- Education and Science
John Stuart Mill's Theory of Ethics
John Stuart Mill's theory of ethics is grounded on Hedonic utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the attempt to explain that man's actions should be geared toward acts that produces the best consequential result as possible. In the notion of consequences, Mills argue that utilitarian includes all the good and bad outcome of the action either through the performance of the act or after the act has been performed. If in essence there is no significant difference between the consequences of the alternative actions, then the choice between the actions has no moral bearing. Furthermore, acts could only be classified as morally wrong or morally right when the consequences are of such considerable and significant consequence to that individual that the person would rather see the driving force compelled, not merely persuaded or coerced into doing, to act in the preferred manner. In short, the acceptability of an action is determined not by the intent behind the action but by examining the outcome of the action and comparing it to other possible outcomes with what would have happened if some other action had been performed.
Since Mill's ethics is anchored to utilitarianism, his greatest contribution in this field would be his argument for the qualitative distinctions of pleasures. For Mills there are three kinds of pleasures—one is the intellectual and moral pleasure, and the physical pleasures. Moral and intellectual pleasures are the highest forms of pleasure above all kinds of physical pleasures. For instance, Mills distinguish the difference between happiness and contentment via reasoning out that happiness supersedes contentment because it has higher value as cited in his famous quote: "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 fools, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question." ("Utilitarianism")
Mill's theory on ethics have validity. However, I also do believe that ethics is a multi-faceted academic and philosophical endeavor that capturing all of its dimensions in a single school of though—in this case utilitarian thinking is not always applicable. Though Mills made great distinctions and points like the varying degree of pleasures there are also some questions that have been raised with his arguments. For one, there are scenarios wherein his theory is impractical. For instance, to be able to do a specific action, an individual must have to assess or predict the outcome or the results of his chosen actions, at the same time have to evaluate and predict the results of the alternatives to that particular action that the individual has already chosen. This is somehow tedious if not virtually impossible because there are thousands of other possible or alternative actions to a specific act (i.e. Should I sell drugs, just this one time, to attend college or not? Do I help a man being robbed in a dark alley?).
Secondly, if after being able to conjure up and choose a permissible action after gauging the outcome and that of the alternatives, the actions that have the best consequential result could be unjust but permissible. Thus, there are unjust actions that could be deemed as acceptable or permissible. In this case, Mill's theory only concerns itself wit the outcome and not the action itself ergo, the action could be unfair but since it will result to the best outcome, then the unfair action is acceptable.
Lastly, if unjust actions could be acceptable or permissible based on their outcome then Mill's theory is very flawed because it tends to ignore the moral implications or the moral value of the action.