The central aim of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism is to defend the view that those acts that produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people are right and good. This ethical position did not originate with Mill. An influential predecessor, Jeremy Bentham, earlier championed pleasure and pain as the sole criteria for judging what is good and bad. The utility yardstick measures good by asking: Does an act increase pleasure, and does it decrease pain? Bentham’s crude “Push-pin is as good as poetry” interpretation of the yardstick led to numerous criticisms. Therefore, Mill states the principle of utility in its most defensible form both to counter some specific criticisms of it and to make clear what the sanctions of the principle are. He also offers a proof of the principle. The work concludes with a discussion of the relation of utility to justice.

Foundations of Morals

Utilitarianism opens with the author’s lament that little progress has occurred through centuries of ethical analysis. Ethical philosophers seeking to define the nature of “good” have left a number of incompatible views to their intellectual posterity. Mill admits that history of scientific thought also contains confusion about the first principles of the special sciences. Yet this is more to be expected in the sciences than in moral philosophy. Legislation and morals involve practical rather than theoretical arts. Because such arts always aim at ends of action rather than thought, they require agreement about a standard by which the worth of those ends can be evaluated. There is greater need of fixing the foundation of morals than of stating the theoretical principles underlying bodies of scientific knowledge. The sciences result from accumulation of many particular truths, but in moral philosophy “A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it.”

Ethical intuitionists insist that people possess a natural faculty that discerns moral principles. Against them, Mill argues that appeal to a “moral sense” cannot solve the problem of an ultimate ethical standard for judging acts. No intuitionist claim about knowledge of moral principles can provide a basis for decisions regarding cases. Intuitionist and inductive moral theorists...

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Pleasure and Utilitarianism

Mill must first perform an important polemical function in replying to critics who have problems with the utilitarian doctrine. The polemic is to serve the persuasive goal of winning over critics to a proper understanding of utilitarianism, whose basic view of life is “that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends.” A corollary to this claim is that all things desirable are so either for the pleasure they can directly produce or for ways in which they serve as means to other pleasures or preventions of pain. Aware that some thinkers view his idea as a base moral conception, Mill states a number of outstanding objections to it. He argues that the objections represent either misunderstandings of the utilitarian doctrine or, if they contain some truth, views that are not incompatible with it.

Mill rejects the argument that utilitarianism chooses to picture human nature at the lowest animal level. Clearly, animals are incapable of experiencing many pleasures available and important to people. Every “Epicurean theory of life” also admits that intellectual pleasures are more valuable than those of simple sensation. “It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others.” Pleasures must be judged in terms of quality as well as quantity. Mill suggests a way in which the value of two possible pleasures may be determined. Only that person who, out of wide experience, knows both pleasures can decide and can thus state a comparative judgment. Apparently Mill believed this test is adequate. He assumed that the experienced person actually knows the worth of competing pleasures in a manner that is not simply psychological but objective. Rational beings should choose pleasures of higher quality. Not all people are equally competent to render decisive judgments. In a striking sentence Mill writes: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”

Answers to Utilitarianism’s Critics

In Utilitarianism, Mill replied to a number of other important criticisms of the utilitarian doctrine.

First, the utilitarian greatest-happiness principle is said to be too exalted in expecting human beings to adopt a disinterested moral posture. Mill’s reply is that in serving the interests of one’s fellow creatures, the motive may be either self-interest or duty. The resulting act rather than the motive must be judged, though the motive of duty can influence people to honor the character of the doer as well. People can promote the general interests of society without always fixing “their minds upon so wide a generality as the world, or society at large.”

Second, to the charge that utilitarianism will make people cold and unsympathizing, Mill answers that people should show interest in things other than those concerned with standards of right and wrong. Yet it is necessary to emphasize the need of making judgments of right and wrong and to supply moral standards for human behavior.

Third, Mill calls simply false the view that utilitarianism is a godless doctrine. Religiously inclined people can use the utilitarian standard to determine what in detail the will of God means for human action.

Fourth, some critics complain that utilitarianism will end in expediency. Mill’s rebuttal is that the utility principle does not justify acts that result only in the pleasure of the lone individual. The social standard must always operate.

