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 usually disagree about the “evidence and source” grounding moral principles. Clearly, then, the main problem facing moral philosophers is that of justifying their judgments in the light of a defensible principle.
Mill asserts that even those philosophers who wish to reject the greatest-happiness principle must invoke it. For example, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that the basis of moral obligation involves a categorical imperative: “So act that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law of all rational beings.” Mill insists that numerous, even contradictory, notions of duties can follow from this imperative. Kant’s noble effort thus leads to decisions that can be shown to be immoral only because the consequences of some universally adopted acts would be unwanted by most people.
The fact that people tacitly employ the utility yardstick is not the same as a proof of its validity. Mill offers to present such a proof. He makes clear that no absolutely binding proof, “in the ordinary and popular meaning of the term,” is possible. To give a philosophical proof means to advance reasons directed at one’s rational capacities. Philosophical proofs are their own kinds of proofs. It is in this sense of proof that Mill promises to make good after he has first more fully characterized the utilitarian doctrine.
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...
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