Utilitarianism (2004) Informative Summary


John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism” is a foundational text in ethical philosophy. It explores the concept of utilitarianism, which advocates for actions that promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Mill defines happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain, emphasizing that certain pleasures are qualitatively superior to others due to their ability to engage higher faculties, such as intellect and imagination. He argues that while happiness is the ultimate end of human action, it is not merely a matter of individual satisfaction, but rather requires consideration of the collective well-being of society and all sentient beings.

Mill also addresses objections to utilitarianism, including the claim that happiness is unattainable and that it is better to sacrifice one’s own happiness for the sake of virtue. He counters these arguments by asserting that happiness is attainable through a life balanced between tranquillity and excitement, achieved through cultivated minds and genuine social connections. He further emphasizes that self-sacrifice is only valuable if it contributes to the happiness of others, and that the utilitarian standard ultimately advocates for impartiality and the promotion of the general good.

Key Findings:

  • Happiness as the ultimate goal: Mill asserts that happiness, defined as pleasure and the absence of pain, is the ultimate goal of human action and the foundation of morality.
  • Qualitative difference in pleasures: Mill argues that certain pleasures, those that engage higher faculties, are qualitatively superior to others.
  • Importance of social good: Utilitarianism emphasizes the well-being of all sentient beings, not just the individual, and prioritizes the promotion of the general good.
  • Self-sacrifice for greater happiness: Mill recognizes the importance of self-sacrifice, but only when it serves to increase the sum total of happiness.
  • Education and social arrangements: Mill highlights the role of education and social arrangements in shaping individuals to prioritize the general good.


  1. Happiness is attainable: Mill argues that happiness, even in a moderate form, is achievable for most people if they are free from poverty, disease, and unkindness.
  2. Poverty is preventable: Mill believes that poverty, in its most severe forms, can be eliminated through social wisdom and individual prudence.
  3. Disease can be mitigated: Mill sees progress in education and scientific advancement as key to reducing the impact of disease on human happiness.
  4. Cultivated minds find happiness: Mill asserts that a cultivated mind, with access to knowledge and intellectual pursuits, can find inexhaustible sources of interest and happiness.
  5. Social connection is vital: Mill contends that those with public or private affections find more happiness in life, as their interests extend beyond themselves.
  6. Self-sacrifice has an end: Mill argues that self-sacrifice, while admirable, must be for an end, such as the happiness of others or the prevention of suffering.
  7. Self-denial can lead to happiness: The ability to do without happiness can free individuals from excessive anxiety about life’s evils and allow them to cultivate inner sources of satisfaction.
  8. The golden rule aligns with utilitarianism: Mill sees the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth – to treat others as you would like to be treated – as embodying the spirit of utilitarian morality.
  9. Motives don’t determine morality: Utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of actions, not the motives behind them, when judging moral rightness or wrongness.
  10. Actions are judged by their impact on happiness: Mill emphasizes that actions are judged morally by their effects on the happiness of those involved, not by the qualities of the person performing them.
  11. Virtue is a means to happiness: Virtue, while originally a means to happiness, can become a part of happiness itself, desired for its own sake.
  12. Human nature seeks happiness: Mill posits that humans desire only what is pleasurable or prevents pain, and that all other desires are ultimately means to happiness.
  13. Justice is grounded in utility: Mill argues that while justice appears distinct from utility, it is ultimately rooted in considerations of general expediency.
  14. Justice aims to punish harm: The sentiment of justice involves the desire to punish those who inflict harm on individuals, rooted in instincts of self-defence and sympathy.
  15. Social good motivates justice: Moralized justice prioritizes the interests of society, acting to protect the collective good, not just individual interests.
  16. Justice involves a right to protection: Justice implies a right residing in the individual, a claim on society for protection from harm or the violation of their due.
  17. Security is the most fundamental utility: The principle of security, essential for human well-being, is at the heart of justice, leading to a strong sentiment of obligation and a sense of moral necessity.
  18. Justice aims to prevent harm: Maxims of justice, such as the proportionality of punishment, are designed to ensure that retribution is justly applied and avoids inflicting unnecessary harm.
  19. Equality is a core principle of utility: The principle of equality, essential to utilitarianism, implies that everyone’s happiness is equally valuable and deserves equal consideration.
  20. Justice bends to expediency: While justice is paramount, specific cases may require prioritizing other social duties that outweigh the general maxims of justice.


  1. 19/20 of humanity experience unhappiness: Mill acknowledges that the majority of people live without happiness, highlighting the need for social and individual efforts to improve well-being.
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  1. Utilitarianism: A moral philosophy that advocates for actions that promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.
  2. Happiness: Defined by Mill as pleasure and the absence of pain, encompassing both physical and mental satisfactions.
  3. Greatest Happiness Principle: The core principle of utilitarianism, suggesting that the right action is the one that maximizes overall happiness.
  4. Sanction: The motives or forces that compel people to obey a moral standard, including both internal and external factors.
  5. Conscience: The internal sense of right and wrong, a subjective feeling that arises from cultivated moral sentiments.
  6. Expediency: Often contrasted with principle, expediency refers to what is useful or beneficial for a particular individual or immediate goal, often at the expense of broader interests.
  7. Justice: A subset of morality that focuses on the essentials of human well-being and encompasses obligations that are considered more binding than other moral rules.
  8. Right: A claim on society for protection in the possession of something that is considered essential for individual well-being.
  9. Equality: A core principle of justice, implying that everyone deserves equal treatment in terms of rights and opportunities, except when social expediency dictates otherwise.
  10. Impartiality: A quality of fairness that requires judgments and actions to be unbiased and based solely on the relevant considerations of the case, not on personal preferences.


  1. Saving a drowning person: Mill uses this example to illustrate that the morality of an action, based on its consequences, remains the same regardless of the motive. Saving a person to torture them later is not morally right, despite the act of rescue.
  2. The tyrant who saves his enemy: This example further distinguishes between intention and motive, emphasizing that the morality of the action rests on the intended outcome, not the feeling that prompted it.
  3. Betraying a trust: Mill argues that betraying a trust is a crime even if done with good intentions, as the consequences of breaking faith are detrimental to society.
  4. Lying for convenience: Mill highlights the importance of honesty and the detrimental effects of lying, even for a temporary gain, on trust and social well-being.
  5. The moderate share of happiness: Mill argues that a life filled with moments of pleasure and the absence of significant pain is a form of happiness that many people can achieve, despite the impossibility of constant rapture.
  6. The cultivated mind’s sources of interest: Mill cites the enjoyment of nature, art, literature, history, and human affairs as examples of the inexhaustible sources of interest that a cultivated mind finds.
  7. The hero or martyr’s sacrifice: This example demonstrates that self-sacrifice, while commendable, is only morally justifiable when it promotes the happiness of others.
  8. The Stoic’s ability to do without happiness: Mill uses the example of Stoics who lived in challenging times to show that the ability to accept adversity without seeking constant pleasure can lead to a peaceful and fulfilling life.
  9. The love of money: Mill uses money as an example of a thing originally valued as a means to happiness but that can become a source of pleasure in itself, even to the point of surpassing the value of the things it can buy.
  10. The love of virtue: Mill argues that virtue, initially valued for its beneficial consequences, can become a part of happiness itself, desired for its own sake, and is ultimately the most beneficial trait for society.

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