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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1848

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.

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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 observation. The morality of individual actions also can be tested through the application of moral laws to those actions and to their consequences. Mill, in short, tries to demonstrate how close together those who reason inductively are to the utilitarian position arrived at deductively.

Explaining in chapter 2 “what utilitarianism is,” Mill introduces his famous qualitative distinctions to the orthodox Benthamite position. Mill departs from Bentham’s view that the superiority of mental over physical pleasures is due to the greater permanence, safety, and uncostliness of mental activity over the physical. For Bentham the differences are merely quantitative. Mill also derides prevalent depictions of utilitarian ideas as vulgarly hedonistic. It is absurd, for example, to say that the pleasure that a drunk derives from breaking crockery is equal to the pleasure an individual derives from listening to Mozart. Mill argues that there are qualitative distinctions between, say, the drunk’s pleasure and the intellectual’s pleasure drawn from thought, from feelings, and from play of the imagination as well as from the moral sentiments. In fact, he reminds readers that every Epicurean or hedonistic theory of life has assigned higher values to the more enduring pleasures attending the cultivation of the mind or efforts to ennoble the character. Even if it were demonstrable that noble persons are not invariably happier because of their nobility, still, Mill declares, the world in general benefits immensely from the example of noble and virtuous character.

Friends and critics alike note Mill’s inconsistency in taking this position. The inconsistency is as follows: If good things are good in proportion to the amount of pleasure they bring, one cannot add that pleasure itself is more or less desirable in terms of something else—say, of human dignity—that is not pleasure. Mill, however, is not primarily concerned about remaining logical. Rather, he is interested in adding Stoic and Christian elements to utilitarianism to transform what many people considered a barren, godless, and inhumane philosophy into a humane one that agrees with the ethics of their religions or other ethical systems.

While addressing further critical attacks on utilitarian beliefs, Mill proceeds in his third chapter to explain the “ultimate sanction” of utilitarian ethics. Bentham and early utilitarians had taken an extreme dualistic approach. They viewed as different the result of an individual’s action and the motive that informed that action. After all, an individual can only will his or her own happiness, not ensure it. Subsequently, critics had complained that utilitarian standards were too demanding, that people cannot be expected always to act so as to promote society’s general interest—that is, to act out of a sense of duty.

In rejoinder, Mill points to the mistake of confusing a standard of morals, which furnishes a test of what one’s duties are, with the requirement that a sense of duty must always inform one’s actions. Once the general happiness principle is recognized as the ethical standard, Mill explains, the sanction for an individual to act in accordance with that standard arises from the “natural” or “social feelings of mankind.” Another natural motivator would be the pain produced in the individual’s conscience when that person’s actions contravene such natural, social feelings. The ultimate sanction, therefore, lies with an individual’s subjective desire to see that his or her duty and the “conscientious feelings of mankind” are in harmony.

In the fourth chapter Mill seeks to demonstrate “of what sort of proof the principle of utility is susceptible.” He acknowledges that questions of ultimate ends—the greatest good, for example—cannot be proved in the ordinary sense. He argues, however, that while no reason can be given as to why the general happiness is desirable, it is still a fact that all people desire their own happiness. Since each person’s happiness is good to that person, the general happiness therefore is a good to the aggregate of all persons. To explain why virtuous people might not will happiness for themselves—that is, to show why the desire for happiness is not the sole canon of morality—Mill draws a psychological distinction between will and desire. Will, he suggests, is amenable to habit, and out of habit individuals might will something they do not desire or, conversely, might desire something because they will it. Since on historical grounds Mill locates the source of will in desire for happiness, it seems clear to him that the Benthamite pleasure-pain criterion is still valid. That pleasure and pain, from the beginning of one’s life experiences, respectively act in accord with, or against, tendencies of the will, regardless of how they are explained, Mill simply declares to be fact.

Mill’s final chapter, the lengthiest portion of Utilitarianism, originally was written, according to his stepdaughter, as a separate essay that, with cosmetic changes, he appended to the book. The argument Mill presents, while conventional in utilitarian terms, nevertheless became familiar to a large audience and was cited frequently. This was chiefly because, from Bentham’s day onward, one of the major goals of the utilitarians was to banish the outworn traditions and fictions that cloud understanding of British law. The utilitarians sought to supplant them with scientific definitions and classifications of the entire body of law. An important objection to such utilitarian efforts, and to the approach to law that was associated with them, stemmed from popular impressions that justice was something absolute, immutable, and independent of public or private opinions and influences.

Responding to the charge that utilitarians perceive justice as a matter of expediency, not as an absolute, Mill denies that utilitarian sentiments have their origins in any ideas of expediency. He declares boldly that while utilitarian sentiments about justice are not founded in expediency, whatever is moral in those sentiments is. Justice, in sum, is not an absolute. After defining attributes ordinarily attached to justice, he proceeds to demonstrate, by evoking specific cases, that in actuality the concept of justice historically not only has been filled with ambiguities but also has been the subject of constant disagreement.

The nature of justice being thus controverted, what is required, Mill asserts, is some practical, external, or objective standard by which to measure it. That standard, he suggests, is to be found in the utilitarian concept of “social utility.” Justice, from his utilitarian perspective, is another name for certain social utilities continuously reassessed in the light of what produces the most good for the largest number of people within a community or society. Such social utilities, he acknowledges, are far more important, absolute, and imperative than others as a class. Furthermore, they are distinguishable from the “milder feeling which attaches to the mere idea of promoting human pleasures or conveniences” by the definite nature of their commands and the sterner character of their sanctions.

The logical inconsistencies in Utilitarianism have long been recognized. Blending elements of older utilitarian precepts with his new ones—and not ignoring difficult philosophical problems along the way—Mill humanizes hedonistic utilitarianism and lends impetus to its modernization.

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