Utilitarianism- Theory of Ethics
John Stuart Mill, lived in the Victorian era (1806-73)
Did not invent it but gave the most extensive review on it
Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory of ethics. It is based on judging our actions as right or
wrong according to whether their consequences are good or bad respectively.
Ulitarianism is a normative ethical theory and its purpose is to give guidance. It suggests a norm or
standard by which to measure whether our actions are right/wrong.
The norm by which such judgements are made is their utility (hence the name of the theory), ie,
their good consequences.
For many utilitarian’s this utility is understood to be happiness, which John S. Mill defines as
“pleasure and the absence of pain” (state that most want to be in). This is a common view and a
measure, something we can grasp and is less abstract.
Equating happiness with pleasure or with the absence of suffering more generally is known as
hedonism. According to hedonistic utilitarianism, then, we ultimately aim to produce a state of
pleasure by our actions- this is intrinsically valuable, that is, good in its own right.
But whose happiness do we aim for by our right actions? - Ourselves, other people we know
around us, depends on the person themselves (in helping those in need, etc.), we aim for praise
by others and a boost of confidence, other peoples happiness depends on your own, by making
others happy we make ourselves happy, we don’t know about other people’s happiness but we
have an idea of what happiness may be
One might assume that it is simply our own happiness that we aim our actions towards. However,
this conception of utilitarianism cannot be right- it would imply that I am morally justified in killing
my neighbour, for example, if doing so brings pleasure. It is counterintuitive (contrary to what
common sense would suggest, unreasonable)
What makes utilitarianism a plausible ethical theory is our thinking of everyone’s happiness as being
equally important. By this measure, a consequence is good in proportion to the number of people it
brings pleasure to as well as the amount of pleasure it might bring to someone.
An action therefore is right if and only if it leads to the greatest general good possible. This is known
as the principle of maximum utility. In other words, if I am faced with two or more options with
respect to my actions then I am morally obliged (obligation to do something=internal thought and
feeling) to do the one that leads to the greatest amount of pleasure for the most people ex- the
greatest amount of overall happiness, what is the best choice? With respect to sacrifice Mill wrote: A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum
of total happiness, it (utilitarianism) considers as wasted. The only self renunciation which it
applauds is devotion to the happiness, or to some of the means to happiness, of others; either of
mankind collectively, or of individuals within the limits imposed by the collective interests of mankind
What you do in the face of happiness
Do we worry too much about others happiness and not our own?
Now acting according to the maximum utility principle may appear to be too demanding. It seems to
entail that everything we do must measure up to this noble end, namely, maximising utility. That is
absurd. One cannot decide our every mundane actions in this way.
It is difficult due to this pressure on is, it needs to be flexible.
Mill agrees. He explains: 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
should be a feeling of duty; on the contrary, ninety nine hundredths of all our actions are
done from other motives and rightly so done, if the rule of duty does not condemn them.
But when do our moral duties end exactly?
You pass a charity stall on your way to the cinema. Are you obliged to give the money you
have to the charity? - it easily maximises utility- or do you go past and buy the ticket?
Giving the money to charity would seem to be an act of supererogation- doing something
beyond your moral duty. But how so? : to do more than is required, we all morally obliged
to help one another in order to be all happy
That said, we often think of our consequences being good in ways other than bringing pleasure. For
example, Paul Gauguin famously abandoned his family to go to Tahiti and paint. This brought misery
to his family and wasn’t popular among Tahitians. But arguable he did the right thing ‘cause the
consequences of his action were beautiful paintings (the greater good= aim, although does it mean
anything based on what he did)
Accordingly some argue that happiness is not only achieved through sensual pleasure, rather it is
also achieved through pleasure derived from appreciation of beauty, love, virtue or knowledge.
These pleasures can be considered good in their own right ex- intrinsically valuable.
Mill recognizes the distinction between sensual and intellectual pleasures. He wrote: “Now
it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally
capable of appreciating and enjoying, both (types of pleasure), do give a marked
preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human
creatures would consent to be changed into lower animals, for the promise of the fullest
allowance of a beast’s pleasures...” (pg.99)
Thinking of our actions as being morally justified by this concept of