Mill’s Principle of Utility

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Mill’s Principle of Utility






Mill’s Principle of Utility

The theory of utilitarianism is a doctrine that was coined by John Stuart Mill in 1861. It states that a morally good action is one that helps the greatest number of people. It emphasizes that the aim of an action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number. (Merriam-Webster, 1828) According to Mill, the greatest happiness principle is that total happiness, and not just one’s own is the standard of right action and whose aim is not only ecstasy but just to limit the pain and create a comfortable balance of pleasures. He therefore defines happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain. (Mill, 1963-91)

Mill’s principle of utilitarianism expounds that in order to determine whether a proposed course of action would be the right or wrong, one should assess whether the outcome of their actions would bring happiness and the limit pain to a majority of the population. In contrast to the previous theories, in Chapter two, he says: “If I am asked what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.”(Mill, 1963-91)

The hedonistic calculus is way of calculating the sum total of pleasure and pain produced by an act and therefore the total value of the consequences. It’s easy to use the calculus because first and foremost it gives a sense of responsibility to one’s own actions. Next, it can be useful to the practitioner in the future. It also tries to be morally correct and makes the decision for the individual in most cases. However, it’s difficult to use it because it may justify immoral acts and is not always practical. Also, the points may not hold equal importance to each other. Above all, it puts one at cross roads when the scales are balanced on both sides. (Jones, 1978)

Performing these calculations doesn’t require us to know exactly what exactly will happen in the future. However, it only requires one to know the probable consequences of their actions. Therefore before one does an action, they should have analyzed and understood the possible consequences of their actions using the different parameters of the calculation and not necessarily know what the future holds exactly. (Skorupski, 1989,)

In conclusion, Mill explains his principle and lays down his arguments in a very convincing manner. Despite the few shortcomings, it is generally a good moral to go by, though not in the extreme end of circumstances especially, immorality.


Mill, John Stuart, the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Gen. Ed. John M. Robson. 33 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963-91)

Hardy Jones Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (Mar., 1978)

Skorupski, John, (1989), John Stuart Mill. The Arguments of the Philosophers, London & New York: Routledge)

Utilitarianism,(2011).In May 8, 2011, from

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