John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

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John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

  • Utilitarianism (1863)

  • The six objections

  • Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility

  • Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible

  • (On the Connection between Justice and Utility)


  • Thu 15/03/07 14.15-16.15

  • Ethics I/II

  • Central Hall

  • 1 HOUR 

Exam Question

  • How would you object to the claim that there can be ice-creams of different quality (such that a little bit of one kind of ice-cream is much better than lots of another kind of ice-cream), if ice-cream is the only valuable thing?

The Utilitarian Principle

  • “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.”

actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness

3 Points About the Formulation

  • Comparative Notion of Rightness (?)

  • Type/token distinction (act- versus rule-utilitarianism

  • Misplaced Comparative (right actions can produce only pain)

Utilitarian Principle

  • An action is right if and only if it produces more good (happiness) than any available alternative.

  • An action is right if its consequences are better than those of any of its alternatives, whereby betterness is determined (in some way) by pleasures and pains arising from this action.


  • ‘By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness , pain and the privation of pleasure.’

  • The presence and absence of pleasure and pain determines how good a state of affairs is.

  • Utilitarianism and Consequentialism

The Four Objections We Consider

  • A Doctrine Worthy of Swine

  • Too hard

  • Godless

  • Impractical

The Worthy-of-Swine Objection

  • ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied, then a pig satisfied.’

  • ‘It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied, then a fool satisfied.’

  • Against Bentham, who says, ‘Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.’

Higher and Lower Pleasures

  • Intellectual Pleasures (pleasures which involve rational thought) are of a higher quality then bodily pleasures

  • ‘Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference […] that is the more desirable pleasure.’

  • HLPP: Pleasure 1 is better than Pleasure 2 if and only if competent judges prefer P1 to P2.

Higher and Lower Pleasures (cont.)

  • Two readings of HLPP

  • Epistemic reading. E.g., the wine experts.

  • The explanation of HLLP lies elsewhere

  • Constitutive reading

  • ‘From the verdict of the only competent judges there can be no appeal.’

  • There is nothing more to a pleasure’s being better than another than being preferred by competent judges.

Higher and Lower Pleasures: Criticism

  • What makes a judge competent?

  • Mill: Having experienced both

  • Addiction

  • ‘Strange’ Pleasures

  • The epistemic reading (though more plausible) fails to achieve Mill’s tasks on the constitutive reading the competent judges would prefer one pleasure for no reason.

  • Consistency worry. There has to be something that makes P1 more valuable than P2. This something cannot be pleasure. It has to be valuable. Thus, there are other things good, not only pleasure.

Consistency Worry

  • Mill’s answer: In case of all other things (for example in case of ice-cream) we distinguish between quantity and quality.

  • Sosa’s answer: qualitative difference on the basis of quantitative difference (whisper and shout)

General Worries About Hedonism

  • Bishop Butler (1692-1752): Pleasure (and happiness) as a by-product

  • Robert Nozick (1974): The Experience Machine

  • Mill’s answer in Chapter 4: The Formal Conception of Happiness

Utilitarianism is Too Hard

  • ‘It is exacting too much to require that people shall always act from the inducement of promoting the general interests of society’.

  • Mill’s Answer: ‘But this is to mistake the very meaning of a standard of morality and to confound the rule of action with the motive for it.’

  • In other words, utilitarianism tells us which actions are right, it is silent about motives.

Davies Objection (fn 2)

  • Saving to make him happy versus saving to harm him later on. Are they both right?

  • Mill’s answer: Had Mr Davies said, ‘The rightness or wrongness of saving a man from drowning does depend very much not upon the motive, but upon the intention’, no utilitarian would have differed from him.

  • The distinction is hard to make

  • It seems to involve a change away from his original answer.

… but that is not the end of the too-hard objection

  • The objection is not only an objection on the level of motivation but it is an objection against the utilitarian account of rightness itself.

  • Isn’t it sometimes permissible to do what does not maximize general happiness?

  • Wouldn’t it sometimes be wrong to maximize general happiness?


  • An agent-neutral moral theory gives every agent the same aim, e.g. to maximize general happiness.

  • An agent-relative moral theory gives different agents different aims. You, for example, should care about your mother, whereas I should care about my mother.

  • Three areas of agent-relativity: Special Obligation, Personal Projects, Deontological Restrictions. (See T Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Chapter 9)

Two More Objections

  • Utilitarianism is Godless

  • Mill’s Answer: God is a utilitarian

  • Utilitarianism is Impractical

  • Mill’s Answer: Don’t be Stupid

  • In more detail: ‘It is a strange notion that the acknowledgment of a first principle is inconsistent with the admissions of secondary ones.’ (That’s the second pointer towards rule-utilitarianism.)

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