Philosophical doctrine articulated by Jeremy Bentham and then John Stuart Mill, but which has roots going back to earlier discussions of ethical behavior. Mill’s theory of utilitarianism is based on the principle that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” 


Mill defines happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain. Mill argues that happiness is the sole basis of morality, and that people never desire anything but happiness. 


Mill defines utility as pleasure itself, and the absence of pain. (See Great Happiness Principle.)

Greatest Happiness Principle

Another name for utility, it is the principle that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrongs as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” Pleasure and the absence of pain are, by this account, the only things desirable as ends in themselves, the only things inherently “good.” 


From Mill’s perspective, justice is not an abstract concept so much as it is a sentiment about morality that many people share. Thus, in defining justice Mill looks to what other people mean by the term. It exists because people believe it exists, and it means what they believe it to mean. Starting from the popular conception of justice, Mill theorizes about what links a diverse set of ideas about justice. Ultimately, Mill argues that they are united by the concept of rights, a notion he introduces in his claims about perfect and imperfect obligations.


For Mill, a right means that a person has a valid claim that society protect them against any violation. Furthermore, Mill grounds rights in utility. Rights represent the most basic social utilities necessary for human well-being; human culture cannot flourish if society does not protect individual rights. Thus, rights are fundamental to the greatest happiness principle (utility) since they must be protected for people to be able to enjoy anything else.

First Principles

First principles are the foundation of arguments. They are not fact that can be tested, but rather represent the system in which those facts make sense. According to Mill, since utilitarianism is an argument for utility as a first principle, it cannot be proven in the traditional sense.

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