TABLE OF CONTENTS
TABLE OF CONTENTS……………………………….…vii
NATURE OF UTILITARIANISM
1.2 Meaning and Notion of
1.3 Types of
1.3.1 Act Utilitarianism………………………...15
1.3.2 Rule Utilitarianism………………………..17
1.3.3 Individual Utilitarianism……………………….20
1.3.4 Social Utilitarianism……………………...21
1.3.5 Egoistic Altruism…………………………23
UTILITARIANISM IN THE HISTORY OF
Sidgwick on Pleasure Principle. ………….27
Bentham on Utility Principle……..32
JOHN STUART MILL’S VERSION OF
3.1 Preliminary Remark…………………………………38
3.2 Development and Brand of J.S Mill’s
Doctrine of Utility……39
3.3 J. S Mill’s Definition and Notion of
3.4 The Qualitative Hedonism……………………..44
3.5 The Qualitative Calculus…………………47
3.6 Integrating Utility and Moral Obligation
EVALUATION AND CONCLUSION
4.1 Evaluation: Implication of Mill’s Doctrine
of Utility ….56
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
1.1 PRELIMINARY REMARK
The definitions of ‘good’ in the light of theories of
ethics raised vexing questions to the commands, dictates, purposes and
imperative consist of the principle of utility. Some of the definitions refer
to it as:
The commands of God, the dictates of reason, the
fulfilment of the purposes of human nature, the duty to obey the categorical
imperative, etc. Hence, John Locke holds that what has aptness to produce
pleasure in us is what we regard as good and what is apt to produce pain in us,
we refer to as evil. David Hume, on the other hand explains pleasure as
sympathy. Accordingly, sympathy is the pleasure we feel when we consider the
pleasure of others.
However, Jeremy Bentham asserted that man is by nature
a pleasure seeking and pain-avoiding animal. According to him, these two
concepts (pleasure and pain) govern us in all we do, say and think.
Utilitarianism therefore, is a moral theory that holds the thesis that man’s
highest good consists in the optimum realization of the pleasures of which men
is capable. It views pleasures and happiness as the end of man. Consequently,
utility means happiness and pleasure, of which stands for the determinant of
morality. Hence, the utilitarian principle approves or disapproves of every
action whatsoever which appears to have the tendency to augment or diminish
happiness. It therefore acclaims an action to be good when the aggregate of
pleasure is greater than the aggregate of pain.
1.2 WHAT IS UTILITARIANISM
We cannot appreciate properly the principle of
utilitarianism without understanding the values of the concepts of happiness
and pleasure. Every writer from Epicurus to Bentham, who had maintained the
theory of utility, meant by it not something to be contradistinguished from
pleasure but, pleasure itself together with exemption from pain; for
utilitarian principle considers effects like pleasure, happiness good, evil and
pain as it relates to human actions and behaviour.
It must be noted from the outset that those who stand
up for utility as the test of right and wrong did not use the term in that
restricted and merely colloquial sense in which utility is opposed to pleasure.
Utility stands the same thing as happiness and pleasure. Moreover, the world
and new generations have built and acquired their sole notion of the meaning of
utilitarianism from the perverted use and definition of the term.
Utilitarianism most generally is described as the
doctrine, which states that “the rightness or wrongness of an action is
determined, by the goodness and badness of their consequence”. It may be put forward either as a system of
normative ethics (i.e. proposal about how we ought to think about conduct) or
as a system of descriptive ethics (i.e. an analysis of how we do think about
According to The
Concise Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, utilitarianism is a theory
about rightness according to which the only good thing is welfare. For a
utilitarian, morality is convertible with utility. As such utilitarianism could
be defined as an ethical theory, which holds that morality of an act consists
essentially of its utility as means for attainment of happiness of man, which
in most cases is considered temporal. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory based on the
principle of utility i.e. the principle of the greatest good or happiness.
Utility is viewed therefore as the true standard of morality and most reliable
measurement for distinguishing good actions from bad actions hence, the
yardstick with which good actions are distinguished from bad actions. It
implies therefore, that those actions, which produce or tend to produce
pleasure, are good while those that tend to produce pain are bad.
Utilitarianism implied superiority to frivolity and
the mere pleasure of the moment. Of two pleasures, if there is one pleasure
(action) to which almost all who have experience of both give a decided
preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation, it is regarded as
the more desirable pleasure. In his book, Utilitarianism,
John Stuart Mill gave his own notion of the term:
The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, or the greatest
happiness principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to
promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By
happiness, is intended pleasure and absence of pain; while unhappiness (refers
to) pain and privation of pleasure.
The Greatest Happiness principle explains the ultimate
end of man as an existence exempt as far as possible from pain and as rich as
possible in enjoyment both in quality and quantity, in respect to and for the sake of all desirable
things. Besides, the theory of life on which this moral theory is grounded is
that, pleasure and freedom from pain are the only thing desirable as ends and,
that all desirable things are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in
themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.
