Lecture Supplement Introducing Mill’s Utilitarianism [1863]

     Copyright 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli

I. Mill’s Life:

John Stuart Mill [1806-1873] was educated by his father, James Mill, at home.  James Mill [1773-1836] was a Scottish philosopher, historian, and economist.  With the help of his patron, Sir James Stuart, the elder Mill attended Edinburgh University and studied philosophy.  He moved to London in 1802 and earned his living initially as a free-lance journalist.  His three-volume History of India [1817] was very well-received, and he earned a post in the British East India Company.  His office and employment made it impossible for him to continue some of the active (radical) political action he had pursued as a writer, but his influence in the growing utilitarian movement was significant.  He was a good friend and disciple of Jeremy Bentham [1748-1832], and other “philosophical radicals” of the day including the economist David Ricardo, the politicians Jospeh Hume and John Black, and the jurist John Austin. 

John Stuart Mill was taught Greek, Latin, geometry, algebra, logic, history, and political economy by his father.  His father was a strict disciplinarian and had high expectations for him.  D.H. Monro says that:

the education that [James] Mill gave his eldest son was rigorously intellectual.  According to John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, he was made to learn Greek at the age of three, and by the time of eight he had read, among other authors, “the whole of Herodotus” and six dialogues of Plato, including the Theaetetus.... 

  Mine was not an education of cram.  My father never permitted anything which I learnt to degenerate into a mere exercise of memory.  He strove to make the understanding not only go along with every step of the teaching, but, if possible, precede it.  Anything that could be found out by thinking, I never was told, until I had exhausted my efforts to find it out for myself.[1] 

When John Stuart was fourteen he went to France for a year.  During this period he continued his studies, and broadened his concerns to include psychology and law.  While he considered a career in law, in 1823 he became a clerk for the British East India Company.  He held positions of increasing importance with the company until the 1850s when the company was dissolved. 

In the early 1820s, Mill began to be regular contributor to a number of newspapers and magazines—he began what was to be a life-long career as a liberal (radical) public intellectual.  He wrote on political, philosophical, and economic topics taking activist positions.  While Mill’s publications are not always noted for their philosophic depth, it is clear that he had a significant effect upon society, and that his thought was also influential upon subsequent thinkers.  During this time began attending the London Debating Society, and there he encountered other forceful thinkers who helped broaden his perspective on political philosophy and other issues.  In 1826 he had a period of deep depression, but the poetry of Wordsworth provided an emotional cure which helped offset the largely analytical education which he had received from his father. 

Mill was introduced to Harriet Hardy, the wife of a successful businessman in 1831, and they had what sources call a “deep Platonic love” for twenty years.  Her husband died in 1849, and in 1851 they were married.  Sources differ on how deeply she influenced his thinking, but Mill indicates that she deeply influenced his view of the ideals of life (both for individuals and for society). 

Mill studied logic and the philosophy of science extensively, and his System of Logic [1843] is a landmark in the movement to develop an inductive logic for the sciences (in contrast to the deductive logic which had been the abstract model throughout the Western tradition).  Mill also became well-known for his essays on political economy during the 1840s—his Principles of Political Economy which was published in 1848. 

When the British East India Company was dissolved, Mill retired with a considerable pension.  His wife Harriet died while they were touring France, and Mill bought a home in Avignon so he could live near her grave.  He spent the substantial portion of the remainder of his life there writing on ethics and politics.  During this period he composed On Liberty [1859], Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform [1859], Considerations on Representative Government [1861], Utilitarianism [1861, 1863], Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy [1865], and Auguste Comte and Positivism [1865] 

In 1865 he stood for election to Parliament.  True to his principles, he refused to campaign, and indicated that if elected he would not act in the manner of a normal politician (working for the benefit solely of his constituents).  He was elected, and played an active reformist role (for example, he worked against corruption, for land reform in Ireland, and for the representation of women).  Mill was defeated in the next election (1868)—his championing of radical and reformist causes was his political undoing.  He was not at all upset by this, however. 

He continued to write essays, and became a champion of women’s suffrage—his The Subjection of Women was published in 1869.  Mill died in Avignon in 1873. 

