This page contains a detailed summary of John Stuart Mill's book "Utilitarianism," which originally appeared as an article in Fraser's Magazine in 1861. This book followed Jeremy Bentham's book Principles of Morals and Legislation and is one of the classic texts on utilitarianism.
Chapter 1: General Remarks
This introductory chapter notes that adherents to other ethical systems have failed to carefully examine the first principles upon which they were based. This book will constitute an examination of the first principles of utilitarianism, but will begin, in the next chapter, with a description of utilitarianism itself.
Humans have made little progress in identifying the criteria of right and wrong (p. 1). Philosophers have long debated the foundations of morality and the highest good. "The truths which are ultimately accepted as the first principles of a science, are really the last results of metaphysical analysis" (p. 2). Mill suggested that a test of right and wrong is the means of determining what is right and wrong (p. 3).
Some have suggested a natural faculty (similar to common sense) that tells us right from wrong and allegedly exists as a type of reason as opposed to a sense. Others rely on general laws (p. 3). Most have failed to list the first principles of their philosophy (p. 4). Many have acknowledged the importance of happiness in moral thought, but many also fail to adopt it as a first principle (p. 5). Kant's suggestion that people should act according to what would be the best law fails because it does not exclude the possibility of outrages rules of conduct (p. 5).
Proving ethical theories is difficult: medical arts is deemed good when it improves health, but how can we prove that health is good (p. 6)? An argument about the rational justification for utilitarianism is not possible without an understanding of what it is, so the next chapter will describe utilitarianism itself (p. 7).
Chapter 2: What is Utilitarianism
This chapter presents a description of utilitarianism that is similar to that of Jeremy Bentham but that differs in important ways. Unlike Bentham, Mill argued that some pleasures are superior to others, but then inferred the superiority of these pleasures, which are associated with the noble classes, imply that people should the general cultivation of nobleness of character" (p. 16). Perhaps a flaw in Mill's argument is failure to account for confounding factors in the intersubjective evaluations of pleasure. For example, asking Korean versus Japanese people about the desirability of kimchi would produce different results and would not reveal the inherent superiority or inferiority of kimchi itself. In the later part of this chapter, Mill addressed some common criticisms of utilitarianism.
When utilitarians speak of utility, they refer to a dimension that includes both pleasure and pain. When utilitarians spoke of the theory of utility, they "meant by it, not something to be contradistinguished from pleasure, but pleasure itself, together with exemption from pain; and instead of opposing the useful to the agreeable or the ornamental, have always declared that the useful means these, among other things" (p. 8-9). Morality is derived from utility: "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness" (p. 9-10).
Mill argued that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only ends (goals of moral behavior; p. 10). Some writers have denigrated the practice of holding pleasure as the highest goal (p. 10), and associated such practice with animal behavior. Humans are more advanced than pigs, and the Epicureans held that pleasures of the intellect, imagination and moral sentiments were higher than pleasures of the senses (p. 11). Mill argued that we must consider both the quality and quantity of pleasure because "some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others" (p. 11).
To support his theory of the superiority of some pleasures, Mill observed that if most people have experienced two pleasures and most people prefer one over the other, then the most-preferred choice is more desirable. If people prefer one over the other pleasure and would not agree to any amount of the lesser pleasure in exchange for the other, then the preferred pleasure is superior (p. 12). Mill then argued that people prefer higher faculties in just this way (p. 12): "No intelligent human being would consent to be a fool... even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs" (p. 12).
Mill seems to generalize his observations about specific pleasures to the status of one's existence: "A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type" (p. 13). This state of being might be attributable to pride or love of liberty and personal independence, love of excitement, or to dignity (p. 13). People who deny that superior beings are happier than inferior beings confuse happiness and contentment (p. 13). "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied" (p. 14).
It is a character defect to prefer the more immediate, lower pleasure in exchange for higher pleasure in the future (p. 14). Those who have experienced both higher and lower pleasures have the final authority to rate those pleasures (p. 15). From his analysis, Mill concludes: "Utilitarianism, therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character" (p. 16).
