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Mill’s Contribution to Ethical Theory & Significance Research Paper

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Updated: May 4th, 2022

Born in England on 20 May 1806, John Stuart Mill can be described as a philosopher, political economist, and social reformer who substantially directed the philosophical thought of the 19th century (BBC, 2012). The son of James Mill, a Scottish philosopher, Mill was subjected to a thorough education right from childhood, beginning with the study of Greek at the tender age of three and progressing to study English, Logic, and Law, before spending at least thirty-five years working for British East India Company (Kemerling, 2011). Although philosophy literature correctly argues that Mill was hugely influenced by the classical utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, a long-time friend of his father (BBC, 2012), the philosopher credited the bulk of his intellectual and personal development to his lengthy and close association with Harriet Hardy Taylor, whom he married in 1852 after the death of her first husband (Kemerling, 2011). It is demonstrated in the literature that Mill and Jeremy were indisputably the two most significant utilitarians prior to Henry Sidgwick (Jacobson, 2008).

Contribution to Ethical Theory & Significance to a Recent Event

Although Mill contributed immensely in many spheres of philosophy, including logic, metaphysics, and epistemology, the philosopher is most famous for his political theory as well as hedonic utilitarianism ethics (Keele, 2008). In his ethical theory of hedonic utilitarianism, which is, in essence, a form of consequentialism, Mill postulated that the permissibility of actions is primarily determined by evaluating their consequences and comparing those consequences with what would have happened if some other form of action had been performed (Patterson, 2005). The primary thesis of Mill’s utilitarianism, according to this particular author, is that “…actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (p. 73). This presupposition forms the basis of Mill’s principle of utility, which suggests that an action is acceptable if and only if the outcomes of that particular action are as fulfilling as those of any other action that is accessible to the agent and which the agent could have freely undertaken.

Mill’s ethical theory is significant to Ken Salazar’s (U.S. Interior Secretary) recent announcement, which limits oil exploration efforts in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (Eilperin, 2012). It is indeed true that the Secretary would have permitted oil and gas exploration companies to freely drill for oil in the whole region, but such an undertaking would initiate far-reaching environmental implications to the biodiversity equilibrium of the place. It can therefore be argued that Mill’s principle of utility could be applied in such a situation to inform stakeholders on the best cause of action based on the nature and extent of consequences derived from each action.

It is reported in the article that the move to limit the Alaska oil reserves “…drew praise from environmentalists but sharp criticism from oil and gas proponents who said it would restrict the industry’s ability to tap the nation’s hydrocarbon resources” (Eilperin, 2012, para. 2). Additionally, it is evident that a number of oil exploration companies are yet to meet the required federal safeguards to be allowed to drill. Going by Mill’s Hedonic utilitarianism, the moral prerogative of the Interior Secretary is to create the greatest happiness (intended pleasure and absence of pain) for the greatest number of people (Patterson, 2005). If the region is opened up for free exploration without safeguards, not only will a few oil exploration companies benefit from oil revenue, but also the government will benefit from taxes. However, the majority of people will be at a disadvantage due to environmental degradation caused by oil and gas drilling. Consequently, the only tenable solution, according to the theory, is to implement the action that allows for the greatest good for the greatest number of people, implying that the oil drilling exercise must be limited to avoid unwarranted environmental degradation.

Conclusion & Recommendation

Although Mill’s hedonic utilitarianism continues to receive sustained criticism, particularly from its incapacity to account for many morally important factors when making a decision as it considers only what happens after the action that is being examined (Patterson, 2005), it has attracted wide usage in attempting to solve the ethical issues and dilemmas that face the modern-day business landscape. However, a more substantive theory would pay direct attention to variables that form the core component of the history of the action under investigation to avoid leaving out substantial factors that an acceptable ethical theory would include.

Overall, the study of ethics is important in today’s business and government environment as these two facets deal with ethical decision-making, where elements of justice, rights, virtuousness, and common good must be seen to prevail. The scope and magnitude of the consequences that followed the Enron’s and Nortel financial scandals, as well as the collapse of the Lehman Brothers due to failure to uphold ethical decision-making and disclosure, demonstrate the importance of the study of ethics in the business world. These companies went under for engaging in unethical practices that never took into account the greatest good/happiness for the greatest number of people. The government was partly to blame for not putting the necessary measures to enforce ethical decision-making.

References

BBC. (2012). Web.

Eilperin, J. (2012). The Washington Post. Web.

Jacobson, D. (2008). Philosophical Review, 117(2), 159-191. Web.

Keele, L. (2008). The utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill. Web.

Kemerling, G. (2011). Web.

Patterson, W.R. (2005). The greatest good for the most fit? John Stuart Mill, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Social Darwinism. Journal of Social Philosophy, 36(1), 72-84.

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