Life has always been a mystery to people. The humankind has been trying to unlock this secret throughout its entire existence. However, there has been very little success so far.
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Still, a number of theories concerning life and principles of life have been spawned. One of these theories is utilitarianism. The key principle of Utilitarianism according to its founder, John Mill (2), is that the right action must trigger the happiness of all those involved. However, utilitarianism is based not only on the given principle, but also on the so-called “theory of life.” Exploring the given phenomenon, one can get a little closer to discovering the meaning of life.
It is a well-known fact that Mill’s key concepts are based on the so-called “theory of life.” The latter presupposes that people should strive for pleasure and drive the experience of pain to minimum. Alican (1) put it in the following way: “Pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends.” At the given point, however, one might notice that Mill’s theory has a number of things in common with the traditional postulates of Hedonism. According to Alican (1), “In essence, then, Mill’s proof is an attempt to establish a theory of value, ethical hedonism.”
Indeed, if considering Mill’s theory of life, one must admit that it presupposes following certain ethical principles when enjoying life. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that Mill’s theory borrows a lot from Hedonism. Moreover, Mill’s theory of life is practically based on Hedonism. If taking away the moral principles and the idea that any action should be aimed at both the satisfaction of self and the satisfaction of others, one will get the Hedonist principles.
However, Mill’s theory involves another arguable and rather controversial element apart from the similarities with Hedonism. To be more exact, Mill denies the link between ethical theory and moral obligation. To start with, Mill (2) asks the readers, “Does the belief that moral obligation has its seat outside the mind make the feeling of it too strong to be got rid of? In the given question, Mill draws the line between the moral principles and the human mind. Hence, Mill (2) questions the link between the moral and the ethical. Further on, Mill (2) explains:
It is not necessary, for the present purpose, to decide whether the feeling of duty is innate or implanted. Assuming it to be innate, it is an open question to what objects it naturally attaches itself; for the philosophic supporters of that theory are now agreed that the intuitive perception is of principles of morality, and not of the details.
Thus, Mill specifies the difference between the moral and the ethical. Mill believes that moral is what is considered right by the society. Meanwhile, ethical, in Mill’s understanding, is what an individual believes to be right. Therefore, Mill also draws the line between the social and the personal. Hence, the theory of life also separates an individual from the society.
Personally, I believe that Mill has the point. On the one hand, ethics and moral obligation are often considered the same thing. On the other hand, they often seem a mile away from each other. To demonstrate my point of view, it is necessary to consider a specific instance. For example, if an extremely poor person steals something vitally important, like medicine or food, for someone just as poor, a moral dilemma appears.
A moral obligation presupposes that the thief should be imprisoned. From an ethical standpoint, however, the thief had a noble thing in mind when stealing which means that the thief should be released. Therefore, Mill seems right about the difference between ethical theory and moral dilemma. What seems morally logical is not always ethically correct. There are different courses of actions for the case above.
However, in either case, the conflict between the moral and the ethical will be there. An individual might consider it ethical to release the prisoner. However, according to the laws of society, it is immoral to let the criminal go.
While some people consider that the given theory approached hedonism, Mill claimed that it was not. According to Mill, hedonism does not focus on the quality of the pleasure.
On the contrary, in Mill’s theory, quality is the defining issue.
Even though John Mill’s theory has been studied fully, the meaning of life still remains obscure. It is worth giving credit to Mill, though. With the help of his theory, he managed to develop a completely new basis for people’s relationships. Moreover, Mill managed to provide an ethical basis for his theory.
At the same time the latter does not seem preachy, which is worth appreciating. Mill emphasized the significance of a human life once again. However, he made it in a new and subtle way. The philosopher created the theory that allowed to establish completely new type of human relationships. Unselfish and aimed at everyone’s satisfaction, utilitarianism attitudes seem a very peculiar idea.
- Alican NF. Mill’s principle of utility: a defense of John Stuart Mill’s notorious proof. Atlanta, GA: Rodopi; 1994. 240 p.
- Mill JS. Utilitarianism. Sher G, editor. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company; 2002. 71 p.