Utilitarianismby John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill's book Utilitarianism is a philosophical defense of utilitarianism in ethics. The essay first appeared as a series of three articles published in Fraser's Magazine in 1861; the articles were collected and reprinted as a single book in 1863. It went through four editions during Mill's lifetime with minor additions and revisions. Throughout the volume,… See more details below
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John Stuart Mill's book Utilitarianism is a philosophical defense of utilitarianism in ethics. The essay first appeared as a series of three articles published in Fraser's Magazine in 1861; the articles were collected and reprinted as a single book in 1863. It went through four editions during Mill's lifetime with minor additions and revisions. Throughout the volume, Mill writes mainly as if addressing opponents of utilitarianism, but here he is trying also to criticise and refine the understanding of the Greatest-Happiness Principle offered by earlier utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham in particular.
Although Mill includes discussions of utilitarian ethical principles in other works such as On Liberty and The Subjection of Women, Utilitarianism contains Mill's only major discussion of the fundamental grounds for utilitarian ethical theory.
The essay is divided into five chapters: General Remarks; What Utilitarianism Is; Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility; Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible; and On the Connection Between Justice and Utility.
In the first two chapters, Mill aims to define precisely what utilitarianism claims in terms of the general moral principles that it uses to judge concrete actions, as well as in terms of the sort of evidence that is supposed to be given for such principles. He hopes thus to do away with some common misunderstandings of utilitarianism, as well as to defend it against philosophical criticisms, most notably those of Kant. In the first chapter, he distinguishes two broad schools of ethical theory — those whose principles are defended by appeals to intuition and those whose principles are defended by appeals to experience. He identifies utilitarianism as one of the empirical theories of ethics.
In the second chapter, Mill formulates a single ethical principle, from which he says all utilitarian ethical principles are derived: The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.
Most importantly, it is not the agent's own greatest happiness that matters "but the greatest amount of happiness altogether." Utilitarianism, therefore, can only attain its goal of greater happiness by cultivating the nobleness of individuals so that all can benefit from the honor of others. In fact, notes Mill, Utilitarianism is actually a "standard of morality" which uses happiness of the greater number of people as its ultimate goal.
In the third chapter, Mill discusses questions concerning the motivation to follow utilitarian moral principles. He explores ways in which both external and internal sanctions — that is, the incentives provided by others and the inner feelings of sympathy and duty — encourage people to act in such a way as to promote general happiness.
The fourth chapter offers Mill's attempt at an inductive proof of the Greatest-Happiness Principle, on the grounds that happiness and happiness alone is desired as an end in itself.
The fifth chapter concludes the essay with a discussion of problems concerning utilitarianism, as well as the concept of justice. Critics of utilitarianism often claim that judging actions solely in terms of their consequences is incompatible with a foundational and universally binding concept of justice. Mill sees this as the strongest objection to utilitarianism and sets out to argue that a binding concept of justice can be explained in strictly utilitarian terms; and that the problems created by the utilitarian explanation are difficult problems for any concept of justice whatsoever, whether utilitarian or not.
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