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Objections to utilitarianism

In the first chapter of the book, Mill began by recalling the nature and the philosophical importance of the problem of the Sovereign good and morality. After some considerations on the logical problem of the foundation in the sciences, he approached precisely the question of good and evil and showed the weaknesses of the various morals that Mill calls “intuitionists”, which have in common to consider that the distinction between the right and wrong is an inexplicable fact. According to him, this current includes Kantian morality - founded on reason - as well as that of Hume - founded on the moral sense.

 Mill wants to show that the “other” theory, that is to say, utilitarianism, can, on the contrary, explain the distinction between good and evil very precisely. This is what he will do in this second chapter.

 The whole of this chapter 2 can be conceived of as a series of prolepses, that is, of responses to objections which Mill himself envisages against the utilitarian doctrine which he defends. Mill borrows most of these objections from the history of ideas or from his contemporaries.

 As he presents these objections and details his responses to them, Mill exposes utilitarian doctrine in its various aspects. These objections can be characterized as follows:

- Objection based on a misunderstanding of the concept of "utility" in relation to pleasure

- Objection based on a too vile conception of human pleasures

- Objection based on an overly ambitious conception of happiness that would make it impossible

- Objection based on a selfish conception of happiness

- Objection based on an overly demanding conception of utilitarian morality

- Objection based on a poor distinction between action and agent

- Objection based on the alleged incompatibility between utilitarianism and religion

- Objection based on confusion between usefulness and interest

- Objection based on the alleged practical impossibility of utilitarianism

- Objection based on the risks of utilitarianism in a moral dilemma

 In the following chapters of the book, Mill will address respectively the question of knowing what can push an agent to respect a moral rule (chapter 3), that of knowing if and how one can prove the principle of utilitarian morality (chapter 4), and finally that of the link which unites justice and utility.

Doesn't utilitarian philosophy result in rejecting pleasures (objection 1)?

This objection is based on a misunderstanding, and even on a misunderstanding about the word "utility", which should especially not be taken in a cold, calculating sense. On the contrary, we will see that utility as a criterion of moral action is the capacity of this action to contribute to the happiness of all, happiness which is itself, precisely, composed of pleasures, informs to be specified (see objection 2): By “happiness” we mean pleasure and the absence of pain; by “misfortune”, pain and the deprivation of pleasure. "

Doesn't utilitarian philosophy invite people to lead a petty, degrading existence (objection 2)?

This objection - in a way contrary to the previous one - is to accuse utilitarianism of pushing human beings towards what they have that is lowest, more base, more unworthy. Pleasure, which utilitarian makes the main ingredient of happiness, is according to the proponents of this objection nothing more than a set of gross satisfactions - Mill probably thinks, without naming them, of the pleasures of the table and the bed. The human being deserves better than an existence based on this kind of satisfaction.

 Now it is precisely those who reduce the pleasure of the human being to its lowest, most animal dimensions, which make it a base being, Mill replies to them that pleasures are all the more typically human as they are not common with those of other animals. The pleasures which bring into play the higher faculties of the human being (his intelligence, his culture, his imagination, etc) are better than the others. How to be sure of this judgment? The only competent judges can only be those who know all the pleasures. We will not ask a fool what the value of pleasures requiring intelligence is. We will not ask a pig if food provides a higher quality of pleasure than philosophy. The fool or the pig may be satisfied, but not really happy.

 Thus, we can define utilitarian morality as the set of rules which allow human beings in their entirety to lead the happiest possible existence that is to say to experience the most varied and most pleasures high possible.

Happiness, which utilitarian philosophy poses as Sovereign good, is it not impossible to achieve (objection 3)?

To this objection, Mill replies on the one hand that happiness should not be conceived as too ideal - some temporary pains are certainly inevitable, but are not incompatible with happiness - and on the other hand that happiness is at least in part within our grasp - nature, the arts, the sciences constitute inexhaustible sources of pleasure. Finally, the external causes of our unhappiness, such as poverty or disease, must be able to be; if not suppressed, at least contained by the political and scientific progress that utilitarianism calls for.

Isn't utilitarian philosophy incompatible with disinterested self-sacrifice (objection 4)?

This objection overlooks a fact that is crucial: self-sacrifice is never an end in itself, and always a means: now, for what do we sacrifice ourselves, if not for the happiness of others?  The hero and the martyr act well according to a utilitarian ideal, even if they are led to neglect their own happiness. Their sacrifice is all the more meritorious, although it undoubtedly brings them the hope that humanity will one day be able to do without such sacrifices. Utilitarianism, in fact, aims for a social and political ideal in which, thanks to the progress of laws and education, it would no longer be essential to sacrifice one's happiness for that of others.

Doesn't utilitarian philosophy set an ideal too high, too noble for humanity (objection 5)?

This objection can be applied to any moral philosophy, assumptions, wrongly, that it would be required of human beings that the totality of their actions. It is done in view of the highest moral goal in the case of utilitarianism, with a view to the greatest happiness for all, which is too much to demand from human beings. 

 But neither utilitarian philosophy nor any other moral philosophy is so exacting of humanity: with the exception of political leaders, in particular, human beings very rarely have to worry about the happiness of the greatest. 

Doesn't utilitarian philosophy consist in judging only acts, without taking into account the agents themselves (objection 6)?

Mill responds to this objection with a subtle conceptual distinction. It should not be confused:

- The plan, which concerns only the action itself, and for assessing the morality of this Action.

- The motive, that is to say the feeling which prompts the agent to perform an action, which makes it possible to assess the agent's worth.

 Thus Mill asserts that intentionally saving someone from a drowning is a morally good action, even if the agent's motive is the hope of a reward, a motive of little virtue admittedly.

 In other words, one should not confuse the morality of actions and the value of agents, even if the moral value of a person logically derives from all of his actions. And it is ultimately easier to assess the morality of an action, the intention of which is often quite clear, than its motive (s), which may be unclear - the hope for heaven may be a part reason for a good deed done by a believer. 

 Mill recognizes that some utilitarian - he thinks, without naming him, of Bentham - do not care enough, if at all, about the value of the agent. However, the value judgment made on the agent is not a judgment of morality, since it is not rational: it is a matter of feeling.

Isn't utilitarian philosophy a philosophy without God (objection 7)?

Without answering the question of the existence of God itself, Mill replies that utilitarianism is compatible with the existence of God - it is also compatible, even if he does not specify it, with its non-existence. Doesn't God want the happiness of his creatures more than all? Moreover, nothing in the various revelations can be judged as being incompatible with the principles of utilitarian morality. 

 It is unnecessary to wonder any further whether revelation, Christian for example, is useful in interpreting the will of God in matters of morality. Everyone can rely on, or not, on religion, in moral matters as in other matters.

Doesn't utilitarian philosophy lead human beings to always act self-interested (objection 8)?

Mill responds to this objection by carefully distinguishing between useful and expedient. We have seen that utility as a utilitarian criterion is in no way that of the agent alone, a fortiori if he acts to the detriment of others. The utility should always be measured on the scale of the greatest happiness for all. Any opportune action, accomplished by doing an undeserved harm to others, is contrary to utilitarian morality. 

 So it is with a lie. It is often a good idea to lie to get out of a sticky situation. But, considered on the scale of humanity or even of society, lying causes great harm to the extent that it weakens the trust between men, on which life in society rests. Only very specific circumstances, in which the consequences of lying are less harmful than those of a sincere statement - if lying saves the life of an innocent person, for example - can therefore justify morally, from a utilitarian point of view. 

 Isn't utilitarian philosophy impossible to put into practice in the urgency of action (objection 9)?

Such an objection, according to Mill, is either stupidity or bad faith. In many cases, no reflection is necessary to know whether an action is moral or not - not only in the utilitarian sense, moreover: so is the case with murder, for example.


 In less obvious cases, it is the cumulative experience of all humanity that we must take as our guide. Of course, this experience is not infallible, and there is certainly much progress to be made in moral philosophy. But this can in no way serve as a pretext for a supposed inability to act morally. Mill distinguishes here the "first principle" and the "secondary principles". The first principle fixes the happiness of the greatest number as the goal of morality. The secondary principles are those which will allow us, in an empirical and therefore perfectible way, to achieve this goal. That the latter are not certain does not exempt us from either practicing or improving them.

Does utilitarian philosophy not provide fallacious arguments in case of moral dilemma for violating moral rules (objection 10)?

This objection is based on the fact that, as we have seen, utilitarian morality does not set forth moral rules capable of being applied universally. Depending on the cases, the same attitude can be moral or immoral, and thus seems to open the door to hypocritical casuistry - treatment on a case-by-case basis, depending on community or private interests. This is also the case with the rule against lying (see objection 8). But this objection should in reality be addressed to any moral system, for human affairs are so complex that it is in reality impossible to state truly universal moral rules. Thus, Kantian morality, forbidding lies whatever the circumstances, 

 If utilitarianism does not provide a "turnkey" morality, applicable without discernment, it nevertheless provides, with the criterion of utility, a clear tool of moral distinction if it is applied honestly.


Utilitarian morality is founded on the principle of the greatest happiness for all. An action is all the more moral the more it aims at this end. The happiness in humans differs from satisfaction, which are capable of other animals, in that it consists in particular active pleasures resulting from the deployment of the higher faculties of the mind, and only to a lesser extent passive and bodily pleasures. 

 Mill particularly insists on the fact that utilitarian morality fixes as the goal of human actions the happiness of the greatest number and not that of the agent alone. That is why the dedication and even the sacrifice of one for the happiness of others constitute behaviors perfectly in accordance with utilitarian philosophy. It is therefore only through a misinterpretation of the latter that it is supposed to be incompatible with disinterestednes— its opposition to Kant's morality is on this point much less than is often believed. 

 In order to know whether an action is moral, Mill therefore proposes the following criterion: was this action taken with the rational intention of generally allowing or increasing the happiness of the greatest number, or is it at least compatible with the happiness of those it concerns? To answer this question, it is not necessary to know the emotional motives, sometimes vague, of the agent, this criterion also has the advantage of being compatible with all positions relating to religionsObjections to utilitarianism, and of being easily applicable in the daily existence of human beings.

Author: Vicki Lezama

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