- Utilitarianism by Mill


The economic disruption provoked by the industrial revolution of the 18th. and 19th. centuries radically changed the social structure in the UK. Landowner power was replaced by the factory-owning capitalist class and a class of workers who had no protection. While the new middle classes profited from the system and the proletariat were exploited, reformers took the chance to set new standards in public morality. Their purpose was to counterbalance selfish capitalist practices and promote the general good. Many reformers based their ideas on christian values. However, the utilitarian activists, like Mill, argued from the Enlightenment principle of humanism, not religion. 

The Utilitarian philosophy was promoted by Bentham and Mill during this industrial upheaval in the country. Both had a political and economic agenda for reform and their aim was to help society to organise more rationally for the benefit of all citizens. Mill worked for the East India Company monopoly and, despite his defence of British colonialism in India, as an MP at home he fought for women's suffrage, an end to slavery and free speech.

It was Jeremy Bentham who promoted Utilitarianism in the 18th. century. He argued that happiness, or pleasure, was the basis for personal or social moral values: the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. 

Bentham was a friend of the Mill family and John Stuart Mill had been groomed from childhood by his father to be Bentham's successor in the theory of utility. Mill took up this concept and expanded on it. He intended to rectify Bentham's theory which had received criticism for its negligence of the idea of justice and rejection of natural rights.

Mill had been brought up to respect Victorian values, however he distances himself from the norm on women in The Subjection of Women (1869) where he criticises the cultural view of women as producers of offspring and the property of their husbands. He challenged laws involving issues ranging from custody rights and divorce to prostitution and enforced co-habitation.

Utilitarianism for Mill is part of his empirical vision which argued that knowledge and morality were derived from experience. Happiness is of the utmost importance to humanity, according to utilitarians, so the optimum social organisation should be based on utility, the maximum happiness for all. Liberty is understood within this context: constraint is to be limited to behaviour that could harm others.

Mill also held to the values of ethical naturalism which stated that truth and falsehood were distinguishable through the causes and effects of human behaviour. The ethical yardstick is the results of an action: if it causes happiness it is moral, if its outcome is unhappiness, it is immoral.

In epistemology Mill adhered to the theory of associationism, based on the aristotelian model. This suggests that between sensations and ideas there are four relationships: proximity in time, frequency, similarity and contrast. However, Mill thought that these associations could be characterised by elements that were not included in the original experiences. This meant that, although knowledge has its base in experience, associationism recognises that people can understand ideas beyond experience. So utilitarianism can be taught as a moral code, above and beyond pleasure. It is not dependent on character traits.

At around the age of 20 Mill began to question his utilitarian upbringing. He accepted the ideas intellectually but criticised his father's analytical approach and his neglect of emotions. Until then he had been a product of parental specifications, akin to the manufacturing process in the surrounding industrial revolution. He considered his education to have been narrow indoctrination and now aimed to develop utilitarianism as a wider concept.

Bentham emphasised the legal and social aspects of utilitarianism, whereas Mill put the accent on individual moral rights. He believed that the way to maximise communitarian happiness was through the protection of individual rights.

Bentham's vision of pleasures put them all on the same level; Mill offered a more complex view distinguishing between more desirable higher pleasures and other lower ones. According to Mill, Bentham reduced life to a 

“stark calculation of animal-like pleasures, with no concern for how these pleasures are produced.”

Mill asserted that there were higher, intellectual pleasures like learning, and lower, sensual pleasures which humans share with animals.


Utilitarianism” (1863) by Mill was published in five chapters.

Chapter 1 is a description of moral philosophy questions and claims that this study has not developed much since the Ancient Greeks. Before Mill moral philosophy was divided into two schools: intuitive ethics which taught that morality is inherent in human nature; inductive ethics which argued that morality was learned through experience. Neither offered foundational principles. Utilitarianism filled this gap by asserting the utility principle: morality is based on the desire to increase happiness, or pleasure, and avoid pain. 

Chapter 2 deals with the meaning of utilitarianism and the utility principle. Mill's focus here is to rectify fallacies about them. He insists that utilitarianism endeavours to maximise pleasure in life. By pleasure he explains that he is not referring to animal desires but higher pleasure formats only available to humans. He clarifies that the utility principle focuses less on individual than societal happiness.

