John Stuart Mills Moral Philosophy of Utilitarianism


JohnStuart Mills Moral Philosophy of Utilitarianism

JohnStuart Mills Moral Philosophy of Utilitarianism

Asummary of the utilitarian moral philosophy by John Stuart Mills

JohnStuart Mills postulated that actions in the society should be basedon the utilitarian rules, which advocate for the happiness of thegreatest number in the society (Mill,2010). Maximization of happiness for the majority in the societyguides ethical decisions. In the same light of advocating for thehappiness of the majority, Mill contended that the majority need notinterfere with minority unless for purposes of protecting themselvesand others against harm. According to Mill’s moral philosophy, theentire society should have happiness rather than the majoritybenefiting from the actions of a small number of citizens. Millsdivided his utilitarian moral postulations into strong and weakutilitarianism. Strong utilitarianism is about the application andstrict adherence to the utilitarian principles. Weak utilitarianismentails invoking the utilitarian principles in situations instead ofusing the general rule of utility. The intentions of initiatingcertain actions are insignificant to the consequences of the actions.As long as the consequences of actions are good, Mill endorses theactions as being morally good.

Strengthsof the utilitarian moral philosophy

Utilitarianismis straightforward with singular attention to minimizing pain to thesociety and maximizing the happiness that emanates from a course ofaction.

Thebasic principles that govern a utilitarian moral approach areuniversally acceptable and are easy to explain anddemonstrate(Pojman,2005).

Utilitarianismshapes the moral aspects of democracy. Democracy involves decisionsmade by representatives of the majority for the common good of themajority.


Nowthat utilitarian views are consequentialist in nature, they arecontingent upon the consequences of the actions rather than theethical motivations of the doer. The problem with this perspective isthat the consequences of actions are not always predictable(Peterson&amp Seligman, 2004).

Happinessis not universally definitive and quantifiable. Actions that bringhappiness to one person could the as well cause agony to anotherperson.

Adheringto utilitarianism means that one has to strictly follow the rules ormodify the rules to benefit the majority(Reiss,2003). Neither of the approaches is satisfactory because strictadherence to rules renders on irrational while modifying the rulesmakes the actions not very different from those of Act utilitarians.


Twopolicemen and a policewoman from a police department of a big cityflouted the law and decided to conduct impromptu searches in thehouses of city residents without the proximate cause of crime. Theirintention was to find petty offenders, arrest them, and release themupon giving a bribe of whatever amount. It is common for policeofficers to carry out such searches and walk away with a lump sum ofbribes. This time, the police officers found something unusual. Whileconducting the searches, they found three young men with improvisedexplosive devices and a map of the central business district.Apparently, the three men had planned to carry out terror attacks ona local night club. In their private meetings, police chiefs hadpassed a resolution to promote only police officers that broughtforward suspects and demote those engaged in bribery exchanges. Thethree police officers decided to arrest the three men with explosivesand charge them in court because they believed the act will improvethe bad reputation of the police department. Indeed, each of themreceived a promotion in a widely publicized ceremony.

Thethought experiment does not seek to support utilitarianism butcritique it. The consequences of actions may not always show thatthe doer had the best interests of the society at heart. In someinstances, the consequences could be accidental yet utilitarianswould still justify the action as a morally right action. In theabove thought experiment, it is clear that the police officers wereout to get bribes, which presented an opportunity to improve theirreputation and they ended up thwarting a terrorist attack.

Thoughtexperiment dilemma

Adriver of a bus is speeding on a highway. He suddenly notices a childis just about to cross the highway. Pulling up would be more fatalbecause the bus is at 200 miles per hour and applying emergencybreaks would be catastrophic because the lives of 70 people on thebus is at stake.The driver decided to kill the child and save thelives of many. Fortunately, a short turn of the steering slightlyturns the bus to the left and the child escapes by a whisker.

Thethought dilemma critiques the utilitarian approach. Whichever actionthe driver would have taken would have led to loss of life. However,weighing out and deciding to kill the child to save many on the busis considered a utilitarian action. This shows that utilitarianismis not adequate moral philosophy because it ignores vital aspects ofdecisions making. Firstly, moral actions should follow the generalrules of doing the right thing in terms of the law, but not just forthe benefit of the society. What if the child was about to cross ata crossing point and the driver could not stop due toover-speeding?Utilitarians only focus on the fact that the drivermanaged to save all lives regardless of the dangerous circumstances. A deontologist would argue that whatever the consequences, the driverwas still morally wrong because he was over speeding and had thelives both the passengers and the child in danger.


Mill,J. S. (2010). Utilitarianism. Broadview Press.

Peterson,C., &amp Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: Ahandbook and classification. Oxford University Press.

Pojman,L. P. (2005). How should we live: An introduction to ethics.Australia: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Reiss,M. J. (2003). 2 How we reach ethical conclusions. Key issues inbioethics: a guide for teachers, 14.