Utilitarianism | Study Guide

John Stuart Mill

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Utilitarianism | Summary



Chapter 1

The first chapter, entitled "General Remarks," serves as a preface to the text. Mill introduces some terminological distinctions he will use in subsequent chapters, such as "inductive," which refers to his school of moral theorizing, and "intuitive," which refers to the view his opponents hold. An inductive moral theory is one that holds morality is understood and developed through experience, while an intuitive one holds that humans have a natural or instinctive sense of right and wrong.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2, entitled "What Utilitarianism Is," sets out the core of Mill's theory, along with objections and replies. These objections, Mill thinks, are based on a misunderstanding of what utilitarianism means. Among these misunderstandings is that equating human good with pleasure or happiness is tantamount to a morality more applicable to pigs. Mill responds that human beings are capable of so-called higher pleasures, which are associated with the intellect, moral sentiments, feelings, and imagination. Determining which are the higher pleasures is a matter of consulting those who have experienced them. They, Mill argues, are in the best position to judge.

Among three other objections to which Mill responds are that utilitarianism is self-defeating, since happiness is impossible to attain; that living life without pleasure is not only possible, it is also noble; and that the utilitarian motive for acting—that is, promotion of general happiness—is too demanding. To the objection that happiness is impossible to attain, Mill responds that a life replete with happiness is indeed unattainable, but this is not what he means. He does not mean, as he puts it, "a life of rapture; but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures." To the objection that a noble life is one devoid of pleasure, Mill responds that self-sacrifice is not in itself good, but good to the extent that it increases the aggregate of happiness in the world and decreases unhappiness. Lastly, to the objection that the promotion of general happiness is too demanding a motive for acting, Mill responds that while utilitarianism is the standard by which right and wrong actions are judged, other motives for acting that accord with that standard are acceptable.

Chapter 3

In Chapter 3, entitled "Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility," Mill discusses plausible sources of motivation for adopting the morality of general happiness. Motives cited for following non-utilitarian morality can also suffice for the utilitarian standard.

Chapter 4

Mill's fourth chapter, entitled "Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible," is a psychological argument for the view that morality is bound up with action, to the extent that the end or goal of all action is happiness and the avoidance of unhappiness.

Chapter 5

Mill's final and longest chapter is entitled "On the Connection between Justice and Utility." In it, Mill focuses on another objection to utilitarianism, namely that justice and utility are independent of each other, with justice taking precedence. Mill's response is that the objection is based on a misunderstanding of the mental feeling or sentiment attached to justice.

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