They have been called the Godfather, the Father and the Son of Utilitarianism. It began with Jeremy Bentham with the assistance of James Mill, and was developed and transformed by John Stuart Mill. Bentham rejected the appeal to natural law (the basis for the French and Virginian declaration of the rights of man), lamenting that so rational a cause as American independence should be placed on so irrational a foundation. Utilitarianism started as an alternative and rational theory of law. The principle of utility came later, but Bentham probably did invent “the greatest happiness principle”. Only by asking how a proposed law promoted the happiness or well-being of everyone affected by it could we know what laws to pass. Bentham expected that this would enable the simplification of British law, and lead to the election of Governments who could enact much needed legal and administrative reform. James Mill became Bentham’s secretary and general assistant. He published his main contribution to the utilitarian theory – the essay ‘Government’, in 1818. Like Bentham he started with the premise that we all naturally attempt to pursue our own interests. The central problem of government is how to reconcile the interests of the public with those who hold power. The answer must be a form of (representative) democracy, so that the public has a chance to dislodge governments that do not serve their interests.
Jeremy Bentham & James Mill
The work of Bentham and James Mill raised several issues. The first is the relationship between freedom and happiness. Bentham was horrified by the misery people suffered when they are bullied and oppressed, but he considered freedom as a means to happiness rather than an end in itself. If for example, we could lose the freedom to make ourselves miserable, we should. The second is the relationship between politics and administration. Utilitarians are exposed to the criticism of being like benevolent administrators thinking how to make their charges happy (James Mill was a senior administrator with the British East India Company). Politics supposes the existence of citizens with their own views which are debated, but this debate could become secondary to the administrative role of government. Utilitarianism appeared to have very little to say about the actual life of a citizen. Lastly, the individualism of utilitarianism appeared ambiguous. Happiness or lack thereof is felt by individuals; however, utilitarianism is only really interested in the happiness of individuals as a whole – net happiness. If a policy makes one person unhappy and two happy, this is an improvement. Despite being tutored by his father and by Bentham, a young John Stuart Mill came to believe that utilitarianism was one dimensional, overly mechanical and lacking in emotional intelligence. It could not make sense of many political and moral values, such as autonomy (freedom) and human dignity. He would broaden utilitarianism into a much more persuasive vision of life. Critics said he had abandoned utilitarianism for an unprincipled eclecticism.
John Stuart Mill & Utilitarianism
Ryan describes Mill’s work ‘Utilitarianism’ as one of the most read and best-hated works in the history of moral philosophy. Mills starts by clarifying the meaning of “utility”. It does not mean the merely useful; anything can be explained in terms of utility, i.e. in terms of the promotion of happiness. He believed that utilitarianism is universal and secular. Things matter because of their effect on human well-being, not because they matter to God, or because they matter to a specific individual. It tells us what rules humanity ought to follow (our morality) – the rules that would maximise human well-being. Many contemporary readers saw the notion of secular morality as a contradiction in terms. Utilitarianism is agnostic in that the existence of God should not affect our ethics and morality. If God does exist, he would want us to follow the dictates of utilitarianism. The idea that society could improve its morality through an understanding of utilitarianism shocked those who believed morality was set down by divine mandate. Others believed that a system of ethics built on seeking pleasure was an animalistic view not worthy of humans (‘pig philosophy’). Mill countered that there are different quality levels of happiness, and human beings must aspire to the levels appropriate to us. It is not better to be a satisfied fool than a dissatisfied Socrates (as utilitarianism appeared to suggest), because Socrates’ happiness is of a higher quality than that of the fool. Mill’s evidence is that Socrates would never wish to be a happy fool. Introducing ‘quality’ does however add complexity to the calculation of happiness, which is contrary to the utilitarian drive for simplicity.
When Mill published his essay ‘On Liberty’ in the 1850s he had become convinced that Britain was suffering from a stifling conformism. His predecessors feared modern democracy would be the faction ridden and quarrelsome democracy of the ancient world. Along with Tocqueville, Mill thought the opposite; democracy could easily mean “the tyranny of the majority”. Public opinion could act as a dead weight bearing down on every member of society – a novel kind of oppression where each of us collectively oppressed each of us individually. Worse, those brought up in a conformist democracy will internalise public opinion, preventing true freedom of thought. The key cause came from the economic basis of modern social life which placed many people in similar conditions, making for uniformity of opinion. The solution was Mill’s liberal and pluralist version of utilitarianism. Human nature is multi-faceted and sometimes contradictory. He deemed ‘happiness’ too vague a label for what we really desired for ourselves, and too vague as a political goal. Autonomous self-fulfillment is the true goal. This is the ability to create a harmony in our own lives, and not taking our standards from other persons. Mill sets out a general principle to govern the way society collectively treats its individual members. In short, society can punish its members only to protect other people from harm, or from breach of their rights. This implies near absolute freedom of speech, excluding incitement or fraud. People are free to act as they wish as long as their actions don’t risk harm to others. Society is also free to persuade members to act in certain ways without punishing them. I cannot force you to stop drinking to excess, but I may say that no one will be able to stand your company if you do.
Considerations on Representative Government
‘On Liberty’ could be considered a philosophical remedy for the defects of democracy. His ‘Considerations on Representative Government’ could be considered a political and institutional remedy. Bureaucratic government can provide effective administration but too often lacked energy and drive. The system of government must maintain “the antagonism of opinions”, so that the majority ruled but not unchallenged. Mill was radical in his views on franchise. As part of the 1867 Reform Bill he put forward a proposal to enfranchise women on the same terms as men. He simply treated the notion of women not having the vote on a par with men as equivalent to tall people not having the vote – transparently irrational. Mill also proposed that people could have several votes according to education. Later political scientists would continue to be shocked by this suggestion, while praising the fact that the better educated act as opinion leaders and therefore exert more influence than their numbers would suggest. Finally, Mill was a staunch defender of proportional representation, specifically the transferable vote system. He saw that under a first past the post system it was quite possible for a strong majority government to be formed based on as little as 20% of votes. Mill wanted every voter to have an equal chance of voting for a winning candidate. In response to the concern of weak political parties in government, Mill disagreed with the notion of political parties entirely. Parliament should be able to select the best members from among them to form a government. Mill was a passionate supporter of decentralisation but considered federalism as merely a remedy for an insufficient sense of national identity. Devolving responsibility for government (including local government) deeply into society was a way to mitigate the risk of a passive populace and subsequent halt to progress.
Mill was a radical liberal. He criticised all forms of conservative thinking for mistaking custom with nature. Custom is “second nature”. When conservatives attack a particular practice or reform as “unnatural”, it is worth replacing this with “not customary”. Mills view of what is natural draws a distinction with Hegel. Hegel thought that society naturally forms us as rational individuals and exercises a continuing tutelary discipline over us. Society gets the benefit of the doubt over the dissident individual. Mill believed society was in danger of being over-bearing and gives the benefit of the doubt to individual liberty.
If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it: