In the 1861 essay “What Utilitarianism Is,” John Stuart Mill defines the theory of utilitarianism and addresses the common misconceptions people have regarding it. Utilitarianism is an ethical doctrine that claims that virtue is based on utility and that all human conduct should be directed toward promoting the greatest overall level of happiness of the highest number of individuals in society. Mill observes that people misunderstand the true definition of utilitarianism by interpreting utility as opposition to pleasure. In reality, Mill states that utility is defined as pleasure and the absence of pain and suffering. Mill discusses the idea of the Greatest Happiness Principle, which holds that actions are right if they= promote happiness and wrong if they produce the pain and suffering. Happiness is described as deliberate pleasure and the absence of pain, whereas unhappiness is described as consisting of pain and the lack of comfort. Following such an idea, pleasure and the absence of pain are the only things that are acceptable as ends in themselves and the only things that are inherently good and moral. As such, actions are good when they lead to a high level of general happiness, and bad when they decrease that level of general happiness.
The next criticism that Mill addresses is the claim that it is demeaning to reduce the meaning of life to pleasure. Mill replies that human pleasures are superior to animalistic pleasures and that once people are made aware of their higher level of intellect, they will never be happy to leave their pleasures uncultivated. As such, happiness is considered to be an indicator that humans are utilizing their higher mental capacities. Even though it is the case that some pleasures may be invaluable, it does not mean that all forms of pleasure are not valuable. Instead, it is the case that some forms of pleasure are more intrinsically valuable than others. When making a moral consideration on an act, Mill asserts that utilitarianism takes into account both the size and the quality of the pleasures that result from it. Mills also makes a distinction between high and low pleasures. Pleasure is considered to be high if people would choose it over a different desire even if discomfort accompanies it and also if they would not trade it for a greater amount of any other pleasure. Moreover, Mill contends that people will prefer pleasures that appeal to their higher faculties if they have equal access to all different varieties of pleasures.
Another common misconception about utilitarianism highlighted by Mill stems from the confusion of happiness and contentment. People with higher capabilities are often less content and happy because they have an understanding about the limitations of the world. On the other hand, their pleasure is often of a higher character than that of an animal or an unintelligent person. Additionally, Mill argues that the people who are best qualified to judge the overall quality of a pleasure are people who have had experience in understanding both the higher and lower pleasures. Mill then observes that even if the possession of a noble character and moral lifestyle brought about less happiness to the individual, society would still benefit. The main reason as to why society would still benefit is because the greatest happiness principle considers the total amount of happiness to be noble and morally right, even if less desirable for an individual to still be desirable in society by utilitarian standards.
In conclusion, John Stuart Mill describes the main principles of utilitarianism in the essay “What is Utilitarianism.” According to Mill, Utilitarianism is the ethical principle that stipulates that virtue is entirely based on utility and that the primary goal of society is to should be directed toward promoting the higher level of happiness for the largest number of individuals in society. In his analysis of utilitarian principles, Mill attempts to address some of the common misconceptions that individuals have regarding utilitarianism and makes a distinction between the different types of pleasures in society. Additionally, Mill goes over the common misconceptions that emerge regarding the definitions of happiness and contentment and concludes that both concepts are different and that they are mutually exclusive of each other.