John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism

AS a system of ethics setting up as a rule of conduct the best interests either of the individual or of the community. Utilitarianism had its beginnings in the Hedonist schools of the Cyrenaics and Epicureans, and until the eighteenth century its aim was held to be the acquisition of pleasure. The scientific system was first formulated by Jeremy Bentham, who declared the greatest happiness of the greatest number to be the object to be aimed at. Mill introduced the view that certain pleasures possess an intrinsic value which renders them superior to others. He was not the founder of Utilitarianism, but invented the name and did much to formulate, define and defend its tenets. His essay on Utilitarianism was published in 1863.


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, and wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

Such a theory excites in many minds inveterate dislike; they designate as only worthy of swine the doctrine that life has no other aim and end than pleasure.

But there are other pleasures than the pleasures of swine; human beings have faculties other than the animal appetites, and it is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. If I am asked what pleasures are more desirable and more valuable, I fall back on the verdict of experience. If, of two pleasures, one be invariably preferred by all those capable of enjoying both, that one is the more desirable.

Few human beings would resign human for bestial pleasures; no person would prefer stupidity to intelligence, or selfishness and baseness to feeling and conscience. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is probably more liable to pain than one of interior type, yet he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence. Whoever supposes this preference involves a sacrifice of happiness confounds happiness and satisfaction. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig thinks otherwise, it is because they have no experience of the better part.

It may be objected that many who are capable of both higher and lower pleasures sometimes choose the lower; but this is not really choice, it is infirmity of character. It may be questioned whether anyone who has remained susceptible to two classes of pleasures ever knowingly calmly preferred the lower, though many in all ages have broken down in an attempt to combine high and low.

On a question which is the more desirable of two pleasures, or of two ways of living, the judgement of those two ways of living, the judgement of those who know both must be admitted final, for there is no other tribunal. What is there to decide whether a particular pleasure is worth purchasing at the cost of a particular pain, except the feelings and judgement of the experienced? When, then, the duly experienced declare that pleasures derived from the higher faculties are preferable in kind to those of which animal nature is susceptible, there is none to gainsay.

According to the greatest happiness principle, the ultimate end with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable, is an existence as exempt as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments both in quantity and quality. The test of quality, again, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, must be the preference felt by those with experience and best able to compare. This, being the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality, which may accordingly be defined as the rules for human conduct which will, so far as possible, secure to mankind and to the sentient creation such an existence as we have described.

Certain critics bring forward the objection that happiness is impossible. But moderate happiness is not impossible. The main constituents of happiness seem to be two--tranquility and excitement. With tranquility many find that they can be content with little excitement, and with much excitement many can reconcile themselves to considerable pain.

When people who are tolerably fortunate in their outward lot find life unhappy, it usually is because they lack altruism or are deficient in mental cultivation. Those who cherish a fellow-feeling for others will always retain a pleasurable interest in life; and a cultivated mind finds inexhaustible interest in all that surrounds it--nature, art, poetry, history, the past, present and future of mankind.

Nor need any lack the private and public affections and the degree of mental culture requisite for happiness. Everyone in a free, well-governed country with a moderate amount of moral and intellectual capacity is capable of happiness, provided he escape indigence, disease and the sorrows inflicted by death and by the faults of others. Poverty and disease, moreover, are conquerable, and every intelligent and generous mind will find happiness in playing a part in their conquest.

Only in a very imperfect world can self-sacrifice serve the happiness of others, yet in this imperfect world I confess that self-sacrifice is the highest virtue. The utilitarian morality does recognize that self-sacrifice for the good of others is good, for the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agents' own happiness, but the happiness of all. The agent must be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. To do as one would be done by, and to love one's neighbours as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.

It is often affirmed that utilitarians look too much at the effects of actions and too little at the moral qualities that produce them; but this error is not inherent in utilitarianism, it is merely a necessary consequence of the difficulty of seeing the motives at the back of conduct.

Utilitarianism is sometimes called godless This criticism need not be discussed, since whatever aid religion, natural or revealed, can afford to ethical investigation is quite open to the utilitarian. It is also sometimes objected that it is the gospel of expediency; but the expedient, as conceived by utilitarianism, is certainly not opposed to the right.

Again, it is objected that there is not time previous to action to calculate the effects of conduct on the general happiness. The answer is that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past experience of the race. During all time mankind have been learning the tendencies of actions. The ordinary rules of morality indicate such tendencies; and others can be gradually formulated.

Finally, it is said that utilitarianism gives scope for casuistry, and that a utilitarian, when tempted, will see more utility in the breach of a rule than in its observance. But every creed allows the operation of personal equation, and no creed can prevent self-deception and dishonest casuistry.

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