Recall a moment when you acted as a utilitarian. Calculate the net benefit that you b

Study Guide: John Stuart Mill’s Ethics

Mill’s ethical theory Hedonic Utilitarianism, which is a form of consequentialism: The permissibility of actions is determined by examining their outcomes and comparing those outcomes with what would have happened if some other action had been performed.

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Mill responds to Kant’s criticism of consequentialist moral theories by saying that Kant confuses act evaluation and agent evaluation. (Kant argued that consequences should not be used in evaluating actions because we have inadequate control over consequences, and our moral obligations extend only so far as our abilities. Instead, Kant examines our motives to determine the permissibility of our actions.) Mill says that the examination of motives is appropriate for agent evaluation, but not act evaluation. Mill also points out that a morally good person could – with the best of motives – perform an impermissible action.

Principle of Utility: An action is permissible if and only if the consequences of that action are at least as good as those of any other action available to the agent.

• Alternative formulation: An action is permissible if and only if there is no other action available to the agent that would have had better consequences. (These two formulations are equivalent.)

• Moral theories that employ the Principle of Utility are called Utilitarian theories.

• Note that, according to the Principle of Utility, an action could have good consequences but still not be permissible (because some other action was available to the agent that would have had better consequences).

• Also, an action with bad consequences could still be permissible (if no other available action had better consequences).

Hedonic Utilitarianism: Mill’s theory begins with the Principle of Utility, and then adds that the consequences that are of importance are happiness and unhappiness.

• Everyone’s happiness is taken into account, and given equal weight.

• There is no time limit on consequences. All the happiness and unhappiness that result from an action must be taken into account, no matter how long it takes for these consequences to arise.

• Mill also says that it is better for happiness to be distributed among many people. The moral goal of our actions, he says, is to create “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

• Note that when using this principle it is impossible to determine whether an action is permissible unless one compares the consequences of that action with the consequences of all the other actions the agent could have performed.

Contrast with Jeremy Bentham: Bentham, Mill’s teacher, held a similar moral theory, but said that the consequences we should examine are pleasure and pain. Mill says that by examining happiness and unhappiness he is including a new factor: the intellectual component.

• For Bentham, the only things that could make one pleasure better than another (or one pain worse than another) were its intensity and its duration. Mill adds a new

dimension: the intellectual component. This has the result of making the pleasures and pains of animals count for much less.

Comparison with Satisficing Consequentialism: Mill says that for an action to be permissible it must have the best consequences. Satisficing consequentialism says that to be permissible its consequences have to be good enough.

• Satisficing consequentialism allows for more than one permissible action in many situations. Mill, by contrast, implies that there is usually only one permissible action available.

• Satisficing consequentialism allows for a distinction between permissible actions and supererogatory actions.

• Satisficing consequentialism allows for moral dilemmas (situations in which only two actions are available, and neither is morally permissible).

Act vs. Rule Consequentialism: Act consequentialist theories (e.g., the theories of Bentham and J.S. Mill) evaluate actions on a case-by-case basis. Rule consequentialist theories say that an action is permissible only if it is in accord with the relevant rules. Rules are selected so that following them will

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