Utilitarianism | Study Guide

John Stuart Mill

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Utilitarianism | Chapter 4 : Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible | Summary



So far, Mill has presented, explained, and defended the utilitarian moral theory. Now he moves on to consider what proof there is that utilitarianism is as plausible an option as any competing moral theory. According to Mill, first principles, or the foundational assumptions of a theory, cannot be rationally proven, only discovered in experience. So on the face of it, it is hard to see why utilitarianism should be believed. Why should people believe that happiness is the only thing intrinsically desirable?

Happiness is not an abstract idea, but a goal of action and state of being. The proof that happiness or pleasure is desirable, Mill asserts, is the fact that people do desire it. One need only observe that people pursue what they desire to draw this conclusion. It is "one of the ends of conduct," that is, it is one of the goals people want to achieve. Other ends are also desirable, such as virtue, health, and art. Mill claims they are both means to happiness, and also are "part of" it. Since one always desires that which is a part of, or a means to, happiness, "happiness is the sole end of human action, and ... the criterion of morality."

Desire itself is, Mill thinks, not fundamentally different from the will. Both are mental states; desire is passive, and will is active. Another way to put it is that will is desire, activated. In relation to virtue, a desire to be virtuous creates the virtuous will. Contrary to Kant's view of the "good" or virtuous will, which is claimed to be good in itself, Mill thinks the virtuous will is "a means to good." Since happiness is good, the virtuous will does not contradict happiness as the end of human action.


Empirical Evidence of Happiness as a Good

Mill thinks that empirical analysis, more specifically, psychological examination, supports utilitarianism. The only available evidence of anything inherently good is the desire people have for happiness. That evidence is provided by sensation and awareness—in other words, human experience. In keeping with what he has argued so far, then, it is clear that Mill continues an empirical approach to a proof of the principle of utility.

The evidence of utilitarianism's plausibility—that happiness is a good people should pursue—is that people desire their own happiness, which they take to be good. It is reasonable to claim that no one desires what they believe is bad for them; no one desires what they know is harmful or painful. Mill's logic here is painfully and obviously flawed. People can and do desire what they know is harmful or painful, often because they are unable to distinguish (or to care about the distinction) between long- and short-term pleasures. A man will drink gin, knowing he will suffer a hangover tomorrow, so he can feel good now. Again, Mill assumes an essential nobility to man that is laudable and that may have encompassed his experience among his social circle, but it fails to account for all of humanity, particularly that portion living in straitened circumstances.

Positing happiness as a goal of life is not new. Plato and Aristotle, for example, argued that people aim for what is good, or what they take to be good. Moreover, that good is equated with a conception of happiness. Thus, happiness, as the end of conduct, is also a guide to it. For Mill, happiness is a criterion of morality. But is it the only criterion? Mill's answer is yes. As it is the only thing that people desire, it is the only criterion of morality.

Happiness and Virtue

Although some of Mill's discussion is complicated, it boils down to the claim that whatever one desires is either a means to happiness or is happiness itself. So, virtue and other desirable things are part of happiness. They can also become equivalent to happiness, if they are the end of action. Part of the point here is that Mill wants to challenge the common view of the time, namely that virtue is distinct from happiness. It is worth remembering that morality in Victorian England was associated with austerity.

Mill's conception of happiness is robust enough to challenge the morality of his day, and any similar moralities today. He has argued that the greatest happiness principle is broad enough to include individual and social good, and to encompass a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Moreover, it has the power—in terms of both external and internal sanctions—to motivate and guide action. Finally, happiness is not simply an abstract idea or ideal, but instead is an integral component, and ultimate goal, of action.

Individual and "Aggregate" Happiness

It is worth noting that Mill's argument involving an individual's desire for happiness extends to a desire for everyone's happiness. In other words, Mill can be read as arguing that in desiring one's own happiness, one desires the happiness of all. From the claim that each individual desires their own happiness, Mill does infer that happiness is an essential element of the good of all: "each person's happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons."

In sum, Mill's argument for utilitarianism as the criterion of morality runs as follows: "The sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it." Everyone desires happiness for themselves. So, happiness is a good to each person, individually, and in the aggregate to all persons. Moreover, no one desires what is not either part of one's own happiness or a means to their happiness. Therefore, only happiness is a good to each individual, and in the aggregate to all persons.

One final consideration in this chapter is whether or not Mill is arguing for a descriptive account of morality, or a prescription for morality—is he laying out what is, or what should be? Perhaps it is both. Mill is apparently arguing more for the claim that his account of happiness is descriptively correct, that is, that it accurately describes what we see around us. It's also likely the case, however, that he intends to establish utilitarianism as a competitive moral alternative to the current (Victorian) custom. It's clear that he thinks utilitarianism is superior to other moralities, specifically that the utilitarian viewpoint is more humane than the alternatives.

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