John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism

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John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism

Biography: John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was born in London in 1806, the son of a prominent journalist and official of the East India Company, James Mill. Mill pére was a disciple of Jeremy Bentham, considered the founder of a school of thought known as utilitarianism. James Mill decided to educate his son at home in order to raise his son in the most “utilitarian” manner. Mill’s early education could make him the poster-child for latter-day home schooling movements. By the age of three, Mill had learned Greek and picked up Latin by the age of 8. By his early teenage years, he was studying logic and philosophy, learned French (having spent some time in France) and at 15 began studying legal theory with John Austin. In his late teens, Mill was a solid Benthamite, founding a Utilitarian Society and editing a journal based on Bentham’s philosophy. In 1826, however, Mill suffered a mental breakdown that is usually attributed to his growing dissatisfaction with Bentham’s brand of utilitarianism, which he believed was too centered on dry models of human utility without taking account of human being’s experiences (emotional and otherwise) as existing beings. In 1830, Mill began a relationship (at first Platonic) with Harriet Taylor, who was married. Later, Taylor’s husband passed away, and the two married in 1849. Throughout the 1850s, Harriet and John Mill worked side by side in thinking about utilitarianism and issues relating to its affect on various fields of study, including politics and ethics. In 1858, Harriet died Avignon, and Mill was deeply affected by the loss. On Liberty, which the two had prepared together, was dedicated by Mill to his late wife, whose influence on his work, he argues, cannot be understated. Following Harriet’s death, Mill continued to write, publishing some of his best known works, including Utilitarianism . (1861) and On the Subjection of Women (1869). In this last work, Mill argued against the oppression of women in society, which he backed up by lobbying for women’s rights in a seat in Parliament, which he won in 1865 only to lose three years later.


Chapter 1: The book first appeared in Fraser’s Magazine in 1861 and was reprinted as a book in 1863. Despite its relatively short length (the original included only chapters 1-4), the effect the work has had on ethical theory cannot be underestimated. Mill begins the first chapter by arguing that there are two types of approaches to ethical theory: the intuitive approach and the inductive approach. The intuitive approach argues that we know the highest principles of morality without any appeal to experience, either through the use of reason or by instinct (the latter was common argument). The second theory argues that we learn the highest moral principle through what we learn from our experience in the world. For Mill, Kant represents the highest thinking of the intuitive school, though Mill will defend the inductive school. Ultimately, Mill argues for the inductive school. The task of the essay will be to define and defend Mill’s choice of the highest moral principle, and Kant will argue that it is Utilitarian principle, which he notes, Kant’s categorical imperative ultimately reduces to. He says that Kant can’t prove that an unethical maxim, when made universal, ends in contradiction; rather, he can only prove that the result would be unpleasant. We will see that this is the central idea of utilitarianism: the avoidance of pain and the seeking of happiness for the greatest number. Mill’s argument is this: our ideas of right and wrong have changed little over the years, and yet we continue to argue over the right ethical theory. As such, underlying most ethical theories, including Kant’s, is the utilitarian principle, even if Kant would want to deny it. Importantly, Mill argues that utilitarianism cannot be “proven” in the every sense of the word, since questions about the ultimate ends are unproveable. For Mill, what will be important is that the utilitarian principle will prove itself useful, in a sense, since it will lead to other valid statements about morality and human motivation.

Chapter Two: Mill argues that the highest moral principle is the following: “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they produce the reverse of happiness.” As with Aristotle, Mill relies on happiness as the highest end that we seek, and he defines happiness both as pleasure gained and the absence or as little pain as possible. His definition, of course, is quite different from Aristotle, though like Aristotle, Mill holds happiness to be the highest end that we seek. Note that Mill’s argument is not that we avoid pain at all time, such as when we experience pain when running, but rather that we way pleasures and pains, with the goal that pleasure should come out ahead. Mill also argues that there are different types of pleasure and Mill is quite clear that intellectual pleasures, such as the acquisition of knowledge, are higher forms of happiness than the animal-sensual pleasures. He notes that those who have experienced the two always choose the former over the latter. Important to Mill’s utilitarian approach is that it assesses the results of an action; this is Mill’s “consequentialism.” In other words, the motivations of a person don’t matter to Mill. All that matters is the results, not the character of the person or their will. This of course distinguishes Mill greatly from both Kant and Aristotle. Mill distinguishes between the first principle of utility (quoted above) and secondary principles that aim for the highest good for everyone. Such secondary principles include not stealing and not lying. Mill says that most of our actions will be judged based upon these secondary principles and that we only need to look at the first principle of morality if we are weighing conflicting secondary principles, such as if we may need to steal in order to save a life.
Mill spends a lot of time in this chapter on the misunderstandings of utilitarian approach. Utility, he notes, often means in everyday language something opposed to pleasure, that is, to do something useful instead of for the pleasure it brings. As will become clear, this is certainly a misunderstanding of Mill’s position. Where Aristotle thought eudaemonia (acting virtuously as the result of a decision resulting from correct deliberation) and Kant thought the good will were the ultimate ends, Mill argues that absence of pain and the experience of pleasure are the only things inherently good. Mill also argues that we shouldn’t take pleasure in its narrow sense, as Aristotle and Kant had. For Mill, human beings experience higher pleasures once they are educated rightly to recognize and use their higher faculties. Utilitarianism doesn’t just calculate the quantity of pleasure (in which, one assumes, base pleasures and intellectual pleasures would amount to the same thing) but also the quality of the pleasures involved. How do we define a higher pleasure? It is a pleasure for which one would experience some amount of pain to have it, for example, the sense of pleasure one has when acting virtuously, or the sense of pleasure one experiences when doing well on an exam, after studying for it. Each pleasure comes at some cost (pain), but is worth it for the higher value of the pleasure it provides. Mill’s argument rests on what he says is “unquestionable,” namely that people with access to both types of pleasures will surely choose the pleasures of the higher faculties, that people will choose to live up to their full human capacities than live an animal-like existence. Mill also argues that happiness, for him, does not mean satisfaction or contentment. He writes, in a famous passage, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinions, it is because they only know their side of the question.”

