There are various ways one can respond to a moral question. And, conscious or not, the way one responds often reveals a particular moral perspective. Take for example the Kantian idea of the categorical imperative that argues that morality consists of unconditional moral obligations that are binding in all circumstances and are not dependent on a person’s inclination or purpose. From such a perspective, what one should do is absolutely determined and consistent across time, place and context.
A different moral position offered by John Stuart Mill requires that one try and predict the likely outcomes of our moral decisions. Mill offers us the idea that the “proper moral decision increase the social benefit.” While the Kantian view presupposes that the value of an action is inherent to said action, the view of Mill situates the value in the outcome. The outcome-based view of morality that Mill is proposing is called utilitarianism or colloquially, the greatest good for the most people.
One of the chief reasons that utilitarianism is popular is because of how problematic the idea of moral absolutes can become if two absolutes conflict with one another. Mill believes that “actions have no moral worth apart from their consequences” and because of this, the value of an action is found in whether it has a good or bad consequence. In some instances, lying has unfavorable consequences. If one were found out to be a liar, the person might be looked at as untrustworthy. But in particular cases this might not always be true, say for example if a person lied to protect the lives of Anne Frank and her family during the Holocaust. Lying, in this case, would almost universally be applauded as the morally right (and courageous) decision.
If asked what the foundation of morality is, Mill would likely reply “happiness.” Mill says that “actions are right in proportion to their tendency to promote happiness and wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Mill argues that “pleasure is the only desirable end in itself and that every other activity is directed to produce pleasure.” Simple hedonism, however, is not what Mill is advocating for as pleasure is a stratified concept. “If we present people with two pleasures, the higher pleasure is defined as the one that all or nearly all people would decidedly prefer.” Mill deems pleasures of the mind to be higher than pleasures of the physical realm. In this way, Mill’s position allows for a hierarchy of priorities that can be used to make moral decisions.
There are several common criticisms of Mill’s ideas. The first is that utilitarianism is often very vague. Judging whether outcomes are “good” or “favorable” is laden with values that are not objective or quantifiable. One society or time period might believe something to be of value and to be good while a different group from a different time period might believe the exact opposite. Another flaw is that one cannot be certain of the outcomes of one’s actions. We may think that we are doing good because we expect a certain good outcome, but in the end, we may discover that we were mistaken or that something unpredicted occurs that ultimately leads to a bad outcome. A final point of contention is that some understand utilitarianism to view people in terms of their utility alone. Mill’s view in large part disregards their intrinsic value and only views them as “vessels of experience.”
Find an error? Take a screenshot, email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll send you $3!