Utilitarianism | Study Guide

John Stuart Mill

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Utilitarianism | Chapter 1 : General Remarks | Summary


This study guide follows the organization of the text into five chapters. Subheads have been added to the summaries to clarify the focus of key concepts and arguments in each chapter.


In the history of human knowledge, surprisingly little progress has been made in the field of human morality, "the criterion of right and wrong." Despite the central importance of the question for human wellbeing, the debate around the question of the "summum bonum," or the greatest good, has not changed in thousands of years—since the time, Mill argues, that Socrates put forward a roughly utilitarian argument in Plato's dialogues.

This kind of "confusion and uncertainty," which is to say, a lack of unanimity or a lack of "first principles," is found in other sciences, too, even in mathematics. For example, algebra is as full of "fictions" and "mysteries," as is a field like theology. Yet this lack of foundational agreement does not "impair" the conclusions of these sciences. Thankfully, few sciences are dependent for their conclusions on concepts derived from first principles. In science, the small particular facts lead to general, larger theories. One might believe that the opposite is true in the "practical arts," like morals or law and legislation—that a general picture of right and wrong is necessary to know whether any singular particular act is right or wrong. Yet Mill says that many might find this faulty, arguing that "a test of right and wrong must be the means" of discovering its rightness, rather than already knowing whether something is right or wrong.

Indeed, many refer to a "natural faculty" or a "moral instinct" intrinsic to human beings that acts as a moral first principle. Yet this cannot serve as anything more than a general guide; it cannot provide guidance or solutions in concrete or specific instances. So even this method relies on first principles, usually undefined. Thus there are two schools of thought, both of which require first principles in the field of moral philosophy. The first is the intuitive school, that contends that morals are shown a priori (through pure reason, rather than experience). The second is the inductive, that believes that right and wrong can only be learned from "observation and experience." Both hold that individual morality is determined by applications of general principles.

Mill argues that there seems to be an overlooked first principle, one first articulated by Jeremy Bentham: "the greatest happiness principle," which is widely used even if it is not widely recognized.


Mill is committed to the view that human beings are natural beings—a part of the natural world. While such a view may seem uncontroversial, it is in direct opposition to thinkers who hold, for example, that human beings transcend physical limits, at least so far as minds are concerned. In other words, contrary to many thinkers in the predominately Christian society in which Mill lived, he does not believe that humans are endowed with special, moral intuition as a result of their possession of a soul. Descartes, for example, argues for a metaphysical distinction between minds and bodies. The former are immaterial substances, the latter material substances. Minds, consequently, are not limited in the ways bodies are.

Mill's thoroughgoing empiricism informs all features of his philosophical views, from the nature of mathematics to morality. Just as mathematical principles are generalizations derived from experience, so morality is understood from observation of, and extrapolations from, experience. Mill's moral theory is constructed using this framework of empiricism—experience, for Mill, is how we should understand morality.

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