Some people oppose utilitarianism by arguing that people cannot be happy (p. 17). Mill counters by saying that the theory of utility also refers to the avoidance of unhappiness (p. 18). Utilitarian happiness does not refer to enduring rapture but to a mix of pleasures with transitory pains (p. 18). The main factors of a satisfied life appear to be tranquility and excitement (p. 19). Some find that moments of high excitement help to reconcile moments of pain.
The other side of this view is that selfishness and "want of mental cultivation" lead to unsatisfactory life (p. 20). Not everyone is born with interests in mental cultivation (p. 20), but people who are "rightly brought up" will have the faculties to enjoy life as long as they have the liberty to pursue happiness (p. 21). The increasing wisdom of society might help people to avoid evils.
Some objectors suggest that people can learn to do without happiness (p. 22). Some of these critics say that heroes and martyrs do not act for the achievement of happiness, but Mill says that these people act to benefit the well-being of others (p. 22-23) and if a sacrifice produce no benefit for others, then it is wasted. Ascetics show what people can do but not what they should do (p. 23).
Sacrificing one's self for the greater good is a virtue (p. 23), but this process in itself is not good (i.e., such acts have no additional value beyond what is directly bestowed to the beneficiaries; p. 24). Utilitarianism focuses on the happiness of all, not just the happiness of the individual (self): "utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator" (p. 24). To facilitate actions that benefit all, laws should make the interests of individuals align with the interests of all (p. 25). Education should be used to associate the good of the self with the good of the whole (p. 25).
Critics say that aiming for the good of all is too high a standard, but this claim confuses the rule of action with its motive (p. 26). Utilitarians specify that motive alone has nothing to do with morality (p. 26). Utilitarianism does not require people to fix their minds on society at large (p. 26). Only in rare situations is a person in a situation to be a public benefactor, but in the usual case utilitarianism requires that people consider only a few people (p. 27).
Some say that utilitarianism implies a disregard for the moral qualities of people who perform actions (p. 28). Mill says that this is a complaint against all morality of action because no legitimate moral standard changes the ethical value of an action based only on the moral status of the actor. The claim would be more relevant in the evaluation of persons, but utilitarianism is not intended to evaluate persons (p. 28). Mill admits the criticism that some utilitarians become so focused on their moral system that they "do not lay sufficient stress upon the other beauties of character which go towards making a human being loveable or admirable" (p. 29). Avoidance of this problem requires development of sympathies and artistic perceptions.
Some criticize utilitarianism as a godless doctrine (p. 30), but if God wants his creatures to be happy, then utilitarianism is more religious than any other system (p. 31). There is as much reason to use religious writings as testimony about usefulness or hurtfulness as there is to use it as a source of absolute laws (in other words, utilitarians are justified in using religious books as a source of testimony about what causes happiness or pain).
Some criticize utilitarianism as a form of expediency that is opposed to principled moral reasoning (p. 31). The example criticism is that a leader of a country might sacrifice the well-being of a country to benefit himself. Mill's response includes 179-word sentence that might be translated as follows: because cultivating a desire for truth is useful and any falsehood weakens the trustworthiness upon which human happiness depends, "we feel" (utilitarians feel) that violation of this trust is not expedient and that somebody who does such a thing (a) deprives people of good, (b) inflicts evil, and (c) is an enemy of the people (p. 32). The implication from Mill's argument is that leaders of countries must consider the effects of their actions on the whole populace, which is a central theme of both Bentham's theory and Mill's.
Some critics say that utilitarianism fails because there isn't enough time to calculate the effects of every action before it is necessary to act. Mill counters by saying that humans have been accumulating knowledge of the consequences of actions throughout their history. Critics suggest that utilitarians must begin a new inquiry to determine if killing a person is wrong, but Mill says that people have already acquired such knowledge, taught their children accordingly, and shaped both public opinion and laws to reflect that learning (p. 34). He also suggested that "there is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it" (p. 34). Instead of exemplifying this idiocy, people have acquired knowledge and transmitted it as the rules of morality that are useful for the masses and useful for philosophers until they find something better (p. 34). (Note that Mill's use of moral rules and accumulated learning is consistent with rule-utilitarianism.)
