Bioethics: Utilitarianism


Utilitarianism is a moral theory that defines the right action as the action that maximises the total well‐being. It is one of the dominant moral theories, and it has a significant influence in bioethical debates. According to utilitarianism, what matters most is the promotion of well‐being, not merely the treatment or prevention of disease. In many cases, utilitarianism departs from traditional moral views on bioethical problems. Applied to genetics, utilitarianism broadly supports genetic testing, genetic selection of offspring with the opportunity to enjoy the best lives, gene therapy and genetic enhancement. This article considers some of the central issues related to utilitarianism and these bioethical questions.

Key Concepts:

  • According to utilitarianism, an action is right if, and only if it maximises well‐being.

  • When we assess a person's well‐being, we are assessing how well or badly that person's life is going.

  • Utilitarianism entails that it is morally required to kill an innocent person if it promotes overall well‐being.

  • For utilitarians, allowing a person to die or suffer when that could have been avoided is just as bad as directly inflicting suffering or killing.

  • For utilitarians, a couple (or a single reproducer) has a significant moral reason to select the best child, one with the lowest chance of disease and the best prospects for the best life.

  • Because utilitarians have a broad understanding of what makes a life go well, which goes beyond prevention or treatment of disease, they have no objections to genetic enhancement, if it promotes overall well‐being.

Keywords: ethics; utilitarianism; bioethics; genetic testing; gene therapy; genetic enhancement


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Savulescu J (2002) The embryonic stem cell lottery and the cannibalization of human beings. Bioethics 16(6): 508–529.

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How to Cite close
Savulescu, Julian, and Birks, David(Dec 2012) Bioethics: Utilitarianism. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005891.pub2]