John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873): Utilitarianism
by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. The ultimate good (end or purpose) of human life is happiness, not simply of a single individual in isolation from others, but of all individuals together (greatest happiness of the greatest number of individuals -- Greatest Happiness Principle).

2. "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." What makes an act right or wrong is its consequences, how it affects individuals, whether it causes them pleasure or pain. "By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure."

3. Some pleasures, particularly pleasures of the mind (knowledge and imagination) and pleasures associated with virtue, are better than other pleasures, those associated with the "animal appetites." "It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others." [Epicurus understood that mental pleasures are better than bodily pleasures and that quality of pleasure is more important than quantity.] Higher pleasures correspond to the exercise of higher human faculties or capacities (as opposed to animal sensations). [Mill implies that these "higher capacities" can be cultivated or developed through education or "nurture."]

4. Ability to judge higher from lower pleasures depends upon experience. Those who have experienced only lower pleasures cannot distinguish higher from lower pleasures. Those who have experienced the pleasures of the mind and virtue as well as sensual pleasures (who are "competently acquainted with both) are capable of judging. "Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure." [Compare to Aristotle's cultivated Athenian gentlemen, who are most able to judge the noble from the base.] Higher pleasures make up in quality what they lack in quantity. Pleasures are not homogeneous (they are of different kinds or classes). Happiness for human beings is different from happiness for pigs. Humans can lose their capacity for enjoying higher pleasures.

5. [Note: It is presupposed that human nature is in everyone basically the same. What distinguishes "beings of higher faculties" from beings of lower faculties is not nature, but nurture. A "taste" for higher pleasures, especially those relating to the "social welfare," must be cultivated. Universal quality of education in an ideal society would ensure that all human beings would find pleasure in the exercise of their highest faculties and would feel pleasure in devotion to the common welfare.]

6. The utilitarian standard is a social standard ("what is right in conduct is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned"). The utilitarian must be "as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator."

7. The utilitarian ideal is one with the Christian ideal -- the golden rule and "love your neighbor as yourself." What is required to achieve this kind of reciprocity between the individual and the common good, is summarized by Mill (see the text of his Utilitarianism: "As the means of making the nearest approach... ...may fill a large and prominent place in every human being's sentient existence." [Note the importance of education.]

8. The duty to regard the general well-being does not apply to all situations of life. Ethics is not all of life; we act from other motives than that of duty, motives that need not conflict with duty. Furthermore, even ethical situations do not usually extend to "society at large," so that we have to conceive of a widespread benefit; rather, most involve only a very few persons, whose welfare we must keep in mind. Yet, in this case, nothing must be done which would conflict with the interests of society at large.

9. The external sanctions (or motives for promoting the happiness of others) are social approval (and disapproval), combined with sympathy and affection for others, and divine approval (and disapproval), along with love and awe of God. The internal sanction is that of duty or conscience (including feelings of regret). The "firm foundation" of utilitarian morality is "that of the social feelings of mankind -- the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures, which is already a powerful principle in human nature, and happily one of those which tend to become stronger, even without express inculcation, from the influences of advancing civilization."

10. The Happiness Principle is the first principle of ethics. Like all first principles, it cannot be proved. The utilitarian belief that the end-in-itself (an end which is never also a means) of human action is happiness is based not upon some rational argument, but upon the fact that "people do actually desire it." [Compare to Aristotle's statement that all men desire to be happy. Contrast to Aristotle's understanding of "happiness" as "well-being" or right functioning of one's capacities and powers.] Each person desires his own happiness as a good, "and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons."

11. The desire for virtue is intimately connected with a desire for happiness. Even where the exercise of virtue seems to cause pain in the individual agent, it is conducive to the general happiness. The love of virtue is so linked to beneficial consequences for all that it may be treated as a "good in itself" and worth pursuing on its own account. Other desires, such as "love of money, of power, or of fame" may often go against the general happiness; but love of virtue always promotes the general happiness. It is implied that being happy because of the happiness of others is a higher pleasure, despite the quantitative lower pain it may cause.


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Copyright © 1997 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.