Applying Utilitarian Ethical Theory to Gender Equality

Applying Utilitarian Ethical Theory to Gender Equality


ApplyingUtilitarian Ethical Theory to Gender Equality

Genderequality can be defined as the equal treatment of both women and menin terms of resource allocation, self-development, and jobopportunities, among others (Kabeer, 2005). Up to date, genderequality remains a sensitive topic in many nations, especially thedeveloping countries where women are the minority in decision making.When Mill developed utilitarian theory, he aimed to support women`srights by giving them the opportunity to redefine their meaning ofhappiness. However, Utilitarian theory in reality does not supportgender equality since men remain the majority in decision-making inmany countries. Therefore, the primary weakness of this approach inethical matters such as gender equality is that it supports theviolation of human rights through the rule of the majority.


JohnStuart developed the utilitarian theory back in the 18thcentury, to govern the formulation and implementation of ethicalpolicies and support moral actions. According to this theory, thebest moral action or policy is the one that produces the highestconvenience (Harsanyi, 1977). Convenience in this context has beendefined as the final pleasure achieved after deducting thedispleasure caused by the action or policy(Silverstein, 2012).The theory is based on one idea that actions are evaluated whethermorally right or wrong depending on their outcomes. To be moreprecise, the happiness and displeasure outcomes of an individualaction are used in assessing the morality of that particular action.

Accordingto Van Staveren (2007), the utilitarian theory argues that the bestactions and policies are those that are supported by the majoritysince they produce happiness for the greatest number of people.According to John Stuart, the author of the theory, it would beunethical to implement policies that make the majority in the societyto feel offended. According to the theory, it is ethically right forthe minority to suffer at the expense of the happiness of themajority.

Applicationof Utilitarian Theory

Whenapplying the theory of utilitarianism in the issue of genderequality, many things should be put under considerations. Three mainfactors to be evaluated include: how many people are affected by theproblem? Which course of action would make them happy? Would theoutcome be ethical? Utilitarian theory recognizes that human beingshave likes and dislikes and hence suggests rules of reasonable choiceto ensure the satisfaction of people through maximizing theirinterests and desires (Harsanyi,1977). It is important to point out that as a result ofutilitarianism gender equality has not been achieved in manynations. In many countries, men are the majority in the governmentand other managerial levels, meaning they significantly influencedecision making.

Despiteintensive education on the importance of supporting women and givingthem opportunities for growth, many men are still opposed to the ideaof being treated equally with women. Therefore, it is clear that manymen, who are the majority in decision making, will be happy ingetting treated differently from women. Applying the concept ofutilitarian theory, an action is considered ethical if it producesthe greatest happiness for the majority and hence, in this case,policies to support gender equality are rendered unethical.

Objectionto Utilitarian Theory

Utilitariantheory faces severe criticism on the basis that it supports theviolation of human rights of the minority in the society. Accordingto Heard(1997), the utilitarian theory lacks in the sense that it puts therights of people in the society in the hands of the majority. It isimportant the primary function of human rights is to protect peoplefrom oppression such as the rule by the majority. Heard argues thatthe support to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest numberof people cannot validate the infringement of an individual`swellbeing.

Inthe current ethical question of gender equality, it is clear thatutilitarianism supports the violation of women`s rights, who are theminority in decision making. The happiness of the majority is a vaguefactor to judge the morality of an action. Women have a right toequal treatment with men, and that right should not be controlled bythe majority in decision making. The fact that men, who are themajority in decision-making, will oppose gender equality does notimply that gender equality is unethical. Heard argues that thereshould be considerations of other factors such as the impact of thedecision made to the whole society in determining the morality of anaction (1997).


Fromthe paper, it is clear that utilitarian theory judges the morality ofan action depending on the happiness and displeasure resulting fromthe action. According to the theory, the best actions are the onesthat produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number ofpeople. Gender equality is an issue that is opposed by many men whoare the majority in decision-making in many societies. Therefore,utilitarianism opposes the idea of sex equality, since it focuses onmaking the majority happy, who, in this case, are opposed to the ideaof gender equality. However, it is unethical to deny the minority,who, in this case, are women, their human rights. Therefore, it canbe concluded that the utilitarian theory has a weakness in that itsupports the rule of the majority without bringing into considerationthe impacts of such laws in the wider community.


Harsanyi,J. C. (1977). Morality and the theory of rational behavior.&nbspSocialResearch, 623-656.

HeardA. (1997).HumanRights: Chimeras in Sheep`s Clothing? The challenges of utilitarianism and relativism. Retrievedfrom:[Accessed on 17th Sept 2015]Kabeer,N. (2005). Gender equality and women`s empowerment: A criticalanalysis of the third millennium development goal 1.&nbspGender&amp Development,13(1),13-24.

SilversteinD. (2012). JohnStuart Mills &amp&nbspFeminism.Retrieved from: [Accessed on 17thSept 2015]

VanStaveren, I. (2007). Beyond utilitarianism and deontology: ethics in economics.&nbspReviewof Political Economy,&nbsp19(1),21-35.