John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism

12.1 The Philosopher-Reformer

Best known for his moral theory that evaluates actions on their success in producing happiness, Mill is also a social activist who, with his friend and wife, Harriet Taylor, advanced the cause of women and argued for the abolition of slavery.

12.2 Mill’s Utilitarianism

Mill takes Bentham’s hedonic calculus and adjusts it by adding a qualitative feature, namely, the quality of pleasure produced, not simply the quantity. Moreover, he distinguishes between act- and rule-utilitarianism. The former concentrates on specific acts, while the latter concentrates on a rule that covers kinds of acts.

The qualitative distinction is between higher and lower pleasures, or intellectual and physical pleasures. Hence the famous quote, “It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” The act-rule distinction does not yield a distinction between types of happiness. Instead, each is intended to promote the greatest amount of happiness and least amount of suffering.

12.3 Critiques of the Theory

Because utilitarianism is at odds with our notions of duty, rights, and justice, it receives substantial criticism. Some utilitarians respond by saying that a conflict between utilitarianism and our moral intuitions is untenable, specifically because the consequences of such actions are so dire that they cannot be justified even on utilitarian grounds.

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