For centuries philosophers have debated the concept of morality. The differing opinions as to the ethics of right and wrong have split these philosophers into two groups. The first group believes an act is right or wrong based on the nature of the act itself, while the second group feels an act is right or wrong depending on the consequences it brings. Proponents of the consequence theory disagree however, as to which consequences are desirable and which are undesirable. In his book Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill advocates the principle, that a desirable act is one that will bring the most happiness to the greatness number of people.
Mill’s theory of utilitarianism is not to be confused with the theory of Epicurus, which holds that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only two things desirable as ends. The Epicurean doctrine implies that the sole purpose of life is the obtainment of pleasure. It thus places a higher value on the pleasures of sensation than on the pleasures of the intellect or imagination. Mill, however, believes that a lack of mental cultivation is precisely what makes life unsatisfactory.
It is Mill’s belief that a cultivated mind is capable of discovering sources of inexhaustible interest in its very surroundings. A person having such a mind finds infinite pleasure in nature, art, poetry, history, and the achievements of mankind, in the past and present. One who tires of such things, he argues, had no moral or human interest in him to begin with, and was only seeing the gratification of curiosity.
According to Mill, anyone who has a moderate degree of moral and intellectual requisites is capable of an enviable existence. Such a person has all the sources needed to obtain happiness within his reach, and should be able to reach this enviable existence as long as his attempts are not thwarted by physical or mental sufferings such as poverty, disease, or loss of a loved one.
There are those who willingly renunciate their right to happiness. Mill praises those who do so in order to increase the amount of happiness in the world, but condemns those who profess to have other reasons for abdicating a life of enjoyment.
Though it is only in a very imperfect state of the world’s arrangements that anyone can best serve the happiness of others by the absolute sacrifice of his own, yet, so long as the world is in that imperfect state, I fully acknowledge that the readiness to make such a sacrifice is the highest virtue which can be found in man (Mill 16).
Mills adds that paradoxically as it may seem, it is those who renunciate the wish for happiness who generally find it. For, by consciously deciding one can live without happiness, a person is freeing himself from anxieties dealing with life’s disasters. He thus leads a tranquil life and is capable of enjoying any satisfactions that befall him without worrying about their inevitable end.
While the utilitarian recognizes the power of a person sacrificing his own greatest good for the good of others, he does not view the sacrifice itself as good. “A sacrifice which does not increase or tend to increase the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted” (Mill 16).
Utilitarians decide what is morally right based on the happiness the act brings to all concerned, not based on the agent’s own happiness. The utilitarian must remain impartial with regards to his own happiness and that of others. The words of Jesus of Nazareth, “To do as you would be done by,” and “To love your neighbor as yourself” (Mill 17), are considered the ideal virtues of utilitarian morality. The question then arises as to what motives there are for people to act in this manner.
The principle of utility has all the sanctions available to other systems of morality. There are the external sanctions such as fear of the disapproval of others, as well as God himself. With the fear of disapproval comes the fear of punishment, whether physical or moral. Then there is the internal sanction of duty which is a feeling one has in his own mind. This feeling is the basis of one’s conscience. While such a sanction may have no effect on someone without a conscience, by the same token, such a person would not be any more obedient to any moral principle other than utilitarianism.
For those who do feel a sense of duty, such a feeling can be innate or implanted. If one possesses an innate morality Mill believes that it is in regards to the pleasures and pains of others. The intuitive code of ethics would thus coincide with utilitarianism. Mill, however, is more inclined to believe that moral feelings are acquired, rather than innate.
Although Mills does not believe a sense of morality is part of one’s nature, he believes it is an outgrowth from it. Portions of it may thus arise spontaneously. For the most part, however, one’s morality is governed by external factors. Subsequently, it may be cultivated in a positive direction, or in a negative direction.
Man has a basic desire to be in unity with his fellow creatures, and once the general happiness of everybody is recognized as the ethical standard, a person will be more likely to act accordingly. This principle of human nature constitutes the strength of utilitarian morality. However, it is dependent on man conceiving himself as a member of the state.
Any condition, therefore, which is essential to a state of society becomes more and more an inseparable part of every person’s conception of the state of things which he is born into, and which is the destiny of a human being (Mill 31).
Society is viewed as impossible unless the interests of all are consulted. And if the society is to be one between equals, the interests of all must be regarded equally. People of such a society thus grow up automatically taking the interests of others into regard. They are also accustomed to cooperating with others and thinking in terms of what will benefit the collective, rather than of what will benefit himself as an individual. As one continues acting in this manner he increasingly identifies his feelings with those of the collective. Since he is affected by the degree to which others act in the same manner, he is likely to encourage such a feeling in others.
As civilization continues to endure, the process of identifying one’s own feelings with that of others becomes more natural. As it is, most people who possess such feelings of morality, believe they do so because they believe it is a positive attribute, not because it is taught through education or required by law. In fact, “. . . few but those whose mind is a moral blank could bear to lay out their course of life on the plan of paying no regard to others except so far as their own private interest compels” (Mill 33).
Opponents of the utilitarian doctrine argue that happiness is not the only end a person desires. The utilitarian doctrine, however, does not infer that it is. The doctrine, for example, maintains that virtue is to be desired. Virtue is considered a good in itself, not merely because of its capability of bringing happiness. Additionally, pleasures such as music are not considered of merit simply because they lead to something termed “happiness.” Rather, such pleasures are desirable in and for themselves. In being desired for its own sake the pleasure thus becomes a part of happiness. Happiness is not an abstract idea but a concrete whole comprised of various parts.
