John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism

Subject: Philosophy
Type: Analytical Essay
Pages: 8
Word count: 2098
Topics: Utilitarianism, Ethics, Morality
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Introduction 

Utilitarianism is conceptually regarded as a moral assumption, which represents that the production of contentment and discontent as the standard through which activities are judged as either correct or incorrect. Ethical theories also denote the rules concerning morality, public policies, laws and social institutions. Particularly, in the English-speaking world, utilitarianism is considered as one of the key moral standards of the previous 200 years. As implied with the principles of utilitarianism, an activity cannot be simply treated as right or wrong due to the reason that it is perceived to be a case either telling the actual truth or lying to the recipient of the information. John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism theory portrays the most commonly read production of a utilitarian ethical philosophy. According to Mill, utilitarianism is defined as “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (West, 2004; p. 3). Emphasizing this particular subject matter, the essay intends to discuss Mills’ utilitarianism theory with analyzing of some particular element of the text and comparing the same with other text or thinker. 

Brief Summary of the Main Argument of the Text

Mill endeavored to make a response towards having misconceptions regarding utilitarianism and thereby explained the theory in a comprehensive way. As per the observations made by Mill, people commonly misinterpret utilitarianism by construing utility as against pleasure. In reality, utility is itself described as happiness and nonexistence of pain, which can be related to the Greatest Happiness Principle. According to Mill, this particular theory asserts that activities are correct and wrong in proportion, as these promote happiness and generate sadness respectively. Based on this notion, Mill further argued that happiness is related to intended pleasure and deficiency of pain, whereas, unhappiness represents pain and adversity of pleasure. Therefore, Mill’s argument lies on the principle of utility, which infers that the actions (including joy) are considered to be right because these promote happiness to the maximum possible extent. The central issue of this principle, as per Mill, exists in the question of the supreme god or the ultimate end. This argument of Mill has been designed in order to reveal that the general happiness, which is also acknowledged as the maximum happiness, often being referred as the ultimate moral good (Jones, 1978). 

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Mill, emphasizing the utilitarianism theory, apparently described the ways through which higher and lower-quality pleasures can be differentiated from one another. Mill argued that happiness is an advanced quality, if the individuals would select it over a different happiness, even if it is escorted by uneasiness. Another misconception regarding utilitarianism arises from the confusion underlying happiness and contentment. Therefore, their pleasure is considered to be of higher character in comparison with others. Based on this notion, it can be affirmed that utility acts as a teleological principle, which is often associated with hedonism. It is thus believed by many utilitarians that both pleasure and pain are objective in nature and might be more or less quantified. Similarly, certain hedonistic terms, including duration, likelihood, intensity and fecundity, signify that pleasure can be duly measured in quantitative terms based on 1-10 scale, as a part of hedonistic calculus. Mill also raised arguments about the principle of utility under utilitarianism theory, verifying whether pain and pleasure are actually objective in nature and can be measured, as claimed (White, n.d.).      

Comparison with the Main Argument to Some Other Text or Thinker

Mill’s principle of authority, as stated earlier, includes all good and bad activities conducted that eventually generate a moral issue. According to Mill, acts are often categorized into ethically right or wrong, if the results are not merely exhorted and influenced in a preferred way. It is thus that Mill’s utilitarianism theory depends on the intrinsic value, wherein happiness is analyzed by measuring the balance existing amid pleasure and pain. Mill also believed that intrinsic values are produced by various alternative actions over the good and the bad tendencies of an activity. Certain similarities and dissimilarities in supporting utilitarianism theory and the principles of justice are also witnessed to prevail between the perceptions of Mill and another English philosopher named Jeremy Bentham. Evidence suggests in this context that both Mill and Bentham believed human actions to be motivated entirely by pain as well as pleasure. According to Mill, motivation acts as a foundation for argument, as happiness is considered to be the exclusive closing of human activity, which is fostered through the conduct of positive actions (Jacobson, 2003).         

Furthermore, Mill identified and understood the Greatest Happiness Principle of Bentham as the total happiness, which creates causal tendencies of certain particular acts, generating actual results in turn. Nonetheless, dissimilar to Bentham, Mill does not consider happiness under the utilitarianism theory and the principle of utility just as a numerical sum of pleasure less pains, differentiating only on quantitative measures, such as duration and intensity. According to Mill, people will not become motivated by the principle of authority until they believe that their total happiness is promoted as per the desired level. However, Bentham strongly believed that a hedonic calculus is possible theoretically, as often there is a necessity to measure the balance persisting between good and bad tendencies of human activities. In this regard, Mill opined that a hedonic calculus is theoretically possible during a situation when the present societal practices, such as the moral codes are assessed and developed to the maximum possible extent. According to Bentham, justice is applied to fundamental rules instead of acts under the principle of authority and those, which can be overridden in certain specific circumstances (Jacobson, 2003).    

Unlike the viewpoints of Bentham, utilitarianism theory explained by Mill revealed that an activity is considered to be morally wrong only of it deserves punishment, causes community displeasure or increases dilemmas for the conscience. Mill considered those specific activities to be inexpedient in nature that fail to maximize the God over evil in the broader sense. Referring to the principle of utility, Mill emphasized resolving conflicts between distinct ideas of justice and financial distribution or taxation. Considering that justice is applied to general rules rather than activities under the principle of authority, these rules can still be overridden in extreme conditions, reflecting greater concern towards maintaining the social good (Jacobson, 2003).  

