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Utilitarianism According to Mill

Updated on July 11, 2013

J. S. Mill


What is the principle of utility?

The principle of utility, also known as the 'greatest happiness theory', is the idea that the morality of an action can be determined by its ability to promote happiness. 'Happiness' in this instance is defined by Mill as the promotion of intended pleasure and the absence of pain, and unhappiness is defined as the opposite - pain, and 'the privation of pleasure'. Put simply, if an action promotes the general happiness, then it is morally the right thing to do; if one action promotes more happiness than another, then the former action is more moral than the latter. The principle of utility is therefore a teleological theory - a theory that bases the moral worth of an action on its consequences. This is as opposed to a deontological theory, which would assert that some actions are always right or wrong, regardless of their consequences.

Mill's explanation of higher and lower pleasures

One issue with the principle of utility is that it can be difficult to determine the difference between the quality of various pleasures. Mill attempts to answer this criticism in the second section of his essay, Utilitarianism. Of two pleasures, one is deemed to be of more quality if the vast majority of people who have experienced both prefer one to the other. Mill places great value in the idea that for a person to decide one pleasure is higher in quality than another, they must be 'competently acquainted with both'. Thus, one should not suggest that reading a novel will result in more happiness than partying unless they have fully experienced both.

However, an individual's opinion alone on what pleasure is higher than another is not enough to give a valid decided preference. It should be remembered that the principle of utility focuses on the greatest happiness for all mankind, not just the individual. Therefore, it is important when Mill notes that a higher pleasure is one that 'all, or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference'. The general happiness is paramount; if most people who have experience of both pleasures find that one leads to a greater amount of pleasure than the other, and 'would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure', then this pleasure is judged to be more beneficial to mankind in general in terms of striving for the greatest utility.

'The utilitarian not the agent's own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether'. - Mill, Utilitarianism.

Higher vs. Lower Pleasures

What about people who choose lower pleasures?

Mill accepts that there are instances in which people will choose lower pleasures over higher pleasures even when they are competently acquainted with both. To address this, he claims that people do not consciously choose to reject the higher pleasures, they in fact only indulge them because they are the only ones to which they have access. Some people are more susceptible to the lower class of pleasure than others, and this is the factor which determines why some people choose lower pleasures; not that the qualities of lower pleasures are preferred.

Criticisms Answered

Man does not deserve happiness.
The utilitarian theory still holds as it also advocates the prevention of pain.
It would take a long time to predict the consequences of an action, and even then, we are unlikely to be accurate in our predictions.
We have had the entirety of human experience throughout history to see the consequences of certain actions. It is not a case of considering consequences for each action afresh each time.
What if someone rescued a drowning man, only to then torture him? Surely the act of saving the drowning man cannot be considered moral in this instance, bearing in mind the eventual fate of the man?
It is not the motive of an act that determines its morality, but the intentions. The intention is what the moral agent wills to do, whereas the motive is 'what makes him will so to do it'. The rescue of the drowning man in this case would just be the first step towards a more heinous act; thus, there is a difference in the intention of the agent who saves a man in order to inflict more pain upon him, as opposed to the agent who intends to save the man in order than he continues to live.

Why Utilitarianism?

Happiness is the only desirable end of any action. People go to work to earn money, but earning money is just a means to an end. Whilst money is desirable, in that it is desired, it is merely a means to greater happiness. Financial stability leads to freedom from the worries of debt, and the ability to experience enjoyable activities that stimulate the mind; the final end of the act of earning money is happiness. This is just one example, but Mill argues that happiness can be seen to be the sole end of any act. Utilitarianism asserts that each person's happiness is 'a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons'.

Utilitarianism does not deny that people desire other things, such as virtue. What it does affirm, is that there are many ingredients which lead to happiness, which in themselves are also desirable. Whilst virtue is not naturally a part of the end, it is capable of becoming so in people who are objectively virtuous; 'not as a means to happiness, but as a part of their happiness'.

The difference between act and rule utilitarianism

In a sense, rule Utilitarianism can be seen as the ideas of act Utilitarianism transformed into general rules which serve as a guide to creating the most happiness. A rule such as 'lying minimizes happiness' is based upon the consequences observed most of the time through act utilitarianism.

Act Utilitarianism would claim that it is morally wrong to lie because it violates the basic principle of human trust, and trust is necessary for the propagation of happiness in a functioning society. We have to trust that the police will protect us, that our politicians will accurately voice our concerns, that our friends genuinely like us; any violation of trust will result in a prevention of happiness in some form. As such, act Utilitarians will say that you ought not to lie because the consequences will not maximize happiness.

From this, and other acts of the moral agent, rules can be formed, which make it faster and easier to decide what is moral. Rather than weighing up the consequences of an action as in act Utilitarianism, a rule is already available to us - those considerations have been summarised for us already.

So, the main difference is that act Utilitarianism purports that the right action makes people more happy, whereas rule Utilitarianism purports that an action is right if it conforms to the general rules that have been shown to increase happiness.

Act vs. Rule

Doesn't this make Rule Utilitarianism deontological?

You'll remember that at the start we ascertained that Utilitarianism was a teleological theory - it bases the morality of an action on its consequences. Rule Utilitarianism still does this, even though at first glance it may seem that the rules make some actions always right, or always wrong. This is because the rules are constantly being tested against the principle of utility. A rule is only a rule if it promotes the general happiness or the prevention of pain, aspects which are derived from the consequences of an action.

In addition to this, Mill accepts that there are some instances in which the rules can be broken, for the greater good. When there is a case for it, he reverts to being an act Utilitarian. The creation and breaking of rules can be seen as a cycle; if an act almost always or always produces more happiness then it becomes a rule, the rule is followed because it brings about the most happiness, the rule can be broken if doing so would result in more happiness (back to act Utilitarianism), which could result in an addition to the rule in the form of an exception (and back again to rule).

An example Mill used was that of kidnapping a reluctant doctor in order to save a dying man. A rule ought to be that kidnapping leads to a reduction of happiness, but in this case the quality of the happiness brought about from saving a life outweighs that of kidnapping the doctor for a short period of time. Thus, there are times when rules can be broken, IF breaking them is in accordance with the principle of utility.

Act-Rule Cycle

We're finished!

You've either made it all the way to the end (thanks!) or have scrolled right to the bottom to point out a mistake/troll this article on the comment section. I hope this very brief introduction to Utilitarianism has been as accessible and interesting as possible.


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      Christopher 4 years ago

      Very useful content. And well written.