Utilitarianism | Study Guide

John Stuart Mill

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Utilitarianism | Main Ideas


Guiding Moral Philosophy

How can one decide which actions are right and wrong? The most obvious source for such a guide, Mill thinks, is experience itself. Those values learned through one's family, education, and socialization become the compass that dictates people's actions and helps them prioritize their concerns.

Each individual desires happiness or pleasure for themselves. Happiness is, then, the one commonality for all people. A society organized around the promotion of happiness is a society that reflects respect for individual rights, equality of persons, and social welfare.

Mill's experience was extraordinary. The family to which he belonged, while not wealthy, was well off and acquainted with powerful friends. His education was vigorous. And he was a citizen of the most prosperous nation in the world at the height of its global power. Thus, his suggested guide for moral behavior ignores the fact that many people's experience of the world is negative and unhappy. Without the experience of happiness, a person can hardly choose happiness. Therefore, Mill's philosophy strikes many 20th-century thinkers as a work of idealism rather than as the practical philosophical guide he intended.

Standard of Happiness

Need for an External and Internal Standard

Mill wants to construct an external, independent, and universal standard of moral rectitude to guide individual and social behavior. All moral action is ultimately subjectively motivated—an individual chooses to act or not. But according to Mill, people don't naturally value exactly the same things in the same way. What is common to all, though, is the desire for happiness; everyone recognizes happiness as inherently good.

The cultivation of happiness is the result, Mill thinks, of a complicated social process. Capacities for certain feelings must be cultivated over time. For example, the capacity to feel sympathy for another human being can be finely developed, or it can be practically extinguished. Considerable time and effort go into developing that feeling into an internal voice—one's conscience, or sense of duty. Similarly, the desire for others' approval, and aversion to their disapproval, can be cultivated in such a way as to promote utility. Mill does not address a person's motivation for developing the internal standard; instead, he assumes people want to be virtuous and happy and ignores possible impediments to such desires.

Pleasure Has Different Orders

Mill argues that happiness is equated with pleasure, but there are higher and lower orders of pleasure, with baser pleasures given way to higher pursuits of learning, creativity, and knowledge. This distinction is important to Mill's defense of utilitarianism because it distinguishes his brand of utilitarianism from that of his mentor, Jeremy Bentham, and it rescues the quest for pleasure or happiness from being a mere hedonistic pursuit.

Critics charge that utilitarianism is nothing more than the promotion of lowly urges or appetites, and so can't serve as the basis for a moral philosophy. Mill's response is that, while it's true humans share the same basic urges that other animals have, what distinguishes the former from the latter is intellect. The specifically human pleasures, Mill argues, are associated with the aforementioned higher pursuits. Indeed, the one who experiences such pleasures will always prefer those to the lower ones.

Mill points out, however, that there are many people who do not develop their capacities for the higher pleasures. They may not have the opportunity to do so, and in the worst cases, they become incapable of experiencing them. It is worth remembering that Mill doesn't think human beings automatically pursue higher pleasures, despite the fact that such pleasures are natural for them. If a person isn't educated, for example, it becomes increasingly difficult for that person to develop certain intellectual skills. As Mill writes, "Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise."

Obligation of Justice

Mill defends utilitarianism against the charge that it is incompatible with justice, arguing that utility is the moral foundation upon which justice rests. Mill pays careful attention to the features of justice that lead him to conclude that justice is a part of utilitarian morality. Again, this point is a major departure from Bentham and one significant way in which Mill's brand of utilitarianism differs from its founding father.

Mill's view is that, like the objection to utilitarianism as a plausible moral theory, this criticism is based on a misunderstanding. In this case, critics don't have an adequate understanding of the concept and feeling of justice. Mill argues that justice isn't independent of, and superior to, utility, but rather it is an integral part of utility.

The absolute obligation not to violate another's moral right reveals utility as the source of justice. After all, the violation of a right harms the victim, and harms are to be avoided. The connection between a right and justice is what separates justice from other kinds of moral obligation that also have their conceptual origin in utility. Whereas having a right means having a claim on society, other moral obligations do not. As Mill writes, "Justice implies something which it is not only right to do, and wrong not to do, but which some individual person can claim from us as his moral right."

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