Mill Successfully Improves Upon Benthams Utilitarianism

A reply to a previous exam question which is interesting to read and consider Mills improvements. Let me know your thoughts.


Utilitarianism is an empiricist belief that the morality of an action or rule is judged by the consequences through rational analysis and sensory experiences. This is usually founded asking what is good? Multiple utilitarians believe in ‘the greater good for the majority’. John Stuart Mill was largely influenced by Jeremy Bentham and yet rejected Bentham’s concept of pleasure and found himself attempting to improve Benthams utilitarianism after quoting that ‘Bentham remained a child all his life’, due to the simplistic view of happiness that Bentham founded his ethics upon. To begin, one shall emphasise the last point made, with Mill believing Bentham had a too simplistic view of happiness.

Mill argued that rather than just the actions, there needs to be a certain set of conditions to adhere to. For example, if you were a billionaire who could afford near enough anything, with a loving family but lived under a dictatorship and therefore had no freedom of speech, you wouldn’t be necessarily happy, simply pleased with the material goods and family you have. This therefore allows Mill to argue that conditions are needed for happiness. At a glance, one might agree that if in that situation, one would be afraid to voice an opinion. Yes, there would be pleasure and emotional happiness but only at home. This can lead to Bentham saying that having pleasure is the most important and that all pleasures are of equal value – why then can it not be this simple? It might be, for despite the morality of the situation, one may get pleasure from caring for the elderly as one may get pleasure from betting on a football game. One could be as equally inclined to do one or the other as they could both create the same pleasure.

However, one can say then that if we have pleasure, is that really creating happiness? If one decided to bet on a football game and gained pleasure from it, would one then be happy with the chance of losing money or realising that when home, one may be unable to afford bills or the gifts to provide happiness to your family. Therefore, Mill’s points out that happiness being more complex is acceptable as having certain conditions and that if one decided to be a carer, one may go home and be happy with doing the most moral thing and feel really good. The idea of pleasure with happiness is completely different and creating happiness is complex and requires certain conditions whereas pleasure is simple and so whilst Mill is proving this to be about happiness, it is as fundamental as putting happiness over pleasure and is necessary to create this society of individual happiness.

One might look on Mills improvement of Bentham’s utilitarianism by supplementing his own ideas with the use of Equality and Liberty which Bentham rejected and called ‘nonsense upon stilts’. If a society had no equality and liberty then what is left is simply a society with no rules, presumably.

When analysing the statement by Bentham, it appears he believed in a society of rules yet required a government to follow them, perhaps arguing in favour of the government but otherwise, what is the point of having such rights without maximising the use of those rights? This is a very good point raised by Bentham and therefore perhaps Mill interpreted in a different way as a way of saying there is no definitive point of the laws and where something is simply pleasure or it is pain. Yet, this hedonic calculus could be applied to cause pain but also cause intense pleasure at the same time and might therefore allow acts such as genocide.

Furthermore, if Bentham did believe that everything is about maximising pleasure in whatever way possible, then Mill was correct in improving Bentham’s utilitarianism and allowing equality and liberty means that people will be unable to cause harm to each other and will be be happy in the most moral way possible. When considering Mill’s improvement, Mill may seem to make the idea too complex but human society is far too complex to simply be a matter of causing whatever pleasure as is possible. As a human race, we have become a civilisation of progress and we constantly have a desire for a better tomorrow despite ‘living in the moment’. Humans are never fully satisfied and continue to search for the true happiness. This is what Mill believes is the aggregate of individual happiness in order to create a society where everyone fulfils their so called purpose. Although Mill was considered to appear snobbish in creating higher and lower pleasures and saying ‘worthy of a swine’ when talking about lower pleasures, one believes if this was changed then Mill realised these lower pleasures can influence society into a better way and could be more correctly applied. Despite appearing snobbish, Mill came up with a very good theory of helping develop society rather than just striving towards our desires which for instance could be easily used to create a conflict for no real explanation; this is what Bentham proposed.

Overall, John Stuart Mill improved Bentham’s utilitarianism into a more complex concept, which is more realistic when considering the complexity of our society. Despite falling short on the concept of higher and lower pleasures as one either gets pleasure from something or does not, Mill successfully improves Bentham theory in multiple ways. Mill identified the importance of equality and liberty in our society and realised the practicality of society developing through the minority striving for individual happiness rather than pleasures of the many and this is why Mill improves Bentham’s ideas into a more rational and complex system, more relevant to our society than Bentham’s simpler views.

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