The remaining criticisms of utilitarianism mostly attribute flaws of human nature as flaws of utilitarianism (p. 35). Claims that people will act with radical selfishness under utilitarianism often fail because people can find many "excuses for evil doing" (p. 36). It is not the fault of any moral system that rules sometimes require exceptions. Every moral system must address situations in which moral obligations conflict with each other. These are the "knotty points" in ethics. Those with intellect and virtue can overcome these problems (p. 36), and utility can be used to decide between conflicting moral principles even if that comparison is difficult (p. 37). In contrast, systems that rely on moral laws claim independent authority and there is no "umpire entitled to interfere between them" (p. 36), meaning that, in those ethical systems, there is no legitimate system for resolving conflicting principles.
Chapter 3: Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility
This chapter reviews the threats or motives that shape behavior--including feelings of obligation or fear of disapproval. The last part of the chapter describes Mill's belief that strengthening social ties leads people to perceive greater interdependence with others and to act in their interest.
A key feature of a moral system is its sanction: the threat or motivation to obey it and the origins of the obligation to follow it (p. 38). Customary obligation feels obligatory but the underlying basis for that morality (the principle of utility) does not appear to have the same binding force (p. 38-39).
The external sanctions of utilitarianism are the hope of favor and the fear of displeasure of other people or of God as they are with other moral systems (p. 39-40). External motivation from a religious belief in a benevolent God implies a belief that God would approve of happiness.
Internal sanctions of duty are feelings in our minds and pain associated with violating our duty (p. 40). This is the essences of conscience (p. 41). If we do violate our duty, we will probably experience remorse. "The ultimate sanction, therefore, of all morality (external motives apart) being a subjective feeling in our own minds" (p. 41). Those without a conscience will not observe obedience to any moral system other than external sanctions (such as laws or public scorn; p. 42).
Those who believe that moral obligation is a "transcendental fact" (absolute moral principle as in deontology) are likely to obey moral obligation more than those who think that moral obligation is subjective (p. 42). Transcendental moralists would think that subjectivity would lead people to associate morlity with a temporary feeling that can be discarded in morally challenging situations (p. 42-43). Mill argued that people of any moral system can find that the "conscience can be silenced or stifled" (p. 43) as an antecedent to immoral behavior. He also argued that if the sense of duty is innate it refers to pleasures and pains of other people and if it is otherwise obligatory it refers to the same thing (p. 43). Mill described his personal belief that moral feelings are not innate, but are instead acquired and are a "natural outgrowth" of our nature (p. 44).
External forces can be used to "act on the human mind with all the authority of conscience" (p. 44), especially when used with children, but without the force of external sanctions, moral associations (like the principle of utility) would wither unless there was something in human nature with which it harmonizes (p. 45). Mill asserted that there is such a natural basis such that recognition of the principle of utility will form a solid basis founded in our social feelings toward others. People perceive themselves in the social state as a member of a (social) body (p. 45), "any condition, therefore, which is essential to a state of society, becomes more and more an inseparable part of every person's conception of the state of things which he is born into, and which is the destiny of a human being" (p. 46).
"Society between equals can only exist on the understanding that the interests of all are to be regarded equally" (p. 46). We are gradually moving toward a state in which people will find it impossible to disregard the interests of others (p. 46). Strengthening social ties leads people to increasingly consider the interests of others (p. 46-47). These feelings are typically weaker than feelings of selfishness (p. 49), but "few but those whose mind is a moral blank, could bear to lay out their course of life on the plan of paying no regard to others except so far as their own private interest compels" (p. 50).
Chapter 4: Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible
This is a short chapter that constitutes Mill's attempt to prove that happiness is the goal of behavior.
The ultimate ends (goals) of behavior are not subject to the methods of ordinary proofs, which is common among first principles (p. 51) A solution might be to appeal to the faculties (our senses and conscience). The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable and other things are desirable only as a means toward happiness. Mill argued that the only proof that something is visible is that it can be seen (p. 51), and that likewise the only way to show that something is desirable is that it is desired (p. 52).
Some people argue that people want virtue instead of happiness (p. 52), but Mill says that pursuing virtue is the means toward happiness that some people choose (p. 53). Others argue that music or health have value independent of happiness, but Mill disagreed (p. 53). Mill argued that money and fame have no value alone and have value only in their effect on pleasure (p. 54-55). When people desire things like money and fame, they are desired as part of happiness (p. 55).
