J.S. Mill and the Good Life

Sunday, January 2, 2022
First Aired: 
Sunday, June 23, 2019

What Is It

John Stuart Mill was one of the most important British philosophers of the 19th century. As a liberal, he thought that individuals are generally the best judges of their own welfare. But Mill was also a utilitarian who thought that there were objectively lower and higher pleasures and that the good life was one which maximized higher pleasures. So is there a way to reconcile Mill’s liberal project with his utilitarianism? Is the good life for Mill one in which individuals determine their own paths? Or should those who know better still try to nudge others to live better lives? John and Ken fulfill their potential with David Brink from UC San Diego, author of Mill's Progressive Principles.



Comments (4)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, June 6, 2019 -- 11:40 AM

I freely admit I have never

I freely admit I have never read Mill. Not yet, anyway. But, if he really did believe in utilitarianism and liberalism, we might ask if he was just another philosopher, talking two games simultaneously. Perhaps he saw no contradiction? Or, on the other hand, maybe this was his way of separating philosophers from 'the vulgar' (a common term, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which philosophers employed to differentiate between themselves and everyone else). Philosophy remains pretty 'full of itself', seems to me. There have been efforts to make it accessible to a wider audience, though these have not necessarily been convincing. We can't ask him now. Even if we could talk to Mr. Mill, I am not sure we would get a straight answer. It is fun to speculate, though.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, June 21, 2019 -- 11:50 AM

I have just received a copy

I have just received a copy of Mill's Three Essays from my friendly library. Looking forward to reading this work. One essay is about the 'utility of religion'. Recently, I have been outlining talking points for an essay on magic and religion. The premise being fleshed out has to do with the origins of magic and religion. Several of these, I will contend, include: ignorance; fear; uncertainty; and the human knowledge of the fatality of existence (in other words: mortality). No other organism has to think about this---primary consciousness neither provides for nor requires such agonizing. My essay, I hope, will illustrate the mysterious nature and allure of magic, and the restorative, promissory nature of religion. At the root of both magic and religion we find superstition. This might be viewed as one of the origins mentioned above, but I see it as an effect. (I alluded to this project in another recent comment on a different post.) Don't yet know how Mill treated the 'utility' notion. I suspect he will have said some things about this, vis-a-vis, his support of utilitarianism. I will have to wait and see...stay tuned!

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, December 28, 2021 -- 12:18 PM

Can liberty and utilitarian

Can liberty and utilitarian strands of Mill's thought be reconciled?

It is hard to imagine ourselves as a collective organism when we think or philosophize; it seems a personal act. When politicians refer to America, they most often refer to their America. When we refer to our thought, we think of them as our own. However, much of my thought is derived from John Stuart Mill, and I didn't realize this affinity until I read it and found him speaking to my core beliefs.

But lately, my core beliefs have been questioned, and I wonder what Mill would think of our times and events. Pornography, money in politics, and information as a commodity would repulse Mill from his thesis On Liberty. I doubt he could have come to his ideas in our current reality.

David, Ken, and John give a fair accounting of the conflict in Mill's work.

Sexual freedom for one will always imply sexual repression for another. The legalization of drugs will cripple the lives of those prone to addiction. Refusing vaccinations will kill the unvaccinated and vaccinated alike.

Expanding our concept of identity to others, both inside and outside our body in a rule-based utilitarian manner allows our embodied actions to serve our interests without restricting others. Our blood, personal information, and emotional lives are intertwined with others. Ridding ourselves of identifying with our bodies, acts and emotions is one step in a path to reconciling Mills' conundrum. It's not an easy path to travel nor a truthful one in sentiment, but it is a good path and a good life, in the end.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, January 11, 2022 -- 6:12 AM

I had a brain fart this

I had a brain fart this morning, concerning the enigma of J.S. Mill. Is it reasonable to assume and/or believe well-to-do people read? I think so, although I have only one relative ( by marriage) who meets the criteria of well-to-do. He is the spouse of my wife's aunt. They raised children; travelled some and he retired from a successful career. I imagine he reads but do not know what. As with other self-made men and women, he is a private person. Here is where this is going: it occurs to me that wealthier people might enjoy reading Mill. They have access to 'the good life'. That there is contradiction in the foundations of his philosophy might not occur to them---whether they are utilitarian, liberal or indeterminate. Perhaps this is a clue to resolving the enigma. If Mill saw no contradiction, only attending circumstances, he would have had no qualms about the matter.

It has often been noticed that the well-off or wealthy don't talk about money. This sometimes annoys those who lack the luxury. But, as a practical matter, they should not trouble themselves. Another's economic status is not their business.

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