John Stuart Mill (1806–73) was a 19th-century English philosopher and statesman known for his writings on utilitarianism. Utilitarianism describes several political and social philosophies that begin with the following proposition: Actions are defined as morally right insofar as they promote happiness. The corollary to this proposition is that actions are defined as morally wrong if they fail to promote happiness.
As it applies to the state and citizenry, utilitarianism suggests that both policy and civic responsibility should be judged according to whether they secure the greatest happiness among the greatest proportion of the body politic. The provenance of utilitarianism predates Mill; nevertheless, the corpus of Mill’s statements on utilitarianism is generally considered to be the most developed and nuanced.
Mill’s father, James Mill, was also a political philosopher and writer. It was in this capacity that James Mill helped apply the doctrine of utilitarianism to the new Radical Party’s platform. James’s work was subsidized in part by Jeremy Bentham, who would become a family friend. James developed a rigorous curriculum for John Mill’s education, which included Greek lessons by age 3 and Latin lessons at age 8. His education also included political philosophy that stretched back to both the Classical and Hellenic Greek philosophers and culminated in Bentham’s ongoing articulation of utilitarianism. As a teenager, Mill assisted his father in writing the latter’s Elements of Political Economy, and later edited Bentham’s manuscripts and notes.
Mill and utilitarianism
Mill would eventually write against Bentham’s utilitarianism. Initially, Mill was an ardent supporter of Bentham’s utilitarianism, following his father’s lead both intellectually and politically. After suffering from mental and emotional exhaustion in his 20s, Mill began reading outside of the positivist writings on which he had been raised. This included both the literature and philosophy of the Romantic movement. It was these writings that would, in part, prompt Mill to reconsider Benthamism.
In Bentham’s conceptualization of utilitarianism, one can infer that pleasure is a quantitative variable: what rendered one happy, that is, what was utile, was having more pleasure and less pain. Thus, happiness was merely an algorithm that can be described as aloof. Mill disagreed. For Mill, elements of pleasure inhered a “qualitative component.” What Mill meant by this is that pleasure can be understood in terms of degrees of goodness—some pleasures are better than other pleasures. To this end, pleasures that are considered better should be pursued and preferred more so than lesser pleasures. He famously expounded upon this principle by stating that Socrates dissatisfied was better than a pig that was satisfied.
Mill’s qualitative utilitarianism, of course, begs the question: How does one determine which pleasure is better than another pleasure? Mill answers this question in a similar manner to one utilitarian’s long used to answer a similar question: How does one determine what is good and what is bad? At its core, utilitarianism is a philosophy of ends: actions are judged according to their result. Actions that promote pleasure are good, and actions that promote pain are bad. Pleasure is the fulfillment of desire. According to Mill, therefore, some desires were better than other desires. As to which desires were better than others, Mill, following the general utilitarian lead, falls back on the utility of an action. He says in his book Utilitarianism: “Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference … that is the more desirable pleasure.” So Socrates, who has experienced more than a pig, is in a better position to judge what is more or less desirable. In this respect, Mill’s utilitarianism is an experiential philosophy.
Saying that his philosophy is experiential, however, is not to suggest that Mill advocated a relativistic morality. On the contrary, for Mill, what is and is not pleasurable was only discovered through experience. While Mill typically avoided any discussion of what was natural or inherent (such as laws), he did argue, with Bentham, that the reason pleasure was the ultimate goal of any individual was that people were naturally disposed to such an outcome. Indeed, Bentham argued that human beings could literally work toward no other goal. The experiential component of Mill’s underlying philosophy was Aristotelian, not Platonic. For example, working inductively, there must be some meaningful end to reading poetry because Mill enjoyed reading poems. The utility of poetry could only be discovered through experience. Mill’s philosophy is more positivist than postmodern.
Mill’s utilitarianism, like all forms of utilitarianism, is political in nature. The goal is not for any individual to seek out their greatest pleasure divorced of any groups to which they belong. Rather, the goal is for a corporate happiness: the greatest happiness (that is, the fulfillment of the most and best desires) for the greatest number of people. Initially, this poses a problem for Mill: What happens when an individual’s desires preclude the desires of another? To this Mill offered two related answers. First, he argued that the desire to not want to harm others (which, in utilitarianism’s terms is precluding another’s desires) is one of those better ends to which it is most natural to subscribe. Therefore, it is within the state’s purview to punish those who harm others. The state’s job in administering justice, according to Mill, was to promote security by sanctioning those who denied others’ morally correct desires. This logic’s coherence is based on Mill’s contention that a desire was moral insofar as it was utile, and that it was a greater desire to avoid precluding others’ pleasure.
Clearly, many disturbing policies can be created by adhering strictly to Mill’s utilitarianism. For example, can the state sanction a specific group if that group’s behavior is limiting the desires of the majority, yet is not harmful in a colloquial sense? But Mill sidesteps this by pointing out that while good ends may be experiential, they are not mobocratic. Ultimately, Mill argues that any policies derived from utilitarianism— and he argued vigorously that all policy should be gleaned from utilitarianism—should be carefully considered before being implemented. As utilitarianism is an ends-centric philosophy, such policy should be considered in light of its consequences. Importantly, Mill did not offer a concrete “how-to” manual on polity, but a philosophy meant to frame the state’s legislative action.
- Eggleston, Ben, Dale E. Miller, and David Weinstein, eds. John Stuart Mill and the Art of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Fuchs, Alan. “Mill’s Theory of Morally Correct Action.” In The Blackwell Guide to Mill’s Utilitarianism, Henry R. West, ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.
- Mill, J. S. On Liberty. Mineola, NY. : Dover, 2002. Ryan, A., J. S. Mill, and Jeremy Bentham.
- Utilitarianism and Other Essays. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
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