Careful self-observation will provide people with the evidence that happiness is the end of all behavior (p. 57). (Another way to view Mill's argument is that he is defining happiness as the ultimate end of behavior, but he argued that his conclusion is derived from evidence).
In the beginning, will is entirely produced by desire, but Mill offers a possible exception: "Will is the child of desire, and passes out of the dominion of its parent only to come under that of habit" (p. 59-60; see also p. 58).
Chapter 5: On the Connexion Between Justice and Utility
In this is the final chapter, Mill attempts to determine if there is a rational link between feelings of justice and utilitarian morality. His answer is that feelings of injustice arise from (a) a conflict between the effects of an action and what the law should be, (b) duty, which distinguishes between acts that are punishable and from those that are not, and (c) the desire to punish offenders, which is shaped by the counterbalancing sentiments of self-defense and sympathy and subservient to a moral consideration of the general good.
Many have opposed the idea of using utility or happiness as a basis for justice (p. 61). Many think that the property of being just is something that exists in nature as an absolute.
(Some would say that) natural feelings do not necessarily justify the actions that stem from it. Perhaps feelings of justice require higher reason (p. 61). Humans tend to (falsely) believe that their subjective feelings constitute revelation of objective reality (p. 62).
Two possible explanations of feelings of justice: (a) things that are just or unjust share an attribute and this attribute induces an emotion, and (b) the feeling of justice occurs without a connection to some attribute of the thing (p. 63). Then answer here will help to explain any connection between utility and justice.
Let's survey the things that are widely considered just or unjust to see if any themes emerge. The first category is the act of depriving people of personal liberty or property (p. 64). Perhaps the rule is that it is wrong to violate legal rights, but there might be exceptions, such as a bad law.
The second category is of deprivation of legal rights in the case where the law itself is bad. Some say that we should always obey laws and others say that there are exceptions. The implication of the disagreement is that law is not the only criterion of justice (p. 65). The revised observation of feelings of justice indicate that "taking or withholding from any person that to which he has a moral right (p. 65) is unjust.
The third category is that individuals should get what they deserve (where Mill appears to assume a system of retributive justice; p. 65). The fourth category is to break faith (violate an agreement or contract; p. 66). The fifth category is partiality (favoring one person over another where such favoritism should not apply). Mill argued that impartiality in the application of rights is obligatory (p. 67). This is similar to equality, but there are many disagreements over what equality implies (p. 67-68).
In reviewing these categories, it is difficult to identify a common link (p. 68). Mill prefaces his answer to the main question of this chapter by discussing the etymology of the word justice, and eventually said that Greeks and Romans knew that humans were fallible, at which point justice broke its connection with written law and afterword the sense of justice arose from belief in what should be the law as opposed to what the law is (p. 70). [the first part of Mill's answer for the chapter is that justice is related to a belief in how an act relates to the perception of what laws should be]
Feelings of injustice can exist where law does not apply. Sometimes we would like to see every injustice repressed, but we do not want to entrust the magistrate with such power (p. 70). When we say that something is wrong we mean that the offender should be punished either by the law or by public opinion (p. 71).
The previous two paragraphs represent the "origin" of the idea of justice but so far we have not distinguished between justice and a general sense of morality. The second part of Mill's answer to the main question in this chapter is that penal sanction (legal punishment or perhaps social disapproval) is the line between general morality and justice, and this line is delineated by duty (p. 71).
A duty is something that a person is compelled to do (p. 71). Other actions can inspire admiration but do not arise from the obligation of duty (p. 71-72). Duty is the principle that defines which acts are punishable and also relates to our sense of justice (p. 72). There are two classes of duties that help to describe obligation: perfect duty and imperfect obligation. An imperfect duty is one that is required, but the terms for performing the duty are at the discretion of the actor. Mill gave the example of donating to charity, which he sees as obligatory but also said that people can choose when to give and how much to give (p. 72). A perfect obligation is one that corresponds to a right (p. 73). Mill's examples of violating perfect obligation include stealing, breaking agreements or contracts, or mistreating somebody or showing favoritism.
Justice is a perfect duty because it is wrong to not do it and because somebody can make a claim against us with regard to their corresponding right. In contrast, nobody has a right to our generosity (because that is an imperfect versus a perfect duty; p. 73).
