John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) elaborated upon Bentham’s notion of Utilitarianism and qualified it more as an ethical program that was as directed to the quality of pleasure in addition to the quantity. Hence, some people have called Mill’s version a “qualitative Utilitarianism” whereas Bentham’s version was more “quantitative.”

Mill believed that:

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  • pleasure was the goal of ethics
  • experience by inductive method from the particular information helped one to decide the wisest course of action
  • the Principle of Utility is defined as: The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number
  • consequences were most important since what mattered was whether the good was attained
  • using experience or a posteriorireasoning a society could formulate general laws for the good of all so that the “right” consequences would occur
  • the utilitarian ethics are about the aim of the action or it is teleological
  • thus, results were more likely achieved by experienced, rational people

Utilitarian thinkers have been aware that there were problems within this system, that a person could take advantage of minority groups so as to attain a “greater good for a greater number.” You will read about this in the section subtitled “Act and Rule Utilitarianism” and see how they have tried to make Utilitarianism an ethical project where the “majority rules” but there are still “minority rights.”

This is wonderful for a group ethics in society, but is the individual forgotten? Mill tried to qualify this by stating in his Essay on Liberty that society often must make leeway for the creative person. Nonetheless, group ethics tends to favor the majority of people. What about the individual?

Another possible flaw of Utilitarianism is that the ends justify the means. How much evil are you willing to do in order to achieve a good result?

As the social convention of his day favored men, Mill deliberated that this did not allow for the greater good of women and so wrote the essay “On the Subjection of Women,” favoring women’s rights.  His spouse, Harriet Taylor Mill, was a women’s rights advocate and undoubtedly had an effect on J. S. Mill’s thinking.


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