Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 2

What is Utilitarianism?

by John Stuart Mill Icon
2 minutes  • 417 words

People who use utility as the moral basis usually make the ignorant blunder of defining utility as being opposed to pleasure.

Pro-utility writers, from Epicurus to Bentham, defined it not something as different from pleasure, but pleasure itself. It includes an exemption from pain.

Yet the common herd perpetually fall into this shallow mistake of separating utility and pleasure.

The Greatest Happiness Principle says that:

  • actions which promote happiness are moral
  • actions which produce the reverse of happiness are immoral

Happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain. Unhappiness is pain and the privation of pleasure.

What things does my theory include in the ideas of pain and pleasure?

My theory is grounded on the following ideas:

  • Pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends.
  • All desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either:
    • for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or
    • as means to promote pleasure and prevent pain.

Such a theory of life excites an inveterate dislike in many minds.

People think that this means that life has no higher end than pleasure, and so they designate it as utterly mean and grovelling.

  • They think it is a doctrine worthy only of swine, to whom the followers of Epicurus were, at a very early period, contemptuously likened
  • Modern holders of the doctrine are occasionally compared in the same way by its German, French, and English assailants.

The Epicureans have always answered that it is their accusers who represent human nature in a degrading light since the accusation supposes human pleasures are the same as those of swine.

Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites. When once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.

I do not consider the Epicureans faultless in drawing out their scheme of consequences from the utilitarian principle. To do this in any sufficient manner, many Stoic and Christian elements must be included.

But the Epicurean theory gives more value to pleasures of the intellect, the feelings, the imagination, and the moral sentiments than pleasures of mere sensation.

But utilitarian writers in general have placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures chiefly in the greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, etc., of the former—that is, in their circumstantial advantages rather than in their intrinsic nature.

And on all these points utilitarians have fully proved their case. But they might have taken the other higher ground with entire consistency.

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