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Ethics » Utilitarianism » Mill

John Stuart Mill was born in 1806. His father was James Mill, a strongly committed Benthamite. John Stuart Mill began to learn arithmetic and Greek at the age of three. Between four and seven he was reading works by David Hume and Edward Gibbon. He began Latin at eight. At 12 he was learning theoretical chemistry. Mill's father was described by his son as a stoic who had contempt for the passions and emotions; he seems to have showed no tenderness to Mill at all.

When Mill had a breakdown in 1826 his father was the last person to whom he could turn for support. He was therefore left on his own to sort out his emotional crisis. For three years Mill said that he was merely a "Benthamite reasoning machine" and had left out all aspects of feeling and emotion. He condemned the followers of Bentham for "their neglect both in theory and practice of the cultivation of feeling" and their "undervaluing of poetry and of imagination generally as an element of human nature". Mill's feeling that there must be "something more" than the Benthamite approach of cold reasoning led him in 1828 to the poetry of Wordsworth (pictured) and Coleridge. Mill said of the poetry of Wordsworth: "What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind was that they expressed - not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty."

Wordsworth gave him access to a range of feelings that his Benthamite background had denied him. Through Wordsworth's poems, Mill came to a conviction that "I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which has no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical of social condition of mankind." Wordsworth's poems also made Mill sensitive to the feelings of others.

Mill's religion of humanity

Mill advocated a "religion of humanity" not unlike the secular humanism advocated by Dawkins, Grayling et al today. Influenced by the French philosopher Auguste Comte, he saw the purpose of such a religion as being primarily practical - it had to have a utility function. His lack of concern for ontology is seen in his rejection of any grounding for this religion except seeing it as an abstraction comprising those who "in every age and variety of position have played their part worthily in life".

For Mill, the golden rule is altruism. It is the best a human being can be. Becoming this is fostered by everyone seeking the good of others. Although Mill does not seem aware of it, there are Aristotelian links here with the idea of a common human nature that all should aspire to fulfil - all humans share a common human potential. However while Aristotle grounds this in our common human nature, Mill is not concerned with ontology and ignores this line of thought. The nature of a given thing, for Mill, is "the aggregate of its powers and properties" - which is very Aristotelian.

Mill, although a utilitarian, developed a much broader understanding of utilitarianism than did Bentham - indeed he rejected Bentham's narrow vision. Mill's version is grounded in our common humanity and the good of society as a whole: "A theory which considers little in an action besides that action's own consequences ... will be most apt to fail in the consideration of the greatest social questions ... for these... must be viewed as the great instruments for forming the national character, or carrying forward the members of the community towards perfection or preserving them from degeneracy." The last phrase is vital and Bentham could never have said it. It shows that Mill had an almost Aristotelian view of the telos or purpose of human life.

Considering religion's usefulness rather than its veracity

Mill is not concerned about truth - in other words he shows no interest in the truth of his ideas. His interest is in their utility or usefulness. One of his important essays was on The Utility of Religion - in other words the usefulness of religion to society. In many ways Mill is both a philosopher and a sociologist - he is interested in what works for society more than the truth of his theories. Nevertheless he has some interests that point to a concern with "what it is to be human" and this is the closest he gets to an ontology.

Mill: awareness of feelings and the happiness of others

Mill rejected a basic principle held by Bentham when he said: "It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others." Mill's breakdown caused him to amend his original Benthamite position. "I never wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy... who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness ... The cultivation of the feelings becomes one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed."

Mill rejected personal happiness as an aim and, indeed, said that if it became an aim it would not be achieved: "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, exhaust themselves on that and, if otherwise fortunately circumstanced, you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe". Mill even has no difficulty in defining what it is to be human. This includes: "... the desire for perfection, the accusing or approving conscience, the sense of honour and dignity, the love of beauty, order, power as an instrument of good and the love of action."

Mill, therefore, unlike Bentham, accepted the idea of a common human nature that all people share - in this he has much in common with Aristotle and differed markedly from Bentham. Commitment to altruism was the key to human fulfilment, but this meant forgetting one's happiness and acting in the best interests of others.

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