The two "essential ingredients" of the feeling of justice are desire to punish an offender and the existence of somebody who has been harmed (p. 74-75). The desire to punish comes from two natural sentiments: self-defense and sympathy (p. 75). The human desire to punish can be tempered by sympathy with other people or even all sentient beings (i.e, animals; p. 75). This sympathy tempers vengeance (p. 76). A person who feels resentment before considering if the offending act was blame-worthy is not "consciously just" (p. 76-77). Mill mentioned that Kant said something of this sort when he said that we should act according to what would be the best law for everyone to follow (p. 77).
Perhaps the sentiments of self-defense and sympathy combined with moral consideration of the justness of an act becomes the third part of Mill's answer to the main question of this chapter. The following might be Mill's elaboration of how sentiments lead to morality:
The sentiment of justice, in that one of its elements which consists of the desire to punish, is thus, I conceive, the natural feeling of retaliation or vengeance, rendered by intellect and sympathy applicable to those injuries, that is, to those hurts, which wound us through, or in common with, society at large. This sentiment, in itself, has nothing moral in it; what is moral is, the exclusive subordination of it to the social sympathies, so as to wait on and obey their call. For the natural feeling tends to make us resent indiscriminately whatever any one does that is disagreeable to us; but when moralized by the social feeling, it only acts in the directions conformable to the general good; just persons resenting a hurt to society, though not otherwise a hurt to themselves, and not resenting a hurt to themselves, however painful, unless it be of the kind which society has a common interest with them in the repression of.
In reviewing rights, Mill mentioned that people have a right to what they can earn in "fair professional competition" (p. 78-79). Followers of Owen say that it is wrong to punish people for acts for which they were not responsible, and they also assert that criminal are a product of their environment, for which they are not responsible (p. 81-82). The result of several, conflicting theories of justice is that "no one of them can carry out his own notion of justice without trampling upon another [theory of justice that is] equally binding" (p. 82).
Another theory is that an act cannot be unjust if it was by the informed consent of the alleged victim (p. 83). Many people have a secret preference for the eye-for-an-eye system of justice (p. 84). Punishment should be proportional to the offense, and some say that the correct degree of punishment is the minimum needed to prevent reoffending (p. 84).
People disagree on the just methods of taxation. Some support a graduated tax (higher-income people pay more tax) and some support a flat tax (p. 85-86). It seems that Mill argued for a flat tax with the assumption that we all benefit equally from the protection of law and people think it fair that everyone is charged the same price for the same goods (p. 86). Mill asserted that the rich do not benefit more than others do from government and would benefit by not paying tax and instead protecting themselves and converting poor people into slaves (p. 86).
The moral rule of not harming others seems to be the best way to guide human affairs (p. 87). Without such a rule, each person would be seen as an enemy to the next person (p. 88). The worst offences are acts of wrongful aggression or wrongful exercise of power followed by acts of withhold what is due (p. 88-89).
Mill presented a brief description of distributive justice:
If it is a duty to do to each according to his deserts, returning good for good as well as repressing evil by evil, it necessarily follows that we should treat all equally well (when no higher duty forbids) who have deserved equally well of us, and that society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is who have deserved equally well absolutely. (p. 91)
Mill also suggested that this is a goal for all institutions and for virtuous citizens, but that this duty rests on the first principle of morals (i.e., utility according to Bentham's 'perfect impartiality between persons'; p. 91 and footnote). In a footnote about Bentham's idea of impartial consideration of the utility of all people, Mill cited Herbert Spencer who argued that utilitarianism presupposes that individuals have an equal right to happiness, but Mill argued that "equal amounts of happiness are equally desirable, whether felt by these same or by different persons" (p. 92 footnote). He then offered that the presupposition of utilitarianism is that "the truths of arithmetic are applicable to the valuation of happiness" (p. 92 footnote).
Mill described the right to equality, but simultaneously demonstrated that it is not an inalienable right: "All persons are deemed to have a right to equality of treatment, except when some recognised social expediency requires the reverse" (p. 93). His subsequent comments help to provide context for the preceding quote: Mill noted that some inequalities that no longer exist are now deemed to be protected by a strong right, but we forget that there was once a time when people thought that expediency (the situation) justified the exception. Social improvements have been made by stigmatizing inequalities, such as in slavery and the feudal system (p. 93).
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