As we all know, Mill’s father, James Mill, was the closest associate of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism. J.S. Mill grew up in the shadow of utilitarianism, and even after his emotional crisis in his early twenties; he managed to write a defence of utilitarianism.
Throughout his work we have seen him applying the standard of utility. One consideration for giving equality to women was that it would increase their happiness. The principle of liberty was defended on the grounds of its social utility social progress depended on individual freedom.
A modified liberal democracy was characterised as the best form of government because of its usefulness.
Utilitarianism is the slim tract which Mill put together to answer all the objections that had been raised against this philosophy. The work begins by Mill pointing out that there has been, over the centuries, little agreement on the criteria of differentiating right from wrong.
Rejecting the idea of human beings having a moral sense like our sense of sight or smell, which can sense what is right in concrete cases, Mill put forward the criteria of Utility or the Greatest Happiness principle as the basis of morality, That action is moral which increases pleasure and’ diminishes pain.
In defending utilitarianism here, Mill made a significant change from Bentham’s position. Pleasure is to be counted not only in terms of quantity but also in tens of quality. A qualitatively higher pleasure is to count for more than lower pleasures. “It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”
Having responded to the criticism that utilitarianism assumed an animal like human nature. Mill moved to the next serious problem. Why would individuals be interested in the happiness of others? Mill answered in terms of the “social feelings of mankind; the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures: a powerful principle of human nature.” Because “the social state is at once so natural, so necessary, and so habitual to man,” Mill believed that our taking an interest in other’s happiness was not questionable at all”.
Finally, the only objection that Mill took seriously was that justice instead of utility is the foundation of morality. Mill’s response was first to link justice with rights an injustice is done when someone’s rights are violated and then to assert that rights are to be defended because of their utility. “To have a right, then, is, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of.
If the objector goes on to ask, why it ought? I can give him no other reason than general utility. A society in which individuals are certain of enjoying their rights is the one, which according to Mill is able to progress. Thus rights do not replace the concept of utility; for Mill utility was- the justification for rights.