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John Stuart Mill: Ethics

The ethical theory of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) is most extensively articulated in his classical text Utilitarianism (1861). Its goal is to justify the utilitarian principle as the foundation of morals. This principle says actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote overall human happiness. So, Mill focuses on consequences of actions and not on rights nor ethical sentiments.

This article primarily examines the central ideas of his text Utilitarianism, but the article’s last two sections are devoted to Mill’s views on the freedom of the will and the justification of punishment, which are found in System of Logic (1843) and Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (1865), respectively.

Educated by his father James Mill who was a close friend to Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill came in contact with utilitarian thought at a very early stage of his life. In his Autobiography he claims to have introduced the word “utilitarian” into the English language when he was sixteen. Mill remained a utilitarian throughout his life. Beginning in the 1830s he became increasingly critical of what he calls Bentham’s “theory of human nature”. The two articles “Remarks on Bentham’s Philosophy” (1833) and “Bentham” (1838) are his first important contributions to the development of utilitarian thought. Mill rejects Bentham’s view that humans are unrelentingly driven by narrow self-interest. He believed that a “desire of perfection” and sympathy for fellow human beings belong to human nature. One of the central tenets of Mill’s political outlook is that, not only the rules of society, but also people themselves are capable of improvement.

1. Introductory Remarks
Mill tells us in his Autobiography that the “little work with the name” Utilitarianism arose from unpublished material, the greater part of which he completed in the final years of his marriage to Harriet Taylor, that is, before 1858. For its publication he brought old manuscripts into form and added some new material.

The work first appeared in 1861 as a series of three articles for Fraser’s Magazine, a journal that, though directed at an educated audience, was by no means a philosophical organ. Mill planned from the beginning a separate book publication, which came to light in 1863. Even if the circumstances of the genesis of this work gesture to an occasional piece with a popular goal, on closer examination Utilitarianism turns out to be a carefully conceived work, rich in thought. One must not forget that since his first reading of Bentham in the winter of 1821-22, the time to which Mill dates his conversion to utilitarianism, forty years had passed. Taken this way, Utilitarianism was anything but a philosophical accessory, and instead the programmatic text of a thinker who for decades had understood himself as a utilitarian and who was profoundly familiar with popular objections to the principle of utility in moral theory. Almost ten years earlier (1852) Mill had defended utilitarianism against the intuitionistic philosopher William Whewell (Whewell on Moral Philosophy).

The priority of the text was to popularize the fundamental thoughts of utilitarianism within influential circles. This goal explains the composition of the work. After some general introductory comments, the text defends utilitarianism from common criticisms (“What Utilitarianism Is”). After this Mill turns to the question concerning moral motivation (“Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility”). This is followed by the notorious proof of the principle of utility (“Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible”) and the long concluding chapter on the relation of utility and justice (“On the Connection Between Justice and Utility”). The last chapter is often neglected – and wrongly so, for it contains a central statement of Mill’s understanding of morals; it creates the foundation for the philosopher’s theory of moral rights that plays a preeminent role in the context of his political thought.

According to his early essay “Bentham” (1838), all reasonable moral theories assume that “the morality of actions depends on the consequences which they tend to produce” (CW 10, 111); thus, the difference between moral theories lie on an axiological plane. His own theory of morality, writes Mill in Utilitarianism, is grounded in a particular “theory of life…–namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends.” (CW 10, 210) Such a theory of life is commonly called hedonistic, and it seems appropriate to say that Mill conceives his own position as hedonistic, even if he does never use the word “hedonism” or its cognates. What makes utilitarianism peculiar, according to Mill, is its hedonistic theory of the good (CW 10, 111). Utilitarians are, by definition, hedonists. For this reason, Mill sees no need to differentiate between the utilitarian and the hedonistic aspect of his moral theory.

Modern readers are often confused by the way in which Mill uses the term ‘utilitarianism’. Today we routinely differentiate between hedonism as a theory of the good and utilitarianism as a consequentialist theory of the right. Mill, however, considered both doctrines to be so closely intertwined that he used the term ‘utilitarianism’ to signify both theories. On the one hand, he says that the “utilitarian doctrine is, that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end.” (CW 10, 234) On the other hand, he defines utilitarianism as a moral theory according to which “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness…” (CW 10, 210).

Utilitarians are, for him, consequentialists who believe that pleasure is the only intrinsic value.

Mill counts as one of the great classics of utilitarian thought; but this moral theory deviates from what many contemporary philosophers consider core features of utilitarianism. This explains why the question whether Mill is a utilitarian is more serious than it may appear on first inspection (see Coope 1998). One may respond that this problem results from an anachronistic understanding of utilitarianism, and that it disappears if one abstains from imputing modern philosophical concepts on a philosopher of the nineteenth century. However, this response would oversimplify matters. For it is not clear whether Mill’s value theory was indeed hedonistic (see Brink 1992). As mentioned before, Mill maintains that hedonism is the differentia specifica of utilitarianism; if he were not a hedonist, he would be no utilitarian by his own definition. In view of the fact that Mill’s value theory constitutes the center of his ethics (Donner 1991, 2009), the problem of determining its precise nature and adequate naming has attracted considerable attention over the last 150 years.

