Utilitarianism: The issue of motives

By Grant Moxom

Hi everyone! I wrote this article for my philosophy essay, and the style I used was very different to how I would usually write. I’ve put it up here because I’d really like feedback, not just on the content, but on the layout. Another thing, I’d REALLY like to here arguments against this. I feel the ideas expressed here are correct, but I’m curious if someone feels I’ve missed something important. I’m not going to write too much here, I’d rather you just read it without me explaining first =) But let me know if something doesn’t make sense/sounds bad etc.


Utilitarianism: The issue of motives

Utilitarianism is a well worn field, and it can be very difficult to find well-rounded responses and arguments. To accommodate for the plethora of information already accessible, this article will deal only with John S. Mill’s highly regarded book, aptly titled Utilitarianism (1863)

In regard to the many issues contemporary philosophers raise as objections to the ideas in this book, this article shall deal with only one. But, in an attempt to keep things in order, let us start with the beginning before proceeding to the end.

Mill’s version of utilitarianism can be described as ‘rule-of-thumb consequentialism’, this is not to be confused with ‘rule’ consequentialism. It is best represented by the quote “acts 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, 1863 p.278). The italicised words are fundamental to this particular article. It is first necessary to clarify the distinction between ‘rule-of-thumb’ and ‘rule’.

The prior refers to a tendency toward positive result. By this it is meant that an action which usually produces happiness tends to be a good action to perform, eg. Cutting back vines tends to make them grow faster, but doesn’t always (Cohen, 2008).

The latter refers to a second-order principle by which correct moral actions are determined by set rules without direct correspondence with morality, one example is characterised by the following line of argument “… but if everyone did it…”, referencing an ill effect, and justifying this as a reason not to perform an action.1 It can also be seen in our relationship with the law.

The information stated above shall constitute the primary material for this article. It is intended to depict a defence of utilitarianism which a reader, without significant prior research, will be able to understand and agree with

The argument this article shall discuss refers to the issues of desire and will, and its effect on our judgement of morality.

An argument commonly raised against Mill’s form of utilitarianism is that of “Positive negativity” and “Negative positivity” or to rephrase “Bad motive/intention, good result” and “Good motive/intention, bad result”. This argument often draws attention to the following thought experiment

    You are walking along an alleyway next to a museum, you see a man in front of you struggling to put a heavy bag into his van. You decide to help him out, together you easily lift the bag and it slides in. The man thanks you and gives you a lift home. You arrive home and turn on the television, the newsreader says “A priceless artefact was stolen from the art museum today…..”

You have been the cause of a significant reduction in happiness and an insignificant increase in the thief’s happiness. The argument states that, based on Mill’s form of consequentialism, you have done the wrong thing. This is obviously not how our intuition judges the situation, the standard response is “But the intentions were good” and the gloating philosopher responds with “Then you don’t agree with utilitarianism”. In a sense, they are right. If the only explanation for this apparent discrepancy is by referring to ‘intentions’, then Mill’s theory of utilitarianism is flawed. However, is this the case?

Mill writes “An action is right as it tends to promote happiness”, keep note of the italicised word ‘tend’. Mill also states that in judging an action one must be “strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator”(Mill, 1863 p.288). It is apparent that this example evokes an emotive response as humans naturally place themselves in the position of the man walking down the street. Remove this bias, detach yourself and see the world for the moment as if it is a collection of graphs, statistics and numbers. From this position it is much easier to observe the action, The experiment will now be described from this new position with all the alterations it entails.

      Helped man with bag Didn’t help man with bag
    Positive effect 99% 1%
    Negative effect 1% 99%


These results are obviously purely for demonstration, but the outcome is apparent, helping tends to promote happiness. Now it is possible to leave the argument there, requote Mill for the third time, and sit back in my chair. However any philosopher or philosophically minded person, given a moment, will come to the obvious conclusion that inductive word-play does not make for a profound resolution. The fact remains that in an individual instance we appear to be judging actions based on intentions. With your new knowledge however, replace yourself in the shoes of the protagonist. It will be observed that the question asked before no-longer seems correct “Was helping the man with the bag right?” has become “Is helping men with bags right?” the obvious answer here is a resounding “Yes!”

It is noted that an argument against what is suggested would be that this reasoning advocates a rule to follow, indeed the statement made above would be “Helping men with bags is right” – This is obviously no-longer rule-of-thumb consequentialism. To defend this it asked that you follow the response to that thought experiment one last time.

