JS Mill and the Good Life

22 June 2019

This week, we’re thinking about John Stuart Mill. There’s a part of me that really loves Mill and what he has to say about what makes a life good. He was really big on individual choice, for example, he says that a person’s “own mode of laying out his existence is best, not because it is best in itself; but because it is his own mode.” In the same vein, he emphasizes the importance of freedom and self-actualization, not letting yourself be cowed into conformity by what he calls the “despotism of custom” or browbeaten into accepting orthodoxy by what he calls “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion.”

But there’s one thing that I just don’t get about Mill. He says all this stirring things about what’s normatively important and valuable while at the same time professing to be some sort of utilitarian. To a first approximation, utilitarians think that you should always do that which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But it’s pretty hard to see to get all the could things Mill wants out of that principle.   

To see why I say this think about me and my relationship to philosophy. I love philosophy and derive a great deal of individual happiness from doing it. But suppose some well-meaning dogooder of a utilitarian were to come along and try to convince me to give up philosophy with the something like the following argument. “I know how much you love doing philosophy,” the utilitarian might say, “but suppose that you could make a lot more people happy if you were to abandon philosophy, take up international criminal law instead, and become a crusader for human rights. Why shouldn’t you consider doing that instead of philosophy?” I know how I would respond. Even if I were good at it, and even if I could create a lot more happiness for others by doing it, I’d be miserable being a lawyer. I was made for philosophy, not for the law.  

Now the utilitarian would surely respond with something like, “Ken, I care about your happiness, but you’re just one person, after all. And in the calculus of the greatest good for the greatest number, your individual happiness doesn’t matter any more than anybody else’s happiness."  

I know this may sound a little selfish—though I hope not too selfish—but I have to admit that I’m not willing to sacrifice my own happiness for the sake of the happiness of others. But here’s the thing: utilitarians often are willing to demand such a sacrifice. Indeed, some of them would be willing to sacrifice the individual to the greater good in a heartbeat. That may be Peter Singer’s style of utilitarianism, but it’s not Mill’s. Mill’s the guy who says the following, “He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.”

And that’s what is at least a little bit puzzling. Exactly what kind of utilitarianism is it that Mill is really advocating? For one thing, it’s a kind that doesn’t count all pleasure or happiness as equal. Think, for example, of what he says about philosophers and pigs—it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. That’s what distinguishes Mill from Bentham.

Now the way that helps us here is that it shows that individual happiness is not always what we might call a fungible commodity. And because piggish pleasures and philosophical pleasures are incommensurable, sacrificing the happiness of one Socrates even for the sake of a million happy pigs need not be a good utilitarian bargain. But that only gets us so far. Presumably the pleasures of humans are more nearly commensurable, even if they can be ranked in terms of higher and lower pleasures, and thus more likely to be fungible in the above sense. So you might be tempted to conclude that it would be a good utilitarian bargain to trade the happiness of one former philosopher turned crusading lawyer for the happiness of a million ordinary Janes and Joes.  

But Mill is not even willing to go this far. He says we are not allowed to harm others. That’s his Harm Principle, which he also thinks can be justified on utilitarian grounds. But he insists that we are not morally required to sacrifice our individual happiness for the greater good. And we get back to the question of exactly what kind of utilitarianism allows you to thumb your nose at the greater good in the name of your individual happiness. Either it's a subtle and sophisticated kind or it's a completely incoherent kind.

Or maybe we’re thinking about this too narrowly. It’s important to remember that when Mill is talking about utility, what he has in mind “utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interest of man as a progressive being.” Now ask yourself whether allowing the individual to be sacrificed for the good of the collective, as a general rule, would actually serve humanity’s collective interest in its own progress. I don't think it’s hard to see that that would probably be more than a recipe for tyranny and oppression.

To be sure, anti-utilitarians of various stripes—like Simon De Beauvoir, Nietzsche, or even John Rawls—have accused utilitarians of reducing the individual to the status of little more than instruments of the greater good, Mill clearly wants no part of such a utilitarianism. Whether he has successfully pulled the balance act off, though, is very much an open question and one that we will surely touch on during this week’s episode. So tune in and join the conversation!


Comments (3)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, June 22, 2019 -- 12:23 PM

I mentioned on the other tag

I mentioned on the other tag for this blog that I had procured a copy of Mill's Three Essays... One of those happens to discuss the utility of religion. On page 51 (part of the essay entitled: Nature) he talks about veracity: "Veracity might seem, of all virtues, to have the most plausible claim of being natural, since in the absence of motives to the contrary, speech usually conforms to, or at least does not intentionally deviate from, fact. Accordingly, this is the virtue with which writers like Rousseau delight in decorating savage life, and setting it in advantageous contrast with the treachery and trickery of civilization..." But,"Savages are always liars. They have not the faintest notion of truth as a virtue."So, if we take his thought at face value, a conclusion might go something like: we have a lot of savages living in our civilized midst. I believe that conclusion is not so far from truth. This further illustrates the problem discussed in your Fake News post, since virtue means nothing to those who advance their own agendas. Have not yet secured a copy of Mill's Utilitarianism---that would seem to have his definitive stance on same. I'll wade through Three Essays first...

bmalkawi's picture


Friday, June 28, 2019 -- 11:14 PM

Individual happiness leads to

Individual happiness leads to collective happiness. This does not mean that one has to sacrifice his happiness for sake of others. This ties with the principle of No Harm. Bashar H. Malkawi

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, July 15, 2019 -- 11:10 AM

Today, finished reading Mill

Today, finished reading Mill's extended essay on utilitarianism. He is kind of tricky; kind of cagey on this topic. But, in an overall assessment of his intention, he appears to have placed utilitarianism as a function of happiness (or maybe the other way round). Anyway, he talks about things like justice; expediency and a whole lot more in about fifty-three pages, mentioning such contemporary luminaries (?) as Bentham and Herbert Spencer. So, whether his is a purely utilitarian stance or not, is difficult to ascertain, but his emphasis on happiness is pretty clear. The 'function of' aspect I see seems to show him trying to have things both ways, as I alluded to previously. Here's an unlikely (yet, perhaps, not impossible) alternative: maybe he did not wish, at the time, to come out in full support of utilitarianism, as he then understood it? In the essay, he made a very brief reference to a future (unnamed) piece. I do not know what he had in mind, not being well-versed in the body of his work. But, as you were, I was left with questions and puzzlements. Sometimes we want to have things both ways---usually, that is not, uh, expedient. If, on the other hand, he sought to re-frame utilitarianism, to suit his own argument, well...stranger things have happened in philosophy.