2. Mill’s Theory of Value and the Principle of Utility
Mill defines “utilitarianism” as the creed that considers a particular “theory of life” as the “foundation of morals” (CW 10, 210). His view of theory of life was monistic: There is one thing, and one thing only, that is intrinsically desirable, namely pleasure. In contrast to a form of hedonism that conceives pleasure as a homogeneous matter, Mill was convinced that some types of pleasure are more valuable than others in virtue of their inherent qualities. For this reason, his position is often called “qualitative hedonism”. Many philosophers hold that qualitative hedonism is no consistent position. Hedonism asserts that pleasure is the only intrinsic value. Under this assumption, the critics argue, there can be no evaluative basis for the distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Probably the first ones to raise this common objection were the British idealists F. H. Bradley (1876/1988) and T. H. Green (1883/2003).

Which inherent qualities make one kind of pleasure better than another, according to Mill? He declares that the more valuable pleasures are those which employ “higher faculties” (CW 10, 211). The list of such better enjoyments includes “the pleasures of intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments” (CW 10, 211). These enjoyments make use of highly developed capacities, like judgment and empathy. In one of his most famous sentences, Mill affirms that it “is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” (CW 10, 212). This seems to be a surprising thing to say for a hedonist. However, Mill thought that we have a solid empirical basis for this view. According to him, the best obtainable evidence for value claims consists in what all or almost all people judge as valuable across a vast variety of cases and cultures. He makes the empirical assertion that all or almost all people prefer a “manner of existence” (CW 10, 211) that employs higher faculties to a manner of existence which does not. The fact that “all or almost all” who are acquainted with pleasures that employ higher faculties agree that they are preferable to the lower ones, is empirical evidence for the claim that they are indeed of higher value. Accordingly, the best human life (“manner of existence”) is one in which the higher faculties play an adequate part. This partly explains why he put such great emphasis on education.

3. Morality as a System of Social Rules
The fifth and final chapter of
Utilitarianism is of unusual importance for Mill’s theory of moral obligation. Until the 1970s, the significance of the chapter had been largely overlooked. It then became one of the bridgeheads of a revisionist interpretation of Mill, which is associated with the work of David Lyons, John Skorupski and others.

Mill worked very hard to hammer the fifth chapter into shape and his success has great meaning for him. Towards the end of the book he maintains the “considerations which have now been adduced resolve, I conceive, the only real difficulty in the utilitarian theory of morals.” (CW 10, 259)

At the beginning of Utilitarianism, Mill postulates that moral judgments presume rules (CW 10, 206). In contrast to Kant who grounds his ethical theory on self-imposed rules, so-called maxims, Mill thinks that morality builds on social rules. But what makes social rules moral rules? Mill’s answer is based on a thesis about how competent speakers use the phrase “morally right” or “morally wrong”. He maintains that we name a type of action morally wrong if we think that it should be sanctioned either through formal punishment, public disapproval (external sanctions) or through a bad conscience (internal sanctions). This is the critical difference between “morality and simple expediency” (CW 10, 246). Wrong or inexpedient actions are those that we cannot recommend to a person, like harming oneself. But in contrast to immoral actions, inexpedient actions are not worthy of being sanctioned.

Mill differentiates various spheres of action. In his System of Logic he names morality, prudence and aesthetics as the three departments of the “Art of Life” (CW 8, 949). The principle of utility governs not only morality, but also prudence and taste (CW 8, 951). It is not a moral principle but a meta-principle of practical reason (Skorupski 1989, 310-313).

There is a field of action in which moral rules obtain, and a “person may rightfully be compelled to fulfill” them (CW 10, 246). But there are also fields of action, in which sanctions for wrong behavior would be inappropriate. One of them is the sphere of self-regarding acts with which Mill deals in On Liberty. In this private sphere we can act at our convenience and indulge in inexpedient and utterly useless behavior as long as we do not harm others.

It is fundamental to keep in mind that Mill looks into morality as a social practice and not as autonomous self-determination by reason, like Kant. For Kantians, moral deliberation determines those actions which we have the most reason to perform. Mill disagrees; for him, it makes sense to say that “A is the right thing to do for Jeremy, but Jeremy is not morally obliged to do A.”For instance, even if Jeremy is capable of writing a brilliant book that would improve the life of millions (and deteriorate none), he is not morally obliged to do so. According to Mill, our moral obligations result from the justified part of the moral code of our society; and the task of moral philosophy consists in bringing the moral code of a society in better accordance with the principle of utility.

4. The Role of Moral Rules (Secondary Principles)
In Utilitarianism, Mill designs the following model of moral deliberation. In the first step the actor should examine which of the rules (secondary principles) in the moral code of his or her society are pertinent in the given situation. If in a given situation moral rules