Chapter (1-2, 5)
By John Stuart Mill
The general idea put forth in Mill’s “Utilitarianism” is the idea that a rational rule is needed to help determine between right and wrong, rather than just relying on people’s innate sense of justice. He proposes the utility or greatest-happiness principle, which argues that the good action is the one that provides the most happiness to the greatest number of people, with each person’s happiness weighed equally. He argues that this rule can be used to help just among multiple competing ideas about justice.
Chapter 1: General Remarks
Mill begins by noting that there are many people that believe humans have an instinct or moral sense that helps them identify what is right and wrong. However, it’s still possible to have disagreement. The Utility, or Greatest-Happiness Principle, provides a rational way to identify right and wrong without relying on instinct. The purpose of the book is to provide rational grounds for accepting utilitarianism by clarifying the theory.
Chapter 2: What Utilitarianism Is
Utility means pleasure and happiness and absence of pain or unhappiness. The theory assumes that all things are done for pleasure or as a means to promote pleasure. This doesn’t mean that there is no higher end or nobler pursuit in life than pleasure, because it takes into account the fact that humans find pleasure in more advanced activities. It acknowledges that happiness is more than just contentment, and that some pleasures are more desirable or valuable than others. For example, it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
However, Utilitarianism stresses not just the agent’s happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether. Therefore, Utilitarianism could support the idea of sacrifice, but only if the sacrifice was done for the happiness of others. It may seem difficult to take into account the happiness of everyone when making each decision, but in general, a person only needs to consider their happiness and the happiness of those directly involved. Only public figures and other unique individuals need to take into account the happiness of many people at once.
Some people don’t like the idea that utilitarianism focuses on the action that is done and not on the moral qualities of the person. However, Mill argues that it is correct to say that an action was good, regardless of whether the person that did the action was good or bad. Mill argues that Utilitarianism doesn’t have to conflict with other sets of morals, religious or otherwise, but that it can help to interpret and understand those morals. Utilitarianism is also criticized because it can be used to defend any decision, but Mill argues that any moral system can be used incorrectly. Even if the application of Utilitarianism may be difficult, it is better than having no system.
Chapter 5: On the connection between Justice and Utility
One obstacle to the doctrine of utility as a criterion of right and wrong, is the idea that justice is based on something that exists in nature and is absolute. Mill examines this issue by examining what the natural meaning of justice might be. He notes that it is considered unjust to violate someone’s legal rights. These are rights which are given to him in law. However, the legal rights could also include those that ought to belong to him, but don’t because of a bad law. In this case, some believe it is ok to break the law, while others argue that even a bad law shouldn’t be broken. Others believe that justice is based on giving each person what he deserves – good for good and evil for evil. Some believe justice is based on keeping promises or agreements or on being impartial and treating people equally.
Justice seems to be the same as the effort to determine right and wrong. It involves the desire to punish someone who has done something wrong combined with a belief that a definite individual has been harmed. Mill suggests that this idea of justice could be based on an animal desire for self-defense and retaliation.
However, there are many different conceptions of justice. Some believe it is just to punish someone only if it helps to set an example for others. Some believe a person should be punished for his own good. Still others believe that a person should never be punished because he didn’t have control over his background and upbringing that caused him to become a criminal. Each of these maxims can be ok as long as no other maxims are introduced. But if there are multiple conceptions of justice, there is no way to decide among them. Therefore, justice can be linked to the idea of utility, and this can help to define what is right in different situations.
In the Greatest-Happiness principle, one person’s happiness must be considered equal in degree for exactly as much as another’s. Everyone has an equal claim to happiness. The effect this has on society can be seen in the decrease in social inequalities. “Social inequalities, when they cease to be seen as expedient, appear to be unjust, and people wonder how they were ever tolerated.”
“The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freeman, noble and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of color, race, and sex.