Utilitarianism is a moral calculus – dependent upon a cost-benefit analysis – whose function is to maximize utility, which determines right from wrong. Jeremy Bentham, who argued, that the highest principle of morality is to maximize happiness, founded the doctrine; hence, according to him, the right thing to do is anything that maximizes utility. Moreover, Bentham contended against the opponents of the principle of utility that every moral argument must implicitly draw from the idea of maximizing happiness. “When a man attempts to combat the principle of utility, it is with reasons drawn, without his being aware of it, from the very principle itself” (35). As follows, all moral quarrels, when properly understood, are disagreements about the application of the principle in question.
There is a difference, I think, that is worth mentioning. That difference is between the consistent Bentham and the more humane John Stuart Mill, who came a generation later. Mill, who wrote On Liberty, the classic defense for individual freedom, argued in it that the people should be free to do whatever they want – provided they do not harm others. This implies government should not intervene with individuals’ liberty, or impose upon them the majority’s belief about the best “way” to live. However, the notion of individual liberty and the protection from majority’s will, seem to be at odds with the principle of utility, which again, is the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, which critics contend since it violates individual’s rights. So how can one not enforce upon the majority’s will if doing will maximize utility? For Mill the answer comes easily, respecting individual liberty is necessary for utility to perpetuate – this of course, is in the long run.
Moreover, Mill tackles some contentions that arise from his emphasize on liberty. How can dissent from the majority consensus promote the welfare of society? He offers several reasons: 1) the dissenting view may be true, or partially true, however, it will replace or correct the prevailing opinion; 2) subjecting the prevailing opinion to the scrutiny and contention will prevent it from becoming dogmatic and prejudice; 3) forcing members in a society to convention and custom unwillingly leads to stultification and conformity, depriving its own self from the vital energies required for societal progress. Furthermore, Mill argues, that confining people to convention and dominating opinion is wrong, because you limit a person from the highest human end, which according to Mill is the free and full development of his/her human faculties.
At this point, Mill’s robust celebration of individuality seems like a heretical indulgence, since it appeals to moral ideals beyond utility, but rather to ideals of character and human flourishing. Secondly, Mill responds to the second objection to utilitarianism – that it reduces all values to a common scale, a single monolithic gauge. This is a crucial...