Utilitarianism is largely associated with two English philosophers, Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873).  The following remarks mostly concern the latter, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, (1861 – 63).

Mill’s utilitarianism builds upon and is sharply critical of the two other ethical models presented thus far, Aristotle’s virtue ethics and Kant’s deontological morality.  Mill, whose life matured during the growing industrialization of England, was greatly concerned with social issues.  He wrote on liberty and women’s rights, for example.  Utilitarianism has been acknowledged as perhaps the most widely influential of the three ethical models presented in these pages.  It has been widely adopted in the fields of economics, business, and political theory.

Here are some key ideas found in Mill’s Utilitarianism:

1.)    The ultimate ends and foundations of moral life cannot be proven.  Utilitarianism is resolutely a teleological and consequentialist ethical model.  “All action is for the sake of some end,” he writes, much like Aristotle before him.  “Rules of action have their whole character and color from the end to which they are subservient.”  But the foundations of morality, its summum bonum, or ‘greatest good’, is not something that can be demonstrated.   This, Mill admits, has been a central problem in philosophical thought since Socrates.  Yet, after centuries of philosophical reflection, still, Mill claims, “questions of ultimate ends (in moral life) are not amenable to direct proof.”  Nonetheless, Mill asserts that this “greatest good,” this “foundation of morality” is happiness.  Mill’s “greatest happiness principle,” and the principle of utility are phrased as follows:  "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’s proof for this seems to be that everyone desires happiness; this is what can be readily observed; happiness is a good to each person, and the general happiness of the greatest number of person is the good for that group.  Although it is Mill’s position that he can provide good reasons for accepting this argument, still, ultimate and decisive proofs of its foundations are not to be expected.  Yet, utilitarianism and the “greatest happiness principle” has been the doctrine most widely used and implicitly accepted by most of conventional morality.

2.)    Mill’s concept of happiness:  Utilitarianism claims that all people wish to pursue happiness, that is to say, a life exempt as far as possible from pain and rich as possible in enjoyment.  Where Jeremy Bentham wanted to keep the utilitarian doctrine of happiness simple, considering only pleasures that could actually be quantified and measured, Mill complicates matters by making a qualitative distinction between the “pleasures of swine,” pleasures of the body, in other words, which can be measured in their intensity and duration, and the pleasures of refinement, the pleasures of the mind, which are not so amenable to quantification.  Thus, the life of Socrates, however dissatisfied, is still preferable to the life of a satisfied pig.  This answered early critics of the doctrine, who demanded more precision in its definition of happiness.  It is not the amount of pleasure that is the criterion for happiness, not its intensity, but its overall quality and its use of the “higher faculties.”  Who is to be the judge of this?  Those who have experienced both types of pleasure, Mill answers.  They are the appointed “competent judges.”  No doubt Socrates, for example, well knew the pleasures of wine and sex, but he preferred to spend his time in philosophical discussion.  “No contented person,” Mill writes in the second chapter of Utilitarianism, “would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied his lot than they are with theirs.”  Regardless, the utilitarian standard demands not the satisfaction of individual agents but the greatest amount of happiness for all.  Even a noble character is good not just for the noble person but good in the way it makes other people happy, as well.  This means that the happiness and pleasures prescribed will not be those of exalted excitement, which might last for only moments and result in pains the next day, but the happiness of a life “made up of few and transitory pains, many various pleasure, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive.”  One should not expect from life more than it is capable of bestowing, Mill concludes.  Perhaps this is the happy life of a moderate English gentleman, yet it does imply a strong criticism of the “present wretched education” of Mill’s time in which there is little provided to elevate and ennoble the mind.  Bad education is really the only hindrance, Mill believes, to the standards of utilitarian doctrines of pleasure and happiness being attainable by almost all.  It is interesting to note in passing that Mill’s text spends far more time and ink discussing happiness and pleasure than it does utility.  Yet, his concern is indeed for the outcome, the consequences of actions, not for the character of the agent.  Good intentions are fine, even admirable, but the morality of actions will be determined by their consequences, how they contribute to increasing the greater happiness of the greatest number of people and mitigating their pains.

3.)    The Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility.  A “sanction,” described in the third chapter of Mill’s book, is the motivation for obeying and acting according to moral standards.  Why should we act so as to contribute to the happiness of others?  There are two such sanctions, one external, such as social disapproval and punishment by the law or by God, and one internal, conscience, for example, the feeling that one has done the good, or feelings of guilt when one has done harm.  Conscience is a privileged sanction here, a “binding force of morality,” yet Mill seems to leave the question unresolved as to whether good conscience is innate (given with birth) or acquired through culture and education, although he does in the end prefer the latter.  Moreover, this poses a conundrum:  do we recognize that our actions were wrong because we feel guilty afterwards, or do we feel guilty because we knew from the outset that our actions are wrong?