Chapter Three: The theme of this chapter is what would motivate us to follow utilitarian ethics? This is the most difficult ethical question of all. Whether one is Aristotelian, Kantian, or an egoist, etc., the most difficult task it to explain why one should follow the ethical theory. What would happen if one doesn’t? It seems that in some cases, the ethical wrongdoer faces no other sanction that being, well, an ethical wrongdoer. But Mill wants to argue more, namely, that utilitarian can show why we would want to be, well, utilitarian. In other words, he says that we should follow a utilitarian ethics because it would provide the greatest pleasure and release from the most pain. For Mill, there are two types of motivations or sanctions that promote happiness: external and internal sanctions. The first arises from what society can do to you in the name of the happiness of the greatest number, such as punishing you for stealing or killing, which inflicts pain on others. We could also face external sanctions from God and the honor (or dishonor) given to us by our fellow human beings. But utilitarianism would be rather weak if it simply argued that one should follow what is just because of internal sanctions; this would amount to arguing that one should simply follow the laws because of the punishments we face. But later, in chapter five (a part of the text, it is easy to tell, that was written separately), Mill is going to make clear that there are often unjust laws that we should not follow because of the harm it brings others. Internally, we have a conscience, an inner sense of duty guided by our own “natural” sympathy in the face of the pain of others as well as our natural need to protect ourselves. Over our lives, and a strong education would promote this, we experience pain and remorse when harming others, and experience pleasure when not doing do, or when helping others. This is the motivation for our ethical actions, according to Mill.

Chapter Four: Here, Mill provides his inductive proof for the principle of utility. He begins by saying that it is impossible to provide a direct proof for the foundational principle; rather he will show that general happiness is what people want since people actually desire it. It will be necessary, then, to show that people only desire happiness, and that all other “ends” are subservient to this larger end, an argument we have already seen in Aristotle. Mill argues that there may be those that argue that we want other things, such as virtue, intellect, and so on, but Mill says that these are good only insofar as they provide happiness. In other words, happiness is a “whole” with many parts, including virtue. Mill is aware of the Kantian argument, namely that people often carry out virtuous actions without thought of such pleasures (this is what would be ethical in Kant’s system). In the end of this chapter, he notes that there is a difference between the will and desire, which Kant distinguished as well, calling desires “inclinations.” But Mill argues that inclinations are what drive a “good will,” not “reason,” as Kant would say. If we want or will something that we no longer find pleasure in, it is only because we have grown accustomed to doing it. But that does not mean that originally we were not lead by the desire for pleasure.

Chapter Five: "The Connection Between Justice and Utility" was originally written as a separate essay, but later published with the first four chapters of Utilitarianism. Critics argue that utilitarians are wrong to assert that morality is based on the consequences of actions. Instead, they argue, morality should be founded on the universal concept of justice. Mill’s task in this difficult chapter will be to show how justice is a utilitarian concept, that is, it arises from the general want for happiness among those in society with one another. Mill offers two counter arguments to this claim. First, he notes that all moral ideas are based in social utility, that is, what brings the greatest happiness to society as a whole. Mill begins by summarizing the various views of justice through history. There are two essential elements in the notion of justice: punishment, and the notion that someone's rights were violated. Punishment derives from a combination of seeking revenge and sympathy for the wrong party. Vengeance alone has no moral component, and social sympathy is the same thing as social utility. Rights are nothing other than claims we have on society as a whole to protect us from harm. And society will protect us insofar as it is to the benefit of all to protect all those in need. Thus, both elements of justice (i.e. punishment and rights) are based on utility. Mill's second argument is that if justice were as foundational as nonconsequentialists contend, then justice would not be as ambiguous as it is. According to Mill, there are disputes in the notion of justice when examining theories of punishment, fair distribution of wealth, and fair taxation. These disputes can only be resolved by appealing to utility. Mill concludes that justice is a genuine concept, but that we must see it as based on utility.

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