John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 2 excerpt


John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1863), Chapter 2, excerpts from the following website:



  • Happiness as an Aim·

According to the greatest happiness principle as I have

explained it, the ultimate end. . . ., 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 as free

as possible from pain and as rich as possible in enjoyments.

This means rich in quantity and in quality; the test of

quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity,

being the preferences of those who are best equipped to

make the comparison—equipped, that is, by the range of

their experience and by their habits of self-consciousness

and self-observation. If the greatest happiness of all is (as

the utilitarian opinion says it is) the end of human action, is

must also be the standard of morality; which can therefore

be defined as:

the rules and precepts for human conduct such that:

the observance of them would provide the best possible

guarantee of an existence such as has been

described—for all mankind and, so far as the nature

of things allows, for the whole sentient creation.

Against this doctrine, however, another class of objectors

rise up, saying that the rational purpose of human life and

action cannot be happiness in any form. For one thing, it is

unattainable, they say; and they contemptuously ask ‘What

right do you have to be happy?’, a question that Mr. Carlyle

drives home by adding ‘What right, a short time ago, did you

have even to exist?’. They also say that men can do without

happiness; that all noble human beings have felt this, and

couldn’t have become noble except by learning the lesson

of . . . .renunciation. They say that thoroughly learning and

submitting to that lesson is the beginning and necessary

condition of all virtue.

If the first of these objections were right, it would go to

the root of the matter; for if human beings can’t have any

happiness, the achieving of happiness can’t be the end of

morality or of any rational conduct. Still, even if human

beings couldn’t be happy there might still be something to

be said for the utilitarian theory, because utility includes not

solely the pursuit of happiness but also •the prevention or

lessening of unhappiness; and if the former aim is illusory

there will be all the more scope for —and need of —the •latter.

At any rate, that will be true so long as mankind choose to

go on living, and don’t take refuge in the simultaneous act

of suicide recommended under certain conditions by ·the

German poet· Novalis. But when someone positively asserts

that ‘It is impossible for human life to be happy’, if this isn’t

something like a verbal quibble it is at least an exaggeration.

If ‘happiness’ is taken to mean a continuous state of highly

pleasurable excitement, it is obvious enough that this is

impossible. A state of exalted pleasure lasts only moments,

or—in some cases and with some interruptions—hours or

days. Such an experience is the occasional brilliant flash

of enjoyment, not its permanent and steady flame. The

philosophers who have taught that happiness is the end of

life were as fully aware of this as those who taunt them. The

‘happiness’ that they meant was not a life of rapture; but

a life containing some moments of rapture, a few brief

pains, and many and various pleasures; a life that is

much more active than passive; a life based on not

expecting more from life than it is capable of providing.

A life made up of those components has always appeared

worthy of the name of ‘happiness’ to those who have been

fortunate enough to obtain it. And even now many people

have such an existence during a considerable part of their

lives. The present wretched education and wretched social

arrangements are the only real hindrance to its being attainable by almost everyone.

‘If human beings are taught to consider happiness as

the end of life, they aren’t likely to be satisfied with such a

moderate share of it.’ On the contrary, very many people

have been satisfied with much less! There seem to be two

main constituents of a satisfied life, and each of them has

often been found to be, on its own, sufficient for the purpose.

They are tranquillity and excitement. Many people find that

when they have much tranquillity they can be content with

very little pleasure; and many find that when they have much

excitement they can put up with a considerable quantity of

pain. It is certainly possible that a man—and even the mass

of mankind—should have both tranquillity and excitement.

So far from being incompatible with one another, they are

natural allies: prolonging either of them is a preparation

for the other, and creates a wish for it. The only people

who don’t desire excitement after a restful period are those

in whom laziness amounts to a vice; and the only ones

who dislike the tranquillity that follows excitement—finding

it dull and bland rather than pleasurable in proportion

to the excitement that preceded it—are those whose need

for excitement is a disease. When people who are fairly

fortunate in their material circumstances don’t find sufficient

enjoyment to make life valuable to them, this is usually

because they care for nobody but themselves. If someone

has neither public nor private affections, that will greatly

reduce the amount of excitement his life can contain, and

any excitements that he does have will sink in value as the

time approaches when all selfish interests must be cut off

by death. On the other hand, someone who leaves after him

objects of personal affection, especially if he has developed a

fellow-feeling with the interests of mankind as a whole, will retain as lively an interest in life on the eve of his death as

