John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism Ethics and the Controversy of Torture

Categories: EthicsTorture


In the realm of ethics and moral philosophy, few figures have left as profound an impact as John Stuart Mill. Born in Pentonville, London, in 1806, and passing away in France in 1873, Mill was a British philosopher whose ideas continue to influence contemporary discussions on ethics and morality. One of the enduring debates in modern society revolves around the use of torture and interrogation techniques on terrorists held in US custody. This essay seeks to examine how John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism ethics would weigh in on this contentious issue.

To fully comprehend Mill's perspective, it is essential to delve into his background and the philosophical foundations of Utilitarianism.

John Stuart Mill's Background and Utilitarianism Ethics

John Stuart Mill's upbringing and early education were marked by a rigorous study of philosophy, thanks to his father, James Mill, a follower of Jeremy Bentham. James Mill's aim was to groom his son into a genius intellect who would carry forward the principles of Utilitarianism—a moral philosophy that advocates making ethical decisions based on achieving the greatest good for the greatest number.

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In essence, Utilitarianism emphasizes maximizing pleasure, satisfaction, and well-being while minimizing negative consequences or suffering, making it a consequentialist and teleological ethical framework.

However, Mill's upbringing, steeped in intensive philosophical study, took a toll on his mental health. At the age of 20, he suffered a mental breakdown, attributing it to the immense physical and mental demands placed on him during his formative years. This breakdown greatly shaped his perspective on ethics and morality, leading him to explore the concept of higher pleasures.

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Mill's version of Utilitarianism deviated somewhat from the traditional interpretation, as he encouraged individuals to pursue acts that provided them with pleasure, as long as these actions led to what he considered "higher pleasure." The debate over what constituted "higher pleasure" can be seen as an absolutist aspect of his philosophy. Now, with this understanding of Mill's background and Utilitarianism ethics, we can explore his potential stance on the controversial issue of enhanced interrogation techniques or torture of terrorists in US custody.

Utilitarianism and Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the United States' subsequent involvement in wars, the issue of terrorists in US custody and their interrogation methods became a subject of intense debate. From a Utilitarian standpoint, the central criterion for assessing the morality of such techniques is whether they benefit or protect the greater population.

Utilitarianism, which seeks to maximize the overall good for the majority, might suggest that if subjecting a small percentage of individuals to torture or enhanced interrogation can yield valuable information that safeguards the safety and security of the broader population, then such actions could be deemed justifiable. In this sense, John Stuart Mill would likely support these measures, viewing them as a means to achieve the greater good for the majority.

However, it is essential to acknowledge the potential pitfalls of applying Utilitarianism to real-world situations. One significant concern is the ambiguity surrounding the definition of a "terrorist." In the context of the United States and its policies, the term can be loosely defined, potentially encompassing individuals who merely disagree with government actions. This broad interpretation raises ethical questions about the fairness and accuracy of identifying terrorists.

Furthermore, Utilitarianism has its limitations, particularly concerning individual interests versus the collective good. The framework posits that actions should aim to maximize the overall benefit, even if it means sacrificing the interests of a few for the greater good. This approach can be problematic when it comes to issues of personal gain versus the well-being of others.

In practice, situations may arise where one person's interests align with actions that benefit them personally but harm others. Additionally, conflicts may arise when individuals propose actions that maximize their self-interest but do not correspond with Utilitarianism's fundamental ethical imperatives. These complexities highlight the inherent challenges of applying Utilitarianism in real-world scenarios.


John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism ethics, which prioritize the greatest good for the greatest number, would likely support the use of enhanced interrogation techniques or torture on terrorists in US custody if such actions were perceived as safeguarding the broader population. However, the application of Utilitarianism to this contentious issue is not without its challenges.

The definition of a "terrorist" remains nebulous, potentially encompassing individuals who do not pose a genuine threat. Moreover, Utilitarianism's focus on collective benefit can clash with individual interests, creating ethical dilemmas. While Utilitarianism offers a theoretical framework for assessing the morality of such actions, the complexities of real-world scenarios demand a more nuanced approach.

In the end, the debate over torture and interrogation techniques in the context of national security extends beyond philosophical frameworks. It involves considerations of human rights, international law, and ethical standards that transcend any single perspective.

Updated: Nov 06, 2023
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John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism Ethics and the Controversy of Torture. (2016, Jun 05). Retrieved from

John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism Ethics and the Controversy of Torture essay
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