greatest happiness principle

The canonical statement of Mill’s utilitarianism can be found in his book, Utilitarianism. Although this philosophy has a long tradition, Mill’s account is primarily influenced by Jeremy Bentham and Mill’s father James Mill.

John Stuart Mill believed in the philosophy of utilitarianism, which he would describe as the principle that holds “that actions are right in the proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”. By happiness he means, “intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure”.[64] It is clear that we do not all value virtues as a path to happiness and that we sometimes only value them for selfish reasons. However, Mill asserts that upon reflection, even when we value virtues for selfish reasons we are in fact cherishing them as a part of our happiness.

Bentham’s famous formulation of utilitarianism is known as the greatest-happiness principle. It holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings, within reason. In a similar vein, Mill’s method of determining the best utility is that a moral agent, when given the choice between two or more actions, ought to choose the action that contributes most to (maximizes) the total happiness in the world. Happiness, in this context, is understood as the production of pleasure or privation of pain. Given that determining the action that produces the most utility is not always so clear cut, Mill suggests that the utilitarian moral agent, when attempting to rank the utility of different actions, should refer to the general experience of persons. That is, if people generally experience more happiness following action X than they do action Y, the utilitarian should conclude that action X produces more utility than action Y, and so is to be preferred.[65]

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory, meaning that it holds that acts are justified insofar as they produce a desirable outcome. The overarching goal of utilitarianism—the ideal consequence—is to achieve the “greatest good for the greatest number as the end result of human action.”[66] In Utilitarianism, Mill states that “happiness is the sole end of human action”.[31] This statement aroused some controversy, which is why Mill took it a step further, explaining how the very nature of humans wanting happiness, and who “take it to be reasonable under free consideration”, demands that happiness is indeed desirable.[11] In other words, free will leads everyone to make actions inclined on their own happiness, unless reasoned that it would improve the happiness of others, in which case, the greatest utility is still being achieved. To that extent, the utilitarianism that Mill is describing is a default lifestyle that he believes is what people who have not studied a specific opposing field of ethics would naturally and subconsciously use when faced with decision.

Utilitarianism is thought of by some of its activists to be a more developed and overarching ethical theory of Immanuel Kant’s belief in goodwill, and not just some default cognitive process of humans. Where Kant would argue that reason can only be used properly by goodwill, Mill would say that the only way to universally create fair laws and systems would be to step back to the consequences, whereby Kant’s ethical theories become based around the ultimate good—utility.[67] By this logic the only valid way to discern what is proper reason would be to view the consequences of any action and weigh the good and the bad, even if on the surface, the ethical reasoning seems to indicate a different train of thought.

Higher and lower pleasures

Mill’s major contribution to utilitarianism is his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures. Bentham treats all forms of happiness as equal, whereas Mill argues that intellectual and moral pleasures (higher pleasures) are superior to more physical forms of pleasure (lower pleasures). He distinguishes between happiness and contentment, claiming that the former is of higher value than the latter, a belief wittily encapsulated in the statement that, “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”[65]

This made Mill believe that “our only ultimate end”[68] is happiness. One unique part of his utilitarian view, that is not seen in others, is the idea of higher and lower pleasures. Mill explains the different pleasures as:

If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference […] that is the more desirable pleasure.[69]

He defines higher pleasures as mental, moral, and aesthetic pleasures, and lower pleasures as being more sensational. He believed that higher pleasures should be seen as preferable to lower pleasures since they have a greater quality in virtue. He holds that pleasures gained in activity are of a higher quality than those gained passively.[70]

