West Valley College
The notion of an ethics based on utility — usefulness for human concerns, especially human happiness — was one of the revolutionary Continental ideas of the Enlightenment period. Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), for example, in his extremely influential work On Crimes and Punishments, argues that punishments should be inflicted only insofar as they are useful for human purposes; and that governments should not think themselves free to punish inhumanely in the name of God. Beccaria is joined by thinkers such as Hobbes, Hume, Diderot, Helvetius, and Montesquieu.
These notes focus mainly on the version of utilitarianism defended by John Stuart Mill as expressed in his classic work Utilitarianism (1861).
[STUDENTS, PLEASE NOTE! His name is "M-I-L-L" (not "Mills").]
But Mill (1806-1873) was not the first English-speaking utilitarian philosopher; Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), a friend of James Mill, J. S. Mill's father, is usually considered the founder of British utilitarianism. The contemporary philosopher Paul Taylor traces the foundations of British utilitarianism back even further, to David Hume (1711-1776), the famous British empiricist, who claims in his Treatise that people invent rules for conduct because having such rules is most useful for society as a whole.
However, the differences among the early utilitarians are slight, so that most of what is said in these notes regarding Mill is equally applicable to Hume and Bentham.
One important difference between Bentham and Mill arises regarding the question, “What is the ultimate desideratum?”. Bentham says pleasure is the highest natural good, and does not think any pleasures are “objectively” better than any others: “Pushpin is as good as poetry.” But Bentham does not mean all pleasures are equally valuable either; pleasures are better if more intense, long-lasting, certain, nearby, fecund (capable of producing even more pleasures), pure (not mixed with pain), and wide-ranged (the more people who enjoy, the better). According to Bentham, these attributes are part of the calculus of felicity, which you should use to compute the overall value of any pleasure. Mill, by contrast, says that some pleasures are in themselves better than others (whether or not they are intense, long-lasting, certain, etc.).
The Utilitarian Project
Utilitarians intend their theory to be not only normative, but also descriptive. In Chapter I of Utilitarianism, Mill says that even though people do agree pretty much about moral matters, they don't really know why they agree. They don't recognize any first principles from which moral judgments are deduced, or any self-evident moral truths. But to Mill people agree for an obvious reason: everyone is really a utilitarian (whether they know it or not)! Utilitarianism is the real (unexpressed) ultimate standard of morality — the real principle in terms of which all moral judgments are made, and, he thinks, should be made. In other words, he is doing both descriptive and normative ethics.
Mill thinks that if he can find the fundamental principle, he can thus show how to proceed whenever a specific moral decision has to be made. Bentham even speaks of a “hedonic calculus,” in terms of which we can calculate, using mathematical methods, the answers to moral questions! According to the utilitarians, then, judgments about morality will eventually be as certain and well-grounded as judgments in the sciences.
The Fundamental Moral Principle
Mill says the Fundamental Principle of Morality is the Principle of Utility, or Greatest Happiness Principle: pick the course of action that is most likely to produce the greatest good (satisfaction, pleasure, happiness) of the greatest number of people. This is and has always been the fundamental principle of morality, per Mill.
As Mill says, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the…