John Stuart Mill on Utilitarianism

1 January 2017

One of Mill’s strongest arguments in support of his philosophy of morality is seen in the last two paragraphs on page 95 of the textbook Ethical Theory. Here we find one of Mill’s foundational arguments which he later builds upon to argue in favor of utilitarianism. Mill’s conclusion that we find here in this particular selection is based on the assertion he makes, found in the latter part of the last complete sentence on page 95: “that happiness is a good, that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons. Here, we find three clauses, the last being the conclusion that general happiness is a good to the aggregate of all persons. To support this claim, he provides premises as to why this argument is worth believing. The premises that lead directly to the conclusion stated above begin on page 95, in the paragraph that starts with “Questions about ends are,…” With this, a clear understanding of what Mill denotes as “happiness” is fundamental for the reader to understand before reading the premises leading up to this particular conclusion.

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We find that definition in the second sentence of this essay (found on page 90). Here, Mill defines happiness when he says “by happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure. ” Now that we understand how, exactly, Mill is denoting “happiness”, let us return to the conclusion we are analyzing, found on page 95. Using this definition of happiness from the first page, Mill now asserts: “the utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end. We see his premises for this claim in the two paragraphs following this statement. To support his claim, Mill states that “the only proof capable of being given that an object is visible is that people actually see it. ”

He then offers examples to support this assertion: “the only proof that a sound is audible is that people hear it; and so of the other sources of our experience. Immediately after this sentence, Mill then builds upon this premise with another: “In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it. ” Immediately following that sentence is another premise, in the form of a challenge of sorts to the reader: “If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. He finally then states that the only reason that can be given as to why the general happiness is desirable, is that “each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. ” He then explicitly deems this last assertion to be a fact. Here we find his ultimate conclusion (for this particular argument of his essay): “that happiness is a good, that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons. ”

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