U T I L I T A R I A N
P H I L O S O P H Y

 

JOHN STUART MILL

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was born in London in 1806. His father, James Mill, historian of India and radical writer for the utilitarian cause, supervised his rigorous education from the age of three onwards. In 1823 he followed his father into the East India Office, starting as a clerk and eventually becoming Chief Examiner in 1856.

Mill became the editor of the London and Westminster Review in 1836; his first book, the System of Logic appeared in 1843; the Principles of Political Economy in 1848; On Liberty in 1859; Utilitarianism and Consideration on Representative Government in 1861; The Subjection of Women in 1869.

In 1851, Mill married Mrs Harriet Taylor; he retired from the East India Office having opposed to its dissolution in 1858. His wife died the same year and thereafter he lived in Avignon and in London. He was Member of the Parliament for Westminster from 1865 to 1868. He died in Avignon in 1873 and was buried alongside his wife.
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Mill's education is often described as one of narrow utilitarian nature, and he himself compares it to a "course in Benthamism" in the sense that "the greatest happiness" was always his father's guiding light.
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He found the searching scrutiny to which Socrates subjected his companions to be an invaluable lesson in precise thinking. Furthermore, the content of the Platonic and the Aristotelian works which Mill read would have introduced him to a view of happiness more in keeping with his father's high moral tone than one reducible to bentham's more egalitarian view of pleasures.
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Mill's mental crisis in 1826 began the period of transition in which he was open to new ideas and in which he became somewhat disillusioned with his utilitarian inheritance. (…) From Wordsworth and poetry he saw that emotion and intellect need not be at odds: truth is the aim of both. The view of happiness rationally sought by the philosopher needed to complement the view of happiness in inward joy and tranquil contemplation expressed by the poet. From the Saint-Simonians he saw that his own uncertainties were a reflection of the critical and transitional nature of the times where disharmony had replaced the previous order of an organic past. From Coleridge he learnt the importance of a literary culture which needed to develop alongside the march to political democracy, to ensure the quality of life and the enlightenment of popular opinion.
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The cause to which Mill had committed so much energy and enthusiasm as a young man was not one which he felt able to give up altogether. Instead, it continued to act as a framework into which he incorporated new elements. Indeed, his formal definition of utility is orthodox Benthamism in its account of happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain; the difference lies in his further elaboration. Mill seeks to accomplish two things, both the defence of utilitarianism as properly defined and the criticism of utilitarianism as a popularly defined.
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The idea that the general happiness is the ultimate end of action Mill thinks is something that all rational and impartial people would agree to. All things of value are seen to be so either as means to or as part of happiness; there can not be no proof beyond this appeal to the psychological constitution of human nature. Thus virtue, which Mill sees as the chief good is valued as a means to the ultimate end but also, through association, comes to be desired for its own sake.  (…) Justice is used in a number of instances, with reference to legal rights, moral rights, the idea of desert, of not breaking faith, of impartiality, of equality, but seems to have no common attribute. In each case it seems to justify punishment for the breach of a duty but this is true of other moral actions generally. What characterises justice is that it concerns those duties which give rise to a correlative right in some other person or persons; other moral obligations do not. When Mill talks of rights he means that individuals have a valid claim that society should protect them against any violation, and this is because justice concerns the most vital and basic social utilities essential for human wellbeing. (…) Liberty, he claims, because of its association with the rules of justice, cannot be overridden by other less basic utilitarian considerations. If justice stands at the heart of utilitarianism, one of the rights it guarantees, the right to liberty is similarly central.  (Joseph Malaby Dent (1849-1926) in Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Considerations on Representative Government)

Abstracts of Mill's Utilitarianism:

Chapter I

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, of the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions 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. To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in particular what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure; and to what extent this is left an open question. But these supplementary explainations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded – namely that desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.

Chapter IV

Virtue, according to the utilitarian conception, is a good of its description. There was no original desire of it, or motive to it, save its conduciveness to pleasure, and especially to protection from pain. But through the association thus formed, it may be felt a good in itself, and desired as such with as great intensity as any other good, and with this difference between it and the love of money, of power, or of fame, that all of these may, and often do, render the individual noxious to the other members of the society he belongs, whereas there is nothing which makes him so much a blessing to them as the cultivation of the disinterested, love of virtue. And consequently, the utilitarian standard, while it tolerates and approves those other acquire desires, up to the point beyond which they would be more injurious to the general happiness than promotive of it, enjoins and requires the cultivation of the love of virtue up to the greatest strength possible, as being above all things important to the general happiness.
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Those who desire virtue for its own sake, desire it either because the consciousness of it is a pleasure, or because the consciousness of being without is a pain, or for both reasons united; as in truth pleasure and pain seldom exist separately, but almost always together, the same person feeling pleasure in the degree of virtue attained, and pain is not having attained more. If one of these gave him no pleasure, and the other no pain, he would not love or desire virtue, or would desire it only for the benefits which it might produce to himself or to persons who are cared for.
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How can the will to be virtuous, where it does not exist in sufficient force, be implanted or awakened? Only by making the person desire virtue – by making him think of it in a pleasurable light, or of its absence in a painful one. It is by associating the doing right with pleasure, or the doing wrong with pain, or by eliciting and impressing and bringing home to the person's experience the pleasure naturally involved in the one or the pain in the other, that is possible to call forth that will to be virtuous, which, when confirmed, acts without any thought of either pleasure or pain. (…) Both in feeling and in conduct, habits is the only thing which imparts certainty; and it is because of the importance to others of being able to really absolutely on one's feelings and conduct, and to oneself of being able to rely on one's own, that will to do right ought to be cultivated into this habitual independence. In other words, this state of the will is a means to good, not intrinsically a good; and does not contradict the doctrine that nothing is a good to human beings but in so far as it is either itself pleasurable, or means of attaining pleasure or averting pain.
But if this doctrine be true, the principle of utility is proved. Whether it is so or not, must now be left to the consideration of the thoughtful reader.

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Chapter V


The equal claim of everybody to happiness in the estimation of the moralist and the legislator, involves an equal claim to all the means of happiness, except in so far as the inevitable conditions of human life, and the general interest, in which that of every individual is included, set limits to the maxim; and those limits ought to be strictly construed. As every other maxim of justice, so this, is by no mean applied or help applicable universally (…) The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of an universally stigmatizes injustice and tyranny.

Bibliography

 

John Stuart Mill

 

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