Summarize J. S. Mill’s moral theory and explain the key concept of utilitarianism.

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The key concept of utilitarianism can be understood once we realize that utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical philosophy.  A consequentialist philosophy is one that determines whether an action is good or bad by looking at its consequences and not at the intent or the motivation behind the action.  The key concept of utilitarianism is that an action is good if it increases the overall happiness of the world.  It does not matter if the person taking the action had bad intentions.  If the consequences are good, the act is morally good.

Let us look at an example of this.  Let us imagine that I am driving along and I see an enemy of mine crossing the street.  I speed up and aim my car at him, hoping to kill him.  This would seem to be an immoral act.  But let us say that he jumps out of the way.  My car barrels through the intersection and up on the sidewalk where I run over someone who was about to rob a bank and kill a guard in the process.  My action would, in the view of a utilitarian, be good.  I did not harm my innocent enemy and, instead, I saved the bank guard and whoever else was in the bank. 

The main idea of utilitarianism, then, is that an action’s consequences, and not its motives, make it good or bad.

From this, we can see that utilitarians must determine whether an action has added to the happiness of the people in the world if they are to understand whether that action was good or bad.  This is where qualitative and quantitative utilitarianism comes into play.  These are two ways of thinking about the value of different kinds of happiness.

To understand this, let us imagine that I have a choice between going to a church service or staying home and eating a large and delicious meal.  A qualitative utilitarian would say that going to church is the better action.  This is because qualitative utilitarians believe that mental pleasures are different from and superior to physical pleasures.  They would say that the happiness I derive from being inspired by the preacher is a better kind of happiness than the physical happiness that I would get from eating the large meal.  A quantitative utilitarian would disagree.  The quantitative utilitarian would say that all kinds of happiness are the same.  What actually matters is the amount of happiness, not what kind of happiness it is.  So, if the large meal would bring me more pleasure, it would be the better course of action. 

The strengths and weaknesses of Mill’s utilitarianism are largely in the eye of the beholder.  My own view of this philosophy is that it fails to understand that morality is found in an actor’s intentions.  If I mean to kill my enemy in cold blood and I try my best to do so, it is very hard for me to accept the idea that my action is moral.  On the other hand, one could argue that this is a great strength of utilitarianism.  We could argue that all that really matters is what happens in our lives, not what someone’s intentions were.  In other words, the bank guard doesn’t really care why I crashed my car into the thief.  All he cares about is the fact that his life was spared.

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