But firstly, keep this quote from Mill in your mind “[given universal acceptance, utilitarianism would become].. a direct impulse to promote the general good”

The action itself and thought-process of the individual helping the man with the bag is irrelevant at this point of the argument and is not where the discrepancy lies, instead, it can be found through introspection or outside judgement. It is this reasoning that should change. From this perspective we view simply the singular action and result, however this action is all part of a larger one. The action of helping with the bag is an act of helping with bags (unless presented with an anomalous case2) It is not based upon the rule that “Helping people with bags promotes happiness, therefore I should help people with bags” but instead with the following quote from Mill, simply replacing ‘acts’ with the subject matter. “[helping with bags] is right in proportion as [it] tend[s] to promote happiness, wrong as [it] tend[s] to produce the reverse of happiness” Helping with bags DOES tend to promote happiness, although there are some separate instances where this is not the case, if it is determined that a majority of utility is produces through a tendency to help people lift their bags, then the action should be performed, but the protagonist should judge each situation separately and if they are to help another man in a shady back ally with their bag, perhaps think twice.

It was mentioned earlier in this article that the other part of this argument is “Negative positivity” or “Good intention/motive, bad result”. It is unnecessary to elaborate indepth on this, but let us observe another thought experiment.

    A man decides he wants to kill his wife, he gets a gun and shoots her in the chest. She’s rushed to hospital, on a scan it is revealed that the bullet missed any vital organs, but a cancer is discovered in her lung. At this early stage it is easy to heal, and the treatment saves her life

As before, the argument states that Mill’s philosophy cannot accommodate this, however if you allow guidance from the same form of reasoning mentioned earlier you will discover that this is not the case. The action tends to produce unhappiness, his singular action of shooting his wife is part of a larger action of shooting people, if the act of shooting people tends to produce unhappiness then, in this instance, shooting his wife was wrong. NOT because shooting people is wrong (rule), not because his intentions were bad, but because shooting people tends to produce unhappiness.

This article has raised a common objection to Mill’s philosophy of utilitarianism. It has analysed, criticised and attempted to disprove the argument as relevant in the refutation of his proposal. The method of achieving this is not by skating around Mill’s meaning and drawing obscure new theories, but by taking his concepts in, what this writer believes, to be their original sense. This is backed up by textual evidence and is explained through examples which ring true for any reliable observer.

This article doesn’t profess to have irrefutably proven Mill’s theory as correct. It is recognised that there are other arguments which may be valid in their concerns with utilitarianism. It is simply necessary to understand the illogical proofs that some use to argue against Mill and maintain the eye of a keen observer. Perhaps the words of Kumar are helpful here.

“The only universal truth is that there are no universal truths” (Kumar, 2004 p.7)

    General References

The below articles assisted in the views and methods used in this article, but in no direct way.

    FRIEDMAN, M. (2002) Kant, Kuhn, and the Rationality of Science. Philosophy of Science, 69, 171-190

MAWSON, T. (2002) Mill’s Proof. Philosophy, 77, 375-405.

    RILEY, J. (2003) Interpreting Mill’s Qualitative Hedonism. The Philosophical Quarterly, 53, 410-418.
    SCHALLER, M. (1993) Feeling Bad to Feel Good: Comments and Observations. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 14, 285-294.


    COHEN, S. (2008). Lecture. IN LECTURE (Ed. Sydney, UNSW.
    KUMAR, J. L. (2004) Education and Human Rights, Anmol, Anmol Publications.

MILL, J. S. (1863) Utilitarianism, New York, Library of Liberal Arts.


10 responses to “Utilitarianism: The issue of motives

  1. Great article Grant, well written and well thought out. Good stuff!

  2. Go Grant!!!! 😀 😀 Noice article!

  3. very nice..
    agree with the point completely.
    i think the biggest challenge for utilitarians lies in the equal value it gives pleasure and pain, so that if the pleasure given to the thief in your example outweighs the pain caused (or, to be more precise, and in the spirit of your article: if the pleasure given to thieves tends to outweigh the total pain caused!), then the stealing can be considered ‘moral’.
    it seems to me that it’s far more signficant for morality that pain is not caused (which can seem like a necessity) rather than pleasure being caused (which can seem like a luxury, and at times unrelated to morality)..

  4. sing me to list

  5. Pingback: Motive utilitarianism | Mummyslim

  6. Pingback: Ethics 101 | Headbirths

  7. You fail to distinguish as Mill does between a Motive and an Intention. The case of the bag is a good motive but a bad intention. Intention being the illegal act, the motive being the feeling that helping the man with his bags would be good.

    Just like hitting another car by accident; your motive was probably not to hit the car but your intention, the act itself, was hitting the car, therefore wrong and punishable by legal sanction

  8. Pingback: Utilitarianism: The Pillar of a Protagonist – The Koalaty Blog

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