Fifth, Mill argues that utilitarianism can account even for the actions of martyrs and heroes. Heroism and martyrdom involve individual sacrifices whose ultimate aim is an increase in the happiness of others or of society as a whole.

Other criticisms—that utilitarianism overlooks lack of time for people to decide the results of given actions and that utilitarians may use the doctrine to exempt themselves from moral rules—are shown to apply equally to other ethical doctrines.


Mill goes on to admit that other questions about a moral standard can be raised. For what reasons should any person adopt the standard? What motivates one to apply it? There are two possible kinds of sanctions for utilitarianism—external and internal sanctions. Desire of favor and fear of displeasure from one’s fellows or from a sovereign God constitute the utilitarian principle’s external sanctions. Given feelings of affection for other people or awe for a God, people may act also out of unselfish motives that can “attach themselves to the Utilitarian morality, as completely and powerfully as to any other.”

Conscience makes up the internal sanction of the principle. Mill defines conscience as “a pain, more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty.” This sanction is really a feeling in the mind such that any violation of it results in discomfort. Even those who think moral obligation has roots in a transcendental sphere act conscientiously only insofar as they harbor religious feelings about duty. There must be a subjective feeling of obligation. However, is this feeling of duty acquired or innate? If innate, the problem concerns the objects of the feeling. Intuitionists admit that principles rather than the details of morality get intuited. Mill argues that the utilitarian emphasis on regard for the pleasures and pains of others might well be an intuitively known principle. Some regard for interests of others is seen as obligatory even by intuitionists who insist on yet other obligatory principles. Mill thought that any sanction provided by a transcendental view of the origin of obligation is available to the utilitarian doctrine.

Nevertheless, Mill’s view was that people’s notions of obligation are actually acquired. Though not a part of human nature, the moral faculty is an outgrowth of it. This faculty can arise spontaneously in some circumstances as well as benefit from proper environmental cultivation. The social feelings of humankind provide a basis of natural sentiment that supports the utilitarian doctrine. “Society between equals can only exist on the understanding that the interests of all are to be regarded equally.” Proper education and social arrangements can encourage the moral feelings toward virtuous activity. By education, people can learn to value objects disinterestedly which, in the beginning, they sought only for the sake of pleasure. Mill claims that virtue is one good of this kind.

Proof of the Utility Principle

In Utilitarianism, Mill raises a question as to whether the utility principle can be proved. It is difficult to understand what kind of question Mill thought he was asking. The setting for this question appears to involve something like the following: When someone asks if the principle has any sanctions, it is as if he were to ask, “Why should I seek the good even if the utility principle is sound?” However, when someone asks for a proof of the principle, it is as if he were to inquire, “How can I know that the utility principle is true?” Strangely, this question comes up only after Mill has already refuted a whole range of criticisms of the utilitarian doctrine as well as shown the sanctions that support it.

Mill argues that “the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it.” One difficulty with this assertion concerns the word “sole.” Even if it is true that nothing can be desirable that is not desired by someone, would it follow necessarily that one’s desire of an object is sufficient evidence of its desirability? If not, what besides desire would account for an object’s desirability? Contextually, it would appear that Mill might have to agree that though everything desirable must be desired, not everything desired need be desirable. This would follow from his earlier claim that some pleasures are qualitatively better than others. A human being who desired...

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Justice and Utility

The concluding chapter of Utilitarianism discusses the relation of justice to utility. The idea of justice tends to impede the victory of the utilitarian doctrine, according to Mill. People’s sentiment of justice seems to suggest existence of a natural, objective norm that is totally divorced from expediency and hedonistic consequences. Mill’s task was to indicate how the utilitarian doctrine could accommodate this sentiment and nevertheless remain the sole acceptable standard for judging right and wrong.

One must examine objects in the concrete if one wants to discover whatever common features they may contain. This is true of the idea of justice. Several fundamental beliefs are associated in popular...

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Additional Reading

Berger, Fred R. Happiness, Justice, and Freedom: The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Stuart Mill. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. A thorough evaluation of the moral and political contributions and implications of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism.

Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. Essays on some of the issues raised by Mill in his On Liberty.

Carlisle, Janice. John Stuart Mill and the Writing of Character. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991. A study of Mill’s life and...

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