Utilitarianism | Study Guide

John Stuart Mill

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Utilitarianism | Chapter 3 : The Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility | Summary



In this chapter, Mill looks at the psychology of moral motivation. In particular, he wants to show that nonutilitarian motives for obeying one moral code can also in practice result in to obedience to utilitarianism. As Mill writes, "In regard to any supposed moral standard—What is its sanction? what are the motives to obey it? or more specifically, what is the source of its obligation?" Mill discusses two sources of motivation, external and internal sanctions. Both of these, he argues, support utilitarianism.

A "sanction" is a source of pleasure or pain. Because avoiding pain is a greater incentive than the reward of pleasure, Mill thinks, it is worthwhile to consider the ways that one who does not act according to the utilitarian standard may suffer. That suffering is where utilitarianism gets its force.

People act either based on the results of deliberation, or out of habit. In either case, Mill thinks that the goal of any action is pleasure, and the absence of pain. It is the desire for the former, and the aversion to the latter that ultimately determines one's actions.

Over time, one associates certain things with the feeling of pleasure, so that the idea of that thing becomes desirable either in itself or in connection with the pleasure with which it is associated. Such association is part of both internal and external sanctions of utilitarianism, and so also a source of moral motivation.

External sanctions are those external sources of potential pleasure or pain, such as the approval or disapproval of other individuals. This can involve feelings rather than actions, such as when one experiences sympathetic emotions. People learn to become aware of how their actions affect others: "The good of others," Mill writes, "becomes our pleasure because we have learnt to find pleasure in it." Absent the power of this sort of sanction, one would likely not feel such concern for others' happiness.

Mill includes divine favor and disfavor in the class of external sanctions. External sanctions can be greater motivation than one's own desires—as Mill points out, for example, fear of God's disapproval motivates one "to do his will independently of selfish consequences."

The general improvement of humanity's condition depends on people's responses to these external sanctions—which means paying attention to and sympathizing with others. Progress is made with greater social, political, and economic equality, and this equality reflects an increase in fellow feeling: "Not only does all strengthening of social ties, and all healthy growth of society, give to each individual a stronger personal interest in practically consulting the welfare of others; it also leads him to identify his feelings more and more with their good." Civilization progresses "by removing the sources of opposition of interest, and levelling those inequalities of legal privilege between individuals or classes."

Mill discusses one internal sanction, the "feeling of duty." Duty is a "mass of feeling," Mill writes, "which must be broken through in order to do what violates our standard of right, and which, if we do nevertheless violate that standard, will probably have to be encountered afterwards in the form of remorse." Duty is, then, a profound internal dictate, a non-negotiable demand that one do or not do something that feels almost impossible to resist, because it comes from oneself.

This internal sanction, also called "the essence of Conscience," is more powerful than any external sanction. As such, Mill claims it to be "the ultimate sanction of the principle of utility." Part of the motivation, as it is with external sanctions, is avoidance of negative feelings that likely attend a failure to fulfill one's duty. Guilt and remorse are painful mental feelings, so people naturally want to avoid them.

According to Mill, the feeling of duty—all "moral feelings"—are not innate, but acquired through experience. This does not mean, however, that they aren't natural. Like other "acquired faculties," they are "a natural outgrowth," cultivated through education. As Mill points out, moral feeling "is also susceptible, by a sufficient use of the external sanctions and of the force of early impressions, of being cultivated in almost any direction." People can be taught that their duty is to do ill, too. But because such a sentiment is "artificial," it dissolves under analysis. What makes the moral sentiments associated with utilitarianism less arbitrary, Mill thinks, is their "natural basis ... for utilitarian morality"—while these sentiments do not arise naturally, human nature provides the capacity for their development.

Recognition of "general happiness ... as the ethical standard" provides the "firm foundation" for a social morality that reflects "the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures." This desire, Mill claims, "is already a powerful principle in human nature." Sociability is part of human nature, so that the utilitarian standard of morality is more naturally cultivated in the direction of the feeling of duty. Such feeling makes possible recognizing others as equals, "and since in all states of civilization, every person, except an absolute monarch, has equals ... people grow up unable to conceive as possible to them a state of total disregard of other people's interests."

