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John Stuart Mill’s Theory Overview and Analysis Essay

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John Stuart Mill argues that actions should be solely guided by the Greatest Happiness Principle (9). I find Mill’s argument very convincing. In this essay, I will first briefly summarize the argument. Next, I will discuss an objection that one could possibly raise to it. Then I will reveal a serious hidden flaw in the objection. Finally, I will consider a possible rejoinder to my criticism and explain why it fails.

To the best of my knowledge, the most powerful argument made by Mill for Utilitarianism runs as follows:

  1. Happiness is the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain.
  2. Unhappiness is the presence of pain and the absence of pleasure.
  3. Actions are right in if they produce or promote happiness.
  4. Actions are wrong if they produce the opposite of happiness.
  5. Pleasure/happiness and freedom from pain are the main goals that every man seeks to achieve.
  6. The Utilitarian standard is aimed at promoting the greatest happiness for everyone.
  7. Therefore, everything that is desirable should be done for the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain for everyone (from 5 and 6) (Mill 10).

The argument is valid given that all premises are true. One must necessarily arrive at the conclusion that all desirable actions should be done for the promotion of the greatest good if they accept Mill’s premises. I think this argument is good. However, some people might regard that the sixth premise is problematic. They might even argue that it is false.

For instance, the opponents of this claim might say that the term “everyone” is loosely used, and we cannot determine whose happiness is to be promoted. There are several conceptions of happiness and goodness that different people subscribe to, thus it is difficult and almost impossible to promote the happiness of everyone. This seems to be a formula for chaos as it makes the Utilitarian ensure the conditions with which everyone is satisfied, in order to achieve the greatest happiness.

Plausible as the objection sounds, it cannot stand a careful analysis. The promotion of the good for everyone does not have to necessarily entail an active imposition of what is thought to be good for some people onto everyone. This would undermine the purpose of the principle itself.

The principles of Utilitarianism and greatest happiness are egalitarian in nature; therefore, they seek to equally promote the happiness of everyone. From a theoretical point of view, this seems difficult to achieve, but in practical scenarios, Utilitarianism works well. Utilitarianism is the foundation of political democracy which is commonly seen as an ideal means of governance.

However, it is possible that my opponents would make the following rejoinder. Following the principles of Utilitarianism might curtail the freedom of will of the few, thus Utilitarianism does not achieve its goal of reaching the greatest happiness. My reply to the objection above is that Utilitarianism is a pragmatic principle, and as such, it does not guarantee utopia (Miller 59).

Various individuals have varied interests and conception of happiness, thus it is not practical to try to fulfill all the desires of all the people. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory therefore it is mainly focused on the ends, not the means. It would be wrong to assume that the intended consequence of Utilitarianism is to curtail the freedom or happiness of the few as that would miss the point.

The consequence of following Utilitarian principle – in democracy, for instance – is that the greatest happiness is achieved for the greatest number of people. Such a consequence is the only thing that matters, thus one would be wrong in deducing an intention from a consequence (Brink 69).

The point is that the consequence of promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people has the unwanted effect of not fulfilling the happiness of the minority. Furthermore, following the egalitarian principles contained in Utilitarianism would mean that a democratic government should make an environment that is conducive for the happiness of all.

This would mean that there would be nondiscrimination as everyone’s happiness counts equally so the greatest happiness would be achieved by catering for every person’s needs.

Mill clarifies that the moral agent who follows Utilitarianism ought to act in such a way that they promote the greatest amount of happiness altogether and not just the happiness of the agent (32). This principle would preclude someone acting on the principles of Utilitarianism from acting in a selfish and self-serving manner.

It is useful to further clarify that Utilitarianism gives one both the positive and the negative duty (West 196), i.e. the promotion of happiness and the prevention of pain. One is bound, therefore, to pursue his/her happiness so far as it does not cause others pain. There are very few instances in the pragmatic world in which people with opposing desires meet halfway and both end up happy.

However, using the greatest happiness principle seems to have a tolerably better outcome for such an impasse. It is the duty of the moral agent who solves the dispute between the two opposing parties not only to follow the course of action that results in the greatest happiness, but also to ensure that its effects cause the least pain. This is the ideal situation in Utilitarianism.

The objection presented is, therefore, aptly dealt with by showing that the Utilitarian has no intention in causing pain to the minority. Pain is practically inevitable therefore it is the duty of the Utilitarian to ensure as little pain as possible.

In conclusion, Mill presents a good theory that guides actions at both the individual and the societal levels. The theory is considered wrong in light of some morally questionable acts like torture, but it is a strong claim when it comes to dealing with moral dilemmas at a societal level.

Works Cited

Brink, David. “Mill’s Deliberative Utilitarianism.” Philosophy & Public Affairs. 21.1(1992): 67-103. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, 1871. Print.

Miller, Dale. John Stuart Mill. Maiden: Polity Press, 2010. Print.

West, Henry. An Introduction to Mill’s Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

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