In order to understand Rawls' critiques, Mills' grasp of utilitarianism must be understood. One of Mills' primary arguments is the Greatest Happiness Principle, which states that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure” (Mill, 1998). According to Mill, there are varying degrees of happiness, and different forms of pleasure are more righteous than others. Mill thinks that intellectualism and moralism are admirable, whereas physical pleasure takes a backseat to these nobler pursuits. He also thought that there should be a difference between being contented and being happy - blind happiness is no happiness at all, but mere ignorance; happiness must come from knowledge of one’s world and acceptance of it. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question” (Mill, 1998).
In response to utilitarianism and the Greatest Happiness Principle, Rawls argues that the philosophy favors the will and desires of the majority over the minority. In essence, by finding and doing the things that cause the greatest number of people happiness, you by definition exclude the minority from achieving that happiness. People can make many sacrifices without reaping any real rewards from it, which is why Rawls argues for his theory of justice. In essence, his 'original position' states that most people have a veil of ignorance, where "no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status" (Rawls 11). His principle argues for a social contract in which individuals mutually agree to work together for the overall rights and privileges of as much of the society as possible.
This done in one of two ways - first, there is the rule of maximizing expected utility, in which people choose the best option amongst all available outcomes of a particular action. The other is the maximin rule, wherein all of the worst outcomes are determined, and the least negative one is chosen. These principles do not rely upon the "strains of commitment" that utilitarianism forces upon its followers, as those who would not benefit from utilitarianism (the minority) would still have to work toward the greater good without reaping the advantages. With Rawls' principles, at least these lesser parties would know that the rest of society is working in their best interests as much as they possibly can, through their examination of actions through the maximum expected utility and the maximin rule. In essence, he believes that the parties who benefit from an original position would much prefer the principles of Rawls to utilitarianism.
Mill supports his utilitarian principles in a number of ways, to varying degrees of success. Mill states that some dislike his principle, as they think that there is more to life than mere pleasure. He refutes this by stating that human pleasure should not be likened to the raw pleasure of an animal; instead of basic instincts, our happiness comes from exercising our sentient nature. We beg to figure things out about the world using our human intellect; as we do this, we are learning more about ourselves and the world, but it also makes us happy (Mill, 1998).
He also states that the standards of happiness and utility are not decided by just what feels good; instead, he says there are different kinds of pleasure out there, and some can be more qualified to determine these pleasures than others (i.e. those with education). However, this is a somewhat flawed argument, as it calls for a personally decided and delineated system of measurement for the intrinsic worth of an action, arbitrarily deciding what does and does not constitute happiness. Mills even seems to refute the importance of happiness by implying it is more important to have “noble character” to be happy, since there would still be a benefit provided to society (Mill, 1998). This presents a conflict wherein someone may want someone else’s wife, and by Mill’s standard of utilitarianism could not be satisfied without them, leading them to take dramatic steps to fulfill their purpose. While this is an extreme example, there are those who take these steps to heart.
However, there are many supporters of the principle, as well: life satisfaction has been found to be happiness-based, and often it does not have to be in conflict with other values the individual has. Even in this day and age, it is possible to have a significant level of happiness while still generating more of it on a consistent basis. There is no conflict found between happiness and other values, and in fact is necessary in order to be civil and healthy individuals.
In light of the investigation into the Greatest Happiness Principle, I agree with Rawls that the fundamentals of utilitarianism are not satisfactory for many reasons. For one, it is not enough to make sure that as many people as possible find happiness; while this is a very democratic view of life and purpose, it is an exclusionary one, and one that can easily leave people out of the loop. At the same time, it is difficult to refute; the principle itself argues that, basically, one must do the best it can to further themselves and those around them. On the surface, this feels like an admirable goal; however, it essentially amounts to philosophical triage, where some people just do not make the cut.
According to Rawls, in a perfect system the foundation of morals would amount to more than just happiness for happiness’ sake, no matter how dressed up it may be in intellectualism and altruism. What’s more, Mills tends to downplay and vilify the baser, more physical pleasures, which are just as much a component of happiness as anything else. Ignoring our baser instincts can provide us with a significantly decreased level of happiness, ignoring Mill’s claim that those who prefer those baser pleasures cannot properly judge what is just and good for mankind. According to Mills, academics and intellectualism were what led people to happiness, as he valued the educated moreso than the rest. While this may seem sound from a practical point of view, it is far from compassionate; however, it is indeed one of the tenets of utilitarianism. In that principle, the overall goal is to further mankind as much as possible, meaning that some people can get lost in the shuffle.
Mill, J. S. Utilitarianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice.