[Day 21] Against utilitarianism – Morality is the tool benefiting society, not for the individual (10 min read)



John Stuart Mill, author of “Utilitarianism” and “On Liberty”

In the book “Utilitarianism”, John Stuart Mill has introduced a moral model with the same name, which put utility as the basis of morals or the greatest happiness principle. In this model, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong in proportion as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By ‘happiness’ is meant pleasure and the absence of pain; by ‘unhappiness’ is meant paint and the lack of pleasure”(5). By examining and criticizing Mill’s arguments about the foundations of his theory, this paper will argue that utilitarianism should not be the moral standards for humans.  Furthermore, it will argue that “ethics of utility” are individual traits that are desirable to the group to which that individual belongs, not to the trait’s owner.

Pleasure is one of two major components of Mill’s happiness. He argues that we can rank pleasure’s value based on their desirability “Pleasure P1 is more desirable than pleasure P2 if all or almost all people who have had experience of both give a decided preference to P1, irrespective of any feeling that they ought to prefer it”(6). Even though this comparison method sounds logical, it contains a critical mistake, which involves collective opinions. What is the danger of collective opinions? One might ask. The most dangerous fault of believing in the mass is the fake unity that the mass portrays. For example, if we ask Americans whether we should increase our budget for education, we’re more likely to have an answer that is different than 50%-50%. Let’s assume that 70% of them vote for YES. Does it mean that increasing budget for education is the right thing to do? Not necessarily so. Over the people that voted for YES, 20% of them might think it’s better to increase salary for elementary teacher, 15% might think that we should increase scholarship for college students, 30% might think that’s we should abolish privilege such as scholarships for the elite and spend more for the average people, while the rest who vote YES do not have any specific preferred areas to spend the extra money. If we go into more details, we would find more and more diverse and conflicting reasons for their votes. They opinions looks like the same, but they are not. Everyone has their own reasons for placing one over another. A glance would show solidarity, but a detailed examination would display chaos.

The second fault in collective opinion is that no crowd should be trusted as the judge. What is the justest crowd? How big should it be? What are its attributes? Should it be comprised of the justest individuals? If it is composed of the people who do not have the highest standard, how could it come to the conclusion of the highest standard? If we let the people who are raised and taught Nazi’s ideal, would Holocaust is the right things to do just because it brings more pleasure to them? The ideal size and traits of group’s members is still a big question mark in Mill’s model. If there is no person who can be trusted for his judgment, there are even fewer reasons to let a crowd hold that role. Even Socrates, whose name has been used several times as a symbol of intelligence and virtue in Mill’s work, has strongly disregarded the idea of collective opinions.

“Should we care about the opinion of the many? Good men, and they are the only persons who are worth considering, will think of these things truly as they happened.” (Crito, 8).

Mill also believed that

the way of life that employs the higher faculty is strongly preferred·to the way of life that caters only to the lower ones· by people who are equally acquainted with both and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both…no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool; no educated person would prefer to be an ignoramus; no person of feeling and conscience would rather be selfish and base” (6).

Mill calls our “sense of dignity” as the reason for making these choices. His assumption is too convenient to make and his trade-off lacks a basis of a fair deal, since it contains many hidden pieces. If a person chooses to be a dissatisfied human other than a satisfied pig, it is not only because the mental pleasure has higher quality than bodily pleasure, but also because of many other reasons. Being a satisfied pig is not secure. A turkey is always well-fed before Thanksgiving. Being humans, or having more intelligence gives an entity more awareness to its surroundings, thus help prolong its life. Moreover, the level of curiosity increases in proportion with intelligence, which leads to boredom in repetitive activity. If a person consecutively eats only one type of food for a year, his pleasure gained from eating would dramatically reduce, even given that food is his favorite. Having more intelligence means that you can extract pleasure from more streams, thus giving you the options of having fun in one activity while waiting for the excitement level of others streams to be refilled. One other hidden factor of the trade-off is that one cannot hold the other parties accountable after the deal. If a person accepts the deal, he would be in a more vulnerable position to be exploited. Thus, he may not have the promised pleasures. Giving these three conditions satisfy, the final decision can be much different. In fact, there are many people in this world who choose the trade-off differently than what Mill expects. We can name lots of millionaires, billionaires, politicians, dictators who have the capacity to be knowledgeable, to be virtuous, but they choose to have a regal life full of sexual and material desires instead. Mill can argue that they are not exposed enough to the other life, but there are still monks and intellectualls who cannot resist the call of bodily desires. By giving reasons to exclude these exceptions, Mill has “cherry-picking” the samples that fit his theory.

After establishing what is happiness and pleasure, Mill starts his endeavor into explaining why utilitarianism is good “you could rationally accept the utilitarianism standard without having grasped that people who enjoy the higher pleasures are happier than those who don’t· That’s because the utilitarian standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness but the greatest amount of happiness altogether”(8). Mill wants to push the idea that happiness can be derived from noble character. He argues that selfishness and lack of mental cultivation are the roots of unhappiness. Thus, “anyone’s best chance of serving the happiness of others is through the absolute sacrifice of his own happiness”(8). Mill’s assessment about the value of self-sacrificing is not sufficient. Nobleness, or willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others is not a desirable trait for an individual but for a group. That trait is encouraged because it increases the survival rate of the group. Having one and two members deceased does not cause much damage for the group, but for those persons, they have lost everything they have. We help others because of two reasons 1) we felt good helping them or 2) there is something in return for us in the past, present or we expect it to come in the future. For the former reason, we may feel good because we have been taught that helping others is good (the society need their member to have that trait) or we may inherit that instinctively. The need to help others rises subconsciously since we want to make friends, to form our circles, so that we can be more secure. Without being taught about sacrificing or expecting benefits from helping, there would be no circumstances when a person voluntarily help another person.

Not satisfying in introducing his model, Mill took another step in recommending

(1) First, laws and social arrangements should place the happiness (or what for practical purposes we may call the interest) of every individual as much as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole.(2) Education and opinion, which have such a vast power over human character, should use that power to establish in the mind of every individual an unbreakable link between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between his own happiness and the kinds of conduct (whether doing or allowing) that are conducive to universal happiness(12).

This is exactly what happens on George Orwell or Ayn Rand novels, where everyone is taught that their happiness is in harmony with their brothers and sisters. The purpose of these rules is to benefit and stabilize “the whole”. However, like 1984 or Anthem, the definition of “the whole” is vague. What constitutes the whole? For a Georgia resident at Lawrenceville, would “the whole” be his family, his neighbors, his county, his state, his country, his race, humanity or every living entity? What kind of happiness matters?

Mill’s proposition “happiness is the end and aim of morality” (17) lacks the subject being discussed. The right proposition should be “personal happiness is the end of individual and group happiness is the aim of morality”. Without a group, there is no need for morality. Morality, or ethics, is the tool of a group to ensure its existence. It is necessary to teach morality to children, but not in the name of personal needs.


John Stuart Mill. Utilitilarism.

Plato. Crito. Pennsylvania State University. 1998  


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