Introduction to Ethics Phil 140 @ Binghamton University, Win '11

21Jan/11Off

Writing Prompt 3 – Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill argues that happiness, or utility is the sole basis of morality and humans never desire anything but happiness. Utility is defined as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. Utilitarianism follows the Greatest Happiness Principle which suggests actions are morally right if they tend to promote happiness and morally wrong if they produce the opposite of happiness. This principle further states that happiness, or intended pleasure, needs to be promoted among the greater majority for an action or event to be considered moral with little to no attention paid to the individual’s utility. A person’s actions are judged as morally correct or incorrect based only on the outcome of an action while ignoring all intentions or motives. Having said that, the moral element of Utilitarianism is the feelings of the greater majority of affected people by an action and moral standard is their overall happiness/utility, or greatest happiness principle.

The concept of Utilitarianism is inadequate to me for two reasons. First, no universally accepted explanation of the term happiness exists. Various philosophies make assumptions about what makes someone truly happy and the entire theory is based on this assumption. Next and more importantly, even though motives can never fully be uncovered, if someone has the universally accepted wrong reason to do something but it happens to turn out for the greater good (such as situation 3 of writing prompt 1) I don’t think it should be considered morally right. This idea is assisted through other ethical philosophies, such as virtue ethics, which argues that development of morally desirable virtues for one’s own sake will help aid in moral actions when decisions need to be made.

One topic of discussion to further my second critique concerning motives is women and beauty. For centuries women have been objectified and judged based on their beauty. There are extreme cases of the beautification of women, such as Chinese foot binding, and less extreme, such as wearing provocative clothing and having your hair and nails done. No matter which way beautification happens, the woman’s goals usually are to increase the amount of happiness produced in both her and those who encounter her. Utilitarianism according to Mill, however, does not worry about intentions or motives and only cares about the end result of an action. For example, say a woman’s goal is to beautify herself strictly to promote happiness and she takes all the necessary steps to achieve this goal for the given time period in which she lives. Still, she can never find a date and does not make anyone happy. According to Mill this is viewed as having committed an immoral act. I believe this is an example of a major flaw in Utilitarianism. If one has the correct motive to promote happiness among the majority but does not achieve it, it should still be considered moral. On the contrary, if someone has the intention of promoting the opposite of happiness but for some reason their action creates utility, it should not be considered moral.

Mill does believe that an individual’s character plays a role in Utilitarianism. One’s intentions are considered important, but they are not relevant in determining morality. Therefore, one should not value their own happiness over the happiness of all people but that does not necessarily mean that one’s motives should be to serve the greater good. How can intentions be important but still not have any consideration whatsoever in determining morality? I believe that Utilitarianism should consider actions whose intentions are to promote the greatest happiness principle, but ultimately produce the opposite of happiness, as moral. Consider the works of Janet Richards and John Stuart Mill. Richard’s believes that beauty is one of the pleasures of life, but should not be considered the top priority. Beautification is considered moral if it does not diminish the contributions from other aspects of women. Mill would believe that as long as women’s beautification created the most happiness for the greatest number of people, it is moral. What if a woman wanted nothing more than to become beautiful to please as many people as possible, but lacked necessary qualities to accomplish this feat and promoted no happiness? According to Mill, this woman has now committed an immoral act by seeking beautification. I think this is a crude assessment of the situation. I’m not arguing that motives should be the main consideration in morality, as this would move away from Utilitarian principle, but they should have some merit. Utilitarianism should incorporate some of the beliefs of Richard’s and virtue ethics and take into consideration when people have the supporting motives to promote happiness.

Mill also believes that both internal and external sanctions can govern the actions of individuals, and aid the use of his philosophy. The appeal to inner sentiments is what creates a binding effect between the individual and this philosophy. I’ll use Chinese foot binding as an example here. These mothers fear for their daughters’ acceptance into a society so badly that they are willing to inflict severe physical pain to obtain beauty. Even though in modern times we would see this act as brutal and immoral, consideration must be given to the standards of the time period. Their motives are only for the best and to create as much happiness in the end as possible. I am sure, however, that some of these girls never ended up creating happiness for anyone, and therefore got down on themselves too. Again, this action is seen as immoral because no happiness was created in the end even though the intention was only to create as much happiness as possible. How can the right intentions to promote happiness, which is what we all desire, be considered immoral while situation 3 of writing prompt 1 can be arguably moral, according to Utilitarianism? Mill should have allowed motives to create happiness to be a factor in determining morality instead of  dismissing them entirely.

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  1. I agree with your last sentence. I really feel Deontology is a better way to look at things because it considers morality, which I believe is just as important as the greater good. A philosophy that encompassed both points of view would be truly ideal.

  2. “What if a woman wanted nothing more than to become beautiful to please as many people as possible, but lacked necessary qualities to accomplish this feat and promoted no happiness? According to Mill, this woman has now committed an immoral act by seeking beautification.”

    I don’t understand what makes this woman’s actions immoral. She wants to be beautiful, but lacks the qualities to actually be so, and then does not promote happiness. I don’t see how trying and failing is immoral. I am aware that her intentions are irrelevant, so her trying does not matter. I do think though that there is a difference between causing harm, and not increasing utility. Although her failing caused utility to not be promoted, it did not cause harm to others. Thus, I do not think that she acted immorally.

  3. @Amanda

    I actually agree with you on your point and I think I need to revise my post. If a woman’s goal is to produce happiness but the attempt turns out neutral (meaning neither happiness nor the opposite of happiness is produced) then the action would not be considered moral and it would not be considered immoral. I could either chang my post to specifically say that the woman’s attempt to become beautiful somehow produced negative feelings and therefore is considered immoral, or I could include the situation of neutral results. Either way, it does not change my stance that the intention to promote the greatest happiness principle should be considered moral and the intention to promote the opposite should be immoral, regardless of the result. Thanks for the comment!


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