Lecture Supplement on Mill’s Utilitarianism [1863] 

Copyright 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli

Chapter I. General Remarks:  

198 While “first principles” come second in the case of theoretical reasoning, they come first, however, and are essential in the case of practical reasoning. 

Many throughout time have adhered to the greatest happiness principle. 

199 Kant’s moral dictum [“So act, that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings.”] is actually justified by appeal to the consequences of the adoption of this rule. 

-We will have to consider this claim when we take up Kant’s theory later! 

Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof.  Extrinsic goods may be proven to be so in a straight-forward manner, but intrinsic goods may not be so grounded. 

-But this doesn’t mean that we may accept just anything as intrinsically good: “the subject is within the cognizance of the rational faculty; and neither does that faculty deal with it solely in the way of intuition.  Considerations may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to the doctrine; and this is equivalent to proof.” 

Chapter II. What Utilitarianism Is:

200 Greatest Happiness Principle. 

Pleasure is the only thing which is intrinsically desirable. 

Pleasure is a rich concept—humans are not here represented in a degrading light. 

201 Utilitarianism can allow for distinctions amongst kinds of pleasures: “it would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.” 

-How we judge which are higher—those experienced in both kinds are to judge. 

--A being with the “higher faculties” may take more to make him/her happy, but he/she would never trade the higher pleasures for the lower. 

--It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied rather than a pig satisfied.  “And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” 

--In his “Education and Values” Brand Blanshard maintains that: “Socrates’ life was better [than that of the satisfied pig] because, whether more pleasant or not, it involved a completer fulfillment of powers.  Grant the pig as generous a gastronomic capacity as one wishes, still one must admit that its intellectual, moral, and aesthetic horizons are limited, while those of Socrates are all but unlimited.  What gave Socrates’ life its value was the free play of a magnificent mind, the fulfillment in thought, feeling, and practice of a great intellect and a great heart.”[1] 

201-202 Men of infirm character will sometimes choose the near (and lesser) good!  

202 Capacity for noble pleasures is a “tender plant.” 

In judging which is the better pleasure/amount of pleasure, refer to the majority view of the qualified judges.   

Replies to “Common” Objections To Utilitarianism:

203 1. Some claim that the greatest happiness can not serve as the standard since happiness is unattainable or that men can do without happiness.  Responses:

(a1) even if this where true, the utilitarian doctrine would still have a lot to say—the doctrine has two components, and “...if the former aim be chimerical, there will all the greater scope and more imperative need for the latter....” 

(a2) if one means by ‘happiness’ a continuous state of bliss, then, of course, happiness is impossible: “the happiness which they meant was not a life of rapture; but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive, and having as the foundation of the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing.” 

(b1) 205 while many involuntarily do without happiness, no one really wants to do so.  There are the “wretched of the earth,” and there are the martyrs.  Nonetheless, if we consider it carefully we will see that self-renunciation is a good only when it serves the greatest happiness principle: “a sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness...[is] wasted.” 

205 2. Some will object to utilitarianism because they believe it is egoistic.  Reply:

Utilitarians are not interested simply in the agent’s own happiness.  It is the greatest overall happiness which is important: 

“As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. 

3. 206 Some will object to utilitarianism because they believe that it requires too much of us or “sets the standard too high.  Responses:

(a) “It is the business of ethics to tell us what are our duties or by what test we may know them, but no system of ethics requires that the sole motive of all we do shall be a feeling of duty....”  

-Think about this point later as you read Kant! 

(b) motives are important when we consider not the worth of an act but, rather, when we consider the worth of an agent. 

(c) “...it is a misapprehension of the utilitarian mode of thought to conceive it as implying that people should fix their minds upon so wide a generality as the world or society at large.  The great majority of good actions are intended, not for the benefit of the world but for that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up; and the thoughts of the most virtuous man need not on these occasions travel beyond the particular persons concerned, except so far as is necessary to assure himself that, in benefiting them, he is not violating the rights—that is, the legitimate and authorized expectations—of any one else.” 

4. 206-207 Some hold that utilitarianism renders men cold and unsympathetic.  His response is that here we find a confusion between the worth of an agent and the worth of an action again. 

207 He affirms that there are other factors than utility which are important for assessing the worth of agents, but denies that these are central to morality. 

