"Utilitarianism" is of essay length and in this paperback edition the publisher adds value by including Mill's 1868 speech on capital punishment delivered to the House of Commons.
Anybody hoping that this book will answer the challenges put to utilitarians today will be disappointed. There is no answer to questions such as whether a terrorist can legitimately be tortured to reveal the location of a bomb or whether an innocent life can be sacrificed to save many lives. What the book does have, however, is Mill's revised version of utilitarianism that is important because it plays a major role in his other works such as "Liberty" and "Representative Government".
Most of the book explains and agrees with Bentham's version of utilitarianism that has no place for rights and replaces the concept of good/evil with pleasure/pain, but Mill's version of utilitarianism has an important difference - the claim that some pleasures are of higher quality than others, and if this is so then utilitarianism should strive to enable everybody to enjoy the superior pleasures.
Mill defines utilitarianism as the "Greatest Happiness Principle" that judges "that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." In this he is following Bentham's definition, but Bentham had devised a "felicific calculus" to determine the amount of pleasure (and hence moral worth) arising from any given action. It depended on things such as the intensity, duration and number of people affected. Bentham did not believe that one pleasure is in any way better than another except in terms of quantity. He wrote, for example, that "Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry."
Mill disagrees with this relativism, arguing that "some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others." In other words, quality is more important than quantity. Here we see the elitism that we find in all Mill's works. He asks how one can judge between the pleasure derived by two people from different actions and an answers that the person of what he calls "higher faculties" is the one to judge, if he can understand the relative merits of both actions and the other person cannot. Translating to a modern context we might ask why Mill would believe a Shakespeare play to be "better" than a TV reality show. Mill would claim that the person of "higher faculties" who fully appreciated Shakespeare would be able to see the merits of both and hence judge, whilst the other person could only appreciate the reality show and be unable to judge.
Mill seems to ditch the pleasure principle almost entirely at one point when suggesting that those with higher faculties are likely to find it more difficult to be happy because they realize the world is imperfect. But that realization does not make them envy the happiness of those with lower capabilities. In Mill's famous words
"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 a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides."
It follows for Mill that if some pleasures are superior to others then it would be a good thing if more people could enjoy the higher pleasures rather than the base pleasures. Mill believes that utilitarianism should aim at the general advancement of mankind for it can "only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character."
Turning to the 1868 speech on capital punishment, Mill supports its use for murder and has two main arguments, neither of which uses the retributive theory of justice:
1. Capital punishment is much more effective as a deterrent than any alternative.
2. Capital punishment is more humane than incarceration for life, which Mill assumes to be the only alternative to the death penalty. He writes: "What comparison can there really be, in point of severity, between consigning a man to the short pang of a rapid death, and immuring him in a living tomb, there to linger out what may be a long life in the hardest and most monotonous toil, without any of its alleviations."
Nobody of Mill's generation contemplated the modern situation where many murderers serve only a few years in prisons with all mod cons.