Fit of the Main Argument of the Text into the Broad Topic of Ethics

Based on the arguments of Mill, respect towards preserving individual rights, which is recognized as the most holy and the binding constituent of morality, is well-suited with respect to the fact that justice eventually rests on utilitarian considerations. This poses the key argument in the paper, emphasizing the principle of utility of Mill, as it fits into the broad topic of ethics, believing that happiness is itself enviable and every people living in a community desires for getting own happiness. In the context of ethics, Mill further treated higher pleasures as objective pleasures that fundamentally comprise virtue, activities and intellectual pursuits among others. According to Mill, intellectual pursuits possess value out of fraction to the quantity of contentment or happiness that they generate. This may certainly contradict with the claim of traditional hedonist, wherein it is mentioned that the extrinsic value of a particular action is proportional to its pleasurableness. Stating precisely, endorsing three different notions of good and happiness by Mill eventually portray greater fit of the main argument of the text into the broad topic of ethics (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014).    

According to Mill, the three dissimilar notions of good and happiness are identified as hedonism, desire-satisfaction and perfectionism. The element concerning hedonism is regarded as the only intrinsic good, wherein happiness rests in pleasure. As argued by Mill, desire-satisfaction is viewed as the other intrinsic good, wherein happiness remains in the satisfaction of desire. Notably, the perfectionism conception is the one and only intrinsic good, wherein happiness rests in the utilization of greater capacities. The distinctions persisting amid direct and indirect utilitarianism as well as the act and rule utilitarianism also ensure greater fit of the main argument of the text into the broad topic of ethics. Therefore, based on the Proportionality Doctrine of Mill, direct utilitarianism denotes assessment of any moral evaluation item, such as motive, institution, action or policy by and in proportion to its results value for the general happiness. On the other hand, under indirect utilitarianism approach, any ethical appraisal item must be assessed by its compliance with something comparable that possesses better or optimal acceptance value (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014). 

Mill critically differentiated act and the rules of utilitarianism by stating that the former is the right showing the results for the general happiness and the latter is the right conforming to a rule whose acceptance value is higher. Mill’s utilitarianism theory and the argument concerning principle of utility can be considered as the normal standards of conduct in ethics due to their ability to maximize productivity by making viable decisions. Mill intended to reveal the distinctions persisting amid utilitarianism and egoism by stating certain important facts that prudence is impartial in nature, which therefore aims at deriving own happiness of an individual. Similar to prudence, as mentioned by Mill, morality is also impartial in nature, which promotes happiness amid the people living in distinct communities to the maximum possible extent (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014).      

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Conclusions

Utilitarianism evaluates activities and institutions with an impact on human happiness. This impact can be duly measured by maximizing and promoting happiness as well as pleasure amid the humans. Mill’s utilitarianism theory considers divergence with the radicals based on the issues concerning motivation and the nature of happiness. This particular theory of Mills provided a comprehensive understanding about the notion of hedonism, which represents that the psychological situation of happiness is the only variable, which possesses an intrinsic value. The conception of utilitarianism, according to Mill, can be better comprehended from the common tendency of developing modern consequentialism to promote happiness and maximize pleasure amid the humans. Under utilitarianism theory of Mills, feelings of pain as well as pleasure are considered to be biological events engaging human’s central nervous system that are controlled by cerebral cortex. Therefore, as argued by Mill, an individual can experience pleasure under utilitarianism theory, when various biological functions of the humans, including eating and drinking among others, are performed efficiently.          

Summary

Utilitarianism theory of Mills attempted to respond to the misconceptions persisted in interpreting utility as not in favor of pleasure. According to Mill, activities are judged right or wrong in proportion by performing certain relevant activities. For instance, activities are considered to be right when happiness in promoted as well as maximized, whereas activities are treated as wrong when sadness is generated due to any specific reason. Misconceptions towards utilitarianism eventually generate when there are uncertainties between happiness and satisfaction. Mills intended to relate utilitarianism with hedonism by stating that certain hedonistic terms encompassing intensity and duration can be measured on a quantitative basis in the form of rating scale. Mills, in his utilitarianism theory, further argued about the effectiveness of principle of utility in preserving balance between pleasure and pain. One of the differences between the perceptions of Mills and Bentham with respect to this argument can be identified. From the findings thus, it can further be noted that unlike Bentham, Mill considers those activities to be morally wrong, which involves punishment and social irritation among others. Evidences suggested that this argument concerning the principle of utility fits into the broad topic of ethics, as this considered the factor of maintaining individual rights as the most sacred as well as the binding component of morality. With regard to the Proportionality Doctrine of Mill, utilitarianism is segregated into direct and indirect utilitarianisms, wherein direct utilitarianism signifies assessing moral evaluation objects by considering results value for the general happiness and indirect utilitarianism represents examining any moral evaluation object via better or optimal acceptance value. 

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  1. Jacobson, D. (2003). J. S. Mill and the diversity of utilitarianism. Philosophers’ Imprint, 3(2), 1-10. 
  2. Jones, H. (1978). Mill’s argument for the principle of utility. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 38(3), 338-354. 
  3. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2014). Mill’s moral and political philosophy
  4. West, H. R. (2004). An introduction to Mill’s utilitarian ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.   
  5. White, R. F. (n.d.). The principle of utility
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