Utilitarianism, by John Stuart Mill, is an essay written to provide support for the value of utilitarianism as a moral theory, and to respond to misconceptions about it. Mill defines utilitarianism as a theory based on the principle that «actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.» Mill defines happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain. He argues that pleasure can differ in quality and quantity, and that pleasures that are rooted in one’s higher faculties should be weighted more heavily than baser pleasures. Furthermore, Mill argues that people’s achievement of goals and ends, such as virtuous living, should be counted as part of their happiness.
Mill argues that utilitarianism coincides with «natural» sentiments that originate from humans’ social nature. Therefore, if society were to embrace utilitarianism as an ethic, people would naturally internalize these standards as morally binding. Mill argues that happiness is the sole basis of morality, and that people never desire anything but happiness. He supports this claim by showing that all the other objects of people’s desire are either means to happiness, or included in the definition of happiness. Mill explains at length that the sentiment of justice is actually based on utility, and that rights exist only because they are necessary for human happiness.
The theory of utilitarianism has been criticized for many reasons. Critics hold that it does not provide adequate protection for individual rights, that not everything can be measured by the same standard, and that happiness is more complex than reflected by the theory. Mill’s essay represents his attempt to respond to these criticisms, and thereby to provide a more complex and nuanced moral theory.
Mill’s argument comprises five chapters. His first chapter serves as an introduction to the essay. In his second chapter, Mill discusses the definition of utilitarianism, and presents some misconceptions about the theory. The third chapter is a discussion about the ultimate sanctions (or rewards) that utilitarianism can offer. The fourth chapter discusses methods of proving the validity of utilitarianism. In his fifth chapter, Mill writes about the connection between justice and utility, and argues that happiness is the foundation of justice.
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The Greater Good; an Essay on Utilitarianism
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 of the 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.
Utilitarianism Critical Essays
John Stuart Mill
(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)
Utilitarianism began as a movement in ethics of the late eighteenth-century primarily associated with the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The basic principle of Utilitarianism involves a calculus of happiness, in which actions are deemed to be good if they tend to produce happiness in the form of pleasure and evil if they tend to promote pain. As such, the philosophy is said to derive from the classical concept of hedonism, which values the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. The sophisticated system proposed by Bentham and later expanded by John Stuart Mill and others regards not only the end product of happiness, or utility, in actions, but also considers the motives of actions and the extent to which happiness can be created not only for the individual, but also for the members of society as a whole.
Both Bentham and Mill forwarded a belief in the intrinsic nature of value; thus good or the lack thereof could be regarded as inherent in an act or thing—a concept that allowed for the mathematical calculation of utility. Beginning from this view, the Utilitarians created systems of moral behavior as standards for how an individual ought to act in society. Bentham’s principle of utility is frequently regarded as the “greatest happiness principle,” the simple idea behind which is that individuals should endeavor to maximize happiness for the greatest number of people. While Bentham modified this concept over time, critics acknowledge that its essence remains intact throughout his work. Bentham developed this principle throughout a number of writings, including his most significant work of moral philosophy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). Ostensibly a plan for a penal code, An Introduction contains Bentham’s view that individuals in society should act for the benefit of the community as a whole, and analyzes the means by which legislation should enumerate the penalties for those who refuse to contribute to the overall benefit of society. In this work, Bentham also sought to specifically record the sources of pleasure and pain, as well as to create a scale upon which the relative effects of individual acts in producing happiness or misery could be examined.
Notable among the Utilitarians to follow Bentham, the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill made considerable contributions to Utilitarian philosophy, beginning with his succinct apologia for the doctrine in Utilitarianism (1861). The essay displays Mill’s emphasis on rational calculation as the means by which human beings strive toward personal happiness. Mill’s remaining philosophical writings elucidate his Utilitarianism, especially in regard to a number of related practical issues, including women’s suffrage, and legislative and educational reform. Following his death, Mill’s system was later expanded by his disciple Henry Sidgwick, who in his Methods of Ethics (1874) discussed the means by which individuals may endeavor to achieve moral action through reasoned behavior.
Numerous other individuals contributed to the Utilitarian movement in the nineteenth century, including the British philosophers John Austin and James Mill (J. S. Mill’s father). In theory and in practice, Utilitarianism has continued to be influential, with the work of Bentham and Mill proving to be of the greatest importance and interest. Commentators on the writings of both men have continued the process of analyzing and codifying their work in order to more clearly define the doctrine. Among the principal interpretations have been a bifurcation of the philosophy into so-called “rule” and “act” Utilitarianism, the former emphasizing the importance of unbending codes of moral behavior that may not be violated, and the latter allowing for a freer interpretation that permits the breaking of certain Utilitarian rules under individual circumstances. Further criticism of Bentham’s and Mill’s Utilitarianism has focused on the important concept of justice as it applies to the principles of liberty and utility advocated by both. Additionally, critics have suggested the significant limitations of an ethical system that attempts to reduce human behavior and action to simple rational calculations of pleasure versus pain, but at the same time they acknowledge its considerable impact on nineteenth — and twentieth-century normative ethics.