John Stuart Mill's Views on Happiness

Categories: Happiness

Happiness is something everybody strives for. When you think about it, isn’t the most important thing in life to be happy? Well, to John Stuart Mill, a philosopher, he believes that happiness can be spread among people through basic actions. Is this possible? Looking at a so called trivial subject, like gay marriage, how can this happiness be achieved?

Through the examples and explanations in this paper, the greatest happiness principle will be explored in relation to modern day cases of gay marriage to determine if happiness truly can affect a population in the best way possible.

To start off, the greatest happiness principle is one created by a philosopher named John Stuart Mill, in relation to Utilitarianism.

Mill states, ” actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” What the greatest happiness principle is, relates to the overall happiness of a population, rather than an individual.

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Mill states that every action should be thought through in order to determine if it would bring happiness to the community and not just the person enacting it. He believes that this principle is a way to achieve ultimate pleasure in a community, as the more and more actions that are taken to create happiness will ultimately lead to unlimited pleasure. To look at the greatest happiness principle today, we could look at a controversial topic happening right now all over the world – gay marriage.

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On June 26, 2015, it became legal in every state – all 50 of them – for same sex couples to get married. This had been a constant battle fought with the supreme court for decades, and has been a revolutionary time for the United States. However, there is a question of the greatest happiness principle here. This ruling by the Supreme Court was extraordinary and brought joy to millions, but some weren’t so enthused.

Kim Davis, as I’m sure you’ve heard of her, was a county clerk in Kentucky that did not take so well to issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. Because of this, she made national headlines, even spending a few days in jail for being so uncooperative. What she stated was that her religious beliefs prevented her from doing her job, which was to grant couples marriage licenses through the court. This is a clear example of Mill’s greatest happiness principle.

Davis’s actions were solely based on her individual and personal beliefs, and because of this, the opposite of happiness was spread. You see, by doing this, Davis was now breaking the law. If laws are in place to bring about the greatest happiness to a population, what happens when people break them?

Isn’t it the exact opposite? If Mill had to make a comment about this particular case, he would berate Davis for her actions – stating that she must think about her surroundings and her community. There is a moral sanction here, another topic that Mill’s writes about. In Davis’s case, this is an internal sanction that is preventing her from issuing licenses because of specific religious beliefs.

Mill recognizes those, though would argue that those sanctions must be in line with trying to create harmony with others. Would issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples allow for the overall happiness of society? Well, the answer is yes. Of course, you are going to have some people that are outliers – that don’t agree with the government’s decisions – but that doesn’t trump the overall welfare of a community.

Therefore, the greatest overall happiness of the people surrounding Kim Davis was demolished, simply from selfishness. Getting away from the United States, there are also cases in places like Ireland where the greatest happiness principle comes into play. In early November, the Northern Ireland Assembly held a vote that would determine if that part of the country would finally legalize gay marriage.

The results were overwhelming, but with a 53 – 51 vote, it instead of the community finally getting the happiness they were looking for, a democratic party came in and vetoed the whole operation. According to the New York Times, “Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where civil marriage between same-sex couples is not recognized. It was legalized in England, Wales and Scotland last year.” With this, again, there is a sense of individualization instead of a sense of community.

If Mill were around today, he would question why these actions are taking place and state that happiness comes with several people working toward one goal. He would explain that with conflict comes pain, ultimately leading to unhappiness. To regain that happiness would be to listen to the community and put their thoughts before ones own. This will be the only way to achieve happiness for all. In this day and age, I fully support Mills’ greatest happiness principle.

I think it takes a lot of courage to put someone else’s thoughts and actions before your own in order to achieve that ultimate happiness level. I also agree with Mill that the happiness of a community or a population directly correlates with an individual’s happiness and both internal and external sanctions. For example, if you have a good relationship with your family, the thoughts of them are going to make you happy. This can bring happiness to other families though meetings, stories, and overall communication.

Because of those internal and external sanctions corresponding, the greatest happiness principle can be achieved. If what’s happening outside is similar to what’s happening inside, a certain peace comes with that nature, and allows or the happiness of all. Overall, Mill’s greatest happiness principle is still very prominent in today’s culture and especially related to gay marriage.

There is always going to be a level of disagreement between parties, but with sanctioning and the ultimate goal of happiness, nothing should be too hard to achieve. With everything going on in today’s world, I think Mill would be over eatest happiness principle would still stand. Treat other people the way you would want to be treated and there’s no limit to what anyone can accomplish.

Works Cited

  1. Dalby, Douglas. “Northern Ireland Assembly’s Vote to Approve Same-Sex Marriage Is Blocked.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
  2. Fish, Stanley. “The Case for Kim Davis.” The Huffington Post. a TheHuffington, 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
  3. Mill, John Stuart, Jeremy Bentham, and Alan Ryan. Utilitarianism and Other ni Essays. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1987. Print.

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John Stuart Mill's Views on Happiness. (2021, Oct 05). Retrieved from

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