John Stuart Mill

Start Free Trial

How does John Stuart Mill define happiness?

Quick answer:

Mill defines happiness as the only significant criterion in determining what is right or good. An action is moral if it produces happiness.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

John Stuart Mill was a proponent of utilitarianism, and he defines happiness as the absence of pain and the presence of pleasure. He argues that happiness is actually the only relevant criterion in determining what actions are moral and what actions are not. In other words, an action’s moral righteousness is in direct proportion to the relative happiness—or at least the absence of pain—that it provides. If an action produces pain or decreases happiness, then it is bad or immoral, because happiness, Mill says, is the goal and aim of our human existence.

Mill even argues that one of the best things a person can do is make some sacrifice of his own—something that will render him less happy in order to make many others very happy. In such a case as this, the individual still reaps such happiness from the prospect of making others happy that his sacrifice actually becomes productive of happiness rather than pain. In addition, he has successfully brought happiness to a great many others. Therefore, it is not simply all about one’s own happiness, but about what can produce the most happiness for the greatest number of people. He also categorizes different kinds or levels of happiness, and the happiness brought about as a result of one’s higher impulses is of more value that the happiness brought about by gratification of one’s baser impulses.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial