Along with other noted philosophers, John Stuart Mill developed the nineteenth century philosophy known as Utilitarianism - the contention that man should judge everything in life based upon its ability to promote the greatest individual happiness. While Bentham, in particular, is acknowledged as the philosophy's founder, it was Mill who justified the axiom through reason. He maintained that because human beings are endowed with the ability for conscious thought, they are not merely satisfied with physical pleasures; humans strive to achieve pleasures of the mind as well. Once man has ascended to this high intellectual level, he desires to stay there, never descending to the lower level of existence from which he began.
In Chapter 2 of Utilitarianism, Mill contends that "pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends" (Mill, 7). Before addressing his argument, Mill defines the topic, "The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, 'Utility', or 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. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure" (Mill, 7). Like a true philosopher, Mill proposes objections to the utilitarian principle, which he then attempts to refute.
Pleasure, according to Mill, has rather arrogantly been regarded as being little more than attempting to keep a pig satisfied. Because man has the intellectual capacity for reason, he should aspire for something more. Mill argues that is exactly what man does. He does not merely attempt to seek momentary pleasure, but in utilitarianism, has the option to choose that which provides him with the most pleasure. According to Mill, "Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure" (Mill 8). Many have refuted Utilitarianism's ideals and declared that man can live just as well without happiness.
Mill acknowledges that this may be true in theory, that men do not conduct their lives in total pursuit of happiness, they still need a gauge with which to measure morality. Happiness does not necessarily mean continuous bliss, as such experiences are often transient. Regardless, happiness to some may merely translate to being the avoidance of pain. In Utilitarianism, Mill noted, "utility includes not solely the pursuit of happiness, but the prevention or mitigation of unhappiness" (Mill 12). The pursuit of pleasure has also been condemned by critics as being little more than the promotion of one's own interests, with no regard to the happiness of others. Mill disputes this as being narrow-minded, clarifying that the pleasure principle which forms the foundation for utilitarianism, "what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned" (Mill 16).
With this acknowledgment, however, comes the criticism that people cannot possibly be motivated by something as satisfying the collective good of society. Mill countered this by pointing out, "The utilitarian morality does recognize in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others" (Mill 16). To the objection that pleasure is an acceptable end is contrary to Christian principles because it is "godless," Mill states, "If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other" (Mill 21). Mill's pleasure principle was disputed by both philosophers and theologians because of its apparent lack of association to a code of morality. To this, Mill contended that there can not be a singular list of morality standards which are in place at all times. There are going to be times when a person needs to weigh his actions to determine what will provide the most pleasure and the least pain.
For example, conventional Judeo-Christian morality teaches that it is wrong to lie. In an instance where the truth in a given situation is more dangerous or harmful than a fabrication, the lie may be in the best interest of minimizing pain. Deviating from this rule of conduct is acceptable in utilitarianism because it is sparing individuals from a given evil. It may be inferred that Mill maintained that it was okay to sometimes "bend the rules" to achieve a desirable end.
Mill also attempts to offer proof that man conducts his life in pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of misery. "The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it: and so of the other sources of our experience" (Mill 34). Man's desire to laugh is a tangible piece of evidence that man is intent on seeking pleasure.
To ascertain that pleasure and freedom from pain are desirable, Mill employed the process of elimination. He established, "happiness is a good: that each person's happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons" (Mill 29). He then concluded that, "No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require that happiness is a good" (Mill 27).
Simply, the normal rules concerning one's desire for happiness do not apply. Happiness may mean different things to different people but as long as the quest of these desires do not inflict pain on others, this is an acceptable means to an end. Mill is ultimately successful in that he points out that contrary to popular belief, utilitarianism is not a completely selfish motivation that does not take into consideration the desires of others. Virtue, while not completely synonymous with happiness, is a constituent of it. Thus, it is an attribute desirable to society as a whole. One who causes pain in others cannot be described as virtuous.
In the final analysis, John Stuart Mill successfully proved his view by noting that happiness is not a completely comprehensive term. It is comprised of many components and represents different things to different people. Whether one is intent on wealthy, famous, or virtuous, he is merely exercising different means to the same end which includes pleasures and freedom from pains.