Utilitarianism in John Stuart Mill: A Critical Appraisal

Utilitarianism in John Stuart Mill


In the history of philosophy, it is believed that the ultimate end of man is happiness and the only way that leads to (through which one achieves) such goal is by living a moral or virtuous life. Living a virtuous life implies exhibiting and behaving morally right.

Consequently, man employs laws of which its objective is to augment the total happiness of the community as it legislates and protects the people. By the very fact that certain actions and measures inflict suffering and pain, do not make that action to be evil or wrong. There are actions that are not pleasurable yet, are considered morally good and right. Besides, there are yet some other actions that are pleasurable but are evil and wrong.

Moreover, as a result of its simplicity and confirmation of the ideology of majority, pleasure and happiness are what everyone desires, the philosophy of utilitarianism has claimed the imaginations of (generations) men than any other way or system of thinking.

The search for pleasure becomes thus, the motivating force of all the actions of man.

Nonetheless, our concern here is to examine specific ethical theory and its solution to the central question of ethics: what is the yardstick for measuring the moral action of an individual; what is the moral standard of morality? Hitherto, the moral philosophy of John Stuart Mill is an attempt made or proposed as a guide to individual’s actions. His doctrine had influence on the thinking and imagination of men; for it confirmed what most of them already believed as a general thesis. J.S Mill had shared his father’s as well as Bentham’s opposition to William Paley’s theological utilitarianism, ethical intuitionism, moral sense theory of ethics, etc.

As we highlighted earlier, each ethical system has its own view on what makes the action of individual right or wrong, good or bad. There is no general agreement as to the content and the standard norm of morality. Mill, however, did not allow any appeal to alleged rational intuition. He emphasized on the consequences of behaviour as the criterion for what is good instead of a dutiful obedience to formal rules of conduct.

He maintained that utilitarianism gives these reasons by establishing which rules under given circumstance lead to happiness or pleasure and those that lead to unhappiness and pain. The test of a rule of conduct becomes thus, the extent of its conduciveness to happiness while pleasure and pain, the test of right and wrong actions. Utilitarianism, therefore, as a moral theory claims and proposes that the morality of an act consists essentially of its utility as means for attainment of happiness of man. Hence, an act is good if it is useful in achieving pleasure and diminishing pain. John Stuart Mill sets out to prove that the greatest happiness is the sole and ultimate end of man actions


There have existed lots of conflicts, disagreements and intolerable attitudes in matters of moral issues as individuals tend to resist the concerted actions demanded in a society. Indeed, from the dawn of philosophy, the question concerning the “Summum Bonum” or “the yardstick for measuring the morality of human actions” has been accounted the main problem in speculative thought. It therefore, gave rise to various sects and schools carrying on a vigorous warfare against one another.

The utilitarian principle is seen and has been held as the true standard of morality and most reliable measurement for distinguishing good actions from the bad actions. The goodness (right) or badness (wrong) of an action lies in its usefulness as means for attainment of happiness or pleasure and diminishing pain.

Nevertheless, the utilitarianism has been unable to deal with certain kinds of moral issues like rights and justice. There are certain actions that utilitarianism regards as morally right yet, they violate people’s right and deny them of justice too. This implies that utilitarianism looks only at how much utility is produced and fails to take into account how that utility is achieved or distributed among members of a society. More still, it becomes difficult too to evaluate the ethical propriety of any decision. It means therefore that utilitarianism seems to ignore certain important aspects of ethics since; it holds the principle that right actions in any situation are the one that will produce the greatest benefit(s). Hence, the end justifies the means but this principle is unacceptable.


Life itself in a society demands a concerted action. Simply put, people should have the same kind of attitude in moral terrain. We cannot live at least humanly without in some ways guide our lives. There ought to be a justification of the human actions to be executed in view of their end(s) thus- the moral theory among which is Utilitarianism.

It is important to note that the subject matter of ethics is human act viewed from moral rightness or wrongness. Consequently, the theory of Utilitarianism posited by J.S Mill serves as a social instrument for controlling, designating, influencing, moulding and redirecting other people’s attitude. The purpose of this principle (utilitarianism) therefore, should be noted without doubt as to enable human beings to live good and moral life.

We shall therefore, examine critically the theory of utilitarianism and its proposition with a view to helping individuals to be able to approach moral issues with an open mind thereby building a better society.


This research work centres on the utilitarian principle as highlighted by John Stuart Mill. However, other commentaries and views that appraised the utilitarianism are welcomed.


The method of approach in this research work is expository. It also employed analytical and evaluative forms in explaining the doctrine posited by John Stuart Mill for evaluating and justifying the individual actions as good or bad, right or wrong.


This research work is composed of the general introduction with four chapters. The general introduction relays a brief summary of the doctrine of utility and influence of J.S Mill as well as methodological consideration of the entire research work. The chapter one centres on the notion, meaning and forms of utilitarianism while, the second chapter examines some related literature on utilitarianism from the history of philosophy.

Chapter three dwells on the brand of utilitarianism developed by J.S Mill as well as inquiring the susceptibility of the theory. The final chapter is the area of critical evaluation and conclusion. It looks further into the implications of Mill’s utilitarian principle and an awareness of the absolute happiness –God.




The definitions of ‘good’ in the light of theories of ethics raised vexing questions to the commands, dictates, purposes and imperative consist of the principle of utility. Some of the definitions refer to it as:

The commands of God, the dictates of reason, the fulfillment of the purposes of human nature, the duty to obey the categorical imperative, etc. Hence, John Locke holds that what has aptness to produce pleasure in us is what we regard as good and what is apt to produce pain in us, we refer to as evil. David Hume, on the other hand explains pleasure as sympathy. Accordingly, sympathy is the pleasure we feel when we consider the pleasure of others.

However, Jeremy Bentham asserted that man is by nature a pleasure seeking and pain-avoiding animal. According to him, these two concepts (pleasure and pain) govern us in all we do, say and think. Utilitarianism therefore, is a moral theory that holds the thesis that man’s highest good consists in the optimum realization of the pleasures of which men is capable. It views pleasures and happiness as the end of man. Consequently, utility means happiness and pleasure, of which stands for the determinant of morality. Hence, the utilitarian principle approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever which appears to have the tendency to augment or diminish happiness. It therefore acclaims an action to be good when the aggregate of pleasure is greater than the aggregate of pain.


We cannot appreciate properly the principle of utilitarianism without understanding the values of the concepts of happiness and pleasure. Every writer from Epicurus to Bentham, who had maintained the theory of utility, meant by it not something to be contradistinguished from pleasure but, pleasure itself together with exemption from pain; for utilitarian principle considers effects like pleasure, happiness good, evil and pain as it relates to human actions and behaviour.

It must be noted from the outset that those who stand up for utility as the test of right and wrong did not use the term in that restricted and merely colloquial sense in which utility is opposed to pleasure. Utility stands the same thing as happiness and pleasure. Moreover, the world and new generations have built and acquired their sole notion of the meaning of utilitarianism from the perverted use and definition of the term.

Utilitarianism most generally is described as the doctrine, which states that “the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined, by the goodness and badness of their consequence. It may be put forward either as a system of normative ethics (i.e. proposal about how we ought to think about conduct) or as a system of descriptive ethics (i.e. an analysis of how we do think about conduct).

According to The Concise Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, utilitarianism is a theory about rightness according to which the only good thing is welfare. For a utilitarian, morality is convertible with utility. As such utilitarianism could be defined as an ethical theory, which holds that morality of an act consists essentially of its utility as means for attainment of happiness of man, which in most cases is considered temporal. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory based on the principle of utility i.e. the principle of the greatest good or happiness. Utility is viewed therefore as the true standard of morality and most reliable measurement for distinguishing good actions from bad actions hence, the yardstick with which good actions are distinguished from bad actions. It implies therefore, that those actions, which produce or tend to produce pleasure, are good while those that tend to produce pain are bad.

Utilitarianism implied superiority to frivolity and the mere pleasure of the moment. Of two pleasures, if there is one pleasure (action) to which almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation, it is regarded as the more desirable pleasure. In his book, Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill gave his own notion of the term:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, 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. Happiness is intended pleasure and absence of pain; while unhappiness (refers to) pain and privation of pleasure.

The Greatest Happiness principle explains the ultimate end of man as an existence exempt as far as possible from pain and as rich as possible in enjoyment both in quality and quantity. In respect to and for the sake of all desirable things. Besides, the theory of life on which this moral theory is grounded is that, pleasure and freedom from pain are the only thing desirable as ends and, that all desirable things are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.

The happiness (pleasure) with which utilitarianism is concerned is not that of egoism. Mill emphasized this point saying that the happiness which forms the Utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s

own happiness but that of all concerned; as between an individual’s own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. He maintained therefore that:

For that standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier and that the worlds in general is immensely a gainer by it.

Hence people shall always act from the inducement of promoting the general interests of the society. Pertinent to mention here is that the utilitarian morality conversed with the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, to do as you would love to be done by others and to love (your neighbour) as you love yourself. This invariably reads the complete spirit of ethics of utility.

Utility therefore enjoins as means of making the nearest approach to its objects, that laws and social arrangements should place happiness or interest of every individual in harmony with the interest of the whole.

This could be achieved through education as a medium to establish in the mind of every individual an indissoluble association between individual happiness and the good at the society; hence the altruistic nature of utilitarianism.

