Philosophy / Utilitarianism


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Autor:  anton  10 October 2010
Tags:  Utilitarianism
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In his book, J.S. Mill attempts to build on Jeremy Bentham's original idea of Utilitarianism. His definition of the moral theory is one that is grounded in Bentham's original work but also extends to include remarks to criticisms of Utilitarianism.

Mill believes that, like Bentham, utility is what is valuable to society. Utility, according to Mill, is the promotion of pleasure or the absence of pain. He defines this as happiness, which is why he refers to utility as the Greatest Happiness Principle (Mill 55). Thus, pleasure (or painlessness) is what society finds valuable. Because society finds happiness valuable, it must attempt to maximize total happiness. Mill describes that the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain are the only ends desirable to society. Because of this, any event, decision, or experience is favored only because it is a source for happiness. This means that actions are good if they lead to more happiness and bad if they prevent it (Mill 55) .

Mill further states that happiness or pleasure is stratified. There are different levels of pleasures. Some pleasures are of higher quality than other pleasures and thus more desirable than pleasures of lower quality. Mill defines a high quality pleasure as one that if people would choose that pleasure, even if it brought upon slight pains, over another pleasure. The adage "Ignorance is bliss" would be one with Mill would strongly disagree. He says that once people are mindful of these higher pleasures, they will desire actions that promote those types of pleasure (Mill 56-58).

Mill also states that Utilitarianism is not promoting selfishness or self-indulgence. The happiness mentioned is not solely that of the individual, but primarily that of society as a whole. In fact, all actions should be based on what is better for society as a whole. Usually, however, most actions that an individual can take have a very small scope in its effect for the whole of society. But it should still be followed.

(i) One of the objections to Utilitarianism is that it fails to provide a manner of discovering whom to praise, reward, blame, or punish. Critics of Utilitarianism state that Utilitarianism does not account for what society is responsible of reacting to an individual's action, at least explicitly. This conception may be partly a result of Utilitarianism having a strong focus on the repercussions of an individual's actions on society, and shedding little light on the reactions of society back on the individual. However, the idea that Utilitarianism fails to take consideration in whom to blame and praise is primarily a result of what J.J.C. Smart describes as neglect of a distinction between utility of action and utility of praise. However, J.J.C Smart begs to differ:

"В…we come to like praise for its own sake, and are thus influenced by the possibility of being given it. Praising a person is thus an important action in itself В– it has significant effects. A utilitarian must therefore learn to control his acts of praise and dispraise, thus perhaps concealing his approval of an action when he thinks that the expression of such approval might have bad effects, and perhaps even praising actions of which he does not really approve. (Smart 49-50)

Smart says that praise is highly influential in regards to a person's actions because receiving praise is a means towards achieving happiness. Thus, a utilitarian will desire to commit actions that come with praise. Because of this when one praises, he promotes the action. Since promotion can condone the repetition of the action, praising should be heavily contemplated in case the action, if repeated, could cause a loss in general happiness of society. Furthermore, what is necessary to contemplate is not the utility of the action worth praising but the praise itself. This means that praise is it's own action and not a remark on a previous action.

The idea that praising actions that one may not approve may not sit well with dissenters of utilitarianism immediately. One might find that immoral and wrong. However, in the case of a utilitarian, whose moral actions are based the fact that the overall happiness of society is valuable and one must do all they can to maximize it, one can see that if an action goes against your ideals, but can bring about the greatest happiness, one must, according to Utilitarianism, commit that action.

For instance, in Smart's article, he tells of a story where the initial actions of a blacksmith incorrectly mounting a horseshoe led to the loss of the horse that led to the loss of a knight and ultimately the loss of the kingdom. The question here is who to blame? The knight? The blacksmith? The horse? In response, Smart said:

"Whose was the responsibility? The act-utilitarian will quite consistently reply that the notion of the responsibility is a piece of metaphysical nonsense and should be replaced by В‘Whom would it be useful to blame?'" (Smart 54)

Essentially, Utilitarianism states that who to blame does not matter because it does nothing to promote pleasure or demote pain. However, what does matter who could be blamed that would lead to more overall happiness in society? This idea fits under the criterion that the action to give blame to someone will ultimately result in obtaining the greatest happiness overall (Smart 54).


Mill, J S. Utilitarianism. 1861. Ed. Roger Crisp. Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 2004.

Smart, J.J.C, and Bernard Williams. "The places of rules in act-utilitarianism."

Utilitarianism: For & Against. 1975. New York: Cambridge University

Press, 2005. 42-56.

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