5. 207-208 Some hold that utilitarianism is a godless doctrine.  He replies that there is no reason to believe that this deity is averse to the utilitarian view! 

6. 208 Some will object to utilitarianism because they believe it confuses morality and expediency.  Response:

“The Expedient, in this sense, instead of being the same thing with the useful, is a branch of the hurtful.” 

7. 208 Another common objection is that there is no time before one has to actually commit the act for one to calculate the consequences.  Replies:

208-209 We have acquired a good number of beliefs in this regard which will stand us in good stead here!  While we can improve our rules of morality (these corollaries of the principle of utility), this does not mean we can not appeal to them as utilitarians.   

209 “There is no ethical creed which does not temper the rigidity of its laws by giving a certain latitude, under the moral responsibility of the agent, for accommodation to peculiarities of circumstances and, under every creed, at the opening thus made, self- deception and dishonest casuistry get in.  There exists no moral system under which there do not arise unequivocal cases of conflicting obligation.  These are the real difficulties, the knotty points both in the theory and in the conscientious guidance of personal conduct....If utility is the ultimate source of moral obligations, utility may be invoked to decide between them when their demands are incompatible.  Though the application of the standard may be difficult, it is better than none at all; while in other systems, the moral laws all claiming independent authority, there is no common umpire entitled to interfere between them, their claims to precedence one over another rest on little better than sophistry, and unless determined, as they generally are, by the unacknowledged influence of considerations of utility, afford a free scope for the action of personal desires and partialities.  We must remember that only in these cases of conflict between secondary principles is it requisite that first principles should be appealed to.” 

Criticism: in his “The Moral First Aid Manuel,” Daniel Dennett maintains that much ethical theory is far to “theoretical.”  Regarding utilitarianism, for example, he maintains that for Mill

utilitarianism is supposed to be practical, but not that practical.  Its true role is as a background justifier of the foreground habits of thought of real moral reasoners.  This background role for ethical theory…has proven, however, to be ill-defined and unstable.  Just how practical is a system of ethical thinking supposed to be?….
For the most part philosophers have been content to ignore the practical problems of real-time decision-making, regarding the brute fact that we are all finite and forgetful, and have to rush to judgment, as a real but irrelevant element of friction in the machinery whose blueprint they are describing.  It is as if there might be two disciplines—ethics proper, which undertakes the task of calculating the principles of what the ideal agent ought to do under all circumstances—and then the less interesting “merely practical” discipline of Moral First Aid, or What to do Until the Doctor of Philosophy Arrives, which tells, in rough-and-ready terms, how to make “on line” decisions under time pressure..[2] 

If there is a Moral Almanac actually in use, then, it is less like the Nautical Almanac than it is like The Old Farmer’s Almanac—an unsystematic collection of wise sayings, informal precepts, traditional policies, snatches of taboo, and the like, a vade mecum vaguely approved of by the experts—who, after all, rely on it themselves—but so far lacking credentials.[3] 

Dennett appeals to “satisficing” accounts of real-time decision-making to provide a model for moral deliberation.[4] 

Chapter III: Of The Ultimate Sanction[5] of the Principle of Utility:

210 Mill contends that utilitarians have no difficulty offering standard accounts if the external sanctions for their morality.  The standard external standards individuals appeal to (hope of favor, fear of displeasure, sympathy, and affection) can all be appealed to.  

211 Ultimately, however, it is the internal sanctions which are important, and, here too, utilitarians need have no difficulties: they may appeal to “the conscientious feelings of mankind!”

He admits that there are those who want to appeal to some transcendental and objective fact to ground morality (as we will see, Kant surely fits into this mold).  Mill contends, however, that:

“…whatever a person’s opinion may be on this point of Ontology, the force he is really urged by is his own subjective feeling, and is exactly measured by its strength.  No one’s belief that Duty is an objective reality is stronger than the belief that God is so; yet the belief in God, apart from expectation of actual reward and punishment, only operates on conduct through, and in proportion to, the subjective religious feeling.”  As we read Kant, you will need to consider whether this constitutes a criticism of his view! 

212 Mill contends, however that the fact that our [moral] feelings are not innate doesn’t make them either unnatural or without force.  Like the acquired capacities of reasoning, speaking, building cities, and farming, they can have very great force in regard to our practical activities.   

“…there is this basis of powerful natural sentiment; and this it is which, when once the general happiness is recognized as the ethical standard, will constitute the strength of the utilitarian morality.  This firm foundation is that of the social feelings of mankind the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures, which is already a powerful principle in human nature, and happily one of those which tend to become stronger, even without express inculcation….” 

-212-213 “any condition, therefore, which is essential to a state of society, becomes more and more an inseparable part of very person’s conception of the stat of things which he is born into, and which is the destiny of a human being.  Now society between human beings, except in the relation of master an slave, is manifestly impossible on any other footing than that the interests of all are to be consulted.  Society between equals can only exist on the understanding that the interests of all are to be regarded equally.  And since in all stares of civilization, every person, except an absolute monarch, has equals, every one is obliged to live on these terms with somebody; and in every age some advance is made towards a state in which it will be impossible to life permanently on other terms with anybody.” 

-213 “This mode of conceiving ourselves and human life, as civilization goes on, is felt to be more and more natural.  Every step in political improvement renders it more so, by removing the sources of opposition of interest, and leveling those inequalities….”

Criticism: while this seems to have so much going for human history from 1863 to the present has much to raise some caution to the “history” he is relating: World Wars; religious conflicts (throughout the world and the religions); genocides; the active use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons; enduring racism; etc., cab all lead one to wonder whether his view here is correct. 

213-214 Mill, then, claims that the ultimate sanction for the utilitarian morality is:  

“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....” 

Chapter IV: Of What Sort of Proof Is the Principle of Utility Susceptible? 

214 Questions of ultimate ends are not susceptible of proof. 

Questions of ends are questions about desirability:

“The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible is that people actually see it.  The only proof that a sound is audible is that people hear it; and so of the other sources of our experience.  In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it.” 


-First criticism of the proof: we should, perhaps, distinguish various senses of ‘desirable’:

--actually desired,

--capable of being desired, and

--worthy of being desired. 

--Would world peace or an end to slavery or sexism, for example, be any less “desirable” if no one desired these things?[6] 

--While I have not been able to trace down the reference, it is claimed that in commenting on this proof Bertrand Russell pointed out that “everything that is eaten is not edible.” 

-Second criticism of the proof: the paradox of hedonism: thinkers like Joel Feinberg maintain there is something called the “paradox of hedonism,” which maintains that one may be able to achieve happiness not by seeking it directly but, rather, only by seeking other things—it is a by-product of such searches.[7] 

Mill’s proof continues, in what I will call the “second part” of the proof, as he maintains that 214 “this, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good, that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.” 

-Third criticism of the proof: the happiness of the whole is desired by all?  Does he commit the fallacy of composition here?  In his Without Foundations, Don Herzog maintains that “...only sleight of hand makes the greatest happiness a good to all: “the aggregate of all persons“ may not be an entity with a good, and even if it is, Mill gives no reason for any individual to care for others’ happiness.”[8] 

-In his “Is God A Utilitarian?” D.M. Holley cites and develops a criticism of utilitarianism which he draws from Michael Slote: “the principle of utility has long been viewed as expressing the dictates of an impersonal, or impartial benevolence...that is equally interested in the welfare of every individual....But what is benevolence?  Our ordinary notion conveys the idea of wishing well and wishing to do well by, but what is supposed to underlie the principle of utility in current optimizing formulations is some sort of impersonal desire that things should somehow turn out for the best.”[9]  Holey continues: “as Slote points out, a concern for achieving a state of affairs which is viewed as best from an impersonal standpoint can conflict with a benevolent concern to do well by each individual....A benevolent attitude toward the individual is exhibited by a concern to do well by that individual.  A concern to produce an aggregate benefit is a concern to do good to people, on the whole.  If the latter concern is given priority, the concern of the benevolent attitude is compromised.  We can call the latter concern benevolent, but it is a kind of rationally constructed benevolence which has lost touch with its roots.”[10]  

