Utilitarianism john stuart mill essay

Utilitarianism john stuart mill essay

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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 and Other Essays

By John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham
Introduction by Alan Ryan
Edited by Alan Ryan

By John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham
Introduction by Alan Ryan
Edited by Alan Ryan

Category: Philosophy | Nonfiction Classics | Literary Collections

Aug 04, 1987 | 352 Pages Buy

Aug 04, 1987 | 352 Pages

Buy the Paperback:

About Utilitarianism and Other Essays

One of the most important nineteenth-century schools of thought, Utilitarianism propounds the view that the value or rightness of an action rests in how well it promotes the welfare of those affected by it, aiming for ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the movement’s founder, as much a social reformer as a philosopher. His greatest interpreter, John Stuart Mill (1806-73), set out to humanize Bentham’s pragmatic Utilitarianism by balancing the claims of reason and the imagination, individuality and social well-being in essays such as ‘Bentham’, ‘Coleridge’ and, above all, Utilitarianism. The works by Bentham and Mill collected in this volume show the creation and development of a system of ethics that has had an enduring influence on moral philosophy and legislative policy.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

Also by John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham

About John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was a child of radicalism, born in 1806 into a rarefied realm of philosophic discourse. His father,… More about John Stuart Mill

About Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was educated at Westminster and Queen’s College, Oxford. He was called to the bar but found the… More about Jeremy Bentham

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John Stuart Mill Argument On Utilitarianism

There are various discussions about utilitarianism but the most discussed one is the fact that, it is held to be the view that morally right action is the action that produces the most good. This theory is better understood as a form of consequentialism whereby, right actions are better understood as a result of produced consequences. However, utilitarianism is not the same as egoism, since; utilitarianism is determined by the scope of the relevant consequences. Utilitarianism argues that one has to maximize the overall good, consider both his own good as well as the good of others. Two well-known philosophers, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, identified the good with pleasure and also argued that we need to maximize the good. Utilitarianism is also distinguished by agent-neutrality. It emphasis that happiness is the same to everyone; my good does not differ from the good of someone else. We all have the same reason to promote the good; it is not unique to one person. The features of this approach to moral evaluation have proven to be controversial. These controversies have resulted to change in the classical version of the theory. John Stuart Mill depicts the concept of utilitarianism as a philosophical theory with regard to doing what is right and wrong and how they result in happiness and being unhappy. Mills further defines happiness as the pleasure and absence of pain. According to Mills pleasure can differ in terms of quantity and quality. Also pleasures that are very important to one should be should be weighed more heavily as opposed to the ones that are less important. Mills also stated that things such as one’s achievement of goals should be considered as part of their happiness. John argues about utilitarianism with the sole aim of supporting the value of the theory as a moral theory.

Mill stated that utilitarianism is hand in hand with the natural sentiments that originate from the social nature of people. Therefore, people would view these standards as morally binding if the society were to embrace utilitarianism. According to John the main base of morality is happiness and people always desire happiness. He supported this statement through proving that other objects of desires of people were either means to achieve happiness or include the definition of happiness. He further states that the sentiment of justice is based on utility and human rights exists solely because they are necessary for human happiness.

However, the theory of utilitarianism has been criticized for many reasons. Some of the reasons being that: the theory does not provide adequate protection for individual rights; happiness is more complex than it is depicted in the theory and not everything can be measured by the same standard. Mill stated that there is very minimal progress made in developing a set of standards of judging moral right and wrong. People have always tried to find the basis of morality but have not been successful. He agreed that it is common to have disagreement about such bases in the field of science.

Despite of this, he states that in the field of science certain truths still have meaning even if the principle behind them is not understood. However, in other fields such as ethics such truths or statements has very little validity. Unlike in science, all actions exists so as to achieve a certain end, hence, actions are determined by the ends being pursued. Basing on this statement Mill argues that one has to have a clear understating of the standard the human actions should be judged in order to understand what morality entails. Mill has argued a lot about utilitarianism with the aim of making people to better understand and appreciate the theory of utilitarianism and also prove it is a moral theory. However, according to him utilitarianism cannot be proven.

