From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In economics, utility is a measure of the relative satisfaction from or desirability of consumption of goods. Given this measure, one may speak meaningfully of increasing or decreasing utility, and thereby explain economic behavior in terms of attempts to increase one's utility. For illustrative purposes, changes in utility are sometimes expressed in units called utils.
The doctrine of utilitarianism saw the maximization of utility as a moral criterion for the organization of society. According to utilitarians, such as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1876), society should aim to maximize the total utility of individuals, aiming for "the greatest happiness for the greatest number".
In neoclassical economics, rationality is precisely defined in terms of imputed utility-maximizing behavior under economic constraints. As a hypothetical behavioral measure, utility does not require attribution of mental states suggested by "happiness", "satisfaction", etc.
Utility is applied by economists in such constructs as the indifference curve, which plots the combination of commodities that an individual or a society requires to maintain a given level of satisfaction. Individual utility and social utility can be construed as the dependent variable of a utility function (such as an indifference curve map) and a social welfare function respectively. When coupled with production or commodity constraints, these functions can represent Pareto efficiency, such as illustrated by Edgeworth boxes and contract curves. Such efficiency is a central concept of welfare economics.