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  2.1.3 Utilitarianism - Mill's Weak Rule Utilitarianism

2.1.3 Mill’s Weak Rule Utilitarianism

JO Urmson (1952)

JO Urmson introduced this classification of Mill’s utilitarianism in 1952 – Mill never uses it himself. But it sums up quite well how Mill argues we should generally follow social rules that past experience shows maximises happiness, but break those rules in cases of moral dilemmas where happiness is best served.

Thought point: some have argued rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism. Do you agree?

What Mill disliked about Bentham’s Theory

  • Quantitative pleasure was swinish (passive, self-indulgent)
  • Risks sacrificing an individual for general happiness
  • Social utility – background of rules was neglected

“Benthams theory demonstrates the deficiencies of a system of ethics which does not pretend to aid individuals in the formation of their own character”. JS Mill Essay on Bentham

Mill’s Structure of Thought

Important Points

  • Mill is inconsistent. He begins his essay by arguing ‘there is one intrinsic good, pleasure’. He then says half way through “happiness consists in many and various pleasures, few and transitory pains, and a predominance of the active over the passive, not expecting more from life than it is capable of delivering”.He adds activity and life-time goals, and then in his final chapter, principles of justice.
  • He seems to end up closer to Aristotle’s view of eudaimonia, the flourishing life lived in the context of the moral, just society. Moreover, he seems critical of Bentham’s swinish philosophy.

Mill's Analogy of the Navigator

Nobody argues that the art of navigation is not founded on astronomy, because sailors cannot wait to calculate the Nautical Almanack. Being rational creatures, they go to sea with it ready calculated; and all rational creatures go out upon the sea of life with their minds made up on the common questions of right and wrong.Whatever we adopt as the fundamental principle of morality, we require subordinate principles to apply it by; the impossibility of doing without them, being common to all systems, can afford no argument against any one in particular; but gravely to argue as if no such secondary principles could be had, and as if mankind had remained till now, and always must remain, without drawing any general conclusions from the experience of human life, is as high a pitch, I think, as absurdity has ever reached in philosophical controversy”. (Utilitarianism, II).

Exercise: explain how Mil’s own analogy of the navigator can be used to explain Mill’s weak rule utilitarianism.

The “Superior Being” who’s Experienced both Higher and Lower Pleasures

“A sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong that nothing which conflicts with it could be otherwise thanmomentarilyanobject of desire tothem. Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness – that the superior being, inanythinglike equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior – confounds the two very different ideas of happiness”, (II.5).

Exercise: is this just snobbery?

Research The role of Character in Mill’s Ethics

Williams’ Integrity Objection

"A feature of utilitarianism is that it cuts out a kind of consideration which for some others makes a difference to what they feel about such cases: a consideration involving the idea, as we might first and very simply put it, that each of us is specially responsible for what he does, rather than for what other people do. This is an idea closely connected with the value of integrity." (Smart and Williams, 1994)

Research: Jim and the Indians. Can you think of a contemporary example of your own?

Essay-writing Skill: the Five Paragraph Structure

Question “Mill’s utilitarianism escapes the difficulties of Bentham’s”. Discuss

Paragraph 1 Thesis statement

Paragraph 2 Development

Paragraph 3 Development

Paragraph 4 Development

Paragraph 5 Conclusion

Example: Five Paragraph Structure

Answer: “Bentham’s philosophy is a pig’s philosophy’. Discuss


Bentham’s philosophy may be described as a pig’s philosophy, as Thomas Carlyle did, as it focuses on quantitative pleasure. But this is an overstatement.

Paragraph 2 Development

Bentham argues ‘pushpin is as good as poetry’. His idea of pleasure is defined by a hedonic calculation. I prefer football, you prefer Mozart.

Paragraph 2 Development

However, this is a social philosophy because everyone’s pleasure needs to be accounted for. We need to invoke Hume’s idea of sympathy – understand others. Or ask them.

Paragraph 3 Egalitarianism

Everyone is to count as one. The Queen’s hedons count equally to mine. But what if the Queen gets 3,000 hedons out of torturing me? A problem arises.


Although there is more to Bentham, two crucial criticisms remain: that it is just passive pleasure which we may be maximised (as in Nozick’s pleasure machine) and secondly, I can be sacrificed.