Classical Utilitarianism: Ends Defined Morality

John Mill

Stephen King’s novels, which were turned into a movie The Green Mile, captured a story of a seven-foot, very quite, calm and achluophobia black American death-rowed inmate John Coffey at Cold Mountain Penitentiary, awaiting his execution for alleged rape and murder of two white little girls. As the story unfolds, the death-row supervisor Paul Edgecom discovered that John was innocent but could not do much to stop his execution.

Was the execution of John moral right action? Does the eudaimonistic desirability of an action that maximizes people’s happiness make an act right? Is it true that an act is right if it produces the greatest sum of satisfactions to a great number of people? This article concisely introduced and evaluated Mill’s classical utilitarianism.

“All action is for the sake of some end, and rules of action,” argued John Stuart Mill in Utilitarianism, “it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and colour from the end to which they are subservient.”(Mill 2003, 182) Paul, according to Mill’s, has to take into account the whole states of affairs into consideration. John’s execution is done for the sake of some end and rules action. So far so good for Paul. Assuming that he already took into consideration the rules of action, does some end also determine the value of executing John?

Yes, would be Mill’s answer according to his understanding of utilitarianism. In What Utilitarianism Is, Mill’s apologia of utilitarianism, he argued what he deemed to be in accordance with utilitarian opinion:

[T]he end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.(2003, 190)

Utility, the Greatest Happiness Principle, states that an action is neither right nor wrong by itself, but right if it tend to promote happiness (pleasure and the absence of pain) and wrong if it tend to produce unhappiness (pain and the privation of pleasure) (2003, 186) to a great number of people.

If the execution of John did increase the sum total of happiness to a great number of people, then it was morally right. Since Paul knew John’s execution increased the sum total of happiness to a great number of people, he would be led by Mill’s utilitarianism to conclude that it was morally right to execute an innocent man.

Mill’s utilitarianism does not locate the moral value of an act in the act but the psychological end result of great number of people involved.

Mill, John Stuart (2003) Utilitarianism and On Libert. Edited by Mary Warnock . 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishing.

4 thoughts on “Classical Utilitarianism: Ends Defined Morality

  1. I find this is actually how morality is often defined today, even from a more liberal understanding of Christian thought. You will often hear statements about interpreting Scripture this way (often in relation to gender roles or sexuality) that God’s commands are good and therefore God wouldn;t command anything that wasn’t good for humanity, which they interpret to mean anything that would make them unhappy, ergo, the traditional understanding of these doctrines for the past few thousand years of church history needs to altered. Kyrie eleison.

  2. So then, the gist is that utilitarianism is subjective morality rather than objective morality? No thanks! I’d rather have a set standard that is not dependent on mood swings. 🙂

    • I agree. Several objections show the inadequacy of utilitarianism as a normative moral theory. First, utilitarianism can be used to justify actions that are clearly immoral. Second, in a similar way, utilitarianism denies the existence of supererogatory acts. And third, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of human rights and human dignity.

      It should be clear that utilitarianism is an inadequate moral theory. Unfortunately, ours is a pragmatic culture and utilitarianism is on the rise. But for those of us who follow Christ, a combination of virtue and deontological ethics is a more adequate view of common sense morality found in natural law and of the moral vision contained in the Bible.

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