II. Introduction to Mill’s Moral Thought:

1. Hedonism and Utilitarianism:

Jeremy Bentham held that pleasure is the only thing which is intrinsically worthwhile (hedonism).  You can read an excerpt from his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation [1789] in our text.  According to D.H. Monro:

what Bentham was saying is that the central fact of human psychology is that men have desires and seek to gratify them.  It follows, he thought, that the only rational way to judge between the alternative courses of action is to choose the one which gratifies the most desires.  This is scarcely trivial, since many moralists have held that the gratification of desire is sinful, and that virtue consists in repressing desires.  Bentham’s central contention was that gratification as such is always good, and that, while it may often be necessary to suppress some desires, this is only in order that other desires may be gratified.  The opposition between duty and desire is a false one: the real contrast is between conflicting inclinations, and is settled by considering which...leads to the greatest pleasure.[2]  

That is:

people have desires

they seek gratification

gratification is always good

where there are alternative choices, men repress desires only in order to fulfill others. 

This view has obvious similarities to ethical egoism.  Before we look at the differences between egoism and utilitarianism, however, we should ask: “Are there other things which are intrinsically valuable (justice, virtue, honor, freedom, etc.)?”  In his “The Real and Alleged Problems of Utilitarianism,” Richard Brandt maintains that:

...the utilitarian says we are to identify right action by appeal to maximizing net benefit or utility, but he leaves the definition of these terms open.  Indeed, one can say: we should maximize what is intrinsically good, and go on to say, as “ideal utilitarians” like Moore and Rashdall did, that various states of affairs quite different from pleasure are intrinsically good—say, knowledge, virtue, and friendship.  One could then say, as these ideal utilitarians did, that the right action is fixed by maximizing the intrinsically good, and then propose that one can make justified comparative judgments about the intrinsic worth of knowledge, virtue, and the like so as to determine, roughly, when the good is being maximized.[3] 

Mill, however, thinks that all of these things are part of happiness, which is what he holds utilitarianism should maximize, and which he largely equates with pleasure. 

2. Consequentialism and Teleology:

For Mill it is the consequences of our actions, and not our motives which are important.  Here we must also distinguish between the valuation of the act and the evaluation of the agent.  His view is teleological rather than deontological (that is, rather than focusing on our duties, he would focus on our goals and purposes). 

3. The Greatest Happiness Principle:[4]

Read and discuss passage on p. 200![5] 

Utilitarianism is not egoistic.  For utilitarians, the principle calls for promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number: 

205 “...the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned.  As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.”[6] 

Again, however, we must be careful. It isn’t simply the greatest number of happy people, but the greatest overall utility which is to be maximized here. 

For Mill, it is not simply the promotion of pleasure.  This is too simplistic.  Sometimes we must settle for the “lesser of two evils.” 

The Greatest Happiness Principle recommends an act if there is no other act available to the agent which produces a higher utility:

the utility of an act will be the sum of the pleasures and pains which result from the act. 

Several acts might have equally high utility and there might be no act with a higher utility.  As Feldman notes, “...consider this example.  A man has one piece of unbreakable candy.  He can give it to either of the twin daughters....If he gives it to Jean, she will feel 5 hedons of pleasure, and if he gives it to Joan, she will feel 5 hedons of pleasure.  In neither case will anyone feel any pain.  A third alternative would be to give the candy to neither twin, but that would produce no pleasure at all.”[7] 

If we are to adhere to the Greatest Happiness Principle we need a “Hedonistic Calculus” which allows us to rank the “utility” of different acts.  For such a calculus we must consider many factors according to Bentham:  

195 intensity, duration, certainty, nearness (in time), extent (number of people affected), the chance of being followed in kind, and the chance of being followed by the opposite (pain or pleasure).[8] 

Simply put (by considering only the first two factors) the idea would be that we would have to multiply the intensity and the duration to calculate the utility.  Thus a very strong but short pleasure might be worth more than an extended but very mild pleasure. 

4. Mill and “Types” of Pleasure:

Bentham vs. Mill (problems either way). 

Bentham held that there was no qualitative difference amongst pleasures--that one should simply “add them up.” 

Mill, on the other hand, says:

-201 “if I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer.  Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. 


--scientific discovery, classical music, delight in others’ successes. 