Mill defines the difference between higher and lower forms of pleasure with the principle that those who have experienced both tend to prefer one over the other. This is, perhaps, in direct contrast with Bentham’s statement that “Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry”,[71] that, if a simple child’s game like hopscotch causes more pleasure to more people than a night at the opera house, it is more incumbent upon a society to devote more resources to propagating hopscotch than running opera houses. Mill’s argument is that the “simple pleasures” tend to be preferred by people who have no experience with high art, and are therefore not in a proper position to judge. He also argues that people who, for example, are noble or practise philosophy, benefit society more than those who engage in individualist practices for pleasure, which are lower forms of happiness. It is not the agent’s own greatest happiness that matters “but the greatest amount of happiness altogether”.[72]


Mill separated his explanation of Utilitarianism into five different sections:

  1. General Remarks;
  2. What Utilitarianism Is;
  3. Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility;
  4. Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible;
  5. and Of the Connection between Justice and Utility.

In the General Remarks portion of his essay he speaks how next to no progress has been made when it comes to judging what is right and what is wrong of morality and if there is such a thing as moral instinct (which he argues that there may not be). However, he agrees that in general “Our moral faculty, according to all those of its interpreters who are entitled to the name of thinkers, supplies us only with the general principles of moral judgments”.[73]

In What Utilitarianism Is, he focuses no longer on background information but utilitarianism itself. He quotes utilitarianism as “The greatest happiness principle”, defining this theory by saying that pleasure and no pain are the only inherently good things in the world and expands on it by saying 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.”[74] He views it not as an animalistic concept because he sees seeking out pleasure as a way of using our higher facilities. He also says in this chapter that the happiness principle is based not exclusively on the individual but mainly on the community.

Mill also defends the idea of a “strong utilitarian conscience (i.e. a strong feeling of obligation to the general happiness)”.[68] He argued that humans have a desire to be happy and that that desire causes us to want to be in unity with other humans. This causes us to care about the happiness of others, as well as the happiness of complete strangers. But this desire also causes us to experience pain when we perceive harm to other people. He believes in internal sanctions that make us experience guilt and appropriate our actions. These internal sanctions make us want to do good because we do not want to feel guilty for our actions. Happiness is our ultimate end because it is our duty. He argues that we do not need to be constantly motivated by the concern of people’s happiness because the most of the actions done by people are done out of good intention, and the good of the world is made up of the good of the people.

In Mill’s fourth chapter, Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible, he speaks of what proofs of Utility are affected. He starts this chapter off by saying that all of his claims cannot be backed up by reasoning. He claims that the only proof that something brings one pleasure is if someone finds it pleasurable. Next, he talks about how morality is the basic way to achieve happiness. He also discusses in this chapter that Utilitarianism is beneficial for virtue. He says that “it maintains not only that virtue is to be desired, but that it is to be desired disinterestedly, for itself.”[75] In his final chapter he looks at the connection between Utilitarianism and justice. He contemplates the question of whether justice is something distinct from Utility or not. He reasons this question in several different ways and finally comes to the conclusion that in certain cases justice is essential for Utility, but in others social duty is far more important than justice. Mill believes that “justice must give way to some other moral principle, but that what is just in ordinary cases is, by reason of that other principle, not just in the particular case.”[76]

The qualitative account of happiness that Mill advocates thus sheds light on his account presented in On Liberty. As he suggests in that text, utility is to be conceived in relation to humanity “as a progressive being”, which includes the development and exercise of rational capacities as we strive to achieve a “higher mode of existence”. The rejection of censorship and paternalism is intended to provide the necessary social conditions for the achievement of knowledge and the greatest ability for the greatest number to develop and exercise their deliberative and rational capacities.

Mill redefines the definition of happiness as “the ultimate end, for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people) is an existence as free as possible from pain and as rich as possible in enjoyments”.[77] He firmly believed that moral rules and obligations could be referenced to promoting happiness, which connects to having a noble character. While Mill is not a standard act or rule utilitarian [What is meant by ‘act-Utilitarian’ and ‘rule-Utilitarian’? It is unintelligible to introduce terms of art wiithout defining them.], he is a minimizing utilitarian, which “affirms that it would be desirable to maximize happiness for the greatest number, but not that we are not morally required to do so”

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