-Fourth criticism of the proof: In her “Utilitarianism and the Virtues,” Philippa Foot maintains that: “consequentialism in some form follows from the premise that morality is a device for achieving a certain shared end.  But why should we accept this view of what morality is and how it is to be judged?  Why should we not rather see that as itself a consequentialist assumption, which has come to seem neutral and inevitable only in so far as utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism now dominate moral philosophy? 
To counter this bewitchment let us ask awkward questions about who is supposed to have the end which morality is supposed to be in aid of.  J.S. Mill notoriously found it hard to pass from the premise that the end of each is the good of each to the proposition that the end of all is the good of all.  Perhaps no such shared end appears in the foundations of ethics, where we may rather find individual ends and rational compromises between those who have them.”[11] 

To Mill’s proof on pp. 214 we need to add the discussion on p. 216.  I will call this the “third part” of his proof to draw attention to its importance here.  To get to this conclusion [p. 216] he has to answer the question: “Is happiness the sole good? 

-What of virtue, for example?   

-214-215 Utilitarians do not deny that “...virtue is to be desired, but that it is to be desired disinterestedly, for itself.  Whatever may the opinion of utilitarian moralists as to the original conditions by which virtue is made virtue, however they may believe (as they do) that actions and dispositions are only virtuous because they promote another end than virtue, yet this being granted, and it having been decided, from considerations of this description, what is virtuous, they not only place virtue at the very head of the things which are good as means to the ultimate end, but they also recognize as a psychological fact the possibility of its being, to the individual, a good in itself, without looking to any end beyond it; and hold that the mind is not in a right state, not in a state conformable to utility, not in the state most conducive to the general happiness, unless it does love virtue in this manner....” 

-215 That is, things which are not ordinarily and initially valued (are not ends in and of themselves), may come to be valued and become part of happiness—“what was once desired as an instrument for the attainment of happiness has come to be desired for its own sake.”   

-215-216 “Virtue, according to the utilitarian conception, is a good of this description.  There was no original desire of it, or motive to it, save its conduciveness to pleasure, and especially to protection from pain.  But through the association thus formed it may be felt a good in itself, and desired as such with as great intensity as any other good; and with this difference between it and the love of money, of power, or of fame--that all these may, and often do, render the individual noxious to the other members of the society to which he belongs, whereas there is nothing which makes him so much a blessing to them as the cultivation of the disinterested love of virtue.”   

Thus, nothing besides happiness is desired!  Thus we are led to conclude:

216 “If the opinion which I have now stated is psychologically true—if human nature is so constituted as to desire nothing which is not either a part of happiness or a means of happiness, we can have no other proof, and we require no other, that these are the only things desirable.  If so, happiness is the sole end of human action, and the promotion of it the test by which to judge all human conduct; from whence it necessarily follows that it must be the criterion of morality, since a part is included in the whole. 
And now to decide whether this is really so, whether mankind do desire nothing for itself but that which is a pleasure to them, or of which the absence is a pain; we have evidently arrived at a question of fact and experience, dependent, like all similar questions, upon evidence.  It can only be deterred by practiced self-consciousness and self-observation, assisted by observation of others.  I believe these sources of evidence, impartially consulted, will declare that desiring a thing and finding it pleasant, aversion to it and thinking of it as painful, are phenomena entirely inseparable, or rather two parts of the same phenomenon....”

-Criticism: In her “Moral Saints” Susan Wolf maintains that: “the problem is not exactly that the utilitarian values these aspects of his life [she is taking about nonmoral interests and talents] only as a means to an end, for the enjoyment he and others get from these aspects are not a means to, but a part of the general happiness.  Nonetheless, he values these things only because of and insofar as they are part of the general happiness.  He values them, as it were, under the description ‘a contribution to the general happiness’.  This is to be contrasted with the various ways in which these aspects of life may be valued by nonutilitarians.  A person might love literature because of the insights into nature literature affords.  Another might love the cultivation of roses because roses are things of great beauty and delicacy.  It may be true that these features of the respective activities also explain why these activities are happiness-producing.  For if one values these activities in these more direct ways, one may not be willing to exchange them for others that produce an equal, or even a greater amount of happiness.  From that point of view, it is not because they produce happiness that these activities are valuable; it is because these activities are valuable in more direct and specific ways that they produce happiness.”[12] 

216-217 At the end of the discussion Mill talks about the relation of will and desire:

Will, the active phenomenon, is a different thing from desire, the state of passive sensibility....” 

“...in the case of an habitual purpose, instead of willing the thing because we desire it, we often desire it only because we will it.  This, however, is but an instance of that familiar fact, the power of habit. 

