Utilitarianism - Chapter 1

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Chapter 1: General Remarks

Summary

Mill begins his essay by observing that very little progress has been made toward developing a set of standards by which to judge moral right and wrong. For more than two thousand years, people have been attempting to determine the basis of morality, but have not come any closer to consensus. Mill acknowledges that in the sciences, it is common to have disagreement about such bases or foundations. However, he argues that in science particular truths can still have meaning even if we do not understand the principles underlying them; in contrast, in areas such as law or ethics, a statement unfounded upon a generally accepted theoretical basis has very little validity at all. In these areas (unlike in science), all action exists to forward a particular end; thus it would seem that rules of action would depend on what ends are being pursued. Mill therefore argues that in order to know what morality dictates, it is necessary to know by what standard human actions should be judged.

Mill then addresses the issue of moral instinct, and whether the existence of such an instinct would eliminate the need for determining the foundation of morality. He argues it does not. First, the existence of such a moral sense is disputable. Secondly, even if this sense does exist, it does not tell us whether something is right or wrong in a particular case. Rather, this instinct supplies only general principles. Thus, although general laws are a necessary part of moral thinking, it is the application of these laws to specific cases that constitutes morality itself. However, people do not often try to make a list of these general laws, or a priori principles, that are the foundation of morality; nor do they attempt to reduce these to a single first principle. Rather, they either assume that commonly accepted moral rules should be seen as having a priori legitimacy, or they arbitrarily posit some implausible first principle that does not then gain popular acceptance. Mill argues that the moral claims made by many previous thinkers are therefore unfounded.

Yet our moral beliefs have undergone little alteration over the course of history; their durability implies that there exists some standard that serves as a solid, if unrecognized, foundation. Mill argues that this unrecognized standard is the principle of utility, or the "greatest happiness principle." He notes that utilitarianism has had tremendous influence in shaping moral doctrines, even among those people who reject the principle, such as Immanuel Kant.

Mill writes that his essay will reflect his attempt to add to the understanding and appreciation of utilitarianism, and to present some kind of proof…

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