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Ernesto Rodriguez

Philosophy 12: Ethics

Summer 2004


Midterm Question 7


Discuss the philosophy of Mill's utilitarianism (define) and compare/contrast it with Epicurus' hedonism (define). While they both speak of pursuing pleasure explain how each one means it. Compare and contrast their views.


Ironically, the utilitarian idea of ethics has little to do with the concept of utility as necessity over desire. Rather, the utilitarians draw a connection between  utility and pleasure or pain. Mill's utilitarianism includes the idea that "good" actions bring pleasure, while those that increase pain are "bad" as he stated "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness". Therein lies the basis for utilitarian thought originated by Mill's father and Bentham. From this, Mill concludes that the ultimate human desires, the ends to our actions, are attractive because they either bring pleasure or mitigate pain or both. Mill argues that all motivations come from this desire for good.


Like Mill, Epicurus' hedonistic ideas equate the idea of "good" with those things that bring pleasure. And just like Mill, Epicurus stands to believe that pleasure is the primary motive for all of our actions, that the individual is forever inclined to seek out pleasure above all things.


Both Mill and Epicurus agree that pleasure can be measured by its qualitative property. Epicurus looks at pleasure in two different forms, active pleasure which is actual pleasure, and passive pleasure which is the absence of pain. Mill adds to the ideas of his father by adding that pleasure varies not only in quantity but also in quality, that the "pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures that to those of mere sensation." Mill attributes a higher worth to those pleasures which come on a mental level, and a lower worth to those physical pleasures of the senses. Epicurus agreed, saying that only knowledge can allow the individual to distinguish between the two.


But they differ in that Epicurus looked at pleasure on the individual level, while Mill looked at pleasure on the social level. According to Epicurus, whether they are good pleasures or bad pleasures, they are nonetheless pleasures which the individual seeks for the individual. Epicurus defines morality as the ability to discern the more valuable pleasures and seek them out. He states that "…if a man curbs these, he can win for himself the blessedness of understanding".  Mill, on the other hand, looked at morality as the ability to seek out and attain those greater pleasures which benefit the maximum number of people, not just the individual.