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The fundamentals of Utilitarianism

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John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian doctrine proposes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Each action undertaken should promote the welfare and well-being of others. When the principle of promoting an individual’s happiness is undertaken, the end result should carry forward to members of society. “The good of others becomes to him a thing naturally and necessarily to be attended to, like any of the physical conditions of our existence.”[1] Actions pursued from utility promote Mills “greatest happiness principle” or creed, i.e., Mills theory in promoting right conduct. It is a principle of consequentialism for right and wrong action. The principle of consequentialism evaluates the results of an action before it is performed. And when right action is properly undertaken, it will affect the happiness and well-being of others according to the Utilitarian principle. This, according to Mill, is the basis for morality. It is intended to promote the common good and welfare of all in society.

Utilitarianism is not based on a systematic series of rules, which Mills states are seldom attempted “to make out a list of the a priori principles,”[2] which other schools of thought do not set forth a formal system in their science.[3] Its basic happiness principle expounds the qualitative as well as quantitative aspect of pleasure. For the doctrine of utility to be effective-- it must ascertain right moral conduct. This conduct applies both to self and others. It is curious how Mills distinguishes right conduct as “The deeply rooted conception which every individual even now has of himself as a social being tends to make him feel it one of his natural wants that there should be harmony between his feelings and aims and those of his fellow creatures.”[4] Therefore, it is curious that [Mills] “On occasion at least he appeals to the nature of man, even if he does not clearly understand the significance of what he is doing”[5] Copelston also elicits that Mills appeals to man’s “higher faculties.”[6]

The point that is being made is that Mills who seemingly disregards providence as essential or, as Mills puts it, “If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other.”[7] When it comes to right conduct, a strong parallel is found both in Mills work and that of the Book of Sirach: Judge your neighbor’s feelings by your own, and in every matter be thoughtful (Sirach 31:15). This contrast between utility and modes of right conduct closely parallels both doctrines, i.e., in Utilitarianism and Christianity.

It is clear that Mills promoted freedom in his work on Liberty and appears to have disregarded providence, but the parallelism between the naturalism and harmony of Mills doctrine “and those of his fellow creatures”[8] with that of Scripture, provided some insight on his social discourse. Mills adopted his doctrine through Bentham; however, there are striking similarities to right conduct and moral living.

In the aggregate sense, that the doctrine of utility may be adopted to maximize the welfare of human beings and mitigate their suffering may be a sound reason to adopt it. As long as it promotes excellence in conduct, it is, by its very nature a laudable system. If by principle, its aim can be the eradication of diseases than it’s worthy of consideration in so much as it promotes education as well. For this end, it appears Mill had provided some prophetic statements in regards to science and the suppression of various diseases through good “moral education.”[9]

Mills moral conduct of striving for excellence states that “what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned.”[10] For Mills, society exists among equals and that the interests of others are to be regarded equally. And goes on to describe the “Golden Rule”[11] It is the harmony that utilitarianism aims to achieve in order to promote tranquility, whether it be through legal systems, or in smaller communities that makes utility useful toward the welfare of individuals to maximize their happiness and mitigate their pains.

Authors Note: To obtain a copy of Utilitarianism and other works click the embedded link in this paragraph and you will be automatically taken to the page to purchase. Ideal for a home library, familial gift or, as is custom, political gift for the political leader.

References for this article come from Utilitarianism, Hackett publishing found here:

[1] Mill. Utilitarianism, p.33.

[2] See Mills Utilitarianism General Remarks, p.3.

[3] See Mills Utilitarianism General Remarks, p.3.

[4] See Mills Utilitarianism General Remarks, p.34.

[5] A History of Philosophy, p.30-31.

[6] A History of Philosophy, p.31.

[7] See Mills Utilitarianism General Remarks, p.22.

[8] See Mills Utilitarianism General Remarks, p.34.

[9] See Mills Utilitarianism General Remarks, p.17.

[10] [10] See Mills Utilitarianism General Remarks, p.17.

[11] Ibid.