J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism

JS Mill by George Frederik Watts (1873)

In addition to suffering from the serious defect of its failure to distinguish between natural needs and conscious desires, and between real and apparent goods, utilitarianism is fatally hung up by positing two ultimate ends.

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

The main trouble with utilitarianism is not the principle of utility itself, for that must govern any moral thinking that is done in terms of ends and means. Any teleological ethics, such as that of common sense, is utilitarian or pragmatic in its employment of the principle of utility in appraising the goodness of means. The trouble with utilitarianism is that it is a teleological ethics with not one but two ultimate ends, and the two cannot be reconciled to each other or fused into a single overarching goal that can be the object of one primary moral obligation.

By consulting the actual desires of men, Mill concludes that everyone seeks his own happiness. Let us waive for the moment the error of identifying the happiness made up of the things an individual happens to want with the happiness constituted by the real and common goods every man ought to seek. Still using happiness to signify the sum total of satisfactions experienced by the individual who gets whatever he wants for himself, Mill then tries to substitute the general happiness or the greatest good of the greatest number for individual happiness as the ultimate goal.

Having first said, as a matter of fact, that each man desires his own happiness, conceived by him in terms of his own wants, Mill then shifts to saying that the ultimate standard or objective, in accordance with which the principle of utility should be applied, is “not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether.”

With regard to the individual’s own happiness, Mill sees no need to argue for it as the ultimate end, since in fact all men do desire it. But when he comes to the “general happiness,” Mill finds it impossible to say that, as a matter of fact, everyone desires this as his ultimate end. He considers the man who says to himself, “I feel that I am bound not to rob or murder, betray or steal, but why am I bound to promote the general happiness? If my own happiness lies in something else, why may I not give that the preference?”

Does Mill have an answer to this question, a question that would be asked by anyone who regarded his own individual happiness as his ultimate end? Answer it Mill must try to do, since he has employed the fact that all men do desire their individual happiness for its own sake and for nothing beyond itself, in order to establish happiness as the ultimate end that men do seek. He cannot dismiss this question lightly.

Coming from one of the world’s most eminent logicians, the answer Mill gives is a model of sophistry. It runs as follows: “No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable [note: “desirable,” not “desired”] except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness [note: “his own happiness” is what each person desires, not the “general happiness”]. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good [granted]; that each person’s happiness is a good to that person [granted, and more, it is his ultimate good]; and the general happiness, therefore [does “therefore” signify a valid logical sequitur?] a good to the aggregate of persons.”

Not only is this plainly a non sequitur, as a matter of logic; it is also meaningless as a matter of fact, for even though an aggregate of persons may, as collectively organized, have a collective goal, it is not the object of their individual desires, nor can it be distributively identified with the diverse individual goals each seeks for himself.

In addition to suffering from the serious defect of its failure to distinguish between natural needs and conscious desires, and between real and apparent goods, utilitarianism is fatally hung up by positing two ultimate ends. The teleological and utilitarian ethics of common sense has only one basic normative principle, only one ultimate end, and only one primary moral obligation; and precisely because that one end, the totum bonum which is the same for all men, is a common good, and not the greatest good for the greatest number, common sense is able to pass from the obligations an individual has in the conduct of his own life, aiming at happiness, to the obligations he has in his conduct toward others, who are also aiming at the same happiness he seeks for himself.

The two ends that Mill fails properly to relate to one another can be properly related only when they are seen as, respectively, the ultimate end of the individual and the ultimate end of the state or political community. The ultimate end of the individual is only and always his own happiness (the totum bonum commune hominis). The ultimate end of the state or political community is the happiness of all its members–not the greatest good for the greatest number, but the general (or better, common) happiness that is the same for all men. Only the state can act for this end effectively and directly; the individual cannot. The individual is under the negative obligation not to interfere with or impair the pursuit of happiness by his fellow men; his only positive obligation toward them calls for conduct that indirectly promotes their pursuit of happiness by directly serving the good of the political community itself (the bonum commune communitatis), which is prerequisite to the state’s functioning as a means to the “general happiness” — the ultimate good of all its individual members.

The happiness of the individual and the general happiness are both ends and both ultimate. This by itself creates no problem when their relationship is handled as Aristotle handled it. But Mill made an insoluble problem of it for himself by treating both ends as ultimate ends for one and the same agent–the individual.

The ethics of common sense, unlike either the deontological ethics of Kant or the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and some of his followers, is not an ethics that lays down rules of conduct by which a wide variety of particular acts can be judged good or bad, right or wrong; instead it is an ethics that judges particular acts mainly by reference to the moral quality of the habit or disposition that they manifest.

Given a man of good moral character, one who is disposed to seek everything that is really good for himself and to choose what ever means serve this end, any act he performs in accordance with his character tends to be a good act.

Such a man can act badly only by acting out of character or against his character, and if by repetition of such acts, his habit or disposition itself is changed, he can become a man of bad moral character and thereby fail to achieve what is really good for himself.

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