The happiness (pleasure) with which utilitarianism is
concerned is not that of egoism. Mill emphasized this point saying that the
happiness which forms the Utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is
not the agent’s
own happiness but that of all concerned; as between an
individual’s own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to
be strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. He
maintained therefore that:
For that standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness but the
greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it may possibly be doubted
whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be
no doubt that it makes other people happier and that the worlds in general is
immensely a gainer by it.
Hence people shall always act from the inducement of
promoting the general interests of the society. Pertinent to mention here is
that the utilitarian morality conversed with the golden rule of Jesus of
Nazareth, to do as you would love to be done by others and to love (your
neighbour) as you love yourself. This invariably reads the complete spirit of
ethics of utility.
Utility therefore enjoins as means of making the
nearest approach to its objects, that laws and social arrangements should place
happiness or interest of every individual in harmony with the interest of the
This could be
achieved through education as a medium to establish in the mind of every
individual an indissoluble association between individual happiness and the
good at the society; hence the altruistic nature of utilitarianism.
Nonetheless, there is no ethical standard that decides
an action to be good or bad, right or wrong since such a judgment is done by a
good, amiable, brave and benevolent man or the contrary. Moreover, right action
does not necessarily indicate a virtuous character. For instance, to be a good
doctor is not the same as being a good person. One could be a good doctor
without being a good person. As such, there is a difference between perfection
in one’s profession and the activity of the same person as a person. In the
long run, however the best proof of a good character remains good actions.
Utilitarianism could, therefore, only attain its end by the general cultivation
of nobleness of character.
Here, we are going to consider five forms of
utilitarianism from different perspectives. However each kind of utilitarianism
relates to another as such, the knowledge of one serves as a base to
understanding and knowledge of the other. They include:
Act utilitarianism is one of the major forms of
utilitarianism that holds that the rightness or wrongness of an action should
be decided only on the basis of the consequence(s) of the action. This is to
say that the “after-effect” or the result of an action determines the morality
of the action in question. Hence, those actions that produce good results for
the greater numbers of people are considered good while those actions on the
other hand that produce evil result, pain and unhappiness, are regarded as bad
and wrong. More still, act-utilitarianism claims that an action is right if it
achieves maximum utility for a maximum number hence; the morality of an action
is determined, according to this principle, on the basis of the consequences of
Act-utilitarianism is concerned or focuses on a
particular individual’s action as it appeals to the individual. Thus, the
consequence of an action of an individual becomes the standard of morality. As
such if an action produces the same consequence on a number of individual the
particular action is considered morally good, based on the aggregate of pain or
pleasure achieved. This principle implies thus that act-utilitarianism does not
consider the nature of an action. Instead, it counts on the effect of such
action on the individual: to judge whether an action is right or wrong, what
counts is the result or the consequences of the action. It means therefore that as long as an action will
produce the best possible results for the greatest number of people that
particular action should be performed and be carried out as a morally good act.
In other words, the end justifies the means.
another major form of utilitarianism. Rule-utilitarianism serves as an
important and intellectual alternative version of utilitarianism, offered by
the utilitarian in response to their critics. The basic strategy of
rule-utilitarian is to limit utilitarian analysis to the evaluation of moral
rules. What this means is that the supposed determinant of a right (moral)
action stems from the question of whether the action is required by the correct
moral rules that everybody should follow. Hence, if an action produces pleasure
when employed the general rule of conduct it is regarded as morally good and
According to rule-utilitarian, when trying to
determine if a particular action is ethical, one is never supposed to ask
whether that particular action will produce the greatest amount of utility.
Instead one is supposed to ask whether the action is required by the correct
moral rules that everyone should follow. The basic question in this dimension should be what would be the useful consequence of a
moral rule if everybody adopts and obeys it? Or what are the correct moral
rules? It is such questions as the above that should be our concern.
Indeed, the correct moral rules are those rules that would produce the greatest
amount of utility if everyone were to follow them thereby maximizing utility.
Simply put, rule-utilitarianism is concerned with rules as such the right
action here is that which is in consonant with those rules that will maximize
utility if accepted by all.
Meanwhile, the fact that a certain action would
maximize utility on a particular occasion does not show that the action is good
and morally right. Instead, we should find out a correct moral rule that
should evaluate particular actions involved in the counter-examples in relation
to the adopted rules. The moral rules must be based on the principle of
utility. By this point therefore, it is only the rules which will produce the
best possible result for the greatest number of people if everybody would
observe it when adopted, stands out as standard of distinguishing good actions
from bad actions. This theory of rule-utilitarianism is summarized thus:
is right from an ethical point of view if and only if the action would produce
maximum utility when relates to the moral rules that are considered correct.
rule is correct if and only if the sum total of utility produced if everybody
were to follow that rule is greater than the sum total of utilities produced if
everybody were to follow some alternative rule.
Finally, rule-utilitarianism puts into consideration
such question as: would useful consequent
result from everyone adopting and obeying this rule? If the answer is in
the affirmative, then such an act becomes morally good while if on the
contrary, it becomes morally wrong.
1.3.3 INDIVIDUAL UTILITARIANISM
Individual utilitarianism is another form of
utilitarianism otherwise known as Egoistic Hedonism. The term
obviously explains its concept. This form of utilitarianism claims that the end
of each man of which each man ought to seek is his own greatest personal
pleasure. Therefore, whatever action that tends to promote and increase per se
pleasure of each man are to be regarded as morally right and good while those
that produce the reverse of one’s personal pleasure are morally bad and wrong
This school of thought agreed also that man’s highest
good is human pleasure. Accordingly, Jeremy Bentham maintained that pleasure is
the only good desired by all men and; pain the only evil which all men seek to
avoid. As such pain and pleasure controls our actions thus:
It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do as well as to
determine what we shall do. On the one hand, the standard of right and wrong,
on the other hand the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their
A distinctive feature of individual utilitarianism or
Egoistic Hedonism is that it claims that everybody ought to behave so as to
promote his own self-interest. It may not be out of place therefore, to assert
here that promotion or the satisfaction of the individual’s self-interest is
the supreme norm or principle in Egoistic Hedonism. Hence, the search for one’s
own greatest happiness and the actions that promotes and encourages individual
pleasures becomes the only standard of right and wrong and the ultimate
foundation of all ethical theories.
1.3.4 SOCIAL UTILITARIANISM
Social utilitarianism is otherwise known as Altruism.
Invariably, this is the reverse of Egoistic Hedonism. Social utilitarianism
takes into precedence the happiness of the society over the happiness of an
individual. The Altruists maintained that the ultimate end of man (and
presumably what each man ought to seek) is the happiness of mankind at large.
As such, we have to aim in our actions the well being of others.
Actions are thus right and morally good as they
promote the happiness and well being of human society; and actions on the hand
are bad and morally wrong as they deter and hinder the happiness or well being
of the society at large. J.S. Mill rightly claimed that man naturally tends
to his own interest but, by living in society, he acquires the habit of
associating his happiness with the happiness of others. According to Mill, “the
happiness which form the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is
not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned. As between his own
happiness and that of the others, utilitarianism requires him to be strictly
impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.
Suffice it to assert therefore, that this principle
rejects the psychological hedonism of Bentham that centred and focused
exclusively on man’s search for individual pleasure.
form of utilitarianism to be considered in this research work is Egoistic
Altruism. This is a moral theory associated to a British philosopher, Herbert
Spencer, who is known for his classical liberalism and evolutionary theory.
Spencer applied his materialistic theory of evolution in an attempt to reconcile
the Egoistic Hedonism and Altruistic utilitarianism.
preliminary step to this task, Spencer explained what is meant by conduct (good
and bad conduct). He came to a conclusion that in all life, there is what is
called conduct, which consists essentially its own needs to its environment and
the needs of whatever that is in contact to it. This implies therefore that a
good action (conduct) is the one that produces pleasure when it brings the
agent or an individual into harmony with its surrounding:
The supreme end of man is to help the process of development so that
when eventually the perfect adjustment of man to his environment is attained,
he will be able to perform actions, which alone are perfectly good, that is
those actions that give pure pleasure without admixture of pain
Nonetheless, Spencer explained that such perfectly
good conduct that produces only pleasure without any admixture of pain is
impossible at the present. This is as a result of the fact that man is
imperfectly and incompletely adapted to the social state. Hence, there is an
incomplete adaptation and adjustment of man to his environment. Consequently,
there are bound to exist unavoidable conflicts and collusion between the
egoistic and altruistic instincts i.e. the good of the self and the good of the
It implies therefore, that the level of adaptation of
man to his environment is merely a transitional stage in development (of the
human race) and as such there will be a point when its highest degree will be
attained. Invariably, pain will be reduced to its minimum while every action of
man thereof will yield the purest pleasure. More still, Spencer was however
emphasizing on sympathy as the highest degree of adjustment to be attained. It
is only when all sorrow shall have ceased that sympathy will reach its full
efficiency and by then, there will be not much difficulty in doing good to
others. It must be noted as well that as this process of development advances,
the difference between the interest of the individual and the interest of the
society will be more perfectly adjusted. The individual man will adapt himself
to his environment, thence; they will find greater pleasure in serving the
society and promoting the general welfare.
However, it might be good to say immediately that
Herbert Spencer’s egoistic Altruism seems an illusion in the field of ethics