In Mill’s essay on utilitarianism, he defines the most morally correct action to be that which generates the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. He states that, qualifying this statement by arguing that though different pleasures are more desirable and valuable than others, quantity remains triumphant over quality. This means that no matter the ethical consequences or effects of an action, if a greater pleasure is had by sacrificing the happiness of the few, it is justified. I will attempt to argue and give counterexamples to his idea of what a good action is through the examples of morally ambiguous decisions, lying, and self-sacrifice.
According to Mill’s argument, lying, though conventionally wrong, could be justified if the lie brought me happiness and did little damage to those surrounding me. For instance, lying about having a good outing with a friend; it brings me pleasure to avoid conflict and to see my friend satisfied, and it makes my friend feel like good company. Because it generates happiness for the both of us (even though lying would usually be considered wrong by most other standards) it is morally responsible in this situation, because being honest would hurt the feelings of my friend. I think Mill would agree that white lies, (lying to spare someone’s emotions) are acceptable and generates a greater quantity of happiness in our friendship rather than the quality of our trust. However, most would rationalize that trust is a trait that means more and eventually greater amounts of happiness to any relationship despite the truth hurting more than any lie would in parallel situations.
Next let’s look at self-sacrifice, ending one’s life in the interests of an altruistic motive. An example would be if one was part of a group that believed that by throwing oneself into a volcano one could generate rain to end a life-threatening drought. It would bring pain to them, inevitably ending their own life, but all to bring happiness to a larger number of people because they have water. An example in a similar vein would be human testing for a medical trial. It could have unknown, deadly effects on those who take it but with the amount of knowledge it could provide, would bring a greater amount of happiness to the world as a minority is tested on to further science and medicine. It would be accepted under his model yet it could harm the minority or even end their lives, which is inherently bad. Mill’s does not share his thoughts on self sacrifice, but does express that ending your life could be considered noble when “it’s longer duration brings more evil than satisfaction” but not for altruistic reasons.
But must assume this is justified by his beliefs given it brings pain to a smaller number, but pleasure to many others, despite sacrificing their own well being. Mill’s generalization about happiness relying on quantity rather than quality leaves a massive amount of ambiguity for a modern application of his ideas. Defining one’s duty as generating happiness for the masses attempts to equate morality and divy out responsibility to those who cannot foresee the outcome of their decisions when pursuing happiness. I wonder if he would see this as forgivable. There seems to be little empathy in his ideas of utilitarianism for those who suffer at the hand of the masses, ignoring human right violations, justice, and most modern laws.