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John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth century British philosopher, was the most important defender of utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism says that the basic moral principle is that we ought to do whatever promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Mill equated happiness with pleasure. But not all pleasures have equal value; higher pleasures of the mind are better than lower pleasures of the body.

Mill was also important for his vigorous empiricism (which claimed that even "2+2=4" was based on sense experience) and his defense of individual rights (including the rights of women).

These summaries and problems deal with Mill's Utilitarianism. These materials are copyrighted (c) 1998 by Harry J. Gensler but may be distributed freely.


Mill's utilitarianism presumes a hedonistic theory of value. Pleasure and the absence of pain are the only things of intrinsic worth; these are equated with happiness.

Higher pleasures, however, are more valuable than lower ones. For example, the pleasures of learning things and of helping others are more valuable than the pleasures of eating and drinking. We can decide which pleasures are more valuable by looking to the consensus of experienced observers.

Utilitarianism says that actions are right if promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. This is the basic principle of ethics, and the foundation of morality. In applying the principle, the happiness of every sentient being counts equally.


Mill opposes the "intuitive view," which bases ethics on self-evident principles. He argues that this view doesn't give workable principles unless it implicitly appeals to utility. He prefers the "inductive view," which bases ethics on empirical evidence.

We know what is intrinsically good by reflecting on our desires. Just as the only way to tell that something is VISIBLE is to note that it is SEEN, so also the only way to tell that something is DESIRABLE is to note that it is DESIRED. Since the only thing that we desire for its own sake is pleasure and the absence of pain, this must be the only thing of intrinsic worth.

We all strive for our own individual happiness. So, as a group, we ought to strive for the happiness of the group. And this proves the utilitarian principle.

Web resources -- click below for

Two sites on utilitarianism:
The text of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism:
An essay on Mill's thought (the part on utilitarianism is at the end):

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