J. S. Mill Lecture Sample

Below is the outline of a lecture on John Stuart Mill’s ethics, from his book Utilitarianism, delivered in a lecture hall to over 100 students at the University of North Florida.

Mill Lecture Sample from Introduction to Philosophy

By Jennifer Lawson


Mill begins his discussion by talking about ‘intuitive’ moral theories. By this he means moral theories that propose to come to solutions to moral problems a priori rather than inductively or empirically. Recall, a priori means ‘by reason alone’. Rarely do thinkers in the intuitive school make a list of a priori principles, according to Mill. Kant, however, does. His a priori principle is the categorical imperative: “Act according to the maxim you could will to be a universal law.”

When we look at the categorical imperative, though, what we see is that Kant does not show that immoral acts are actually logical contradictions. What he does show is that, if we look at the consequences of an immoral action, the consequences are such that no one would want them. So, Kant’s theory actually deals with consequences and whether consequences are favorable or not, according to Mill.

Greatest Happiness Principle

The Greatest Happiness Principle (or, the Principle of Utility) is that actions are right insofar as they promote happiness and wrong insofar as they promote the reverse of happiness.

What is happiness? Pleasure. What is the reverse of happiness? Pain.

Higher and Lower Pleasures

Utilitarian theory had been accused of being a ‘swine theory’. That is, people found it insulting that all humans should do is maximize pleasures. This is because they took pleasure to be mere bodily pleasure.

Mill, however, says we need to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures. Higher pleasures are pleasures of the mind: Reading literature, going to the opera. Lower pleasures are bodily pleasures. Human beings value both and higher pleasures have more value than lower pleasures.

When we are faced with two pleasures, Mill says that the way we determine which pleasure is of greater value is this: For any person competently acquainted with both pleasures, the one s/he chooses as the more pleasurable is the more valuable one.

No human would choose to be an animal and no educated person would choose to be a dunce. Why? Because humans have dignity. “Better to be a human unsatisfied than a pig satisfied.”

Rejection of Virtue Theory

Mill rejects virtue theory. That is, he doesn’t think character traits of motivations are incredibly valuable the way a virtue theorist might. What is important, again, is the consequences of actions and whether those consequences produce happiness, or pleasure.

Mill says that some people think utilitarianism makes people cold and unfeeling, that it doesn’t take into account important traits of human beings. Mill replies that utilitarianism is about right action. Assessing virtues is about judging people. Furthermore, there is nothing incompatible with valuing good persons in utilitarianism. And, good people can do bad things, while bad people can do good things.

Act and Rule Utilitarianism

Bentham advocated act utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism is the position that we should tally the consequences of each act we perform. Mill, on the other hand, advocate rule utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism is the position that many social rules we have came about because of what we have learned about pleasure and pain in the past. We already know that stealing creates pain. Our society prohibits stealing. This is a rule for us: Don’t steal. An act of stealing would be immoral because it breaks a rule which we’ve already decided on.

We should consult the principle of utility only when faced with dilemmas.