Though Mill’s proposition may at first glance seem logical
and sound we can find that his arguments and support quickly fall to the
scrutiny of reason. Throughout this paper I will aim to demonstrate how Mill,
uses ambiguous premises on occasion and overlooks the impracticability of
utilitarianism. Moreover, utilitarians often fall into the ‘Separateness of
critique and can lead to great injustices in society as I will demonstrate

To begin with, Mill’s statement that ‘actions are right in proportion
as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of
is based on his description of happiness being the absence of pain and pain the
absence of happiness3.
This however, is in my opinion not true and can be seen to be thus from a
simple thought experiment; Consider a world without pain, in this world people
have all they need, according to Mill this would be ideal, however, would we be
able to describe this as happiness? Without adversity and pain, we would not be
able to appreciate happiness when we do experience it, a world like that would
simply be stagnated as everyone can admit that going through a great amount of
pain to achieve something then gives you much more happiness than if it was
simply handed to you. Considering this we can argue that Mill’s definition of
happiness being an absence of pain and simply pleasure is quite impractical and
at most would only provide a very base form of happiness.

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Moreover, as Mill expands on what exactly he means by happiness
he talks of Higher and Lower Pleasures to avoid the typical criticism of
Hedonism; ‘Swine morality’4
critiquing that by exalting pleasure as the ultimate end humans are no better
than animals, however, this raises up similar objections. Mill’s argument that
Higher Pleasures are objectively better and that we should cultivate them
always once again forgets a basic tenet of our nature. By constantly pursuing
these Higher Pleasures we would become bored of them and their utility would
drop. Though most people would agree that listening to Mozart is better than Nickelback
it is also true that constantly listening to Mozart would eventually turn
tortuous and at times we would prefer to do something which Mill would consider

Furthermore, Mill’s arguments for Higher Pleasures come up
lacking when faced with the question of individuality and how we may measure
happiness for individuals. Though Mill talks of Competent Judges and emphasizes
the pleasures of the intellect his argument is not very clear. Is it really
that simple to evaluate two pleasures and is it not possible that personal
taste may influence how much utility an individual may allot certain pleasures,
does this then mean that by cultivating those pleasures which are said to be
Higher some people might not be maximising utility? Moreover, when considering
the question of Competent Judges Mill ignores that this is thoroughly
impractical in many cases. When considering classical music how will one judge
between Mozart and Beethoven, the process would most likely bring about
discussion and thus a loss of happiness which would be avoided outside
utilitarianism as personal preferences need not be externally judged in other
moral systems.

To further explore the ambiguity of Mill’s statement we will
now examine the ‘proof’ he gives for utilitarianism. Firstly, ‘Happiness is
desirable for individuals’5,
though once again it seems like a reasonable assumption to make and indeed this
premise is accepted by most people, Mill makes his mistake in the proof that he
offers. Mill is trying to prove that ‘Good’ (the utilitarian end) means ‘desirable’
and states that the only proof for the argument is that in the same way
something can be proven to be visible because we see it, things are desirable
because people desire them. However, as Moore brilliantly puts it ‘The fact
that “desirable” does not mean “able to be desired” as “visible” means “able to
be seen”6
changes everything. This implies that unlike Mill’s statement that to find out what
is desirable you must find what is actually desired there must be more than one
proof for things that are desirable because if we acknowledge that ‘Good’ means
desirable do we also not know of desires which are not good and must then find
a proof for them meaning also that pleasure and the utilitarian end is not the
only thing desired.

However, it is on the second premise that Mill commits one
of his clearest errors. Mill commits a clear fallacy of composition as he
states that ‘Total happiness is desirable for all’, in this case it is clear
that while my pleasures are good to myself and yours to you and others’ to them
etc… however, people and their pleasures cannot be made into an aggregate as it
is ‘the aggregate of all persons’ is nobody, and consequently nothing can be
good to him’7.

This leads us to Mill’s final premise as he states that ‘Nothing
except happiness is desirable’8.This
is directly tied in to the previous premises but also to his earlier definition
that we mentioned above: ‘happiness being the absence of pain and pain the
absence of happiness’. Here we see a clear ambiguity as it once again brings up
the question of whether it is possible for happiness to exist in a world
without pain but also more importantly it brings up the question of what
exactly is desired. As we determined in the first premise, while Mill does prove
that happiness is desirable he does not prove that it is the only thing that is
desirable. This premise therefore, seems a bit rushed, especially in the light
that Mill himself mentions that ‘virtue is to be desired’9
and even says that it should be desired disinterestedly. This is one of his
most lacking points as it seems that he is contradicting himself and can be
used as proof against his principle of utility. Supporters of utilitarianism
might counter this particular argument by saying that virtue is not desirable towards
happiness but as a part of happiness yet as we can clearly see this disagrees
with Mill’s own definition of happiness as it being the absence of pain.

Furthermore, moving past Mill’s own mistakes we are
confronted by the glaring impracticality of basing a moral system on the promotion
and ultimate goal of happiness. This is done most efficiently by considering how
causality and the constrictions of time interfere with our decision-making
process as required by utilitarianism. Firstly, causality, utilitarianism
argues that we ought to maximise net pleasure yet to do so we need to know the
consequences of our actions. This can easily be illustrated with the famous trolley
problem, imagine that there are two tracks and one person is on one and five are
on the other, considering we can only save one group it seems clear that the
five are better than one. However, what we don’t know is that one of the five
is a psychopath who will go on to make many people suffer and thus reduce net
happiness, moreover, of the other four only one will live a good life. By
saving the five and doing what at the time seems most utilitarian we reduce net
pleasure because we cannot know all the variables and consequences of our

Finally, I would like to propose an alternative based extensively
on John Rawles work, specifically his Theory of Justice. Finding that happiness
is not an acceptable base for a moral theory I turned towards something that
solved the impracticality of utilitarianism while ensuring justice not just towards
groups but also the individual. As Rawles says   


Driver, Julia, “The History of
Utilitarianism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014
Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

G.E. Moore

Paul Edwards and Jonathan Glover, Utilitarianism
and its Critics, (ISBN 0-02-344134-8, Maetnillan Publishing Company)

John Rawles,

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism,

3 John
Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism,

4 Driver,
Julia, “The History of Utilitarianism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =


5 John
Stuart Mill,

6 G.E.

7 Seth,
James. “The Alleged Fallacies in Mill’s “Utilitarianism”.”
The Philosophical Review 17, no. 5 (1908): 469-88. doi:10.2307/2177211.


8 John Stuart Mill,

9 John Stuart Mill, 


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