John Stuart Mill's Utilitarian Ethics

Individualism (from On Liberty)

Principle of Diversity

 A people, it appears, may be progressive for a certain length of time, and then stop: when does it stop? When it ceases to possess individuality (Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Other Essays. John Gray, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 79.)

Principle of Liberty as Long-Range Benefit

The spirit of improvement is not always a spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people; and the spirit of liberty, in so far as it resists such attempts, may ally itself locally and temporarily with the opponents of improvement; but the only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centers of improvement as there are individuals [op.cit. 78].

The Dangers of Obedience to Majorities

Those whose opinions go by the name of public opinion, are not always the same sort of public: in America they are the whole white population; in England, chiefly the middle class. But they are always a mass, that is to say, collective mediocrity [op.cit. 73]

Long-Range Interest of All in the Protection of Minority Views

In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation [abusive language] employed by the side of prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from llistening to those who profess them.  For the interest, therefore, of truth and justice, it is far more important to restrain this employment of vituperative [verbally abusive] language than the other; and, for example, if it were necessary to choose, there would be much more need to discourage offensive attacks on infidelity, than on religion [op.cit. 61].

Habituation by Majority Pressures

Mankind [Humanity] speedily become unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it [op.cit. 82].

Rational Autonomy of Moral Agents as Safeguard for Long-Range Interests of Society as a Whole

If society lets any considerable number of its members grow up mere children, incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives, society has itself to blame for the consequences [op.cit. 91].

Minority Rights and Victimless "Crimes": Personal Preferences, Social Taboo, and Blue Laws

But the opinion of a . . . majority, imposed as law on the minority, on questions of self-regarding conduct, is quite as likely to be wrong as right; for in these cases public opinion means, at the best, some people's opinion of what is good or bad for other people; while very often it does not even mean that; the public, with the most perfect indifference, passing over the pleasure or convenience of those whose conduct they censure, and considering only their own preference.  There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot, when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed [op.cit. 93].
And it is not difficult to show, by abundant instances, that to extend the bounds of what may be called the moral police, until it encroaches on the most unquestionably legitimate liberty of the individual, is one of the most universal of all human propensities [op.cit. 94].
The only ground, therefore, on which restrictions on Sunday amusements can be defended, must be that they are religiously wrong; a motive of legislation which can never be too earnestly protested against.  'Deorum injuriae Diis curae.' [from Tacitus: The injuries done to the gods are the gods' concern.] [op.cit. 101]

Two Key Maxims (from On Liberty) [op.cit. 104]: Victimless Crimes vs. Self-Protection of Society

1.  The individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.
2.  For such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or legal punishment, if society is of the opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection. 
Fornication, for example, must be tolerated, and so must gambling; but should a person be free to be a pimp, or to keep a gambling house?  The case is one of those which lie on the exact boundary line between two principles, and it is not at once apparent to which of the two it properly belongs [op.cit. 110].
The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it [op.cit. 128].

General Happiness Principle [from Utilitarianism op.cit], Levels of Sophistication, and Validity of Judgment

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, 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.  By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure [op.cit. 137].

Knowing Levels of Happiness

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.  And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.  The other party to the comparison knows both sides [op.cit. 140].

Nobleness of Character in the Calculation of Happiness

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.  But the bare enunciation of such an absurdity as this last, renders refutation superfluous. According to the Greatest Happiness Principle, as above explained, the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, being the preference felt by those who, in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with the means of comparison [op.cit. 142].

Appeal to Divine Wishes

If it be true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other [op.cit. 153].

Ethical Exceptions to Rules

Yet that even this rule [the rule against lying as a form of weakening the human preponderance for veracity], sacred as it is, admits of possible exceptions, is acknowledged by all moralists . . . and if the principle of utility is good for anything, it must be good for weighing these conflicting utilities against one another, and marking out the region within which one or the other preponderates [op.cit. 155].

Rule Utilitarianism [Compare Singer's Ethics of Interests.]

Comment: Mill defends the principle of general happiness as a workable ethics by suggesting that it has been in practical use for many centuries.  Thus, people have already been able to arrive at some general rules that point in the direction of general happiness.  Rather than painstakingly calculating the general happiness of any decision, one can rely on these tested rules to yield proper answers, unless some exception makes a new calculation necessary, as indicated in the quote immediately above this paraphrase [op.cit. 155]

Five Principles of Justice:

1.  It is mostly considered unjust to deprive any one of his personal liberty, his property, or any other thing which belongs to him by law [op.cit. 178].
2.  Sometimes laws may be bad.  Mill: Some maintain that no law, however bad, ought to be disobeyed by an individual citizen; that his opposition to it, if shown at all, should only be shown in endeavoring to get it altered by competent authority . . .  Other persons, again, hold the directly contrary opinion, that any law, judged to be bad, may blamelessly be disobeyed, even though it be not judged to be unjust, but only inexpedient; while others would confine the licence of disobedience to the case of unjust laws . . .  Among these diversities of opinion, it seems to be universally admitted that there may be unjust laws, and that law, consequently, is not the ultimate criterion of justice [op.cit. 179].
3.  It is universally considered just that each person should obtain that (whether good or evil) which he deserves; and unjust that he should obtain a good, or be made to undergo an evil, which he does not deserve [op.cit. 179].
4.  It is confessedly unjust to break faith with any one: to violate an engagement, either express or implied, or disappoint expectations raised by our own conduct, at least if we have raised those expectations knowingly and voluntarily [op.cit. [179].
5.  It is, by universal admission, inconsistent with justice to be partial; to show favour or preference to one person over another, in matters where favour and preference  do not properly apply.

Lex Talionis

The sentiment of justice, in that one of its elements which consists of the desire to punish, is thus, I conceive, the natural feeling of retaliation or vengeance, rendered by intellect and sympathy applicable to those injuries, that is, to those hurts, which would us through, or in common with, society at large.  This sentiment, in itself, has nothing moral in it; what is moral is, the exclusive subordination of it to the social sympathies, so as to wait on and obey their call.  For the natural feeling tends to make us resent indiscriminately whatever any one does that is disagreeable to us; but when moralized by the social feeling, it only acts in the directions conformable to the general good [op.cit. 187].

Equal Status for Women

Recommended reading: The Subjection of Women In this essay, Mill argues for full equality between the sexes and analyzes the more subtle ways in which women are subjected to male dominance.  As evidence of natural female equality, he cites the British queens, the Amazons, and a variety of historically significant women such as Hypatia, Sappho, Heloisa, and others.  His argument against the statement that the male-dominance model has by experience been shown to have been the best is the fact that no female-dominance model has ever been in practice.  One can conclude that one system is better than the other only if both had been observed.  


Reinhold Schlieper
August 29, 2000