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A NEW CONCEPTION OF HUMAN WELFARE: MILL'S UTILITARIANISM John Stuart Mill embraced Bentham’s utilitarian political philosophy, but rejected Bentham's quantitative hedonistic conception of human happiness, with its conception of the human good as desirable mental feelings, varying in intensity and duration. Bentham, he thought, had a limited understand of human beings and human happiness. Bentham, he says, overlooked the importance in human life of the desire for perfection, the feeling of conscience, a concern for self- respect, the place of honor and dignity, the love of beauty, order, power and action. Mill’s alternative view of the human good assigns a central place to the development of our distinctively human powers, and to the active exercise of those powers. And not simply their development: more particularly, Mill emphasized the self- development of our powers—their development guided by values chosen by the agent him/herself, what he calls “individuality”. And he used that conception of the human good as the basis for his distinctive version of a liberal political morality. 1. How does Mill understand utility ? The central idea in Mill’s alternative to Bentham’s theory of the human good is his distinction between higher and lower quality pleasures. I will start by exploring the intuitive idea, and then examine the distinction more closely. • Human beings, Mill emphasizes, are distinguished from other animals by our mental powers: our powers of discriminative perception, judgment, reasoning, imagination, and moral and aesthetic evaluation. Mill’s thought is that
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, Spring 2006—2 a way of life—a "manner of existence" 1 —organized around activities that use those powers is better than one that is not, no matter how much dissatisfaction attends the life. Satisfaction consists in achieving what you aim for. So the life that uses our distinctive powers is better, even if the person leading it fails to achieves his/her aims. Thus, the life of a human being dissatisfied is a better, happier life, than that of a pig satisfied (2.6); the life of Socrates dissatisfied is better than that of a fool satisfied. 2 • Why is it better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied “fool, dunce, or rascal”? The answer would be easy if the “better manner of existence,” with its exercise of human powers, always brought greater feelings of joy, satisfaction, lust for life, and friends. But that's not true: the satisfied fool does not aim very high but achieves everything he aims for; Socrates dissatisfied aims high and does not achieve everything. Suppose, as Socrates urged, we reflect on lives: we examine them and set ourselves more ambitious goals, involving a fuller use of our human powers. But when we set our sights high, some of our aims are bound to go unfulfilled, and we will more likely be dissatisfied: aim high, fall far. A person with higher aspirations, Mill says, "requires more to make him happy, [and] is [therefore] capable of more acute suffering" (2.6).
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