John Stuart Mill

Utilitarianism’s Lack of Utility: Part I

In this article, I will lay the groundwork for my criticism of utilitarianism. In my next article I will explain why I think utilitarianism has very little utility.

Ethics is a field for abnormal situations. Amongst the various ethical theories and philosophies put out there, there is wide agreement on most questions. Should I steal from my neighbor? Should I attack the man who honked at me? Should I burn down a hospital? All of these questions have a clear answer (of “No!”) for almost all ethical models. Is abortion moral? Should the government care for those who choose a life of poverty? How transparent should a company be? These questions are those with which the ethicist grapples. The value of a good theory (aside from being grounded in metaphysical truth) is its usefulness in addressing difficult questions. However, an ethical theory that has flexible definitions for moral maxims will struggle to grapple with the tougher questions. Mill’s utilitarianism, for this reason, is a theory of ethics with very little practical utility. In this article series, I will present both Rawls and Nozick’s approaches to ethics and show how, even though they disagree with one another, both offer a more useful framework than utilitarianism to answer the difficult questions we face today.

Before I begin my inquiry and critique of utilitarianism, it is pertinent that I clarify the object of this discussion. I will focus on Mill’s statement of the Utility Principle rather than Bentham’s; I find Mill to be a more thoughtful writer and more of a challenge to push against. Utilitarianism, for Mill, is a theory of ethics that seeks to answer tough ethical questions using the greatest happiness principle. That is, “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” (Mill, 186) [1]. Mill goes on to clarify that, “By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure” (186). In answering difficult ethical questions, the utilitarian must look at the pleasure that would come from various responses to the dilemma and then measure out which action increases pleasure the most (or prevents the most pain). We will use Mill’s definition as we explore the challenges to Mill and how he responds.

To properly critique Mill, it is important to avoid falling into the pitfalls of some of the criticism he addresses in chapter 2 of Utilitarianism. While there are a variety of challenges, three of them stand out as common challenges to utilitarianism today: the irreligious challenge, the baseness challenge, and the subjective challenge. [2] In Mill’s time and today, utilitarianism often stands as a counterpoint to religious ethics, whether virtue or otherwise. Utilitarianism is a “Godless doctrine,” and, as a result, it cannot be a good theory of ethics should God exist. Mill responds that “if it is a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures […] Utility [is a] more profoundly religious [doctrine] than any other” (198). Similarly, when challenged that the utilitarian will relay man to his basest animal pleasures (187-188) Mill replied that, “it is quite compatible with the principle of utility […] that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others” (187). Utilitarianism must ensure that, “Quality [is] considered as well as quantity” (187). In these responses, we begin to see how Mill’s utilitarian can answer these challenges by broadening an understanding of pleasure beyond what assumptions we might take into the conversation.

The most interesting challenge to Mill is the subjective challenge Mill wrestles with in the discussion of the sanction of utilitarianism. Unlike the other challenges, Mill does not respond to it by arguing it is untrue, but by accepting the premise and saying it is true and good. The sanction of the Greatest Happiness Principle is, “A feeling in our mind; a pain, more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty, which in properly cultivated moral natures rises, in the more serious cases, into shrinking from it as an impossibility” (204). Knowing that the sanction being man’s feeling will draw criticism, Mill writes, “The ultimate sanction, therefore, of all morality (external motives apart) being a subjective feeling in our minds, I see nothing embarrassing to those whose standard is a utility” (205). Mill goes on to challenge all other sanctions of morality as being similarly rooted in feeling; utilitarianism is the ethics that owns this fact. I believe this answer Mill gives to be his weakest and highlights the problem inherent in a utilitarian form of ethics.

By this point, we have established the sanction of utilitarianism and responses to most of its common detractors. Now I will transition into why the strengths of Mill’s responses stem from a weakness of his theory—that it holds little real value. Mill optimistically puts forward the view that the reason behind utilitarianism lies with “social influences which would make its [the sanction of utilitarianism] obligation felt by mankind at large” (209). That is to say, the determining principle of utility is the social sphere, a subjective measure.  Yet, even within his theory, we see the breakdown of a subjective moral principle. The flexibility of the term “pleasure” leads to a variety of possibilities where different people’s ideas of pleasure will conflict. Mill asserts philosophical pleasure as “higher” than animalistic pleasure, but what principle allows such a value statement? Utilitarianism is adaptable and can be used by most people to justify their moral code; however, for that reason, it is extremely unhelpful in answering difficult questions. For the next article, I will analyze two other ethicists, Rawls and Nozick, and I will aim to show why both of them put forward more useful ethical theories than utilitarianism.

[1] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism and On Liberty. Second Edition, edited by Mary Warnock. Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

[2] There is the martyr challenge (193) which asks why we should admire a martyr. While I do not think it was worth including in the piece, it is worth mentioning because it highlights the nobility of Mill’s theory. Mill’s utilitarianism is most profoundly not selfish ethics, instead, it is a strict calculation of what would obtain the most happiness from the most people. This calculation allows for the martyr to suffer to get the happiness of those he suffers for, whether in this life or the next.


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