John Stuart Mill’s standard for moral evaluation of actions is that an action is judged as morally right in proportion to the amount of happiness it engenders. This is the essence of Mill’s definition of Utilitarianism, or what he also calls the “Greatest Happiness Principle”. The name itself, the Greatest Happiness Principle, quite clearly illustrates what Mill’s belief is.

Mill, like his influence Jeremy Bentham, equated goodness and happiness with pleasure, and badness and unhappiness with pain. Mill was of the opinion that human well-being was linked with the balance of pleasure over pain in an individual’s life. The effect of this is that an increase of pleasure in a person’s life will result in an increase in their happiness. Since Mill identifies happiness with goodness, acts which result in happiness are therefore seen as good acts. It is possible to think of acts that prevent pain as neutral, as they cause neither pleasure nor pain, however, Mill disagreed with this view and suggested such acts are basically the same thing as acts which cause pleasure because they both have a positive influence on human well-being. The opposite is of course true with acts that serve to prevent a person’s pleasure, but are not necessarily harmful in themselves.

Since Mill thought the balance of pleasure over pain was the key to human well-being, the only way to ensure human well-being would be to maximise the pleasure in people’s lives. The only way to do this would be by performing good acts. Mill therefore believed that good acts were morally right.

Unlike the normal view of Utilitarianism, Mill proposed there to be degrees of right acts, rather than just one right act, in a given situation. The normal Utilitarian view would say that in any one scenario, the act which would engender the most happiness, i.e. the act which maximises happiness, would be THE right act and every other act would be wrong. The difference between Mill’s view and the other perspective lies in Mill’s belief that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness”. Here Mill is saying that although there is an act which maximises happiness in a given situation, other acts which promote some other level of happiness are not automatically wrong acts, just “less right”, but still right nonetheless. It is also worth mentioning that Mill’s Utilitarianism is concerned with increases in the net happiness of the whole world, not just the individual happiness of each person. Hence issues regarding a personal sacrifice for the “greater good” are an area of debate.

An aspect of Mill’s ideas which may lead to ambiguity, is that he does not define exactly what “goodness”, “happiness”, or “pleasure” are, nor does he provide any idea of what constitutes these concepts. So when making a decision about what the ethically right thing to do is, how can one be sure that happiness is being maximised? To know for oneself is easy, but the trouble lies in knowing what will make others happy. Mill claims that his principle fits with that most fundamental of Christian rules (what Mill calls the “golden rule”); “to do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself”. Mill suggests that this is a purely Utilitarian outlook. However, Roger Crisp raises the point that interpretation of this golden rule can be problematic since a masochist, for example, would be compelled to inflict pain upon others, thus going against Utilitarian ideals. The issue is that happiness is such a subjective concept that often it could be hard, if not impossible, to say what will make one person happy and what will not.

Another difficulty is related to Mill’s philosophical perspective. Mill was a firm believer in a posteriori knowledge (that which is acquired through experience and via our five senses) and rejected the existence of a priori knowledge (that which is known inherently, without reference to experience). To decide what will cause another human being happiness, we must refer to our knowledge of what could cause happiness or unhappiness for a given situation. Where does that knowledge come from? Do we use knowledge of our feelings when similar events have happened to us? If this is the case, then it is in accordance with Mill’s perspective of a posteriori knowledge. However, we cannot have experienced every possible situation, so how do we know what will cause hurt or happiness when presented with an unfamiliar scenario? How, in fact, do we know within ourselves that something will either hurt us or make us happier if we have never experienced it before? Does this mean that humans in fact do have a priori knowledge? Perhaps this is an area on which Mill could have been clearer.

A further concern is that there appears to be no real incentives for a person to dedicate his or her life to the task of maximising the happiness of others. Mill’s ideas seem to imply that one would need to persistently neglect oneself so to further the happiness of others. Also, how far should a Utilitarian go before their happiness is so diminished to cause their own well-being to suffer to extreme? Mill does not seem to mention a limit on Utilitarianism. Furthermore, if everyone in the world were truly Utilitarian, then eventually would not everyone attain the exact same level of happiness as good deeds are exchanged until the total level of happiness in the world is shared out equally? The question of whether that is an ideal situation could be raised, and also whether some people deserve to be happier than others.

Utilitarianism would be a feasible foundation for moral decision provided that Mill is correct in assuming that happiness is identified with goodness and unhappiness is identified with badness. Should this be untrue, then the underlying principle of Mill’s ideas would be removed and naturally, the theory would collapse. So too might Utilitarianism only be a feasible foundation for moral judgement if one could see all the future consequences of any action taken. For instance, a certain action may augment happiness in the immediate future, but how can one know if any other action will lead to even greater happiness in the unforeseeable future? If that were the case, then maybe it would be better to suffer a temporary deficit in happiness in order to enjoy a greater amount in the future. Still the fact remains that one cannot have the foresight to know for sure what their actions will cause to happen – we can have a pretty good idea in the short-term, but other than that, our predictions will almost certainly turn out to be less than totally accurate.

Utilitarianism can suggest courses of action that go against our natural moral feelings. For example, the well known circumstance where Utilitarianism would suggest that it is right that a single person ought to be killed so that their organs can be harvested to give to five ill people so they can live instead. Also Utilitarianism would seem to imply that we should continue to give money to charity until we have nothing left above the level of the people we are donating to, as doing so would generate more happiness than if we spent the money on ourselves. This too goes against our natural instincts (after all, we may have worked hard for the money and therefore wish to reward that hard work by using to our own ends). Another potential problem would be following a course of action that would maximise utility, but hurt a loved one (hypothetically, having to choose between the life of one’s child or the lives of a multitude of anonymous strangers). There are also the issues raised by the “tyranny of the majority”, where a majority enjoy happiness at the expense of a minority’s suffering. For instance the majority of a particular society may wish that a minority in their society were not present, but it goes against our natural feelings to condone a course of action through which the minority would be eradicated – I doubt Utilitarians would support genocide or similar persecution.

Maybe it is due to the fact that our natural moral feelings are based on a moral code other than Utilitarianism, that being a code based on traditional Christian values in the Western world, for instance. It could be that Utilitarianism can sometimes seem so radical as it simply has a different view than the moral code we are accustomed to, not that what it can prescribe is wrong.

The fact remains, however, that the theory falls short.