Part I History of Ethics
Life of Socrates
Part II Concepts and Problems
Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Part III Applied Ethics
Field of Applied Ethics
Excerpts from John Lachs's chapter on Mill in Ethics in the History of Western Philosophy Ed. Cavalier, Gouinlock and Sterba (MacMillan/St. Martin's Press, 1990).
The England of Mill's day was in a stage of painful transition. The
Industrial Revolution had made such rapid improvements in the production
of goods that Mill could write with confidence, in Utilitarianism,
that 'most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves
removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end
reduced within narrow limits'. But there was no social mechanism in place
for the rational distribution of this bounty. Private and class interests
narrowly conceived stood in the way of improving the living conditions
of all. While there was substantial sentiment for the liberalisation of
society and for the elimination of blatant cruelty and injustice, the
wheels of reform turned slowly. The gradual introduction of social change,
achieved against reluctant segments of the community, tended, moreover,
to concentrate growing power in the hands of government. And rapid industrialisation,
with its pressure for uniformity, was widely perceived as a grave threat
to the wholesome variety of opinions and types of personality in the moral
Mill regarded his utilitarianism, to which he was wholeheartedly devoted,
as the answer to these social and personal difficulties. He thought it
provided a rational method for making decisions in matters of human concern.
And this rationalisation was accomplished, he believed, without losing
the wisdom of the ages, the important insights of the great moral and
religious traditions. In his most sanguine moments Mill went so far, in
fact, as to declare that many of the greatest moralists and religious
reformers were utilitarians, even though in this matter they lacked clear
In its narrowest version, utilitarianism is a theory about what makes
actions right. It holds that nothing we do is right in and of itself,
nor is the intention that shaped it of significance in assessing its worth.
Only the consequences of an action determine its moral value, for this
value consists exclusively of its tendency to add to the sum total of
good in the world. Mill himself did not take this minimalist view of utilitarianism;
he thought of it instead in more cosmic terms as including, directly,
a theory about what is of ultimate or intrinsic value and, derivatively,
accounts of justice, virtue, liberty, good character and the good life,
among others. He did not view these theories as tentative or experimental
extensions of utilitarianism, but rather as integral parts of it, all
of which together constituted a complete and adequate system of morality.
Mill's empiricism inclined him to think that only something experienced
can be valuable as an end. He agreed with Bentham that our direct encounter
with value occurs in the experience of pleasure. Delight or felt satisfaction
was, according to his official view, the only thing desirable for its
own sake; everything else was to be sought solely as means to this end.
He made it perfectly clear that he meant by pleasure a state of feeling
which, though it may be indefinable, is nevertheless well known and easily
recognised by us.
Perhaps it was the evident identification, in ordinary language and thought, of feeling happy with being pleased that occasioned Mill to say that happiness is simply pleasure and the absence of pain. However this may be, the identification had the powerful effect of enlisting the acknowledged and supposedly universal search for happiness as evidence for the truth of hedonism. Bentham adopted the bold view that hedonism was correct both in its psychological and in its ethical forms, viz. that pleasure was both the only object of human choice and the only worthy object. But Mill's generous sympathies and deeper insight into human nature did not let him rest with such a dogmatic and impoverished doctrine. He respected variety in motivations too much to believe that they could all be reduced to a single, simple one.