Mill concludes the chapter by reiterating the significance of the internal sanction—conscience, or feeling of duty—that motivates acting in accordance with the utilitarian principle. The feeling of duty, again, does not arise automatically—one acquires moral feelings through experience and education. In short, moral feelings are cultivated. Nevertheless, the one who has such convictions believes it to be "an attribute which it would not be well for them to be without." As such, this belief "is the ultimate sanction of the greatest happiness of morality." Cultivating this sense of duty is the most sound way to promote the greatest happiness.


In this chapter, Mill articulates and analyzes the two ways people are motivated to accept and act upon morality: external and internal sanctions. Fear of others' disapproval or punishment, for example, constitutes an external sanction, while an appropriately cultivated moral feeling—a sense of duty—generates the internal sanction. One's feeling of duty, or conscience, either generates discomfort over the idea of violating duty, or guilt and remorse if one does actually violate it.

Internal sanctions are more influential than are external ones, since people's ultimate motivations for acting are their own subjective feelings.

External Sanctions

Mill's empiricism is again evident in this chapter. For example, he argues that moral sentiments—specifically the feeling associated with a commitment to the greatest happiness principle—are not innate, but are developed through education and experience. Human beings are naturally self-interested to the point of selfishness.

No one is immune to this condition. Mill cites children, men, and women as examples of selfishness and "sympathetic selfishness." Children do not grasp others' pain until their sympathies have been aroused "by an act of imagination," while a "self-regarding" man "has no higher purpose in life than to enrich or raise in the world himself or his family; who never dreams of making the good of his fellow creatures or his country a habitual object." A woman, prevented from occupying positions outside the home, focuses her attentions on her family's feelings.

For Mill, the cultivation of fellow feeling occurs through education. Through education, "the feeling of unity with our fellow-creatures shall be (what it cannot be denied that Christ intended it to be) as deeply rooted in our character, and to our own consciousness as completely a part of our nature, as the horror of crime is in an ordinarily well brought up young person."

In addition, this chapter reflects one of the influences on Mill's view of social reform, namely the development of awareness of, and attention to, the situation of others different from oneself. In fact, by being put in the position of someone whose circumstances are significantly different from one own, one learns to see the world from that person or group's point of view.

The Internal Sanction

The concept of duty is maybe most famously discussed by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. For Kant, morality is generated by reason. This means that moral principles are a priori—generated outside of, or prior to, experience. Mill, the empiricist, does not accept rationality as the origin of morality. Instead, it is experience. How can experience generate a feeling of obligation, as Mill describes it?

Mill has already asserted that only pleasure is intrinsically desirable. At its core, then, the internal sanction is associated with pleasure, and the absence of pain. Moreover, Mill thinks it's rational for people to adopt the utilitarian principle as binding in the way duty is, since it promotes happiness. How one has been raised determines the subjective feeling that is the internal sanction. So, even if it were innate—and Mill does not think it is—developing the internal sanction involves a process of socialization. People will internalize whatever they experience around them as the dominant morality. Mill's point is that there is no reason for the dominant morality not to be utilitarian.

One's conscience is the internal source of reward and punishment: obeying it brings happiness, and disobeying it brings pain. As Mill points out, however, "this sanction has no binding efficacy on those who do not possess the feelings it appeals to"—if a person has no sense of duty, then there's no chance this kind of internal sanction will work. Then again, "neither will these persons be more obedient to any other moral principle than to the utilitarian one. On them morality of any kind has no hold but through the external sanctions."

Mill also thinks obedience to the internal sanction, the feeling of duty or voice of conscience, makes individuals better off than they would be were they to focus their efforts solely on themselves and those closest to them. This sort of motivation requires the cultivation of impartiality, so that one ultimately treats any other person as they would treat themselves. Nevertheless, Mill argues that human beings are naturally social animals whose desire to be in harmony with others is a strong incentive to adopt the utilitarian morality.

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