John Stewart Mill's Utilitarianism and Its Criticisms

The theory of utilitarianism, furthered by Mill, has as its central tenet and aim, “The Greatest good for the greatest number,” aka the Greatest Happiness Principle. It states that the basic and universal human desire is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, and, as he implies that this is self-evident in all human action and actually states that in applying this principle to the search for the greatest good for the most people that, “This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality.” He cites as evidence for the truthfulness of this assertion the supposed fact that no human, unless sick of mind, would ever prefer a lower station in life in exchange for a higher volume if also a lower quality of happiness. To the same end, Mill asserts, by way justifying the core values of Epicureans, that humans have high faculties whose satisfaction they prefer over those of a bodily and less noble nature and that in pleasing his higher mental functions a human is not degrading himself or gorging himself swinishly but instead exalting those same superior and unique faculties which distinguish sentient life. “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.” Though this is hedonism of a sort, it is not that which stresses a thoughtless tickling of the senses. Mill asserts that empirically, the collective human consciousness has deemed the pleasing of mental faculties superior to that of the basest animal urges. Mill argues that the goal is not the greatest happiness of the individual, but instead the highest happiness quotient attainable, for if happiness as pleasure is seen as morally right for being inextricable from human nature, then the greatest amount of raw pleasure for the greatest amount of people possible is morally the most honorable aim.

The criticism of Mill’s utilitarianism argues that if what is deemed pleasurable is deemed morally good then intercultural conflicts will arise. If perhaps, murder is a sacred ritual in culture A, all people living in culture A would believe murder to be both pleasurable and morally good under utilitarianism. However, in cultures such as ours in which murder is ostensibly wrong, mass murders would not be smiled upon. Furthermore, such anti-murder cultures would believe the participants in culture A to be loathsome reprobates while people from culture A would consider themselves to be paragons of morality. This disparity eventually leads to the conclusion that one is good and moral so long as one is acting within the precepts of his or her own culture or society, that morality is not universal (which practically negates morality’s original purpose), and that no one person or group can judge the actions of another person or group to be wrong or immoral. The doctrine of ethical relativism is unpopular because, under it, such things as the holocaust could occur without incurring so much as a condemnation. This is where the “feeding the Christians to the lions” argument comes in, because proponents of ethical relativism and opponents of Mill argue that, by Mill’s logic, Christians could be rent apart by ferocious lions and die agonizing deaths so long as their displeasure was outweighed by the morbid delight of the observing crowd. According to his opponents, the facet of Mill’s argument which lends itself to this criticism is the hedonism inherent in suggesting that one seek only pleasure. One man’s pleasure may very well be another man’s demise.

I assert that the criticism is ineffectual. While it is easy to see why one might be inclined to argue that Mill’s theory lends itself to chaos and mayhem so long as the two are found pleasurable by their perpetrators, yet a careful reading of the doctrine of utilitarianism will reveal that Mill is not suggesting that one fling himself into selfish and destructive actions, as undoubtedly the murder of innocents by lions for the amusement of the crowd would be. In fact, the opposite is clearly stated, namely that, though one should be willing to endure some displeasure such that his fellow men are happier, the Greatest Happiness Principle supersedes all caveats. The unnecessary murder of several people is not conducive to the greatest amount of happiness. It is also to be considered that the piece of humanity that would likely find pleasure in a public display of death is among the basest of urges remaining from animal days, and that Mill stated early on that the greatest part of man that has had some experience with both mental and bodily pleasures prefers the former, from which reason and empathy are likely to spring. Mill even states, ““Neither pains nor pleasures are homogenous, and pain is always heterogeneous with pleasure.” Should not then the suffering of the slaughtered prohibit the true pleasure of the observers?

As Mill urges readers to tend away from pain and toward pleasure, one can only take his meaning literally and assume that he was earnest in writing it. Therefore, a true follower of utilitarianism would not seek out a small minority to torture for the pleasure of the crowd no matter how great, for in merely considering the deed they would be breaking with the fundamental mandate: maximize pleasure while minimizing pain.

“Utilitarianism, therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character, even if each individual were only benefited by the nobleness of others, and his own, so far as happiness is concerned, were a sheer deduction from the benefit.”