Monday, February 23, 2015

John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

"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. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure." (John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism)

John Stuart Mill's father (James Mill) had worked for Jeremy Bentham, and was greatly impressed with Utilitarianism. So naturally he encouraged his son to learn about the principle of utility. Whilst John was largely impressed with Bentham’s theory, he criticised him for not really distinguishing between the quality and quantity of pleasures, and for also not recognising that there are some things which are more desirable than others.

First published as a series of three essays in 1861, Utilitarianism (1863) contains a description of Mill’s utilitarian theory as well as responses to potential criticisms. His most notable development of Bentham’s approach, is to separate ‘pleasures’ into PHYSICAL (E.g. eating, drinking, and having intimate relationships with others) and INTELLECTUAL (E.g. philosophical debate, reading, listening to an opera). Being a highly educated man (and maybe a little sexually repressed), Mill was inclined to favour the 'higher' pleasures over the lower ones.

"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied." (John Stuart Mill)

Mill was also critical of those who believed the principle of utility was nothing more than a justification for gratifying one's physical appetites. On the contrary, he believed that in the end people would naturally seek the 'higher' pleasures over the 'lower' ones:

"A beast's pleasures do not satisfy a human being's conception of happiness." (John Stuart Mill)

Mill also believed education played a significant role in helping people live betters lives. It was his belief that the more educated people were, the less inclined they would be to seek their own gratifications, and the more inclined they would be to treat others with dignity and respect. Utilitarianism was not simply a foundation for the Law, but something that would in the end contribute to the well-being of society as a whole.

Mill responds to his objectors

"The end may justify the means, as long as there is something that justifies the end." (Leon Trotsky)

Mill spends a significant amount of time in Utilitarianism answering various objections he felt could be raised against his version of the principle of utility. One of the biggest objections
he felt needed to be countered, was that the principle of utility is based on an ideal which is unattainable; that people cannot be happy all the time. Mill's response to this is to suggest that if when we speak of ‘happy all the time’, if we have in mind a life of complete and total unending happiness then of course this is unobtainable. No one can be that happy all the time, and nor should they be. However we can aspire to live a life which is generally happier than not, and as such this should be our goal:

"It is only those in whom the need for excitement is a disease, that feels the tranquility that follows the excitement dull and insipid, instead of pleasurable in direct proportion to the excitement that preceded it." (John Stuart Mill)

Mill also felt that some people might wonder why they should be concerned about other people's happiness, especially if this involves some loss of pleasure on their own part. 

"I do not care about the greatest good for the greatest number… Most people are poop-heads; I do not care about them at all." (James Alan Gardner)

Mill's response is to show that in order for someone to 'happy', there must be some trade-off with others. We cannot think it feasible to live a purely selfish existence and expect to have to give nothing back to others, for we will soon become very unhappy at how other people begin to treat us if we do this. He also felt we could also find happiness in helping people.

Probably the biggest objections Mill counters is the charge that there is often no time to calculate and weigh-up the different effects our actions might have. Sometimes we are called to make decisions 'in the heat of the moment', and as such we do not have the luxury of deliberating the various outcomes of our actions before doing something. Mill's first response is that this objection is absurd, for we do not have to know every possible outcome of doing something before doing anything. Also it is not the case that we have no clue as to what might generally occur as a result of doing something. To say we do not know how our actions will affect everyone is one thing, but to say we do not know how our actions will affect anyone is simply not true:

"Mankind must by this time have acquired positive beliefs as to the effects of some actions on their happiness." (John Stuart Mill)


Mill believes the principle of utility is as close as we will get to an objective moral truth. Although he accepts that being governed by the feelings of pleasure/pain is rather subjective, he challenges us to show how it is not a principle which governs all human behaviour. People do all kinds of things because they believe it will make them happy, even if they do them out of a sense of duty. Our basic instinct is to avoid pain, and in doing so we naturally seek pleasure.


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