What is John Stuart Mill's theory of utilitarianism?

Quick answer:

John Stuart Mill's theory of utilitarianism holds that happiness is the greatest good because it is the only intrinsic good. Actions are good insofar as they tend to produce happiness. This makes utilitarianism a consequentialist theory, in which the goodness of actions is judged by their consequences or by the consequences they are likely to produce.

Expert Answers

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

John Stuart Mill published Utilitarianism in 1863, basing the book on a series of articles which originally appeared in Fraser's Magazine. Although the philosophy was not a new one, Mill's statement of the principles of utilitarianism is now regarded as the definitive expression of the theory. The word "utility" is synonymous with "happiness" or "well-being."

Mill says that happiness is the greatest good, as it is the only intrinsic good. Other things which are good have this quality because they tend to produce happiness, whereas happiness is good in itself. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory, as opposed to an example of deontological or "virtue" ethics. It argues that actions are good not because of any intrinsic quality but because of their effects.

The central argument of utilitarianism is very simple, so most of Mill's book is taken up with defending the principle against various possible attacks. One of the most serious of these, which has been made in various forms for millennia, is that utilitarianism is "a doctrine fit only for swine." The objection here is that if low, sensual pleasures make a person happy, one can with good conscience spend a lifetime seeking only such pleasures, never aspiring to anything nobler or more ambitious. Mill responds by pointing out that few people would actually want to trade places with pigs, even if the pigs seem to be enjoying themselves. Intellectual pleasures, such as reading, friendship and the appreciation of art, are higher and more rational pleasures than merely sensual ones, such as eating and drinking, and more conducive to true happiness.

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