Utilitarianism – A Book Review

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfed than a pig satisfied.” – John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

Mill has one hell of an opening for his now immortalized book Utilitarianism: not only does he claim that there exists a single infrastructure, as it were, upon which the entire superstructure of morality sits, but that this single “first principle” has been self-evident throughout our entire history. For these thousands of years in which we’ve argued over moral philosophy, hungering insatiably for a guiding principle which will let us be certain, moral beings, it has been right there, so he claims, dangling before our faces. Within the first few pages, the pressure is on—and Mill delivers.


So, what is this first principle, this single infrastructure upon which all of morality sits? If there were such a thing, surely it would need to be as relevant to a fourteenth-century (anti-)pope as to Richard Dawkins, to a twentieth-first century WordPress blogger as to a caveman. Mill claims that it is; this “self-evident” root of all morality which has been obvious from the start is, in fact, universal.  That is, it may be applied as readily to me as to you or to any other who has or will ever live. But I believe I’ve teased the answered long enough: the first principle of morality, upon which everything comes secondary, is happiness.

But what is happiness? Surely, we need a working definition for this word to be of any value. Moreover, what has happiness to do with morality—with right and wrong, good and bad? To answer the first question, Mill defines happiness as “pleasure, freedom from pain.” As for the second, he claims that happiness is the fundamental root of morality—Why? Simply because it is. He claims that happiness is valuable in itself and is the only feature of existence for which that can be said; all other features, actions, thoughts, and behaviors are but instrumental means to the single end of happiness.

Take, for example, showing up to your lectures at university (you are permitted to skim this lengthy case): why must you attend? Well, to learn the material. And why must you do that? To do well on the test. But what good is a test? It helps you pass the class. Why would you want that? To near your degree. But why do you want that? To get a good job. Why? To support yourself. Why? Because if you are financially stable, you can afford luxuries. What good are luxuries? They make you happy. Why? Because they do (hence, happiness is intrinsically good; in and of itself it is, that is).

You can take any example and come to much the same conclusion, and in any case in which you find yourself coming to a slightly different one, such as satisfaction, contentment, enjoyment, et cetera, Mill claims you have merely stumbled upon a synonym for happiness, if not components of it. 

However, the inner workings of Utilitarianism, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, are not nearly as interesting as their implications: if happiness is all that matters, wouldn’t this dangerously consequentialist idea mean humans are obligated to be shamelessly slobbish, gluttonous, sex-crazed beings if they are to be moral? How insulting to the human race! No, but you aren’t alone in wondering that. That was a major criticism of similar theories, Eudaimonisms, to which Mill brilliantly replied (in my own words, mind you): “What? No! You’re the one who’s disgraced humanity by imagining that the only things which make us happy are lowly pleasures such as those. How terrible for you to say; clearly humans are much better than that. Their higher faculty thinking allows them higher quality pleasures, such as intellectualism, innovation, and appreciation of the arts!”

Even with his excellent rebuttal, however, there is a point which must be defended. Higher faculty pleasures, such as intellectualism, sure are stressful! How can a life of stressful higher faculty pleasures make me happier than a life filled with life with lowly ones? To this point, Mill replies, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” High faculty pleasures are of a higher quality of happiness, thus the stress you incur while pursuing them is made up for many times over in eventual happiness (and if it isn’t, what you are pursuing is not worth it). The particulars of this quote will make more sense once dignity is defined below.

The reason we must not be mindless automaton fixed only on immediate gratification of our ever desire is because, as humans, we must retain our dignity, as it is that which gives us pride and makes our toils for future prosperity all the better. It is dignity which makes the animalistic side of humans a choice–no one would agree to endless lowly pleasures if they’ve ever experienced the higher faculty ones.

With that, a good action is that which promotes the greatest happiness. But that still can’t be right; there is a final adjustment to be made. If all that matters is the most happiness for me, then in the event that I am hungry and waiting in line, is it morally correct for me to skip in front so I may be happiest–am I obligated to by the theory of Utility? In a much less boring example, if someone is talking in the movie theater and I get the unfiltered urge to toss him out of his seat and give him a good kick to the chest, should I do it? With the definition so far, I’m obligated to kick this rude man. However, this definition is missing one crucial aspect of Mill’s Utilitarianism—that is, happiness must be taken collective happiness. Before acting, you must decide if the small or large amount of happiness for you is negated by unhappiness for others. If it is, then it is not moral for you to act that way.

As for my theater example, though giving him a good kick might make me feel as if justice had been served, I would also feel guilt and embarrassment later; moreover, in trying to end his distraction of myself and other movie-goers, I further distracted us both, gave them a fright, and possibly traumatized them (and the man, who matters just as much, so Mill says). Some may even give the theater a bad review, and its sales may suffer. We can go on and on, but the clear answer, so Mill would say, is that kicking the man will create far more collective unhappiness than not kicking–so find a better way!

An Interesting, but Skip-able, Aside:

There is a quantitative way to determine if an act is moral or not by the Utilitarian standard. This is called Hedonic calculus, and it’s not nearly as miserable as it sounds. Basically, you assign “jollies” to actions: positive numbers rank the degree of pleasure, zero is neutral, and negatives rank the degreeof displeasure. The amount  of jollies you first assign doesn’t matter; all that matters is that you stay consistent. After the calculation, the choice with the highest jollies wins

For example: (1) To kick the man or not—that is our question. (2) Kick or Don’t kick—these our the choices. (3) For kick, I feel good (+101.5J), but also guilt later (-50J), and I distract and traumatize the fifty viewers (50 x 89.2 =4460J). (4) Decide: to kick = -4359.5J; to not kick = say, – 40J. Clearly, we have an answer. (Again, the numbers can be anything, hence my ridiculous choices–so long as you stay consistent.)

I think Mill is right in many ways; there is much to learn here. However, these consequentialist theories tend to inadvertently lend themselves to exploitation–their ends-justify-the-collective-people’s-means mentality can be misappropriated to support quite unfortunate things. This is one of the reasons our friend Immanuel Kant so disliked this theory (and I’ll certainly review his Groundings of Metaphysical Morals next or soon). But as people, not academics or scholars who have the obligation to be unnaturally thorough, we can accept the bits we like and leave the rest to the vultures.

So, consider Mill’s Utilitarianism; it’s a fascinating approach to life and, if nothing else, is great food for thought.



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