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In “What is Utilitarianism,” John Stuart Mills discusses the morality of action, and argues that an action should be considered morally right, if it is an ethical act, regardless of the actor’s motive. For example, he states that a person who saves someone else from drowning should be regarded as performing a morally right deed, regardless of whether they act from a sense of duty or whether they act out of hope for monetary compensation.
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Rev. J. Llewellyn Davies voiced his objection to this claim, arguing that the rightness or wrongness of an action does depend on the motive of the action. Rev. Davies presents the example of a tyrant who rescues someone from drowning only to inflict more torture upon him or her. This example serves to challenge Mill’s point that saving someone from drowning is an inherently morally right act, regardless of motive. Another example Rev. Davies presents is that of a man who betrays his friend’s trust in order to prevent some kind of harm from coming to him. Through this example, Rev. Davis argues that the motive of an individual is highly important in determining whether his or her action is morally right.
Mills responds to Rev. Davies by arguing that Rev. Davis has confounded the theoretical concept of intention with that of motive. Mills clarifies that the intention is what a man wants to do, and this is what determines the rightness or wrongness of an act, whereas the motive is the feeling that compels him to do it. In the case of the tyrant who saves a man in order to further torture him, Mills claims that the tyrant’s intention is bad and, therefore, the act is morally wrong.
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