John Stuart Mill was a 19th-century English philosopher, political economist and activist. He was a free thinker who challenged various traditional beliefs on issues like slavery, same-sex relationships, liberalism, logic and theoretical reasoning, women rights, liberty and freedom of speech amongst others. His works were largely influenced by Jeremy Bentham and his father James Mill who was a famous Scottish philosopher and economist. Due to his unpopular beliefs and school of thought, his works were widely challenged by various philosophers, and many argued on his works after his death.

When he was a member of the British Parliament, Mill called for some reforms. He was a staunch advocate of freedom of speech and championed its cause diligently. His Principles of Political Economy was one of the most popularly read books on economics in the 19th-century, and it was a standard for a lot of universities. While he contributed to various agendas, Mill is mostly remembered for his work on utilitarianism. He contributed a lot to utilitarianism and scrutinized a lot of widely held utilitarian beliefs.

How did Mill get interested in utilitarianism?

John Stuart Mill’s father, James Mill was a secretary and close friend of Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher who is widely known as the father of modern utilitarianism. Bentham brought up the “greatest happiness principle” and proposed various legal and social reforms based on the utilitarian principle.  The works of Bentham were widely studied by John Stuart Mill who largely expounded on them. They will largely form the basis for most of his contributions and proposals on utilitarianism. In this article, we shall examine the views of Mill on how a utilitarian society should be achieved.

He reviewed the work of Jeremy Bentham on utilitarianism

Bentham’s work on utilitarianism was the core of the utilitarian movement. His principles were largely unchallenged until J.S. Mill came along. Mill examined all of Bentham’s theories and agreed with or disputed them. Bentham viewed utilitarianism largely from a legal and legislative perspective but Mill took his from an ethical standpoint. Bentham had no distinction between higher and lower pleasures, but Mill created that distinction. He argued that moral and intellectual pleasures are higher and more superior to other physical forms of pleasures. Bentham had a popular statement: “Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry.” Mill disputed that and said, “Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”  He further expounded on “the principle of utility” or the “the greatest-happiness principle.”

He argued that happiness is not the end point

Earlier works on utilitarianism had surmised that happiness was not the focus of humans all the time. Mill challenged the Epicurean view that life had no higher end than pleasure. He said pigs also seek pleasure at all times so, therefore, that doctrine equated man to pigs.  Mill classified moral, aesthetic and mental pleasures as higher pleasures. He felt that all men should seek higher pleasures rather than lower pleasures. He argued that noble people do not prefer simple pleasures. They prefer more noble pleasures like philosophy and opera to simple pleasures like hopscotch. Mill felt those who seek higher pleasures are in a proper position to judge.

He felt that a utilitarian society should have the right motives

John Stuart Mill objected to the principle that states that people can’t act in ways that promote the general interest of society all the time. He said that every human action should be performed bearing in mind the motive of that action. Ethics should tell all humans what their duties are. Humans need not be motivated by concern for general happiness all the time. Most human actions are for the good of humans themselves rather than the good of the society as a whole. The good of the world is constituted of the good of the individuals that make up the world. Humans should look towards private good than public good except if they are legislators. Marginal attention should be paid to public good to ensure that individual actions do not violate the rights of other humans.

In the third chapter of his book “Utilitarianism,” Mills argued that humans should develop a strong utilitarian conscience. He felt humans should be able to meet legitimate moral demands. He tried to balance his earlier argument on focusing on individual happiness by postulating that humans should develop a strong feeling of obligation to the general happiness. He felt such feelings should develop out of a natural human desire to be in unity with other humans. This desire should drive them to care for others and perceive their interests as linked with that of others.  Mill stressed that humans need not attend to general happiness continuously, but it is a good sign of moral progress if they take notice of the happiness of others.

He showed how a utilitarian society should account for justice

Mill explained how utilitarianism could account for the special status given to justice. He suggests that justice is separated from other areas of morality because it includes certain duties to which others have complementary rights. He believed that justice could be abused or misused as it could challenge the rights of others. Mill separated expediency and worthiness from morality and argued that duties are things that the society feel people should be punished for if they are not fulfilled. According to him, people define justice as something that it is right to do and wrong not to do but which any person can claim as his moral right. He made it clear that people have conflicting opinions on justice and only utilitarianism can cater for justice adequately.    

Conclusion

John Stuart Mill’s book on utilitarianism is the most concise and most respected body of work on the subject of utilitarianism. His book is studied widely by many till today. His view on how society could become utilitarian touch every aspect of utilitarianism and offers principles noteworthy of emulation.

Photo Credit: JohnMcCaskey