Utilitarianism Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Discuss the most significant theoretical break between Mill's utilitarianism and Bentham's utilitarianism.

    Mill's utilitarianism distinguishes two classes of pleasures: those baser pleasures which we share with animals, and those higher, virtuous pleasures which are unique to humans. Bentham makes no such distinction. One result of this distinction is that Mill's theory allows for more qualitative stratification of utility than Bentham's does.

  2. 2

    Describe the brief critique Mill makes of Kant. How does this perspective factor into Mill's overall moral philosophy?

    In Chapter I, Mill contends that Kant's categorical imperative, interpreted solely as a logical construct, permits a range of actions that span what we understand both as moral and immoral. His broader point, which paves the way for his treatise, is that deontological modes of ethics are ultimately dependent upon consequentialist considerations of utility.

  3. 3

    Suppose a trolley problem is posited as follows: a trolley will hit and kill a president unless it is diverted to a track where five construction workers will be in its path. Use the problem as a model to describe different interpretations of utilitarian ethics.

    An act utilitarian would seek the greatest net happiness in this particular event. However, considerations of scope could change the actual choice. If the pleasure and pain of the people on the tracks comprises the entire ethical universe, then the trolley ought not to be diverted, because the lives of five are greater than the lives of one - with no account taken for societal status. However, if the scope of the ethical universe consists of the country or world, then the capacity of the president to effect pleasure as well as the potential pain of his death most probably would lead to the decision to divert the train, killing the five workers. A rule utilitarian, in contrast, might be inclined to not divert the trolley by reasoning that the president, by actively arbitrating over people's right to live, would set a precedent leading to by far the greatest eventual pain and privation of pleasure.

  4. 4

    Describe the difference, according to Mill, between the concepts of utility and expedience. Why does he stress this distinction in his treatise?

    Mill sees the conflation of the concept of utility with the concept of expedience as a major misconception that uninformed people make in dismissing utilitarianism. Expedience is the principle of doing that which most promotes your own pleasure and prevents pain from befalling you, and as such is akin to egoism; utility, on the other hand, refers to a holistic calculation of what action yields the most net happiness and prevents the most pain, thereby taking all participants' pleasure and pain into consideration.

  5. 5

    Describe Mill's critique of Epicureanism and how it informs his theory of utilitarianism.

    Mill utilizes a subtle, brief discussion of Epicureanism to pave the way for his own model of utilitarianism. He breaks the analysis into two parts: the common misconception of Epicureanism, and the actual shortcoming of Epicureanism. The misconception that leads people to wrongly take offense to Epicureanism is the notion that the Epicurean emphasis on pleasure as a central value does not distinguish the pleasure of animals from the pleasure of humans; people therefore take offense to being equated to senseless animals. Mill denies that any Epicurean model actually fails to distinguish animal pleasures from the higher human pleasures of the intellect and sentiments, but he does critique it and other utilitarian views (e.g. Bentham's) for distinguishing these higher and lower pleasures only by intensity and duration. This paves the way for Mill's own view that higher and lower pleasures ought to be distinguished by intrinsic value and kind.

  6. 6

    How does Mill resolve the concern of utilitarianism not accounting for the principle of virtue?

    Mill argues that virtue, initially a means for effected general happiness, can become an end unto itself by people deriving happiness from the very concept. In this way, striving towards virtue is compatible with Mill's utilitarian framework.

  7. 7

    How does Mill propose competing forms of happiness be evaluated?

    Mill believes that any two sources of happiness should be qualitatively evaluated by ascertaining the general consensus from people who have experienced both pleasures (intellectual and base) as to which is preferable. This is one of the parts of the underlying framework of Mill's theory that most leads to its overall democratic tone.

  8. 8

    How would Mill answer the charge that utilitarianism just leads people to act selfishly in the name of pleasure?

    Mill would argue that the person making this charge is conflating expediency and utility. People acting egoistically are not acting as utilitarianism demands, because the Greatest Happiness Principle does not privilege the agent in regards to the directionality of happiness generated by acts.

  9. 9

    Briefly sketch the proof of utilitarianism that Mill describes.

    Mill believes that moral theory must not only resonate with our moral intuitions, but should also be compatible with analysis within the framework of our other fundamental sentiments. Mill argues that utilitarianism is supported by our social sentiments and desire for unity and harmony with humanity and sentient beings in general.

  10. 10

    Briefly describe how Mill ultimately sees utility relating to justice.

    Mill sees the moral mandates from which the principles of justice largely emanate as stemming from considerations of utility. By this view, moral rights are the result of the practical theory bent towards affecting the greatest happiness and least pain.