“According to the Greatest Happiness Principle, as above explained, the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, being the preference felt by those who in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with the means of comparison.
This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the 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… (Mill, 1863)”
The quotation seemed to imply the thesis made by John Stuart Mill in Chapter 2 of his work Utilitarianism. As he explained the argument of the utilitarians, it was unintelligible for the opponents of the Theory of Utilitarianism to suppose that the principle that they advocate promote the concept of pleasure or that of happiness.
The debate on the issue of quality and quantity as the indicator of the greatest utility was described by Mill as nothing but an interpretation of an irrational being. The end of the human conduct implied the standard of morality (Mill, 1863) thus it was meaningless to say that a person withheld his pursuit of happiness or pleasure for the promotion of the greatest utility. In this point, Mill contended that the greatest utility was indeed the same thing which gives the greatest happiness.
As consistently highlighted by the utilitarians, promotion of pleasure and aversion from pain were the only things that a man must take as his ultimate ends. In this way, what satisfied him or gave him happiness was the very thing that gave him the best utility. However, this argument was mistakenly interpreted by the adversaries of the Utilitarian principle by saying that not all men necessarily have the same regard to different objects of pleasure – meaning, their degree or intensity of being satisfied varied. Thus, the adversaries claimed, that the greatest utility for the greatest quantity was not practicable given that one may saw one thing as more valuable than other things while others saw these things as more important than the other one.
Mill attempted to correct this way of looking at the utilitarian principle by, again, applying the most notable comparison between swine or beast and man. Man was higher than the former since man had superior mental faculties which allowed him to judge rationally. He was not easily satisfied by less pleasurable things as how swine and beast would do. Man possessed “pride” and, much, “has sense of dignity (Mill, 1863).” He could not stand the case that his pleasures were as low or the same as the swine or beast. Hence, in some way, all men had the same faculties to judge between the lesser and the greater pleasure.
To support this, Mill insisted the role that the “habits of self-consciousness and self-observation (Mill, 1863)” played. Having the ability to observe, compare, and analyze the way things were presented to him, man could give his judgments on the issue raised earlier. There could be a case that a man would tend to be inclined with lesser pleasures than being in tuned with the greater pleasures but still at some point, man knew which of the pleasures weighs than the other. It was just his moral judgment was weaker and more prone to go before the bodily pleasures.
Mill furthered that this human ability to arrive at moral judgment could be compare with health. Mind and body comprised man. Both required the latter to pursue fuels that would maintain the stability of the two components. Nevertheless, to become healthy, man must be able to realize that the needs of the soul or the mind were far greater than needs of the body. Thus, man could only become healthy if he had successfully done this.
As a result, all men, who all had rational abilities to judge whether one thing had greater value than the other, would not say that the other thing possessed the greater value. This opened the idea that all men recognized things of greater value. They were indeed being urged by their body to choose the lesser pleasures but as a moral agent, they would easily be satisfied by those meager pleasures. Hence they would concur with the common good which offered the greatest good.
Mill’s last argument to support the theory of Utility as the appropriate standard of morality talked about the perceived impossibility to perform pure altruistic acts. Sacrificing one’s single happiness did not necessarily mean that his or her happiness was outweighed by others’ happiness.
It only implied that he or she recognized that only by letting go of his or her personal interests that he or she could have achieved the greater happiness possible. And this greater happiness would not only benefit the majority but also himself or herself. Individual happiness then as Mill suggested, was not really neglected or taken for granted but was indeed reinforced by the attainment of the greater good for the greater number (which included the moral agent himself).
To reflect on the arguments raised by Mill, it was true that what made a pleasurable thing pleasurable was the amount of happiness one may get from it or the opportunity to prevent the existence of pain. Everyone would agree with such definition (except in the cases of a masochist which considered the feeling of pain as pleasurable). And since men has the power to make moral judgment which made him not to choose the lesser form of pleasures, his choice must have always on the level as how other rational beings would have.
Being with the choice of other rational beings, a moral agent would then recognize the need to uphold this choice for the achievement or maintenance of the greatest utility or the greatest happiness. Thus, he learned to put aside his lesser concerns to be able to prepare himself to do more elevated efforts for the betterment of mankind. Yet, this did not make him absolutely selfless. Whatever his efforts done even if these may appear for the benefit of other people, still he or she would receive something in return. And that explained his quest for the greatest utility.
Mill, J.S. (1863). Utilitarianism. Aspen Publishers.