Analysis of John Stuart Mill's Idea of Utilitarianism

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The question that this essay is attempting to answer is an extremely significant question in the research of how individuals should derive their moral decisions. This is because if John Stuart Mill is correct in his belief that actions are morally right when they produce the most happiness to the greatest number of people and vice versa, then this would solve a lot of fundamental problems as people would no longer have to make difficult moral decisions. This is because they will already be answered for them through working out which decision promotes the most happiness for the greatest number of people. In this essay I will attempt to justify why I believe that mill is incorrect in this view through counter arguments such as how making a few people suffer immensely could be proven moral through Mills standpoint. I will later come to conclude that Utilitarianism is a very basic moral code which is distant from human emotions, other than happiness, and that it should not be used to make important moral decisions due to this.

The Utilitarianism in which Mill describes seems to be logical as when you think about a moral decision being made this tends to promote happiness for many people. For example, if somebody decides to run a marathon and raise money for charity many people involved in this will feel happiness. The people who donated will feel happiness as they have given to others, the person who is running the marathon will feel happiness as they have raised money for a good cause and then the people who receive the money from the charity will feel happiness as they have been helped. Therefore, a utilitarian would advocate this action as it is creating a lot more happiness than if it was not done. Through this example Utilitarianism seems like a reliable moral code as it has helped come to decision of morality.

However, it could also be argued that Utilitarianism is not a reliable moral code as it can easily be used to sanction injustice. One example of this is the use of cheap child labour. Although this will bring much pain to the few children involved, the happiness of the individuals getting cheaper products may outweigh the pain of the children and since Utilitarian’s like Mill focus so intensively on the aggregate happiness of a situation this would be classed as morally correct. “It is absurd to demand of such a man, when the sums come in from the utility network which the projects of others have in part determined, that he should just step aside from his own project and decision and acknowledge the decision which utilitarian calculation requires.” (Williams. A Critique of Utilitarianism p.363)

Here Williams emphasizes my point that it is not right for a moral code to go against somebody’s own beliefs and force them to agree with something they otherwise wouldn’t, just because the sum of happiness is greater. People should not have to sacrifice their morals for the greater good. Even mill himself states that actions are deemed as wrong when they are ‘punishable’ (utilitarianism, X:246) or if ‘somebody is to blame’ for the actions (utilitarianism find page) in this scenario I have explained I believe that these actions are both punishable and there are people to blame yet, utilitarianism would suggest that it was morally right. This shows that mill is incorrect as in this case, actions are not right in proportion as they promote happiness.

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The validity of Mills argument is questionable as he states that actions are right as they promote happiness, however naturally, humans have emotional bonds with people in their lives such as family and friends. When emotional attachments are involved in making a moral decision they will naturally waver our judgements and therefore our decisions. For an example I will use the famous ‘trolley case’ *phillipa foot*. In this case, there are five people on one train track and one person on another and there is a person with a lever who has to decide whether the train should kill the five people or the one person. In this scenario Utilitarian’s like Mill would say that killing the one person would be morally right as it would promote the greatest amount of aggregate happiness. So far this would seem like a logical decision to make, however, if I added that the one person was the decision makers child and the five people were old and nearing the end of their lives anyway, though killing the five would still promote the most pain as the families of the old people will be sad, most would agree that killing the five old people would be the morally right thing to do.

However, utilitarianism would suggest to kill the child as utilitarianism expects the decision maker to be impartial about the people in the scenario. Tim Mulgan emphasises this point as he says that utilitarianism “fails” as “it is unreasonable to expect anyone to be perfectly impartial” (Tim Mulgan – Understanding Utilitarianism P97). This point proves

Mills statement to be wrong as actions can be seen as moral in different circumstances, regardless of the aggregate happiness. Mills utilitarianism would only work if people didn’t have emotional attachments but people naturally do. Thus meaning that Mills utilitarianism cannot work.

Another major problem with Mills statement is that happiness is a very broad term. Although in his book Utilitarianism Mill defines happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain many different things can cause different people pleasure and therefore happiness. This is a criticism to Mills statement because, as I have said previously, utilitarianism focuses intensively on the happiness of the aggregate and not on individuals. This is harmful as utilitarianism ignores individual rights and therefore gives leeway to ignoring human rights. An example of this is a group of people may gain pleasure from watching somebody be tortured therefore watching this brings happiness to the group of people. If this group of people and one other person were in a room then utilitarianism may suggest that torturing this one person would be better than not torturing them as in this scenario when this person is being tortured more happiness is being promoted, even though this goes against the individuals right of not being tortured. If this was a moral code in which many people followed and people were indoctrinated to believe, for example, that one race was inferior to another the pain or even killing of this race may bring about more happiness than if this race was left alone thus meaning that utilitarianism would approve of the killing of a whole race and could be used to support *ridiculous* things such as nazi Germany.

Many situations can show that Utilitarianism can ignore the immense suffering of a few people for the happiness of a few more people. Even if it was just one more person being happy than being in serve pain, utilitarianism would suggest this is a moral situation. Many philosophers are also confused as to how a situation can be deemed moral even if people are suffering immensely, just because the aggregate is happy. Nozick highlights this argument in his book ‘Anarchy, State and utopia’ in which he says “To use a person (for another’s benefit) does not sufficiently respect and take account for the fact that he is a separate person” (p.33). This emphasises the fact that utilitarianism would not work as a moral code as it is very distant from the realities of the real world and it ignores people’s human rights.

To conclude, this essay has discussed the reasons why I believe that Mill is incorrect to think that actions are right in proportion to which they promote happiness as, although in many situations the decision that produces the most happiness is often the most moral, I have shown that there are too many flaws in this moral code and thus too many ways in which it can lead to the wrong decision being made. This essay has shown reasons why this moral code could not be one in which individuals base all their moral decisions off due to the flaws. Further research would be needed to account for these flaws before it could be a reliable moral code to follow.

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