Notes on Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill

Some Useful Terms

  • Ethics is the subfield of philosophy concerning the nature of right and wrong. 
  • Normative ethics is the subfield of Ethics concerning what standards to use when judging what we morally ought to do.
  • Consequentialism is a normative ethical theory that judges the rightness or wrongness of actions entirely on their consequences or effects.
  • Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism that believes happiness and unhappiness ought to be maximized and minimized respectively.

Book Notes

Utilitarianism (1861) is the most famous book on the eponymous ethical theory. Due to its great influence on the study of ethics and short length of just under 100 pages (allowing for its continual use in undergraduate classrooms), it has maintained great relevance to the present day. It has played a key role in the history of consequentialist ethical theories and can be credited, in part, for their popularity.

Divided into five chapters, Mill describes what the theory of Utilitarianism is (and is not), how people might be motivated by it, his proof for it, and ends with an analysis of justice and its relationship with the theory. Throughout the first three chapters it is notable how much time Mill spends deflecting canards, or objections he does not consider to have merit due to their inaccurate assessment of what Utilitarianism is – some occurring before he even provides an outline of the theory itself.

This outline begins in chapter 2. The key principle Mill directs us to, is the much remarked upon Happiness Principle : Acts are right insofar as they tend to increase the overall happiness or decrease unhappiness. By happiness, Mill is eager to point out, he does not mean the trite notion of momentary bliss, but all the aspects of life that are satisfying or pleasurable. Additionally, in discerning what types of happiness are best, he uses a controversial criterion: of any pair of actions where everyone or nearly everyone who has tried both prefers one over the other, the preferred one is the one bringing greater happiness. 

This, Mill believes, demonstrates that so-called higher pleasures of mental, moral, or aesthetic quality are better than lower, sensation-driven pleasures. It also leaves philosophizing and intellectual thinking as some of the greatest pleasures around — quite convenient for Mill, given that this is what he spent much of his time doing outside of political advocacy.

Furthermore, Mill notes, other principles often embedded in moral language, such as veracity or virtue, still have purchase in Utilitarianism. However, these are secondary principles, which, while good guideposts to moral behavior, are not the ultimate deciding factors of right and wrong. The ultimate judge of rightness and wrongness is the degree to which happiness has been increased or decreased.

In chapter 3, Mill dedicates significant time to describing how Utilitarianism is not unique from most ethical theories in certain ways. The same psychological and social sanctions will be used to prompt people to perform moral actions. While it may take time before the tenets of Utilitarianism seep out into society through education and persuasion, the mental and social tools to prompt moral behavior are already there, even if what is considered moral is changing.

In chapter 4, we are asked to consider how Utilitarianism might be proved. As he notes, this is no direct proof but is the best that can be asked for a moral theory. Roughly it goes:

  1. Everyone desires happiness
  2. The only way to prove what is desirable is to observe what people desire
  3. A person’s happiness is thus good for that person
  4. Therefore, the general happiness is good to the aggregate of people

Despite being warned that this was not a direct proof of mathematical strength, it does still feel underwhelming. Specifically, it is peculiar that Mill thinks it logical that one person’s happiness being good for them entails increasing the aggregate amount of happiness being good for the aggregate of people. Such a logical connection requires some other assumptions about what the aggregate of persons means and whether or not something can be good for them. 

Through chapter 5, Mill considers the topic of justice. He searches for common attributes to conceptions of justice, and finds them to be grounded in a set of emotions that deal with self-preservation, some observed in other animals. These emotions, when constrained by social custom, motivate the creation of law. Mill points out, the etymology of justice demonstrates the deep connection it has to our legal foundations (Jus means law in Latin). But, he states that it is deeper than law, as the law itself can be unjust.

So, justice can be seen as the ways in which society protects our moral rights, sometimes through law. This means we all have a stake in the creation of just systems. Mill connects this to utility, and the happiness principle, by noting that just systems secure people’s basic security and alleviate many of the most basic concerns we have regarding harms that others might inflict upon us. However, justice is not systematic and it lies on top of some of our deeper intuitions concerning morality. At the base of our moral intuitions lies the notion of utility. Justice emerges from this. Furthermore, Mill argues, there are cases in which it would be moral to act expediently outside of what is just, yet within what is moral. This demonstrates that justice delineates a class of moral rules which emerge in societies to satisfy certain common emotions used for self-protection and fairness. This is less fundamental than the notion of what is moral, which Mills states is determined by the principle of utility.

Together, the chapters lay out a series of passages that contain many influential and compelling arguments in favor of, at the very least, a prioritization of happiness in any ethical system, if not adherence to Mill’s version of Utilitarianism itself. Mill’s work has been followed by a series of derivative ethical theories and has done much to advance the expanding moral circle, where greater moral concern is given to women, the impoverished, those in other countries, and non-human animals.

5 Comments

    1. Thanks Reg, I have heard of him and I’m interested in his new book on the problems with meritocracy. How are you familiar with him?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Alexander,
        I read his Justice book and watched his Harvard Justice course on YouTube. He discusses utilitarianism in both. His Justice course was (is?) Harvard’s most popular course. I am impressed with his interactive teaching style and brilliant lectures.
        As a retired poli sci prof, I wish I had worked with him.
        Best,
        Reg
        Reg

        Like

      2. Oh yeah, I remember listening to that class on audiobook/mp3 format. It was definitely a valuable resource; the first place where I encountered the trolley problem and the ethical concepts it brings out. Thanks for reminding me. Where did you teach as a poli sci professor?

        Liked by 1 person

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