The ‘greatest happiness principle’ is based on the belief that an action is right if it promotes “happiness” or, in other words, “pleasure and absence of pain” and it is wrong if it produces “the reverse of happiness” (Mill, 2015, p. 107).
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It is possible to differentiate between pleasures. Thus, the pleasure has a higher value if as many people as possible can enjoy it (Mill, 2015). Thus, it is possible to focus on the quantity.
At the same time, if the pleasure is of higher quality, quality is more important than quantity. For instance, even if a limited number of people can benefit from an action that brings high-quality pleasure (even if it will not be appreciated by other people due to their lack of knowledge or experience), this action is more valuable than the one that brings pleasure of lower quality to more people.
According to Mill (2015), Utilitarianism is not a ‘selfish doctrine’ as it may seem as people often act to promote happiness of others. Utilitarianism is not only about actions that make individuals happy, but it is about actions that increase happiness of many. Thus, people often feel better if they see that others are happy (giving presents, praising supporting others makes individuals happier due to compassion all humans have). Besides, happy people tend to act in a way that promotes happiness due to their emotional state.
Utilitarianism does not set too high standards as individuals are not supposed to act in a way to promote happiness of the entire humanity. Some actions can bring happiness to individuals but this will still means promotion of happiness in the world and, hence, the action will be regarded as right. Thus, through making oneself happy, an individual contributes to making other people happier as this individual will be more eager to promote happiness.
The doctrine is not godless as the Christian beliefs teach that God created people so that they could be happy, which is the major principle of Utilitarianism. In other words, Utilitarianism is based on one of the major Cristian values, promotion of happiness.
Finally, utilitarianism does not need time to evaluate the impact of this or that action as the previous experience of the humanity includes this evaluation. People have learnt about outcomes of many actions and now they know what is right and what is wrong.
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Why is General Happiness Desirable?
General happiness is desirable, as each individual actually desires to be happy. According to Mill (2015), general happiness can be seen as the sum total of happiness of each individual. It is also important to distinguish between actions that are means to achieve happiness and those that are a part of happiness. Thus, listening to music is a desirable happiness, not just a mere means to achieve happiness.
Desire of Things Other Than Happiness
Critics of utilitarian principles stress that, according to this approach, happiness is the only thing that is desired and, hence, virtue cannot be desired. However, Mill (2015) argues that virtue can also be desired even if it does not bring immediate happiness to an individual. The philosopher stresses that people often feel happiness when they act in a way that brings happiness to others. Therefore, virtue can be desired, as it is often a way to become happier through bringing happiness to others.
Mill, J. S. (2015). Utilitarianism. In O. Roca & M. Schuh (Eds.), An examined life: Critical thinking and ethics (pp. 107-117). New York, NY: McGraw Hill Education.