Notes on the readings

General remarks from me

Mill uses very long paragraphs. Sometimes, this helps: often each paragraph contains a major block of argument such as an objection and all of Mill’s responses to it. But it’s easy to lose track of the forest while you’re in the trees.

Mill is quite good about saying what he intends to do before setting off. Look for those sentences where he lays out his strategy for a chapter (or a major part of a chapter). Once you’ve identified them, you will know that virtually every other paragraph will be directed at making the point laid out in the strategy sentence. You might even write down the important strategy sentences and look at the written out sentences as you work your way through the paragraphs that follow.

NB: I’m going to refer to paragraph numbers. I just penciled them in the margins of my copy.


Ch. 1 General remarks

This chapter concerns the foundations of morality.

  1. lack of progress in moral philosophy compared with sciences. A diagnosis: moral philosophy moves from ultimate principles to particular cases, science moves from particular cases to ultimate principles. (¶1-2)
  2. “natural faculty” theories (two versions) don’t solve the problem. (¶3)
  3. the kind of proof that can be given to arguments about ultimate ends, like the utilitarian principle: appeal to commonsense moral belief, argue it implicitly reflects the principle. (¶4-5)

Ch. 2 What Utilitarianism is

This chapter is concerned with clarifying utilitarianism: distinguishing between doctrines that utilitarians hold and those that opponents mistakenly attribute to them.

  1. Objection: utilitarianism is opposed to pleasure. (¶1)
  2. Statement of the utilitarian principle. (¶2)
  3. Objection: utilitarianism is vulgar: its hedonistic view of the good holds that pleasure is the only good thing. But that is to say that we’re like swine who can only appreciate raw pleasure. (¶3)
    • Reply: human beings are capable of higher pleasures than the vulgar, physical ones. Utilitarianism takes both higher and lower quality pleasures into account, hence, it’s not vulgar. (¶4)
    • Discussion of the quality-quantity distinction. (¶5-10)
  4. Objection: happiness can’t be attained, humans should learn to do without it. (¶11)
  5. Replies: happiness can be attained, especially with social progress and education. (¶12-18)
  6. Objection: utilitarianism is too demanding. (¶19)
    • Reply: distinction between principle and motive
    • Reply: rule utilitarianism — follow the rule that, if generally followed, would maximize utility
  7. Objection: utilitarianism makes people cold and unfeeling. (¶20-1)
  8. Objection: utilitarianism is a Godless doctrine. (¶22)
  9. Objection: utilitarianism is a doctrine of mere expediency; example, utilitarian treatment of the prohibition on lying. (¶23)
  10. Objection: there isn’t enough time to calculate (¶24)
  11. Objection: someone following utilitarianism will tend to make exceptions to commonsense moral rules in his own favor (since utilitarianism questions commonsense moral rules, presumably, people feel more free to ignore commonsense moral rules than they would if they were not convinced of utilitarianism). (¶25)

Ch. 3 Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility

This chapter concerns moral motivation: what will motivate people to follow utilitarian principles?

  1. Question/problem to be addressed: what is the motive to obey utilitarian moral principles? Utilitarianism diverges from commonsense morality, but the motivation to obey moral principles is generally derived from commitments to follow customary, commonsense moral rules. So how is utilitarianism supposed to work in motivating morally good behavior? (¶1)
  2. Comparison of utilitarianism with other moral theories (¶2)
  3. External sanctions (¶3)
  4. Internal sanctions: feelings of duty, conscience. The trick is to detach these feelings from commonsense rules and attach them to utilitarian rules. (¶4-5)
  5. Why it’s not especially bad for utilitarianism (as opposed to other moral theories) that the motivation to behave morally rests on subjective feelings that are socially inculcated. (¶6-8)
  6. Why human beings won’t lose commitment to moral rules even if they learn that their motivations to obey them are artificially induced: they are naturally social beings. (¶9-11)

Ch. 4 Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible

This chapter concerns the possibility of proving any propositions about final ends, for example, the claim that pleasure is good in itself, and not just because it is a means for getting other good things.

  1. What kind of proof or evidence about ultimate ends might be available (¶1)
  2. Test for proving whether something is desirable (¶3)
  3. Objection: people apparently desire virtue (¶4)
  4. Answer: loving virtue is what utilitarianism requires (is that really responsive to the objection?) (¶5)
  5. Answer: how people can mistakenly value the means as an end. Suggestion that this helps explain away the point about virtue. (¶6-7)
  6. Summarizing the point: he has shown happiness is the only good because … (¶8)
  7. Distinction between will and habit: people may not intend (= consciously pursue, I think) to pursue pleasure, but they still desire only pleasure. Habit fills the gap between desire and will. (¶11)

Ch. 5 On the Connection Between Justice and Utility

This chapter is about the apparent conflict between utilitarianism and commonsense morality, especially concerning justice.

  1. Objection: clash between justice and utility (¶1)
  2. Step 1 of Mill’s reply: what is the commonsense understanding of justice? (¶2-3)
    • Things that are called just or unjust. Conclusion: diverse uses of the term, no common idea. (¶4-11)
    • Core idea: justice = what the laws ought to be. (¶12-13)
    • What is distinctive about justice, as opposed to other parts of morality, on this understanding of the core idea of justice? The distinction between justice and other parts of morality corresponds to the distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. (¶14-15)
  3. Step 2: ideas about justice are moral ideas only insofar as they reflect “expediency” (i.e. the utilitarian approach that sacrifices justice as it is commonly understood for the sake of the greater overall good). (¶16-17)
    • Punishment example. Two thoughts: self-defense/retaliation and sympathy/the desire to protect the community. Only one is a truly moral thought and only one corresponds with utilitarianism. (¶18-21)
    • Rights example. (¶23-24)
  4. Utilitarianism and commonsense ideas about justice compared: which set of principles is more definite? (¶25)
  5. Conflicting commonsense ideas about justice: need for utilitarianism to resolve conflicts. Examples: punishment, fair wages, fair taxation. (¶26-30)
  6. Why many of the commonsense rules of justice would be supported by utilitarianism (especially impartiality and equality (¶35)): Bentham: “everybody is to count for one, nobody for more than one.” (¶31-36)
  7. Utilitarian willingness to override justice in some cases is correct: steal medicine to save a life. (¶36)