”Utilitarianism” by John Stuart Mill Essay Sample
- Word count: 1142
- Category: ethics
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”Utilitarianism” by John Stuart Mill Essay Sample
Utilitarianism, by John Stuart Mill, is an essay written to provide support for the value of utilitarianism as a moral theory, and to respond to misconceptions about it. Mill defines utilitarianism as a theory based on the principle that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Mill defines happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain. He argues that pleasure can differ in quality and quantity, and that pleasures that are rooted in one’s higher faculties should be weighted more heavily than baser pleasures. Furthermore, Mill argues that people’s achievement of goals and ends, such as virtuous living, should be counted as part of their happiness. Mill argues that utilitarianism coincides with “natural” sentiments that originate from humans’ social nature. Therefore, if society were to embrace utilitarianism as an ethic, people would naturally internalize these standards as morally binding. Mill argues that happiness is the sole basis of morality, and that people never desire anything but happiness.
He supports this claim by showing that all the other objects of people’s desire are either means to happiness, or included in the definition of happiness. Mill explains at length that the sentiment of justice is actually based on utility, and that rights exist only because they are necessary for human happiness. The theory of utilitarianism has been criticized for many reasons. Critics hold that it does not provide adequate protection for individual rights, that not everything can be measured by the same standard, and that happiness is more complex than reflected by the theory. Mill’s essay represents his attempt to respond to these criticisms, and thereby to provide a more complex and nuanced moral theory. Mill’s argument comprises five chapters. His first chapter serves as an introduction to the essay. In his second chapter, Mill discusses the definition of utilitarianism, and presents some misconceptions about the theory. The third chapter is a discussion about the ultimate sanctions (or rewards) that utilitarianism can offer. The fourth chapter discusses methods of proving the validity of utilitarianism. In his fifth chapter, Mill writes about the connection between justice and utility, and argues that happiness is the foundation of justice.
Relativism is the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration. The term is often used to refer to the context of moral principle, where in a relativistic mode of thought, principles and ethics are regarded as applicable in only limited context. There are many forms of relativism which vary in their degree of controversy. The term often refers to truth relativism, which is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, i.e., that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture (cf. cultural relativism). Another widespread and contentious form is moral relativism. (See also moral relativism, aesthetic relativism, social constructionism, and cognitive relativism.)
Relativism is sometimes interpreted as saying that all points of view are equally valid, in contrast to an absolutism which argues there is but one true and correct view. One argument for relativism suggests that our own cognitive bias prevents us from observing something objectively with our own senses, and notational bias will apply to whatever we can allegedly measure without using our senses. In addition, we have a culture bias—shared with other trusted observers—which we cannot eliminate. A counterargument to this states that subjective certainty and concrete objects and causes form part of our everyday life, and that there is no great value in discarding such useful ideas as isomorphism, objectivity and a final truth. Some relativists claim that humans can understand and evaluate beliefs and behaviors only in terms of their historical or cultural context.
The Meditator reflects that he has often found himself to be mistaken with regard to matters that he formerly thought were certain, and resolves to sweep away all his pre-conceptions, rebuilding his knowledge from the ground up, and accepting as true only those claims which are absolutely certain. All he had previously thought he knew came to him through the senses. Through a process of methodological doubt, he withdraws completely from the senses. At any moment he could be dreaming, or his senses could be deceived either by God or by some evil demon, so he concludes that he cannot trust his senses about anything. Ultimately, however, he realizes that he cannot doubt his own existence. In order to doubt or to think, there must be someone doing the doubting or thinking. Deceived as he may be about other things, he cannot help but conclude that he exists. Since his existence follows from the fact that he is thinking, he concludes that he knows at least that he is a thing that thinks. He further reasons that he comes to know this fact by means of his intellect, and that the mind is far better known to him than the body.
The Meditator’s certainty as to his own existence comes through a clear and distinct perception. He wonders what else he might be able to know by means of this sure method. In order to be certain that his clear and distinct perceptions are indubitable, however, he first needs to assure himself that God exists and is not deceiving him. He reasons that the idea of God in his mind cannot be created by him since it is far more perfect than he is. Only a being as perfect as God could cause an idea so perfect. Thus, the Meditator concludes, God does exist. And because he is perfect, he would not deceive the Meditator about anything. Error arises not because the Meditator is deceived but because the will often passes judgment on matters that the limited intellect does not understand clearly and distinctly. Secure in the knowledge that his clear and distinct perceptions are guaranteed by God, the Meditator investigates material things.
He clearly and distinctly perceives that the primary attribute of body is extension and that the primary qualities of body are size, shape, breadth, etc. He also derives a second proof for the existence of God from the fact that, while bodies are essentially extended, God is essentially existent. A God that does not exist is as inconceivable as a body that is not extended. Because the essence of body is extension and the essence of mind is thought, the Meditator concludes that the two are completely distinct. He decides also that while he can clearly and distinctly perceive the primary qualities of material things, he has only a confused and obscure perception of secondary qualities. This is because the senses are meant to help him get around in the world, not to lead him to the truth.