One of the strongest obstacles preventing the unanimous acceptance of the utilitarian doctrine is the concept of justice. Many people equate right and wrong with just and unjust. There are various modes of action which are universally classed as just or unjust.
First, depriving another of his personal liberty, property, or anything else that is his by law, is in effect unjust. In other words, it is just to regard the legal rights of everyone, and unjust to violate these rights. If there is a question as to whether or not these legal rights ought to belong to a person, opinion differs as to whether or not it is considered injustice to infringe upon the right in question. While some maintain that any law, no matter how bad, ought to be obeyed, others believe that any law judged to be bad, may be disobeyed. Subsequently, a law is not the ultimate criterion of justice.
It is universally considered just that every person be allowed to obtain that which he deserves. Conversely, it is considered unjust for a person to obtain a good or experience an evil that he does not deserve. In other words, a person deserves good if he does right, and evil if he does wrong.
Partiality is another universal unjust. To show favor or preference to one person over another in matters where they do not belong is considered inconsistent with justice. It is acceptable, however, to show preferential treatment to someone if it does not violate another duty. For example, it is perfectly just to choose one person over another as a friend. It is in cases that involve the administering of a reward or punishment such as a judge who must declare a verdict, that impartiality is a requisite.
The fact that justice is so ambiguous, meaning something may appear just or unjust according to the light in which it is regarded, precludes the notion that justice is independent of utility. Individuals have differing notions of justice, and when a person chooses between these notions he is guided by an extraneous standard. For example, there are some who believe it is unjust to punish someone simply to set an example for others. Such people believe that punishment is just only if it is intended for the good of the sufferer. Others believe that punishing someone “for their own good” is unjust, for no one has the right to judge what is for the good of another. However, this same group believes that it is just to punish someone to prevent them from doing evil to others. Then there is the extreme – those who believe it is not just to punish a criminal period, for the criminal is not responsible for his character. Rather, his education and environment have made him a criminal, thus he is not responsible.
According to Mill, justice based on utility is the most sacred, binding part of all morality.
Justice is a name for certain classes of moral rules which concern the essentials of human well-being more nearly, and are therefore of more absolute obligation, than any other rules for the guidance of life (Mill 58).
Moral rules which forbid people to hurt one another are more important to the well-being of man than any maxims. It is the observance of these moral rules that preserves peace among human beings. If obedience to them were not the norm, people would regard one another as enemies. Also of importance is the fact that these moral rules carry with them the strongest inducements for man to impress them on others. A person needs to know that others are not going to hurt him. Subsequently, the moralities which protect individuals from harming one another, are felt strongly by all, and all persons have a strong interest in enforcing these rules by word and deed.
A person’s ability to exist as a fellow human being is judged by his observance of these moral rules. For, it is these moralities that comprise the concept of justice. The strongest case of injustice is one in which acts of wrongful aggression or wrongful exercise of power over another are used. The next degree of injustice consists of wrongfully withholding from someone something that is his just due.
The same motives which induce one to observe these primary moralities also commands the punishment of those who violate them. Included in the idea of justice as defined by Mill, is the concept of evil for evil and good for good. The maxim, evil for evil, however, must not include the infliction of evil without justification. Other maxims, such as the maxim that a person is only responsible for actions he has done voluntarily, or could have voluntarily avoided, that it is unjust to condemn anyone without hearing their side, that the punishment ought to be proportional to the offense, are all intended to prevent the infliction of undo evil.
The maxim that one should return good with good, and evil with evil, leads to the theory that one should treat all persons equally well who have deserved equally well of us, and society should treat all persons equally well who have deserved equally well of it. This is the highest standard of social justice, and all citizens and institutions of society should abide by it. This theory consists of the very embodiment of utility – the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The principle of happiness is only significant if one person’s happiness is counted for exactly as much as another person’s. In this manner Bentham’s dictum “everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one” (Mill 60), applies to the principle of utility.
Justice stands higher than anything else on the scale of social utility. Hence, justice is also one of the highest of obligations. When seen in this light justice is no longer considered an impediment to the utilitarian principle.
Mill’s theory of utilitarianism coincides with the basic foundations of a democracy. The principle that one should act in a manner that will bring the most happiness to the greatest number of people, ought to be embodied by all governments. If all countries were governed in such a manner it would obliterate oligarchical societies in which all the wealth is limited to the hands of a few, it would contradict the practice of apartheid, and it would negate the position of oppressive dictators serving in their own best interest, merely attempting to obtain power.
Opponents of the utilitarian theory argue that in order to do what will maximize overall happiness, it is necessary to know what will in fact maximize overall happiness. They insist that it is impossible, as it would entail the knowledge of what people, present and future, will be affected by each action; what the effects of each possible action will be on each person; and how happy or unhappy each individual will be as a result of these effects. Obviously in a society as extensive as the one in which we live, it is impossible to obtain such information. It is possible, however, to get a good estimate as to how many people would benefit from an act. For this very purpose the people of a democracy are given the right to vote. Those who vote express whether or not an act will bring them more happiness by voting for or against the measure. As for those who do not exercise their right to vote, they willingly leave it up to others to decide for them.
There will always be people who do not benefit from a measure as much as others. The principle, however, does not advocate making everyone happy, only the greatest number possible. As no other principle can claim to do better, the greatest number of people would benefit by a government that employed the principle of utilitarianism.