Will is the child of desire.” 

Chapter V. On the Connection Between Justice and Utility:

In this chapter Mill argues that considerations of the importance of justice can be derived from, and best understood, in terms of the promotion of the Greatest Overall Happiness. 

218 “...people find it difficult to see, in Justice, only a particular kind or branch of general utility, and think that its superior binding force requires a totally different origin.” 

218-220 Mill identifies a number of general or considerations which excite our feelings and emotions regarding justice and injustice: violations of legal rights, violations of moral rights, questions of desert, actions constituting breaks of faith, clear cases of partiality, and violations of equality.   

221-222 Mill distinguishes between:

-duties of perfect obligation: “...those duties in virtue of which a correlative right resides in some [specific] person or persons....” and

-duties of imperfect obligation: “...those in which, though the act is obligatory, the particular occasions of performing it are left to our choice; as in the case of charity or beneficence, which we are indeed bound to practice, but not toward any definite person, nor at any prescribed time.” 

Justice, of course, is a duty of perfect obligation.   

222-228 Justice is so important for happiness, that intense feelings center on it and society is strongly motivated to ensure that the dictates of justice are enforced. 

-228 “…this great moral duty rests upon a still deeper foundation, being a direct -emanation from the first principle of morals, and not a mere logical corollary from secondary or derivative doctrines.  It is involved in the very meaning of Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle.  That principle is a mere form of words without rational signification, unless one person’s happiness, supposed equal in degree (with proper allowance made for kind), is counted for exactly as much as another’s.” 


Click here for Selected Criticisms of Mill, Hedonism, and Utilitarianism

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

[1] Brand Blanshard, “Education and Values,” in his The Uses of A Liberal Education (LaSalle: Open Court, 1973), p. 98. 

[2] Daniel Dennett, “The Moral First Aid Manuel,” in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values v. 8, ed. Sterling M. McMurrin (Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah, 1988), pp. 121-147, p. 123. 

[3] Ibid., pp. 129-130. 

[4] Cf., Herbert Simon, Models of Men [1957], and “Theories of Decision-Making in Economics and Behavioral Science,” The American Economic Review v. 49 (1959), pp. 253-283. 

[5] According to Dictionary.com, in this sense of the word ‘sanction’  means: authoritative permission or approval, as for an action; something that serves to support an action, condition, etc.; something that gives binding force, as to an oath, rule of conduct, etc.  Philosophers use single quotes to surround a word when they are mentioning it rather than using it.  For example, in the sentence “`Long’ is a short word,” the word `long’ is mentioned (discussed) while the word `short’ is used! 

[6] Cf. Fred Feldman, Introductory Ethics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1978), pp. 41-46 for an excellent treatment of this.  Cf., also, Everett Hall, “The ‘Proof’ of Utility In Bentham and Mill,” Ethics v. 60 (1949), pp. 1-18; Richard H. Popkin, “A Note on the `Proof’ of Utility in J.S. Mill,” Ethics v. 61 (1950), pp. 66-68; and cf. D. Herzog, Without Foundations (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985), pp. 135 ff. 

[7] Cf., Joel Feinberg, “Psychological Egoism” [1958] in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (second edition), ed. Louis Pojman (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1995), pp. 62-73, esp. pp. 66-67. 

[8] Don Herzog, Without Foundations, op. cit., pp. 135 ff.  Emphasis added to passage. 

[9] D.M. Holley, “Is God A Utilitarian?” Religious Studies v. 29 (1993), pp. 27-45, p. 39.  Holley is citing Michael Slote’s “Utilitarianism, Moral Dilemmas, and Moral Cost” (American Philosophical Quarterly v. 22 (1985), p. 163) at this point.  Emphasis added to passage. 

[10] Ibid. 

[11] Philippa Foot, “Utilitarianism and the Virtues,” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (fifth edition), Louis Pojman, op. cit., pp. 430-441, pp. 434-435, cf., esp. pp. 434-436.  The essay originally appeared in Mind v. 94 (1985). 

[12] Susan Wolff, “Moral Saints,” The Journal of Philosophy v. 79 (1982), pp. 419-439, p. 429.  The essay is reprinted in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (fifth edition), ed. Louis Pojman, op. cit., pp. 430-441. 

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