Book Summary: Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill

Are you looking for a book summary of Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill? You have come to the right place.

I jotted down a few key insights from John Stuart Mill’s book after reading it.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

In this Utilitarianism book summary, I’m going to cover the following topics:

What is Utilitarianism About?

Maximise happiness. That is a caricature of utilitarianism, but it captures something true and central to the theory. John Stuart Mill is the most famous utilitarian philosopher; in his book Utilitarianism, he develops and refines the cruder version of the theory which had been put forward by his mentor Jeremy Bentham.

Below are some of our favourite quotes from Utilitarianism:

“The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.”

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

Who is The Author of Utilitarianism?

John Stuart Mill was an English philosopher, political economist, Member of Parliament and civil servant. One of the most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism, he contributed widely to social theory, political theory, and political economy.

Utilitarianism Book Summary

BENTHAM’S UTILITARIANISM

For Bentham, the morally right action in any circumstances is the one that will tend to maximise total happiness. He conceives of happiness as a blissful mental state: pleasure and the absence of pain.

The more of this that occurs in the world, the better. It doesn’t matter how the pleasure is produced: Bentham famously declared that pushpin (a pub game) was as worthwhile as poetry provided that they produced equal amounts of pleasure. Each individual counts equally in the calculation of how much pleasure is produced by an action, and the total of pleasurable states is summed to determine how we should act. This is utilitarianism in its most straightforward form. 

So, for instance, if a utilitarian wanted to decide whether to leave her money to one poor relative or divide it between twenty reasonably well-off friends, she would calculate how much total pleasure would be produced by each.

Although the inheritance might make the poor relative very happy, the total amount of happiness may still be less than making twenty reasonably well-off friends moderately happy. If this were true, the woman should leave the money to the friends rather than the relative.

Mill shared many of Bentham’s beliefs. Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle, for example, is simply ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’. 

Both Bentham and Mill were hedonists in the sense that their approach to ethics was founded upon the pursuit of pleasure (not, however, merely the pursuit of individuals’ own pleasure, but rather the pursuit of the greatest overall pleasure).

Actions for both philosophers were to be judged according to their probable consequences, not according to any religious code or set of binding principles to be followed whatever consequences ensued.

The phrase ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is sometimes used to describe the utilitarian approach to ethics, but this can be misleading. What both Bentham and Mill were interested in was achieving the greatest aggregate happiness (that is, the largest total sum of happiness) irrespective of how that happiness was distributed.

It would be consistent with this approach to think that it would be better to make a few people extremely happy than to make a much larger number slightly happier, provided that the sum of happiness in the first case was larger than the sum in the second. 

Mill’s utilitarianism differs from Bentham’s in that he gives a more sophisticated account of happiness. For Mill, there are qualitatively different sorts of pleasure: higher and lower pleasures. Higher pleasures are to be preferred to lower ones. Bentham, in contrast, treats all pleasures as on a par.

MILL ON HIGHER AND LOWER PLEASURES 

One common criticism of simple versions of utilitarianism, such as Bentham’s, is that they reduce the subtleties of human life to a stark calculation of animal-like pleasures, with no concern for how these pleasures are produced. Utilitarianism of this kind was ridiculed as a doctrine only worthy of swine.

Mill meets such criticisms with his distinction between higher and lower pleasures. As he puts it, it is better to be a dissatisfied human being than a satisfied pig; and better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied fool.

Human beings are capable of intellectual pleasures as well as the brute physical ones; pigs cannot have intellectual pleasures. Mill argues that the intellectual pleasures, those he calls higher pleasures, are intrinsically more valuable than the physical lower ones. 

His argument in support of this is that those who have felt both kinds of pleasure will certainly prefer the intellectual kind.

This leaves him with the awkward fact that some people who are capable of experiencing sublime intellectual pleasures throw themselves into lives of debauchery and sensual gratification. His response to this sort of case is that they are led astray by the temptation of immediate sensual gratification; they know full well that the higher pleasures are more worthwhile.

THE ‘PROOF’ OF UTILITARIANISM 

The obvious question to ask is ‘Why maximise happiness?’ Mill’s answer is controversial, though it is important to realise that he never claims that it provides a conclusive justification for his theory: he does not believe that a theory such as utilitarianism can be proved to be true. Happiness, he says, is pursued as an end in itself. The ultimate end of all human activity is happiness and the avoidance of pain. 

Everything else which is desirable is desirable because it contributes to such a life. If you spend your life collecting beautiful works of art, this activity is a way of getting pleasure.

If someone, for example, argues against Mill by claiming that they pursue virtue as an end in itself independently of any happiness that might arise from it, Mill answers that virtue is then an ingredient in their happy life; it becomes part of that person’s happiness. 

The Greatest Happiness Principle claims that the end or purpose of all human life is happiness and the avoidance of pain. These are the only things that are desirable as ends; everything else desirable is desirable as a means to these ends. So the question ‘Why maximise happiness?’ is really just a question about what makes happiness desirable. 

Mill suggests an analogy to answer this question. The only way that we can prove that an object is visible is by demonstrating that people actually can see it.

Analogously, he claims, the only evidence we can give that happiness is desirable is that people actually do desire it. Each person finds his or her own happiness desirable, so general happiness is the sum of the individual happiness, and itself desirable.

Further Reading

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