Study Guide


by John Stuart Mill

Utilitarianism Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

One of the geniuses of the modern era, John Stuart Mill coined the term “utilitarianism,” the subject of this brief, five-part essay. By doing so, he reaffirmed and redefined the philosophical doctrine espousing the practical, useful idea that the rightness of an action may be measured by whether it achieves the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number. It was a doctrine around which a small but influential group of English radical reformers—utilitarians—rallied, Mill among them. All of Mill’s intellectual activities were calculated to effect changes in British society. When Utilitarianism was published in 1863, Mill already enjoyed international recognition as a distinguished political economist. He was a precocious polymath, however, and his fame rested equally on his contributions to political theory and to political philosophy. On Liberty, for example, which he published in 1859, just a few years before Utilitarianism, stands as one of the greatest expositions on civil liberty ever written and endures as an assertion of cultural freedom.

John Stuart Mill imbibed his utilitarian philosophy and his extraordinary education from his father, James Mill. James Mill, in turn, had been a companion to, and a devoted disciple of, Jeremy Bentham. Although Bentham acknowledged intellectual debts to various European thinkers, including Claude-Adrien Helvétius, Cesare Beccaria, Voltaire, and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, he nevertheless rightly has been considered the founder of the British utilitarian movement.

Britain’s utilitarians premised their philosophy on Bentham’s remarkable work An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), a reformist document that sought to bring scientific analysis to bear on ethics, legislation, and law. The opening chapter of Bentham’s landmark work furnishes utilitarians with the basis of their beliefs, namely, that humanity is the servant of two absolute masters that govern all of its actions: pleasure and pain. The principle of utility, therefore, lies in approving or disapproving of every action according to its tendency to augment or to diminish the individual’s, or society’s, happiness. Utility itself Bentham identifies as “that property in any object” that tends to produce “benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness” or, conversely, that prevents “mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness.” Around such principles and definitions, Bentham elaborates the philosophy to which John Stuart Mill adhered for many years.

By the 1860’s, however, reassessments of utilitarian philosophy seemed in order. Previously the beneficiary of wide exposure among educated people in Great Britain as well as in Europe, utilitarianism had lost its original force. Utilitarians were disturbed that their precepts were being confused with the merely expedient behavior by which they often characterized a flourishing new generation of industrialists and entrepreneurs. They worried that the literature about utilitarian doctrines had become so abundant that understanding of them was being diluted. In addition, John Stuart Mill had begun a reevaluation of his own thought, and thus of Bentham’s ethical concepts. James Mill’s death made John Stuart’s work easier; the elder Mill had censored his son’s writings, particularly those dealing with utilitarian beliefs. The importance of Utilitarianism thus lay in its reflections of changes in John Stuart Mill’s intellectual position. While the essay does not rank among Mill’s greatest works, it nonetheless became the best-known essay on the subject.

The “General Remarks” with which Mill prefaces his essay are significant chiefly because Mill, unlike Bentham, makes no pretense of using the scientific method to justify his principles. Bentham and Mill alike employed deductive reasoning. Each based his discussions on assumptions, or first principles, that were not susceptible to scientific proof. It may be true intuitively, for instance, that all humanity acts to maximize pleasure and to minimize pain. It is a matter of common sense. It cannot be proven, however. Scientific reasoning, in contrast, draws no conclusions from intuition, common sense, innate ideas, or first principles premised on assumptions. Science has general laws, to be sure, but they are arrived at through step-by-step proof, generally mathematical. Mill insists that the morality of individual actions is not solely a question of commonsensical...

(The entire section is 1848 words.)