Should his actions follow their convictions

Summary of utilitarianism

England in the age of industrialization

England experienced a population explosion between 1750 and 1850; the population tripled within a century. The rural rural population migrated en masse to the cities in order to benefit from the onset of industrialization. At the beginning of the 19th century, the working class and middle class gained new economic and social importance. However, they were initially excluded from political decision-making processes.

Unlike in France, for example, in England the development from aristocratic rule to democracy was relatively non-violent. The electoral reform that began in 1832 opened the political system to ever larger sections of the population, but the workers continued to remain outside. The reformers not only advocated more democratic rights, but also a stronger social role for the state. Their concerns were heard: with the first social policy measures such as the Poor Law of 1834, working time limits for women and children and health policy regulations, the government tried to counter the growing impoverishment of the workforce. Admittedly, these first reform approaches could not prevent England from being shaped by poverty and hardship into the late Victorian era.


Since early childhood, John Stuart Mill was from his ambitious father James Mill was brought up to be a scholar in the spirit of utilitarianism. The first representatives of this philosophical school of thought, the roots of which go back to antiquity, were among others in England. Thomas Hobbes, Francis Hutcheson and David Hume. However, utilitarianism was only systematically justified by James Mill's close friend Jeremy Bentham. For the liberal lawyer, the principle of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” should be the goal of all moral and political action. In Bentham's view, it was not the quality, but rather the quantity alone, that determined the moral value of an action.

As John Stuart Mill reports in his autobiography, the strict fatherly upbringing methods affected him badly. At the end of the 1820s he got into a serious life crisis. The experience of depression, according to him, had a profound effect on his philosophical views and ideas about personal happiness. He developed the idea that true happiness can be achieved indirectly, through self-sacrifice and mental exertion, and not directly. And while he basically clung to the somewhat simple utilitarianism of James Mills and Jeremy Bentham, he also began to look at the pursuit of happiness in a more nuanced way. In contrast to his predecessors, he differentiated between qualitatively higher, i.e. intellectual, pleasures and lower, animal pleasures.

The criticism of utilitarianism preoccupied Mill as early as the 1930s, but the emergence of his defense of usefulness thought dragged on for a long time. The various essays that make up utilitarianism exists, were finished in 1854. After further revision by the author, they first appeared in 1861, chapter by chapter Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, 1863 for the first time also as a book.

Impact history

Mills utilitarianism was very successful in his English homeland, in the USA and in Australia and was published in the fourth edition while the author was still alive. There was a German translation as early as 1869. At the beginning of the 20th century, utilitarianism came among other things. due to the criticism of the Cambridge philosopher George Edward Moore in disrepute and was considered obsolete in philosophical circles for a long time. It was not until the 1960s that the school of thought gradually regained importance, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. To this day it is one of the most discussed but also most controversial theories of moral philosophy. In contrast to classical utilitarianism, the American philosopher developed John Rawls At the beginning of the 1970s his theory of justice as fairness: Economic and social inequalities can therefore be accepted, but only under the condition of equal opportunities. Also representatives of classical liberalism like Ludwig von Mises or Friedrich August von Hayek were influenced by Mill. The latter even wrote a biography of the English philosopher.