John Stuart Mill was an English philosopher from the nineteenth century whose writing’s had a great influence in many areas including ethics, philosophy, and the way people thought about politics and the ability to reform, or change, society. The text selected for the reading presents one of Mills most famous and influential concepts. While he did not invent the theory of utility, he created the most systematic and logical presentation of the idea.
In “Chapter II: What Utilitarianism Is,” Mill defines utilitarianism as the idea that actions are moral or ethical if they promote happiness in people, and actions are unethical if they produce unhappiness or suffering in people (Mill, 1863, p. 259). Basically, it is a theory for making a judgment about the ‘rightness” or “wrongness” of any course of action or behavior based on actual human experience. Mill can make this claim because he argues that people naturally seek out pleasure and seek to avoid pain and suffering; therefore, people will naturally act in the way that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain (Mill, 1863, p. 260).
However, Mill’s definition of pain and pleasure is not a hedonistic or sensual one. In fact, he says there is a hierarchy of pleasure, and that gross, bodily pleasures are the lowest form. Although people might find pleasure in eating an entire cake, they will find a more refined, and thus more enjoyable, type of pleasure in saving the life of a starving child. The highest types of pleasure conform to actions which does the most good for the most people, or, in other words, social goods. As he writes in the text “the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agents own happiness but that of all concerned” (Mill, 1863, p. 261). Thus, since people naturally seek out actions which produce pleasure, they will naturally be inclined to act in a way which benefits others, as well as the self, and these actions will be the type that can be judged the most ethical or moral actions. As Mill says in chapter IV, this is how utilitarianism defines virtue, and why virtuous behavior may be taught, or developed in people. In this sense, individual pleasure leads to social benefits, as people will come to find pleasure in acting in manner which improves society.
Mill, J.S. (1863). Utilitarianism.