--201 “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” 


In Mill there is an implicit appeal to the nature of man and a valuation of a sort other than pleasure and pain!  In his On Liberty he says:  

I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.[9] 

Similarly, in his Principles of Political Economy Mill says: “but there are other things, of the worth of which the demand of the market is by no means a test; things of which the utility does not consist in ministering to inclinations, nor in serving the daily uses of life, and the want of which is least felt where the need is greatest.  This is peculiarly true of those things which are chiefly useful as tending to raise the character of human beings.  The uncultivated cannot be competent judges of cultivation.  Those who most need to be made wiser and better, usually desire it least, and if they desired it, would be incapable of finding the way to it by their own lights.  It will continually happen, on the voluntary system, that, the end not being desired, the means will not be provided at all....”[10] 

The distinction between kinds of pleasures engenders problems for Mill however.  To say that pleasure is the only valuable thing and to say that there are distinctions (of value) amongst the different kinds of pleasures is somewhat like saying: “I care about nothing but money, but I wouldn’t come by it dishonestly.” 

5. Mill’s “Proof” of his Doctrine:

214 The only proof that something is desirable is that it is desired. 

6. Act vs. Rule Utilitarianism:

Act utilitarians maintain we should choose the actions which provide the highest utility.  If breaking a promise, for example, had better positive than negative consequences, they would maintain that it was right for one to break one’s promise. 

Rule utilitarians, on the other hand, maintain that we should act on the rule which tends to promote the highest utility.[11]  If promise keeping generally is conducive to positive utility, they would contend that one must keep one’s promise even in those cases where breaking it would, this time, have positive consequences. 

7. Correctness Considerations:

punishment of the innocent

difficulty of calculation


kinds of pleasure

do we desire things other than happiness (intrinsically)?

could someone not desire happiness? 

8. Sanctions for Utilitarianism:

In Chapter III of his Utilitarianism, Mill maintains that:

213-214 the deeply rooted conception which every individual even now has of himself as a social being tends to make him feel it one of his natural wants that there should be harmony between his feelings and aims and those of his fellow creatures....This feeling in most individuals is much inferior to their selfish feelings, and is often wanting altogether.  But to those who have it, it possesses all the characters of a natural feeling.  It does not present itself to their minds as a superstition of education or a law despotically imposed by the power of society, but as an attribute which it would not be well for them to be without.  This conviction is the ultimate sanction of the greatest happiness morality.  This it is which makes any mind of well-developed feelings work with, and not against, the outward motives to care for others.... 

Notes: (click on note number to return to text for the note)

[1] D.H. Monro, “James Mill,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy v. 5, ed. Paul Edwards (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 312-314, p. 314.  Monro cites the second paragraph from Mill’s Autobiography. 

[2] D.H. Monro, “Jeremy Bentham,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy v. 1, op. cit., pp. 280-285, p. 282.  Emphasis added twice. 

[3] Richard Brandt, “The Real and Alleged Problems of Utilitarianism,” in Right Conduct: Theories and Applications (second edition), eds. Michael Bayles and Kenneth Henley (N.Y.: Random House, 1989), pp. 122-130, p. 125.  Brandt’s essay originally appeared in Hastings Center Report v. 13 (April 1983), pp. 37-43. 

[4] Cf., Fred Feldman, Introductory Ethics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978), pp. 21-29 for a good treatment of Mill’s principle. 

[5] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism [1863], selections in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (6th edition), eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2011), pp. 197-236.  References to this work throughout the remainder of the supplement are to these selections. 

[6] Cf., Fred Feldman, Introductory Ethics, op. cit., pp. 21-26 for a discussion of various different formulations of a “utilitarian maxim” in an effort to precisely specify what Mill is saying. 

[7] Ibid., p. 25. 

[8] Cf., Jeremy Bentham, “The Utilitarian Calculus” (excerpted from his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation [1789]) in Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), op. cit., pp. 194-196, pp. 194-195. 

[9] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty [1859], in Classics of Western Philosophy (fourth edition), ed. Steven M. Cahn (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995), p. 1177. 

[10] Cited in R.J. Arneson, “Democracy and Liberty in Mill’s Theory of Government,” Journal of the History of Philosophy v. 20 (1982), pp. 43-64, p. 63. 

[11] Cf., Louis Pojman, “Utilitarianism,” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (fifth edition), op. cit., pp. 179-182, esp. p. 181. 

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Last revised: 09/10/2013