Outline of John Stuart Mill’s Ethics

This post covers the main points of his version of utilitarianism. Good review for students in Phil. 101 and other interested readers.

Let’s get started with the outline.

I. Introduction: Basic definitions

A. Right actions

1. Tend to promote happiness

B. Wrong actions

1. Tend to produce the reverse of happiness

C. Happiness

1. Pleasure and absence of pain

D. Unhappiness

1. Pain and the privation of pleasure

E. Grounding of these definitions

1. Pleasure and freedom from pain are only things desirable as ends / goals

2. Desirable either for the pleasure in themselves

3. Or desirable as a means to promoting pleasure or prevention of pain

II. Immediate Objections

A. Life has no higher end / goal than pleasure?

B. This is utterly “mean” (base) and “groveling”

C. Swine doctrine

1.. Pigs wallow in mud for pleasure. Are humans no better than pigs?

D. Epicureans respond (these ancient Greeks, named after their leader Epicurus, were accused of being nothing but hedonists or pleasure seekers)

1. Opponents are the ones who say humans are incapable of no higher pleasure and goal than a swine is capable of

2. Humans have higher capacity for pleasure

3. Once they are conscious of their capacity, they want to gratify their higher capacity

4. Epicureans assign to the pleasures of the intellect (and feelings and imagination and moral sentiments) a much higher value than mere sensations

5. Epicureanism recognizes that some kinds of pleasures are higher than others

III. Measure of pleasure

A. How do we measure one pleasure as greater than another? They’re only pleasures, after all.

B. “Judges” have to experience both, competently

C. If all (or almost all) prefer one pleasure over another, then that is the more desirable pleasure

D. The “judges” would not give it up for any quantity of the other pleasure

E. Unquestionable fact: “judges” give a “most marked preference” for their higher faculties

F. Few humans would be changed into any of the lower animals

G. No intelligent humans would consent to being a fool

1. If they do, then they are in extreme suffering

IV. Higher v. Lower Faculties

A. Person or being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy and feels more acute suffering—but he still would not sink to a lower existence

1. Why not? Pride? Love of liberty? Love of power? Excitement?

2. Best answer: dignity, generally in proportion to a human’s higher faculty

B. People of lower faculties are easily satisfied. People of higher ones are aware of imperfect happiness.

C. But it is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; a Socrates dissatisfied, than a fool satisfied

V. Objections

A. Humans with higher faculties postpone higher pleasure b/c of temptations

B. But this proves the superiority of one pleasure over another

C. Why do they postpone?

1. Weakness of character may push them to forego higher pleasures

2. Or youth

3. Or old age and indolence and selfishness

4. Capacity for nobler feelings is like a tender plant; neglect kills it

5. But not a voluntary giving up

D. Repetition

1. Judges who have experienced both kinds of pleasure (high and low) are the most qualified

VI. Enlarge your circle

A. Greatest happiness altogether or in society

B. Nobleness of character makes others happier

C. Greatest happiness for the greatest number—that’s utilitarianism

VII. Objection

A. It asks too much of humans to make everyone (or nearly everyone) happy

B. But this wrongly gets us back to the motives of our actions

C. No system of ethics requires that the only motive is duty (but what about Kant?)

D. 99% of our actions are done from other motives besides duty, and that’s okay

1. Example: if you save someone from drowning, you have done well, regardless of the motive (duty or possible reward)

2. Example: if you betray a friend, then you are wrong, regardless of the motive, even if the goal is to serve another friend

E. Utilitarians do not require someone to multiply happiness for all society, but for those around him; if everyone did this, then big society would be happy too

VIII. Proofs

A. Matters of fact (cause and effect and scientific facts, for example) are the subject of the senses and our internal consciousness

1.. People actually seeing things proves that an object is visible

2. People actually hearing sounds proves that they are audible

B. Questions about ends / goals are about desirable things

C. The proof that things are desirable is that people desire them

D. Happiness is desirable because each person desires it for his own good and for others’ good.

E. Therefore, happiness is the criterion of morality

IX. Big payoff / crescendo: Mill says:

“The multiplication of happiness is, according to utilitarian ethics, the object [goal or purpose] of virtue”

ARTICLES IN SERIES (alphabetical order)

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

Clifford’s Ethics of Belief

Descartes’s Meditations I and II

Hick’s Evil and God of Love

Hume’s Argument against Design

Hume’s Theory of Knowledge

James’s Will to Believe

Kant’s Ethics

Locke’s Theory of Knowledge

Mill’s Ethics

Nietzsche’s Madman and the Death of God

Paley’s Watchmaker and Design Argument

Plato the Soul Man

Plato’s View of Justice and the Soul

Rachels’s Moral Objectivism

Ryle’s Category Mistake

Sartre’s “Existentialism and Humanism”

Socrates’s “Apology”


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