4.)    Justice and Utility:  The fifth chapter of Mill’s Utilitarianism pairs Justice with Utility, when in conventional thought, Justice is most often distinguished from utility, especially on the grounds of expediency.  For example, if the majority of people in a city are convinced that the minority of recent immigrants is responsible for a recent crime wave, then the majority might argue on utilitarian grounds that it is expedient and in the interest of the established majority to evict the minority from their homes and exile them from the city.  But, in this case, the utilitarian principle may have been satisfied yet a great injustice has been done.  Mill was in fact a defender of the rights of individuals, including those of minorities.  His writings on liberty and women’s rights testify to this.  Thus, “it is unjust to deprive anyone of his personal liberty, his property, or any other thing which belongs to him by law.”  The famous lifeboat example, where a sinking ship has room for only ten people in its lifeboat where there are in fact eleven souls to be saved, can be answered with reference to these perspectives.  It might be morally justified by utilitarian standards to kill the eleventh person in order to save ten others, but this would certainly perpetrate an act of grave injustice. “It is universally considered just that each person should obtain (whether good or evil) that which he deserves. . . .”  Does the eleventh person deserve to die?  Breaking faith with other persons, violating good contracts, is, likewise, unjust however it may or may not contribute to the happiness of the majority.  Showing partiality to certain persons, ‘playing favorites’, is also inconsistent with justice.  Impartiality, especially where rights are considered, is obligatory, Mill writes.  Along with impartiality, equality is another crucial article of justice.  Mill precludes any “distinctions of rank” in matters of justice: the rights of slaves must be upheld equally to those of their masters (Mill’s example).  Justice, then, is not a “peculiar and distinct” moral quality but rather a particularly important aspect of utility.  It might well involve considerations other than the law.  Indeed, there are bad laws and there are many aspects of our lives not regulated by law.  That justice involves a profound consideration of rights is another way Mill distinguishes morality from justice.  But justice and morality can equally serve social utility where the above considerations are taken into account.

Critical Questions: 

1.      Making “happiness” the goal or end of moral life certainly introduces an element that is difficult to access.  Happiness is so often identified with the individual.  Is the happiness of the individual the same as that of the group or society?  Or does the social dimension greatly alter our conception of happiness?  What may be good for the happiness of society, or the “greatest number,” may not make any individual happy.  (Logicians might accuse Mill’s “proofs” of entailing a “fallacy of composition.”)

2.      Some countries make national happiness, not just national productivity, a key feature of their constitutions.   This seems good, but how can it be achieved?  What elements must be taken into consideration when defining the “greatest happiness for the greatest number?”

3.      How would you compare and contrast Kant and Mill on the ultimate foundations of morality?  Which seems the most satisfactory account?  Provide reasons for your answer.

4.      Is “utility” a satisfactory principle for morality?  Must we always do what is ‘useful?”  If the artist, for example, creates a strikingly original and creative work of art, is its usefulness to the happiness of the “greatest number” decisive in evaluating its moral worth?  Some works of art may make society uncomfortable, yet be beneficial precisely in how they dislodge us from our “comfort zone.”

5.      Think of other examples or situations that may contest the utilitarian principle of morality.  Is medical experimentation on humans and animals morally right when it may contribute to the overall health of the greatest number of people and yet cause suffering to individual persons or animals?

6.      Mill’s considerations on justice have an important place for considerations on rights and equality.  But insofar as these are often granted by society, wouldn’t Mill have to argue that rights are given innately, or just by being born a human being?  Kant would argue for an essential respect for persons, but Mill does not seem to provide the grounds for such a moral principle.  Why would a society endorse human rights when it may be in the greater interest of that society to refuse such rights to certain persons or groups of persons?

7.      One of the criticisms Mill answers in his book is that utilitarianism is godless, that its foundations do not require religion in any way.  But doesn’t God want his/her creatures to be happy?  Do you find this to be a critical point?  Does morality require religion?

8.      With its emphasis on utility, utilitarianism can seem to be an example of excessively calculative thinking.  It is, thus, a cold-hearted doctrine, lacking sympathy.  We calculate only the consequences and utility of actions, not the human qualities from which those actions originate.  How would you answer this objection?

Charles Freeland has taught philosophy for 25 years at the Mahidol University International College, Bangkok.

Last modified: Thursday, 28 November 2019, 2:11 PM