Nonetheless, there is no ethical standard that decides an action to be good or bad, right or wrong since such a judgment is done by a good, amiable, brave and benevolent man or the contrary. Moreover, right action does not necessarily indicate a virtuous character. For instance, to be a good doctor is not the same as being a good person. One could be a good doctor without being a good person. As such, there is a difference between perfection in one’s profession and the activity of the same person as a person. In the long run, however the best proof of a good character remains good actions. Utilitarianism could, therefore, only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character.


Here, we are going to consider five forms of utilitarianism from different perspectives. However each kind of utilitarianism relates to another as such, the knowledge of one serves as a base to understanding and knowledge of the other. They include:

i. Act Utilitarianism

ii. Rule Utilitarianism

iii. Individual Utilitarianism

iv. Social Utilitarianism

v. Egoistic Altruism


Act utilitarianism is one of the major forms of utilitarianism that holds that the rightness or wrongness of an action should be decided only on the basis of the consequence(s) of the action. This is to say that the “after-effect” or the result of an action determines the morality of the action in question. Hence, those actions that produce good results for the greater numbers of people are considered good while those actions on the other hand that produce evil result, pain and unhappiness, are regarded as bad and wrong. More still, act-utilitarianism claims that an action is right if it achieves maximum utility for a maximum number hence; the morality of an action is determined, according to this principle, on the basis of the consequences of the action.

Act-utilitarianism is concerned or focuses on a particular individual’s action as it appeals to the individual. Thus, the consequence of an action of an individual becomes the standard of morality. As such if an action produces the same consequence on a number of individual the particular action is considered morally good, based on the aggregate of pain or pleasure achieved. This principle implies thus that act-utilitarianism does not consider the nature of an action. Instead, it counts on the effect of such action on the individual: to judge whether an action is right or wrong, what counts is the result or the consequences of the action. It means therefore that as long as an action will produce the best possible results for the greatest number of people that particular action should be performed and be carried out as a morally good act. In other words, the end justifies the means.


This is another major form of utilitarianism. Rule-utilitarianism serves as an important and intellectual alternative version of utilitarianism, offered by the utilitarian in response to their critics. The basic strategy of rule-utilitarian is to limit utilitarian analysis to the evaluation of moral rules. What this means is that the supposed determinant of a right (moral) action stems from the question of whether the action is required by the correct moral rules that everybody should follow. Hence, if an action produces pleasure when employed the general rule of conduct it is regarded as morally good and vice versa.

According to rule-utilitarian, when trying to determine if a particular action is ethical, one is never supposed to ask whether that particular action will produce the greatest amount of utility. Instead one is supposed to ask whether the action is required by the correct moral rules that everyone should follow. The basic question in this dimension should be what would be the useful consequence of a moral rule if everybody adopts and obeys it? Or what are the correct moral rules? It is such questions as the above that should be our concern. Indeed, the correct moral rules are those rules that would produce the greatest amount of utility if everyone were to follow them thereby maximizing utility. Simply put, rule-utilitarianism is concerned with rules as such the right action here is that which is in consonant with those rules that will maximize utility if accepted by all.

Meanwhile, the fact that a certain action would maximize utility on a particular occasion does not show that the action is good and morally right. Instead, we should find out a correct moral rule that should evaluate particular actions involved in the counter-examples in relation to the adopted rules. The moral rules must be based on the principle of utility. By this point therefore, it is only the rules which will produce the best possible result for the greatest number of people if everybody would observe it when adopted, stands out as standard of distinguishing good actions from bad actions. This theory of rule-utilitarianism is summarized thus:

a. An action is right from an ethical point of view if and only if the action would produce maximum utility when relates to the moral rules that are considered correct.

b. A moral rule is correct if and only if the sum total of utility produced if everybody were to follow that rule is greater than the sum total of utilities produced if everybody were to follow some alternative rule.

Finally, rule-utilitarianism puts into consideration such question as: would useful consequent result from everyone adopting and obeying this rule? If the answer is in the affirmative, then such an act becomes morally good while if on the contrary, it becomes morally wrong.


Individual utilitarianism is another form of utilitarianism otherwise known as Egoistic Hedonism. The term obviously explains its concept. This form of utilitarianism claims that the end of each man of which each man ought to seek is his own greatest personal pleasure. Therefore, whatever action that tends to promote and increase per se pleasure of each man are to be regarded as morally right and good while those that produce the reverse of one’s personal pleasure are morally bad and wrong actions.

This school of thought agreed also that man’s highest good is human pleasure. Accordingly, Jeremy Bentham maintained that pleasure is the only good desired by all men and; pain the only evil which all men seek to avoid. As such pain and pleasure controls our actions thus:

It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand, the standard of right and wrong, on the other hand the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne.