Friday, June 17, 2011


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Utilitarianism is defined as an ethical doctrine where the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the ultimate aim of all human actions. In other words, society should live a life in search of this ultimate sense of accomplishment. If one were to achieve this status, they will be granted with the highest sense of satisfaction and be fulfilled to the fullest. Early scholars have questioned the true meaning of life. Evidently no one can be sure of the answer though many have struggled to uncover this mystery. Is Utilitarianism a link to what may be the most baffling question to even the highest of intellects? In conjunction, John Stuart Mill attempts to define this aspect of utopia. Utilitarianism seems to carry the idea of ideal perfectionism because the greatest happiness can mean a person to be at a perfect state of harmony. Utopia is basically any place, state, or situation of ideal perfection. This essay was written in order to provide support for the value of utilitarianism as a moral theory and to respond to misconceptions about it. I believe that his position holds truth and his general idea is justly identified. However, there are a few quirks that I believe Mill may have not fully defined to the point where I completely agree with him.

Mill tries to explain how there needs to be one single fundamental rule or theory as the roots of morality. In Utilitarianism, Mill states his theory upon this subject saying basically that “the greatest happiness principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness [and] by happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure” (7). He argues that pleasure can differ in quality and quantity. Furthermore, Mill argues that peoples achievement of goals and ends, such as virtuous living, should be counted as part of their happiness. Mill had a point about people aiming towards gaining pleasure. You do not see many people trying to achieve pain. If one were to examine their surroundings and the people of this earth, he/she will notice that everyone seems to have a purpose in life. People always tend to have a destination of where they are going. With this in mind, what a person is trying to gain, never really has pain tacked on to it. For example, students go to college in order to increase their knowledge. Knowledge is power, but only if applied. So one believes that with this power he/she can find a descent job, to get the descent pay, in order to build a descent life and not only be able to provide the necessities, but fill his/her desires and material wants. This end result of building a foundation with college is getting what they may desire out of life as well as surviving, which usually is not incorporated with the idea of pain. If, however, the objection is that people do endure pain in life, the rebuttal is that the end result or ulterior motive that the person really wants to achieve is a completely different sanction. This may be demonstrated in the example mentioned earlier. A person goes to college for four years in order to obtain a degree. During these four years, there are many tests that needed to be taken and studying for these tests are definitely not pleasurable. In fact, it can sometime be described as PAINFUL. The student endures this pain because they want to earn this degree and get their diploma, which is pleasurable to them. Therefore, I believe that pain is sometimes incorporated into the end result of pleasure. Sometimes in life there are situations where pain has to be endured in order to get what you want. Like the saying goes “no pain, no gain.” Mill believes that “pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends and that all desirable things…are desirable either for pleasure inherent in themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain”(7). Mill attempts to reply to misconceptions about utilitarianism. Mill claims that many people misunderstand utilitarianism by interpreting utility as in opposition to pleasure. In reality, utility is defined as pleasure itself, and the absence of pain. Thus another name for utility is the Greatest Happiness Principle. Pleasure and the absence of pain are, by this account, the only things desirable as ends in themselves, the only things inherently good. Thus, any other circumstance, event, or experience is desirable only insofar as it is a source for such pleasure; actions are good when they lead to a higher level of general happiness, and bad when they decrease that level.

In addition, Mill takes on the claim that it is base and demeaning to reduce the meaning of life to pleasure. To this Mill replies that human pleasures are much superior animalistic ones. Happiness is a sign that we are exercising our higher faculties. Some pleasures are intrinsically more valuable than others. When making a moral judgment on an action, utilitarianism thus takes into account not just the quantity, but also the quality of the pleasures resulting from it. “It is better than to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied (10). A person who cares about higher pleasures will have a high expectation and will be better off than those with low expectations. This ties into the statement Mill makes when he argues his point

Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feelings and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lost than they are with theirs ().

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This means that people will always want to have greater intelligence rather than decrease their capacity of knowledge. In other words, no would be a fool and want less. This is pretty evident in life and can be explained with an example. A person has to set standards and expectations for themselves. One who is not so motivated and expects little is easily satisfied. Those that set high standards and reach for the stars, they may spend more time trying to achieve it and in some cases may not attain it, but they will always have a thirst for knowledge. They will always try to gain a better understanding and try to build their intelligence. The ones that are satisfied with their goals, will not try to move forward, but will definitely not try to move backwards either. Mill delineates how to differentiate between higher- and lower-quality pleasures. A pleasure is of higher quality if people would choose it over a different pleasure even if it were accompanied by discomfort, and if they would not trade it for a greater amount of the other pleasure. A person will not choose to become an animal. An educated person will not choose to become ignorant, and so on. We are better than animals because we have reason and rationality. Even though a person who uses higher faculties often suffers more in life (like the saying ignorance is bliss), he would never choose a lower existence, preferring instead to maintain his dignity. An example of this is smoking. It is understood that the consequences of smoking can be fatal and catastrophic, but a myriad of people continue to choose this pleasure over the pleasure of health.

Moreover, Mill makes the point that it is not always about your own happiness, but it also contributes to the greatest good when you help others in society. It seems to come out as a win-win situation. To suffer indirectly can ennoble a person if it is for a moral reason. It can even be argued that without suffering there cannot be compassion. You cannot know happiness until you suffer otherwise it would all seem to be an illusion of what you think makes you happy. “[It] may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world in general is immensely a gainer by it” (11). A sense of self-sacrifice is a significant aspect of the utilitarianism theory.

“It is noble to be capable of resigning entirely one’s own portion of happiness, or chances of it but, after all, this self-sacrifice must be for some end; it is not its own end; and if we are told that its end is not happiness but virtue, which is better than happiness, I ask, would he sacrifice for others immunity from similar sacrifices? (16)

The more you give the more you get mentally and spiritually. Even so, people who follow this utilitarianism principle do think about themselves as well. They are not going to give up everything. To give is to satisfy one’s own sense of satisfaction, but will do good for others as well. It not only contributes to your own satisfaction, but the nobility of your own character. You make yourself happy and society benefits from this. Buddhism or Dalai Lama can easily be conceived of this idea. Buddhism (because I am a follower) basically is a way of living. It is trying to reach a point of nirvana in oneself.

Overall, Mill’s principle is practical enough to be a standard for exercising morality in society. It can be applicable today and is evident as well. All the volunteer work, charities, sponsorships, etc. are all examples of this. To help society and the conditions of those that are less fortunate, not only cleanses our conscience, but it definitely helps those in need. Another point I have to make is that the there are always a difference in perceptions that have to be accounted for. Everyone views the world based on their own experiences and their own beliefs and morals and they act and live accordingly. Thus, the greatest happiness and sense of perfection can only defined by oneself. Mill makes a good argument and rebuttals an assortment of objections of this theory of utilitarianism with the idea that there is a degree of pleasure, sense of self-sacrifice, and the aim towards pleasure and absence of pain. In conclusion, I believe his arguments are strong and hold truth and can be applied in life at the present.

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