Utilitarianism In John Stuart Mill (A Critical Appraisal)

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Utilitarianism In John Stuart Mill (A Critical Appraisal)

General Introduction


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

Statement of Problem

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.

Purpose of Study

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.

Scope of Research

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.

Division of Work

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.

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