Utilitarianism as a dictionary definition means “the theory that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its usefulness in bringing about the most happiness of all those affected by it”. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) is accepted as one of the founding fathers of utilitarianism. Because of this society-based approach Mill can be considered as the defender of social rights but Mill is also a liberal theorist who gives a lot of emphasis on individual rights and liberties. Mill in his masterpiece “On Liberty” basically tells us about his ideal state and its principles. In the “Utilitarianism” part of the book, he tries to base his utilitarian ideology on a moral ground. In this assignment, Mill’s understanding of utilitarianism will be explained and then it will be moved on to analyze the moral dimensions and deficiencies of his theory.
Utilitarianism is the ethical theory proposed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill that all actions should be directed toward achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. By utility of actions what meant by Mill, is the satisfaction of actions to produce happiness in the society. By happiness, what he meant is intended pleasure or the prevention of pain. “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, p. 137). Mill also tries to define the essence of real pleasure. Mill’s pleasure conception is not only about bodily pleasures that are based on instincts, appetites. Mill claims that this kind of pleasures is not satisfactory for humans that are above animals because of their capacity of mind. In Mill’s understanding mental pleasures are superior to bodily pleasures. So, Mill claims that being a fool satisfied is not valuable as being a wise person who is not satisfied. He explains this view with a good analogy. “It is better for a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” (Mill, p. 140). In addition to the importance of the type (quality) of pleasure, what is most important for Mill is the quantity of this pleasure. An action should not be called just when it promotes happiness only for a small group of people or a single individual. From a utilitarian approach, actions are expected to produce pleasure, happiness for maximum amount of people if possible for the whole community. So, Mill believes that justice can only be derived from people’s intellectual maturity and moral level that will help them to realize that the important is to behave according to the benefits of the society instead of self-profit. Mill calls this intellectual and moral maturity as the biggest virtue in the world. “I fully acknowledge that the readiness to make such a sacrifice is the highest virtue which can be found in man” (Mill, p. 147). However, this sacrifice can be accepted as good and as a virtue only if it produces happiness for the society. Otherwise, it is nothing but a waste. “A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted” (Mill, p. 148).
In the last part, Mill tries to base his doctrine on a moral ground by explaining why it is just. According to Mill, utilitarian system is based on desire and “it tolerates and approves those other acquired desires, up to the point beyond which they would be more injurious to the general happiness than promotive of it” (Mill, pp. 171-172). Justice in Mill’s idea is not something natural and even though it “might be a peculiar instinct, and might yet require, like all our other instincts, it is to be controlled and enlightened by a higher reason” (Mill, p. 176). According to Mill, justice can only be acquired by “impartiality”. “Impartiality, in short, as an obligation of justice, may be said to mean, being exclusively influenced by the considerations which it is supposed ought to influence the particular case in hand; and resisting the solicitation of any motives which prompt to conduct different from what those considerations would dictate” (Mill, p. 180). Morality of utilitarianism comes from its protective attitude towards public interest. It allows people to be capable of “sympathizing” and to punish people who cause harm to society. Mill believes that a person who does not stand up for the interest of society “cannot be consciously just”. The idea of justice supposes two things; “a rule of conduct, and a sentiment which sanctions the rule” (Mill, p. 188). Thus, Mill’s morality makes the public interest as the highest condition which can be provided by the existence of citizens who act like “impartial spectators” in social life. Individuals should realize that their self-interest could only be provided through their actions aiming the public utility. So, people should realize the wrongness and the damage of egoism and should act devotefully. The laws should be arranged to keep individual benefit in harmony with public utility. “…that laws and social arrangements should place the happiness, or the interest, of every individual, as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole” (Mill, p. 148). People would also personally gain from this mechanism and in a sense maximize their self-profit from the achievement of utilitarianism. In order to reach this ideal, the education system should be used as an instrument to implant the necessity of utilitarianism into people’s minds. The public utility should always come before individual rights thus, if it is beneficial for the society you have to kill a person.
In my opinion, although Mill’s argumentation is very strong, there are some deficiencies in his understanding of morality and justice. In my view, putting public interest at the center may not always work in a healthy way. Society may consist of small elite who are superior to others in some ways (mentally, physically, intellectually, economically etc). In this case, public benefit could be the destroying of these small elite. However, as we know in today’s democratic liberal world individuals have inviolable basic rights which are secured by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mill’s utilitarian morality may not protect individual rights against the public benefit in this kind of clashes and this may lead to serious problems within a society. This is the first deficiency in see in Mill’s morality understanding. Secondly, it may not be very easy for us to choose among alternative public benefit ideas in some cases. For instance, some ideologies like communism and capitalism both having strong arguments and big supporters may claim that public benefits can only be provided by their application. In this case, how we can choose between these two opposing ideas? As the example shows us it is not always easy to notice the correct public benefit choice that is why Mill’s understanding of morality can be good for some people but bad for others.
Finally, in my opinion, Mill’s morality conception which is strictly based o utilitarianism has some weak parts and is not a completely consistent theory. It first of all lacks the guarantee of basic individual rights at the expense of public interest. Secondly, it is not very clear since we cannot easily choose betweendifferent claims of public benefit ideas.
· Mill, John Stuart, 1991, “On Liberty and Other Essays”, New York: Oxford University Press
· Encyclopedia.com, http://www.encyclopedia.com