Human Rights

Dr Tom Kerns













Lecture notes on John Stuart Mill's
(A Teleological Ethic)


I. Happiness is what is desirable, and the only thing that is desirable as an end in itself; it is the summum bonum

a. "Questions about ends are, in other words, questions about what things are desirable. The utilitarian doctrine is, that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end. What ought to be required of this doctrine -- what conditions is it requisite that the doctrine should fulfil - to make good its claim to be believed?

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. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it.... 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: that each person's happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons." (461c-d)

II. The Greatest Happiness Principle: Greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number over the Longest Time

b. "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." (448a)

II. Definition of Happiness : The Presence of Pleasure and the absence of pain

c. "... pleasure and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that 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 a means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain." (448a)

IV. Quantity: Degrees of Pleasure (within a kind); Quality: Different Kinds of Pleasure

d. "... The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast's pleasures do not satisfy [alone] a human being's conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification."

e. "... utilitarian writers in general have placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures chiefly in the greater permanancy, 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, and as it may be called, higher ground, with entire consistency. It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others."

V. How to determine when a pleasure is "higher" than another? If it is preferable to a person who is well acquainted with both

f. "If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference,... that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality." (448d)

g. "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied."

VI. Nobility of character promotes happiness in both self and society

h. "... that standard is not the agent's own happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if 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. Utilitarianism, therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character." (450b)

VII. Selfishness makes life unhappy. For the selfish person and for others

i. "When people who are tolerably fortunate in their outward lot do not find in life sufficient enjoyment to make it valuable to them, the cause generally is, caring for nobody but themselves. To those who have neither public nor private affections, the excitements of life are much curtailed....

...those who have also cultivated a fellow-feeling with the collective interests of mankind, retain as lively an interest in life on the eve of death as in the vigour of youth and health. Next to selfishness , the principal cause which makes life unsatisfactory is want of mental cultivation."

(VIII. footnote. The capacity for nobler feelings needs to be nourished

j. "Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access, or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying." (449d)

IX. Motivation is Not important to the morality of the act (though it is important to the worth of the agent)

k. "...utilitarian moralists have gone beyond almost all others in affirming that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent." (453c)

(Citations for quotations are to the Great Books of the Western World edition of Utilitarianism)


X. Conclusion: #II above