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John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a notion that belongs to the normative ethics tradition, which began in the late 18th- and 19th-century. Utilitarianism has been defined in the following manner: “a doctrine that the useful is the good and that the determining consideration of right conduct should be the usefulness of its consequences; specifically: a theory that the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number (Merriam-Webster Online). ” Utilitarianism, being a normative system, serves to answer the question, “What ought a man to do?

” Thus, utilitarianism provides the justifications for a certain action to be considered as morally or ethically right. Philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are the foremost believers of the ethical philosophy. According to the two, a certain action would be considered morally right if it tends to promote happiness for the greatest number of people (West). Following this philosophy, moral value is attached on the effect that such action makes on people, and not on the motive behind an action (West). Utilitarianism works on several assumptions regarding man’s motives.

Bentham and Mill relied on the assumption that man is motivated solely by two constructs, namely, pleasure and pain. In addition, the two philosophers hold on to the idea that happiness is the sole end of man (West). Finally, it is posited that happiness is brought about by pleasure (West). Utilitarianism, being a normative theory, is grounded by the concepts of “ought,” “right” and “wrong (West). ” This is the reason why, when compared to descriptive theories, utilitarianism is difficult to verify (West). There are many criticisms against utilitarianism as an ethical theory.

For one, it is argued that utilitarianism have implications that are contrary to people’s moral intuitions. This is so, because utilitarianism does not justify human action based on the reasons behind them, but on the happiness that is promoted by such action on persons. It is also argued that utilitarianism oversimplifies the provision of moral value to human action. Lastly, it is argued that utilitarianism has set its attention only on happiness, when there are other human interests that are equally important (West). John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill was largely influenced by his mentor, Jeremy Bentham (Kemerling). It is thus theorized that Mill’s philosophy is a mere attempt to compensate for the limitations of Bentham’s works (Kemerling). In 1863, John Stuart Mill published his work entitled Utilitarianism. In said work, Mill provided a definition of the ethical concept, which states: The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. (Mill). Mill’s utilitarianism echoes the basic principles of the theory posited by Jeremy Bentham (Kemerling). For one, both philosophies held that the moral value of human action is determined by its consequences (Kemerling). Another similarity between the ethical theories of Bentham and Mill is their adoption of the principle called the Greatest Happiness Principle (Kemerling).

However, Mill steered away from Bentham’s track when he refused to limit his philosophy to only one kind of pleasure (Kemerling). This difference in the two philosophers’ principles explain Mill’s statement that says, “[it] is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied (Mill). ” The distinction Mill makes in the above statement refers to the different kinds of pleasures that are available to different kinds of beings (Kemerling).

For Mill, there are pleasures that exist on a higher plane than others (Kemerling). To illustrate this key difference, intellectual pleasures are hierarchically higher in value than bodily pleasures (Kemerling). For example, an animal such as a pig would be easily satisfied if his physiological needs, such as hunger and thirst, are sufficiently addressed. On the contrary, a human being, while he would undoubtedly find pleasure in seeing his basic needs, such as food and clothing, satisfied, he would find the greatest pleasure in achieving his other needs.

A sentient being such as a human being finds more pleasure in the satisfaction of his intellectual needs, such as gaining new knowledge or engaging in meaningful conversations. Since man is a sentient being, he places higher moral value on matters that are supported by reason (Kemerling). Mill placed greater moral worth on the promotion of these higher pleasures. (Kemerling). Therefore, it is clear why Mill is willing to choose the position of an unhappy person, provided such person is aware that there are other, more important pleasures in life that he must be striving for.

To further illustrate Mill’s concept of the degrees of pleasure, it is best to look into one of the key concepts that he explained in his work. This principle is justice, which for mill means respect for individuals (Mill). Justice provides the greatest pleasure because, being desired by the whole of humanity, its promotion works for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people (Kemerling).

Works Cited

Merriam-Webster Online. “Utilitarianism. ” 25 Appr. 2007. <http://www. m- w.com/dictionary/utilitarianism>. Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. 1863. 30 Nov. 2006 <http://www. utilitarianism. com/mill2. htm>. Kemerling, Garth. “Utilitarianism. ” 2002. 28 Apr. 2007 <http://www. philosophypages. com/hy/5q. htm>. Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy. “Utilitarianism. ” 2002. 1 Dec. 2006 <http://caae. phil. cmu. edu/Cavalier/80130/part2/sect9. html>. West, Henry R. “Utilitarianism. ” Encyclop? dia Britannica. 30 Nov. 2006 <http://www. utilitarianism. com/utilitarianism. html>.

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