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John Stuart Mill


Chapter 2: What Utilitarianism Is (Part 2)

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Having responded to the objection that utilitarianism glorifies base pleasures, Mill spends the rest of this chapter presenting and responding to other criticisms of utilitarianism.

One such objection is that happiness couldn't be the rational aim of human life, because it is unattainable. Furthermore, people can exist without happiness, and all virtuous people have become virtuous by renouncing happiness.

First, Mill replies that it is an exaggeration to state that people cannot be happy. He contends that happiness, when defined as moments of rapture occurring in a life troubled by few pains, is indeed possible, and would be possible for almost everybody if educational and social arrangements were different. The major sources of unhappiness are selfishness and a lack of mental cultivation. Thus, it is fully within most people's capabilities to be happy, if their education nurtures the appropriate values. Furthermore, most of the evils of the world, including poverty and disease, can be alleviated by a wise and energetic society devoted to their elimination.

Next, Mill addresses the argument that the most virtuous people in history are those who have renounced happiness. He admits this is true, and he admits that there are martyrs who give up their happiness. However, Mill argues that martyrs must sacrifice happiness for some greater end--and what else could this be but the happiness of other people? The sacrifice is made so that others will not have to make similar sacrifices; implicit in the sacrifice is the value of others' happiness. Mill admits that the willingness to sacrifice one's happiness for that of others is the highest virtue. Furthermore, he says that to maintain an attitude of such willingness is actually the best chance of gaining happiness, because it will lead a person to be tranquil about his life and prospects. He specifies, however, that while utilitarians value sacrificing one's good for the good of others, they do not think that the sacrifice is in itself a good. It is a good insofar as it promotes happiness, but is not a good if it does not promote happiness.

Mill observes that the utilitarian's standard for judging an act is the happiness of all people, not of the agent alone. Thus, a person must not value his own happiness over the happiness of others; and law and education help to instill this generosity in individuals. However, this does not mean that people's motives must only be to serve the greatest good; indeed, utilitarianism is not concerned with the motives behind an action; the morality of an action depends on the goodness of its result only. Moreover, in most aspects of everyday life, a person will not be affecting large numbers of other people, and thus need not consider his or her actions in relation to the good of all, but only to the good of those involved. It is only the people who work in the public sphere and affect many other people who must think about public utility on a regular basis.

Another criticism of utilitarianism is that it leaves people "cold and unsympathizing," as it is concerned solely with the consequences of people's actions, and not on the individuals as moral or immoral in themselves. First, Mill replies that if the criticism is that utilitarianism does not let the rightness or wrongness of an action be affected by the kind of person who performs the action, then this is a criticism of all morality: All ethical standards judge actions in themselves, without considering the morality of those who performed them. However, he says that if the criticism is meant to imply that many utilitarians look on utilitarianism as an exclusive standard of morality, and fail to appreciate other desirable "beauties of character," then this is a valid critique of many utilitarians. He says that it is a mistake to only cultivate moral feelings, to the exclusion of the sympathies or artistic understandings, a mistake moralists of all persuasions often make. However, he does say that if there is to be a mistake of priorities, it is preferable to err on the side of moral thinking.

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