Immanuel Kant’s argument on Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals.

According to Kant, morality is based on human reason and not on the principle of utility or on the law of nature. According to Kant, reasons determine what we are supposed to do and we are free when we follow them. Good will is the one thing in the world that is undeniably good. Qualities of good fortune such as wealth and qualities of character such as intelligence can either be used for good or bad purposes. Therefore, good is good even though it does not lead to positive results.

The highest purpose of each individual are self-preservation and attainment of happiness which is driven by the organ most appropriate to hat purpose. The instinct of these purposes is well situated as opposed to the reason. A study showed that people who possessed high capacity for reasoning were less happy. This has led to refined people envying the masses as they on the other hand view reason with contempt. However, the fact is that reason servers a purpose that is higher that one’s private happiness and survival. As opposed to good for some particular purpose the aim of reason is to bring about will that is good in itself.

Duties are the specific obligations of good will. They are three general propositions about duty: one, actions are genuinely good when undertaken for the sake of duty alone; two, actions are judged according to the principle that served as their motivation and not the purpose they were meant to bring about; and lastly, duties should be undertaken out of reverence for the law. Due to the fact that motivations and circumstances cannot be brought into the consideration of moral principles the moral law cannot be specific to do or not to do a certain action. Therefore, the law of morality requires us to act in such a way that we want the motivating principle of our actions to become a universal law.

Kant argues about the grounding for the metaphysics of morals in two sections. In the first section he states that good without qualification and unconditionally good are different. He also differentiate on the things that are good but only under certain conditions. They are many things that belong in the second category, things are good only because of its consequences, since it is those consequences that determine on its being good and even all but one is good in itself. Kant stated that good will is the only thing that is good without qualifications. He further claims that goodwill is the only thing that we can imagine is good without qualifications and everything else is good with qualifications. According to him, goodwill serves as a condition of the value of everything else, something can be good only if it is compatible with good will.

In the second section, unlike in the first section where Kant stated that identifying and articulating our concept of duty, whereby one does his duty with the fact that it his duty and not because he is expecting some advantage or feels like it. We all have experienced this concept, however, Kant argues that the concept itself is not one we get from experience. According to him it is a prior concept and not a posteriori one. He argued that we came to acquire the concept of duty not through first experience of duty or extracting our concepts from those instances. Basing on his argument, he observed that the demands of morality are unconditional which apply to all rational beings and has no room for expectations. According to him the experiences we might have do not determine by themselves any such demands. He also states that to use examples as examples of someone else acting morally we would have the concept so as to determine the appropriateness of the cases.

My stand on the two arguments

Both philosophers have presented their arguments about morality and happiness in depth. However, they differ in one or two things in the arguments. Immanuel Kant argues that human reason what that determines morality, since, reasons are the sole determinants of what we are supposed to do or not do. He stated that we are free as long as we follow our reasoning and also good will is determine by values. On the other hand John Stuart Mill stated that for one to achieve total happiness and maximize on good he should consider his and others good, since, good is the same for everyone. He also stated that actions results to both right and wrong.

Personally I consider both theories because they both have something to offer in the aim of making us to better understand the concept of happiness, good will and morality. Looking at Kant he argues that we should follow our reasoning since they will ensure we achieve total happiness and on the other hand Mill argues that our actions are the ones that determine our happiness. However, I see both our actions and reasoning determine our happiness and good will. They both have a major role in determining our morality and happiness. This is because one cannot execute his reasoning without an action and he also cannot act without reasoning. One determines the other and in order to achieve effective results they should work hand in hand despite of the philosophers’ arguments. Therefore, we should consider them both and in length apply the both in order to achieve morality, happiness and good will.