Up@dawn 2.0

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill

Section #10  First Installment

Morality has been one of the major topics that have divided philosophers. The struggle to come up with a definition for what is right and wrong that works in every condition continue. John Stuart Mill starts his book Utilitarianism with making the point that “…neither thinkers nor mankind…” has made any progress to improve the definitions since the time of Socrates. He made the argument that one would think that morality would follow the rule that governs science in ways that truth comes before theory. Based on that argument he deduced, “A test of right and wrong must be the means of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it.” This raises the question what about instinct? He responds to that question by reminding us that the existence of instinct is also a question that still has not been accepted by all philosophers as truth. The “thinkers” that interpret the moral faculty believe “…the general principles of moral judgments…” is part of our reason and not our senses. Mill explains there are two schools of morality. Both schools agree on that “… morality must be deduced from principles”. Although that seems like an attractive idea, things get foggy when we try to find out what exactly are those principles? The book continues to explain that neither school have come up with “a list of the a priori principles”. One thing the intuitive school of ethics teaches is that there must be a general law to apply to individual cases. Mill explained that in order to do so, they need to come up with one fundamental law to be a root for several other laws. This principle will sort out any “conflicts” that may arise between other principles. Even though there is no one principle is stated to be root for others, Mill explains that the consistency of mankind’s moral belief is due to a “… standard not recognized.” He believed that this unrecognized standard has a great link with “the principle of utility, or, as Bentham latterly called it, the greatest happiness principle”. He even goes on to say that there is no school of thought that would reject the thought that happiness plays a great role to decide moral values and obligations. Thus, he continues his study towards "utilitarian" or " happiness" theory.

He defines the theory of utility (passed down from Epicurus and Bentham) as “… pleasure itself, together with exemption from pain…”. And it is very important to know the difference between right and wrong in terms of “greatest happiness principle” that right promotes happiness and wrong reverse happiness. Happiness here is defined as pleasure and the absence of pain. Mill continues to say that not all happiness is equal. And he clearly disagrees with Bentham on that note because Bentham said that animals’ feel happiness too and it would measure the same as humans. Mill proposed the idea that “few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures”. This introduced higher and lower happiness.


  1. Great read! On the morality issue, I feel the reason no one has been able to pinpoint an exact definition is because reality is a matter of conscience. My morality may be different than yours or the next person's. If you can get through the beating around the bush routine, Joan Didion gives a good description in "On Morality."

  2. “a list of the a priori principles” - a committed empiricist ethicist won't want or need a priori principles, but principles adduced from the collective experience of our species a posteriori. So, happiness in the fullest and most humane sense seems to fall into that category.

    “few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures” - and yet, many fall into such a beastly form of low life not after reflection and consent but precisely in their absence. Mill noticed that, Bentham may not have. One of the great tasks of education is to get more of us to notice and care.