With his theory of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill attempts to offer a theory of ethics based on first principles. For Mill, the ultimate end to be obtained by any ethical theory must be happiness. All other possible ends such as money, power and even virtue have happiness as the ultimate goal. Mill is aware of the criticisms that this view will attract so offers a number of counter-arguments in his ‘Utilitarianism’ essay to respond to the objections.
This post will consider Mill’s notion of happiness in more detail and whether it stands up to closer scrutiny. Although some of Mill’s reasoning might appear to be insufficient – in particular, his lack of arguments in support of happiness as the ultimate end – this post will conclude that Mill offers a plausible enough account of happiness. Given that there are no other suitable candidates for the ultimate end of morality, we should agree with Mill that if we are going to specify an ultimate end, happiness is the only option we have.
Mill’s basic proof that happiness is the ultimate end is based on a rather controversial assumption. To determine what people desire, we should look at what they actually desire in practice. Using vision as an analogy, Mill notes that the only criteria whether something is visible is whether we actually see it. So in a similar vein, Mill argues that if we look at what people really desire, we find that happiness is always the ultimate end. Therefore, this is sufficient proof that any moral system must ensure that happiness is the primary goal. Is Mill possibly being too simplistic here? Visibility is a straightforward example as we instantly know whether something is visible or not. It does not require any actual knowledge. However, happiness is more ambiguous and cannot be reduced to a simple binary choice.
The next question we can ask Mill here is what exactly does he mean by ‘happiness’. He isn’t the first philosopher to propose a moral system based on happiness. Aristotle too thought that the ‘good’ of life was human happiness (or eudaimonia, the idea of ‘flourishing’). Aristotle went on to define human happiness as a life of virtue. Although Mill is less explicit on why happiness is an important goal for us to achieve, he too views utilitarianism as a notion that leads to the strengthening of character. Mill laments the fact that people do not do enough to cultivate their mental capacities, so believes that utilitarianism offers a solution that will unite people together in communal bonds, and thus strengthen overall happiness.
This leads us to another controversial point in Mill’s ideas of happiness. When he speaks of happiness, whose happiness does he have in mind? Is it the happiness of the moral agent or the happiness of society at large? Mill confirms that utilitarianism concerns happiness in the widest scale possible, that of the entire community. The moral agent must be prepared to put aside his or her own personal feelings and assess the likely consequences of any action in terms of how it impacts the happiness of the community. This might seem like an impossible task – to assess the happiness of every single person – however Mill reassures us that we don’t have to go through such an exhaustive process. We only need to consider those people directly impacted by the decision.
Another question to ask is Mill is whether an emotional state can ever be a suitable end for a moral theory. However, Mill stresses what when he talks about ‘happiness’, he isn’t talking about the emotional position of being in a constant state of ecstasy. Rather he accepts that most people pass through life in a more neutral frame of mind, and provided the overall direction of their life is a positive and fulfilling one, that we can conclude that person is happy. Mill also rejects the notion that utilitarianism is a hedonistic theory, suitable for ‘swine only’. The critics here are making the mistake that human beings are animals capable of simple pleasures only, with no capacity for rationality or moral growth.
Along similar lines, Mill argues that intellectual happiness exceeds that of bodily happiness. Unlike Jeremy Bentham – who considered all forms of happiness to be equal – Mill believes we should show a preference to the ‘higher’ forms of intellectual activity. His reasoning is as follows: if you ask someone acquainted with both forms of happiness, which one will they consider to be the greater of the two pleasures? Mill believes that this person will always choose the higher pleasure. No intelligent being will consent to having their intelligence lowered to that of a ‘fool’ or an animal. Mill believes this proves that we really desire intellectual pleasures more than anything.
As a philosopher, we can see why such a point-of-view appealed to Mill, but it is difficult to see how we can convince the ‘common person’ that intellectual pleasures are more worthwhile than bodily pleasures. Is it also really true that someone acquainted with both would always choose the intellectual pleasures? Everyone needs to relax in some way, and if this means bodily pleasure, it’s difficult to conclude that this is a lesser pleasure. Perhaps a more realistic model here is that both intellectual pleasures and bodily pleasures are equally as important. By following Mill and preferring intellectual pleasures, this opens up utilitarianism to the objection that it is an elitist system.
The next question worth asking Mill is why he considers happiness to be the ultimate end, when in fact people will often have other ends in mind. Possible ends include money, power, fame and virtue. Mill discusses this question in depth in chapter 4 of ‘Utilitarianism’ and concludes that all these other ends still have happiness as the ultimate end.
If we consider the example of someone who loves money, we will have to ask him why he loves money. This person will respond that he wants to live in a large house with lots of expensive furniture. So we’ve determined straightaway that money is not the ultimate end, rather it leads to the ability to acquire more property. But is that still the ultimate end? Mill would argue ‘no’. He wants the fancy house because he believes it will make him happier. I believe Mill is persuasive on this point. As he himself points us, even if we don’t agree that pleasure is a suitable goal, we must at least agree that a life free of pain is worthwhile. Utilitarianism is concerned with both – an increase of pleasure, and a decrease of pain.
To conclude, I would agree that Mill offers a suitable candidate for why we should follow a moral theory. It is difficult to think of any other reason apart from happiness why we should act in an ethical fashion towards others. And he is right to confirm that overall happiness is more important than the happiness of the agent. Any persuasive theory of ethics should have the community in mind, since this is what ethics concerns, our interactions and relationships with other people. Although the actual doctrine of utilitarianism might lead to unfair results in some cases, such as the exploitation of minorities, we should not ignore Mill’s general message. Happiness is a goal worth pursuing as an end, not just as a means.