For another example, consider the student's sentence in (7). When he says "this in itself," does he mean Aquinas's belief, Lao Tzu's belief, Aristotle's belief, the coincidence of all of their beliefs, or something else? He doesn't tell us and we are left confused.

9. Make your pronouns agree with their antecedents. The problem of pronoun-antecedent agreement usually arises when people are trying to be gender inclusive. Consider the following sentences: (a) Everyone should proofread their writing. (b) Everyone should proofread his writing. (c) Everyone should proofread his or her writing. (d) One should proofread one's writing. (e) People should proofread their writing.

(a) is ungrammatical. (b) is grammatical, but gender-exclusive. (c) is both grammatical and gender-inclusive. In long sentences with many pronouns, however, the method employed in (c) can be cumbersome. (Consider: "Everyone should proofread his or her writing when he or she wants others to correctly understand him or her.") Moreover, the fact that the masculine pronoun always precedes the feminine pronoun makes it sound like an afterthought. (d) sounds awkward and pedantic; avoid it. (e) is preferred; it puts the entire construction in the plural, rendering the sentence grammatical, gender-inclusive, and natural-sounding. Another (and increasingly common) option is to alternate between the masculine and feminine; that is, to alternately use (b) and (f) Everyone should proofread her writing.

10. Ixnay on the colloquialisms; they just don't cut it in philosophical writing. Bad: Just what is Descartes smoking here? This guy's out of his tree. Better: I find several problems with Descartes' argument, including....

Also, remember that a calm, rational tone is almost always more effective than a polemical, sarcastic one.

11. Don't be afraid of the first person. One does not care what your fifth grade (or college) English teacher told you on this point. See how pedantic that last sentence sounds? It should read, "I do not care what your fifth grade English (or college) teacher told you on this point," because I don't. Students often write things like, "It will be argued that..." or "My argument will be that...." Such constructions are passive, awkward and wimpy. Own up to your position; say "I will argue that..."

12. Omit unnecessary words. This practice will make your writing more forceful, and will also help you to keep within the prescribed word limits. Less is more. Consider: Weak: From my perspective, it would seem to be the case that Descartes fails to... Better: Descartes fails to...

Weak: I feel that Hume's second premise is faulty. Better: Humes' second premise is faulty. The last example is a case where you should avoid the first person construction simply because of its superfluity. Moreover, stay away from "feel" in philosophical writing.

13. Observe the distinction between "that" and "which" clauses. "That" is restrictive; "which" is not. Consider: (a) The theory of forms that Plato expounds should be rejected. (b) The theory of forms, which Plato expounds, should be rejected.

(a) claims only that Plato's theory of forms should be rejected; it leaves open the possibility that someone else's might be acceptable. The use of the "that" clause in (a) restricts the scope of "theory of forms." (b), on the other hand, makes the general claim that any theory of forms should be rejected, adding the additional fact that Plato expounded this theory. People often use "which" when they want "that"; therefore, go which-hunting when you proofread. (If you find this rule confusing, try substituting "that" every time you write "which" and see if the substitution sounds right. If so, then you probably want "that").

14. Don't misuse the thesaurus. Ideally the thesaurus should remind you of words you already know, not provide you with words you've never heard of. If you are unsure of the precise meaning of a word, avoid it, or at least look it up in the dictionary. A student once intended to covey, "I saw the deer dance across the field," but thought that "dance" was too ordinary, so instead he borrowed "mazurka" from the thesaurus. As it turns out, a mazurka is a Polish folk dance.

15. Avoid category mistakes. Consider:

Berkeley ponders the truth of both his mind and the environment. The Meditations also believes in this position. He protested Bush's election for taking a strong stand on abortion.

"Minds" and "environments" cannot be true or false; propositions about them can. Books don't believe in positions, their authors do. Elections don't take stands; candidates do. Make sure your words fit together sensibly.

16. Proofread for cogency. Anticipate objections to your arguments, and deal with those objections in your essay. Your writing will be stronger as a result. When you proofread, constantly ask yourself, "Does this make sense" Is the argument airtight? What will my teacher say?" In other words, try to pre-grade your essay and then revise it in light of your own comments. Critiquing your own work often works best after putting the essay aside for a day or two. And, most importantly, be sure that your essay addresses the assigned topic.

17. Proofread for grammatical mistakes. (Notice that spell checkers aren't full proof (sic).) Have a friend read your essay to pick out typos and missing words. (If you make a mistake in the first place, there's a chance you will read over it during proofreading.)

18. Follow the specific instructions given by your teacher, even if you think they're nitpicky. Why needlessly annoy the person grading your essay? For the purposes of this class I expect the following: NUMBER your pages. STAPLE your pages. Leave reasonable MARGINS. NEVER use plastic report covers. Observe the required PAGE LIMITS. DON'T RIGHT JUSTIFY. Include your name only on a SEPARATE LAST PAGE. Keep a HARD COPY of all work handed in.

(Note: The "General Tips on Writing" are courtesy of John Corvino, The University of Texas at Austin.)


For more information, I recommend the following books:

A. P. Martinich, Philosophical Writing, (Prentice Hall, 1989)

William Strunk and E. B. White, Elements of Style (Macmillan, 1979)

Kate Turabian, A Manual For Writing Term Papers (University of Chicago Press, 1996)


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