John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism

12.1 The Philosopher-Reformer

  • Appreciate that Mill was an empiricist philosopher dedicated to seeing that his liberal and utilitarian ideals be used for the betterment of society. He became one of the greatest social reformers of his day, advocating individual liberty, freedom of expression, social tolerance, aid to the poor, the abolition of slavery, humane treatment of prisoners, and women’s rights.
  • Know that after suffering a mental breakdown at age twenty, Mill recovered, having gained a new perspective on his life and on his previous way of thinking. He remained a utilitarian, but he left behind many of the less desirable features of Jeremy Bentham’s theory.
  • Appreciate that Mill earned a prestigious place in the pantheon of respected philosophers for his work in epistemology, deductive and inductive logic, political thought, and ethics. Among other works, he wrote System of Logic (1843), On Liberty (1860), and Utilitarianism (1861).

12.2 Mill’s Utilitarianism

  • Understand that utilitarians judge the morality of conduct by a single standard, the principle of utility: Right actions are those that result in greater overall well-being (or utility) for the people involved than any other possible actions.
  • Explain the two main forms of utilitarianism and be able to apply them to sample cases.
  • Know that the classic version of utilitarianism, devised by Bentham and given more plausibility by Mill, is hedonistic in that the utility to be maximized is pleasure, broadly termed happiness, the only intrinsic good.
  • Explain how Mill and Bentham differ in their conceptions of happiness and understand why Mill says, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
  • Understand classic utilitarianism’s emphasis on impartiality, the maximization of total net happiness, and the method for determining the quality of happiness.

12.3 Critiques of the Theory

  • Understand the concept of our considered moral judgments and how critics use it to suggest that utilitarianism is a flawed theory.
  • Know how utilitarians have replied to such criticism.
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