Skip over navigation

Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill

Chapter 2: What Utilitarianism Is (Part 2)

Chapter 2: What Utilitarianism Is (Part 1)

Chapter 3: Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility

Summary

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.

Mill then presents a few more misunderstandings about utilitarian theory, which he declares are obviously wrong but which many people nonetheless believe. First, utilitarianism is often called a godless doctrine, because its moral foundation is the human happiness, and not the will of God. Mill replies that the criticism depends on what we see to be the moral character of God; for if God desires the happiness of all His creatures, then utilitarianism is more religious than any other doctrine. A utilitarian believes that God's revealed truths about morality will fit with utilitarian principles. Furthermore, many moralists, not simply utilitarians, have believed that we need an ethical doctrine, carefully followed, in order to understand the will of God in the first place.

Secondly, utilitarianism is often conflated with Expediency, and therefore considered immoral. However, "expedient" usually refers to acting against what is right for the sake of personal interest or short-term goals. Thus, instead of being useful, this meaning of expediency is actually harmful. Mill would argue that hurting society is not truly expedient, and that to act against society's interests is to be an enemy of morality.

Many critics hold that prior to taking action, there is often not enough time to weigh its effects on general utility. Mill dismisses this, saying that such a claim is akin to saying that we can't guide our conduct by Christianity because we can't read the Bible every time we had to act. He asserts that we have had the entire history of human existence within which to learn the tendencies of actions to lead to particular results. There is a great deal of consensus about what is useful, and we have the capacity to impart this knowledge to children too. This is not to say that received ethics are always correct, and there is still much to learn about the effects of actions on general happiness. However, people need not reapply the first principles to an action each time they perform it. All rational people go through life with their minds made up on certain basic questions of right and wrong.

Finally, utilitarianism is criticized as too allowing, as underestimating the immoral tendencies of human nature. For example, it is argued that a utilitarian will make his own case an exception to the rules, and will be tempted to justify breaking the rules by simply saying that a given action increases utility. However, Mill says this problem is not limited to utilitarian theories. All creeds must have exceptions, because the need for exceptions is part of the reality of human life. Having a standard of utility to invoke is better than having no standard at all.

Commentary

One of Mill's most common replies to objections about utilitarianism is that the given critique is not unique to utilitarianism, that any ethical theory would have such limitations. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this tactic? Does it really satisfy Mill's stated objective, to dispel misconceptions about his theory? Might such a reply undermine all ethical theories?

Mill makes some of his most controversial arguments in this section, and it is important to look closely at his arguments and assumptions. There is not an obvious right or wrong answer in this debate, but it may be helpful to think about some of the areas where Mill's argument is most commonly attacked. Mill observes that utilitarianism is concerned with increasing the amount of general happiness, not with increasing any one person's happiness. One common criticism of this concept is that by basing morality on the general good, utilitarianism fails to appreciate the importance of the individual. In dealing with this debate, it is useful to recognize a difference of perspective. Mill takes an impersonal perspective, where morality is impartial. One could, however, argue that morality should be subject-oriented, or interpeersonal. Another contentious point is Mill's argument that individuals' motives do not matter in morality. Is an action fundamentally different if it is performed for good or bad reasons? Mill would argue it is not. Finally, Mill argues that sacrificing happiness is only desirable if it will lead to more happiness generally. He rejects the value of sacrifice in itself. However, many people do see value in an ascetic life, independent of the consequences it produces. This leads back to the most basic question about utilitarianism: Is the greatest happiness principle the ultimate foundation of morality?

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us