In Chapter 3 Mill concentrates on the internal motivation for following utilitarian values. He contends that the individual's conscience will create a sentiment of guilt if they break the moral code. However, utilitarianism is associated with the natural human impulse to form part of a community. These social motivations will lead individuals to look for improvement in society.

Chapter 4 contains Mill’s draft of the proof of utilitarianism. He states that experience demonstrates people's wish to increase their happiness. This shows that individuals aspire to their own happiness and that is the base of the utility principle.

Chapter 5 analyses the link between utility and justice. He asserts that the desire for justice is not a primary motivation but a subcategory of the wish for happiness. Bentham applied the utility principle by changing legislation but Mill contends that the feeling of justice is based on the animal instinct of self-preservation. This is analogous to utilitarianism because it is also preoccupied for the good of the whole society.


Rule utilitarianism 

Mill can be considered a Rule utilitarian and Bentham an Act utilitarian. The difference is clear in the transplant surgeon's problem posed in 1976 by Judith Jarvis in the 'trolley problem', a series of thought experiments. 

One problem is this: if the doctor had one healthy patient and five ill patients could he morally maximise general happiness by harvesting the organs of the healthy patient to cure the other five?

Bentham's answer would be that the surgeon's act would be utilitarian. However we might need a rule of thumb for such decisions.

Rule utilitarians, like Mill, always apply the general rule that maximum happiness is the only reference. Killing a healthy patient would not promote total happiness since people might stop trusting hospitals. 

Mill's harm principle makes his attitude clear: 

"One very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control.

That principle is: The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant."

The act of harming another person on a single occasion cannot be overridden by the promotion of pleasure for all.

Inductive  logic

Mill was an empiricist who believed that our knowledge comes through the senses and extracting general principles from many particular instances which was an inductive method. This contradicted the prevalent aristotelian theory of rule-based syllogistic logic, a deductive method.

Mill's methodology is based on causation: induction determines what causes something. To conclude on cause he used the method of elimination: if something happens given certain circumstances, and does not happen in others which are similar, except for one change, then that change must be the cause. 

Complex phenomena would use induction, then deduction then induction through experimentation: heart disease research uses inductive experimental methods to identify danger factors then deduction to formulate a general hypothesis and finally returns to experimental induction to verify its theories. There is a hint here of a synthesis between induction and deduction as methodologies. To reach truth both bottom up synthesis and top down analysis are required.

The Self

Mill rejects intuitive epistemologies such as platonic Forms and the cartesian "I think therefore I am." He accepts only empirical evidence as knowledge. This, however, leaves open the question of what constitues self.

"...knowledge of mind, like that of matter, is entirely relative […] We have no conception of Mind itself, as distinguished from its conscious manifestations."

Mill describes the body as the place of varying sensations and the mind as a variety of states of being. This indicates that he conceives of self not as a constant, identifiable person but as an inconsistent identity. He describes the self as an ego, a series of different but linked states. Nonetheless, in order to capture these bonds our mind must use intuition. Mill's epistemology seems to offer a vision which integrates British empiricism and cartesian/platonic  idealism.

The Individual and Society

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."

In Mill's view the individual took precedence over the State. According to the author the State exists for the individuals, not the opposite. 

"There is an imaginary circle drawn around every human being, over which no government should be able to step."

However, contrary to Hobbes and Rousseau, he didn't conceive of the individual as part of nature outwith the State. He considered that each person acquired value when educated within a well-organised society. Mill advocated actively using your skills to promote social happiness.

The Common Good

Mill not only defended utilitarianism as an ethical reference he also promoted ideas of individual freedom, civil rights and laissez-faire capitalism which constituted a liberal democracy in the English-speaking world.

His defense of individualism was, however, countered by a moral view of happiness for the majority following the utility principle of the promotion of education and individual rights. For Mill moral thinking is social thinking. He insisted that those on political power should think of the general effects if their decisions the common good, and this is done through the utility principle.

Regarding moral rules the author sees two reasons why people would follow them: the threat of punishment and an internal moral conscience. He accepts that the judicial system promotes ethical behaviour through external sanctions but he thinks that the individual conscience is more important. He asserts that this can be spread through education and opinion, embedded in public institutions which value trust and the protection of civil liberties.

"It is not because men's desires are strong that they act ill; it is because their consciences are weak."

Utilitarianism and liberalism were the binary concepts championed by Mill, despite the conflict between them. It is the right balance of the two which the author and succeeding generations have struggled to find.

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