he had in the vigour of youth and health. Next to selfishness,

the principal cause that makes life unsatisfactory is lack of

mental cultivation. I am talking here

not about minds that are cultivated as a philosopher’s is,

but simply minds that have been open to the fountains

of knowledge and have been given a reasonable amount

of help in using their faculties. A mind that is cultivated

in that sense will find inexhaustible sources of interest in

everything that surrounds it—in the objects of nature, the

achievements of art, the imaginations of poetry, the incidents

of history, human events in the past and present as well

as their prospects in the future. It is possible to become

indifferent to all this, even when one hasn’t yet exhausted a

thousandth part of it; but that can happen only to someone

who from the beginning has had no moral or human interest

in these things, and has looked to them only to •satisfy his


  • These two prime requirements of happiness—mental

cultivation and unselfishness—shouldn’t be thought of as

possible only for a lucky few·. There is absolutely no reason

in the nature of things why an amount of •mental culture

sufficient to give an intelligent interest in science, poetry, art,

history etc. should not be the inheritance of everyone born

in a civilised country; any more than there’s any inherent

necessity that any human being should be a selfish egotist

whose only feelings and cares are ones that centre on his

own miserable individuality. Something far superior to this

is, even now, common enough to give plenty of indication

of what the human species may become. Genuine private

affections and a sincere interest in the public good are possible,

though to different extents, for every rightly brought up

human being. In a world containing so much to interest us,

so much for us to enjoy, and so much needing to be corrected

and improved, everyone who has a moderate amount of

these moral and intellectual requirements—·unselfishness

and cultivation·—is capable of an existence that may be

called enviable; and such a person will certainly •have this

enviable existence as long as

he isn’t, because of bad laws or conditions of servitude,

prevented from using the sources of happiness that

are within his reach; and

he escapes the positive evils of life—the great sources

of physical and mental suffering—such as poverty,

disease, and bad luck with friends and lovers (turning

against him, proving to be worthless, or dying young).

So the main thrust of the problem lies in the battle against

these calamities. In the present state of things, poverty

and disease etc. can’t be eliminated, and often can’t even

be lessened much; and it is a rare good fortune to escape

such troubles entirely. Yet no-one whose opinion deserves

a moment’s consideration can doubt that most of the great

positive evils of the world are in themselves removable, and

will (if human affairs continue to improve) eventually be

reduced to something quite small. Poverty, in any sense

implying suffering, could be completely extinguished by the

wisdom of society combined with the good sense and generosity

of individuals. Even that most stubborn of enemies,

disease, could be indefinitely reduced in scope by good

physical and moral education and proper control of noxious

influences; while the progress of

science holds out a promise of still more direct conquests

over this detestable foe. And every advance in that direction

reduces the probability of events that would cut short our

own lives or —more important to us—the lives of others

in whom our happiness is wrapped up. As for ups and

downs of fortune, and other disappointments connected with

worldly circumstances, these are principally the effect of gross foolishness, of desires that got out of control, or of bad or imperfect social institutions.

In short, all the large sources of human suffering are

to a large extent —and many of them almost entirely—

conquerable by human care and effort. Their removal is

grievously slow, and a long succession of generations will

perish in the battle before the conquest is completed and

this world becomes what it easily could be if we had the will

and the knowledge to make it so. Yet despite this, every mind

that is sufficiently intelligent and generous to play some part

(however small and inconspicuous) in the effort will draw a

noble enjoyment from the contest itself—an enjoyment that

he couldn’t be induced to give up by any bribe in the form of

selfish indulgence.

And this leads to the right response to the objectors

who say that we can, and that we should, do without

happiness. It is certainly possible to do without happiness;

nineteen-twentieths of mankind are compelled to do without

it, even in those parts of our present world that are least deep

in barbarism. And it often happens that a hero or martyr

forgoes it for the sake of something that he values more than

his individual happiness. But what is this ‘something’ if

it isn’t the happiness of others or something required for

  • their· happiness? It is noble to be capable of resigning

entirely one’s own share of happiness, or the chances of it;

but no-one engages in self-sacrifice just so as to engage in

self-sacrifice! He must have some end or purpose. You may

say: ‘The end he aims at in his self-sacrifice is not ·anyone’s·

happiness; it is virtue, which is better than happiness.’ In

response to this I ask: Would the sacrifice be made if the hero

or martyr didn’t think it would spare others from having to

make similar sacrifices? Would it be made if he thought that

his renunciation of happiness for himself would produce

no result for any of his fellow creatures except to make

their situation like his, putting them in also in the position of

persons who have renounced happiness? All honour to those

who can give up for themselves the personal enjoyment of life,

when by doing this they contribute worthily to increasing the

amount of happiness in the world; but someone who does

it, or claims to do it, for any other purpose doesn’t deserve

admiration any more than does the ascetic living on top of

his pillar. He may be a rousing proof of what men can do,

but surely not an example of what they should do….

I must again repeat something that the opponents of

utilitarianism are seldom fair enough to admit, namely that

the happiness that forms the utilitarian standard of what

is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but

that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and

that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly

impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.

In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility.

To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself

constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality. As

the practical way to get as close as possible to this ideal,

the ethics of utility would command two things. (1) First,

laws and social arrangements should place the happiness

(or what for practical purposes we may call the interest) of

every individual as much as possible in harmony with the

interest of the whole. (2) Education and opinion, which

have such a vast power over human character, should use

that power to establish in the mind of every individual an

unbreakable link between his own happiness and the good

of the whole; especially between his own happiness and

the kinds of conduct (whether doing or allowing) that are

conducive to universal happiness. If (2) is done properly,

it will tend to have two results: (2a) The individual won’t

be able to conceive the possibility of being personally happy

while acting in ways opposed to the general good. (2b) In

each individual a direct impulse to promote the general good

will be one of the habitual motives of action, and the feelings

connected with it will fill a large and prominent place in

his sentient existence. This is the true character of the

utilitarian morality. If those who attack utilitarianism see it

as being like this, I don’t know what good features of some

other moralities they could possibly say that utilitarianism

lacks, what more beautiful or more elevated developments

of human nature any other ethical systems can be supposed

to encourage, or what motivations for action that aren’t

available to the utilitarian those other systems rely on for

giving effect to their mandates.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s