According to Utilitarianism, by John Stuart Mill, what are the only things desirable as ends? What does it mean to say something is desirable as an end?

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In chapter II of Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill states:

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...

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In chapter II of Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill states:

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.

Pleasure and the absence of pain are therefore the only things desirable as ends. This is a simple enough thesis and it is arguable that the main reason for Utilitarianism being a book rather than a very short essay is the sheer number of objections its detractors have raised. Many of these are linguistic rather than strictly philosophical. The word "pleasure" tends to suggest sensual gratification, which Mill's critics describe as "swinish." Mill counters this objection rather neatly by saying that we only regard it as degrading to compare the pleasure of a human to the pleasure of an animal because the appropriate pleasures for a human ought to be higher: including "pleasures of the intellect; of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments."

To say that something is desirable as an end means that it is desirable in itself, not as a means to gaining something else. If I say that I want to be powerful, you may well ask me what I will do with the power when I have it. If I want to be rich, you might ask me what I will buy with the money. If, however, I say that I want to be happy, no one will ask what I plan to do with all the happiness, because it is an end in itself. It is worth noting that much of the moral opprobrium of sermons and satires is conventionally directed at those who mistake means for ends. The miser, for instance, is a stock figure of comedy because he is foolish enough to regard money as an end in itself.

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In his book Utilitarianism, JS Mill sets out the foundations of the utilitarian philosophy of morality. In it, he states that the utilitarian theory of morality holds that "pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain."

As Mill explains, many people have taken exception to this idea, as they feel that it reduces humans to little more than animals. However, Mill says, it is not at all incompatible with the utilitarian principle to recognize that the quality of some pleasures is greater than that of others and that mental pleasures may be superior to bodily ones. The measure of what constitutes a pleasure to be striven for does not depend only on quantity, but upon quality: thus, utilitarianism does not mean that we should not strive for intellectual and moral pleasures.

Despite this, however, what Mill is ultimately saying is that the only things humans want for their own sakes are to be free from pain and to experience pleasure. Something desired "for its own end" is something not desired as a means of achieving something else—a "means to an end"—but simply because, in and of itself, it represents a complete goal. Anything else we might want is actually a means to an end. If we desire another human being, it is either because we want love or because we want sexual pleasure. If we want love, it is because we want to experience the mental, emotional and physical pleasure engendered by that love and so forth. When we break down all human desires according to the utilitarian principle, they can all be reduced to a question of either the pursuit of pleasure (of whatever kind) or the desire to be pain-free (either physically, mentally, or emotionally).

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The answer to this question can be found in Chapter II of Mill’s work.  There, he is laying out the basic ideas of his philosophy of utilitarianism.  Let us look at his own words to see what things are actually desirable as ends.  Mill says that

…pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.

So, the answer to this part of your question is that the only things desirable as ends are pleasure and the freedom from pain.

But what does it mean for something to be desirable as an end?  If a thing is desirable as an end, we want it for itself and not because we can use it to get something else.  So, for example, money cannot possibly be desirable as an end.  We only value money because we can use it to get things.  If we could not use our money to buy anything, we would not really desire it.  Mill says that pleasure and the absence of pain are the only things that we want for themselves, not as a way to get something else.

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