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On Bentham[edit]

keyword: method


key word: quality, institution, justice
In Chapter I, Mill argues that "the greatest happiness principle" plays an influential role in moral doctrines, even when "utilitarianism" is resisted:
"as men's sentiments, both of favour and of aversion, are greatly influenced by what they suppose to be the effects of things upon their happiness, the principle of utility, or as Bentham latterly called it, the greatest happiness principle, has had a large share in forming the moral doctrines even of those who most scornfully reject its authority" (Utilitarianism, Ch. I)
NOTE: For example, in Book IV of The Republic, Plato defines wisdom as knowledge of what is good for the whole, not for the happiness of any single class, but for the overall happiness of all classes.
In Chapter II, Mill defines the Utilitarian approach:
"The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or 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" (Utilitarianism, Ch. II)
After defining the Utilitarian standard, Mill shows how the standard can distinguish between kinds of pleasures:
"Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure" (Utilitarianism, Ch. II)
And this is how Socrates can be happier than a pig! But perhaps you say you know someone who prefers to be a pig? Mill reminds us that utilitarianism as a standard of conduct concerns all affected persons. Is the person who prefers to be a pig also to be preferred?
. . . "that standard is not the agent's own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world in general is immensely a gainer by it. Utilitarianism, therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character . . ." (Utilitarianism, Ch. II)
For Mill, Utilitarianism is an ethic of virtue universalized "to the whole sentient creation"--and any "sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted"; which is why it is possible for some critics of Utilitarianism to charge "its standard as being too high" (Utilitarianism, Ch II). Once you begin to prefer some cultivation to a slug-like human existence, your duty follows. Whether this makes you into a dutiful moralistic pedant is no exclusive hazard of utilitarianism, which is as likely as any other system to produce its varieties of ethical experience. Perhaps however Mill could have produced a more vigorous Utilitarian defense by pointing out that narrow pedantics under Utilitarian influence would be nearly self-correcting to the extent that they actually held fast to the standard of greater happiness. After all, would it not be obvious how the crabby moralist runs the risk of making cultivation odious at first sight -- a question not unrelated to utilitarianism's preferences in standards of theology, as Mill soon makes clear.
In Chapter III of Utilitarianism, Mill turns to the question of ultimate sanction:
"The ultimate sanction, therefore, of all morality (external motives apart) being a subjective feeling in our own minds, I see nothing embarrassing to those whose standard is utility, in the question, what is the sanction of that particular standard? We may answer, the same as of all other moral standards—the conscientious feelings of mankind" (Utilitarianism, Ch. III)
In Chapter IV, Mill states the case for proof:
"if human nature is so constituted as to desire nothing which is not either a part of happiness or a means of happiness, we can have no other proof, and we require no other, that these are the only things desirable" (Utilitarianism, Ch. IV)

On Liberty[edit]

EBook Presentation (with table of contents)


In Chapter I, Mill introduces the democratic context for discussing Liberty in its political and social aspects, because democracies can enforce a "tyranny of the majority" in both ways.

"Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own" (On Liberty, Ch. I)

The general problem of liberty concerns us, because, "All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people" (On Liberty, Ch. I). This premise is so uncontroversial as to be dangerous when mixed with the habits of custom, because customs themselves encourage a social order based upon, "the feeling in each person's mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathizes, would like them to act" (On Liberty, Ch. I). The question of liberty in a democracy needs to be raised, therefore, in order to examine the limits to which we are going to accept customary common sense as the ruler of our social development.

Although societies do have legitimate interests which may form a basis for sound reasoning about rules and customs, sometimes these interests have also been known to generate "sympathies and antipathies which had little or nothing to do with the interests of society, [and] have made themselves felt in the establishment of moralities with quite as great force" (On Liberty, Ch. I). They burnt witches, didn't they?

"The likings and dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it, are thus the main thing which has practically determined the rules laid down for general observance, under the penalties of law or opinion. And in general, those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling, have left this condition of things unassailed in principle, however they may have come into conflict with it in some of its details. They have occupied themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like or dislike, than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals" (On Liberty, Ch. I)