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Utilitarianism | Context


Influence of James Mill and Jeremy Bentham

Much of the work in Utilitarianism was based on the ideas of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), a 19th-century English philosopher who argued that happiness or pleasure was the only personal or social metric of any value. Bentham was a legal scholar who sought to create a legal and moral code based on a singular principle. Bentham's single principle, the "fundamental axiom," from which he hoped to construct this order, was that moral action was determined by whether it created the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This was the principle of "utility" that Mill picked up, elaborated on, and defended in the 1850s and 1860s. Bentham's notion was widely criticized for its inattention to the notion of justice and for his rejection of the concept of natural rights, and Mill hoped to fix these problems.

Utilitarianism was as much a social and political movement as a moral theory. Inspired by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, the political group called the Philosophical Radicals published journals and won seats in Parliament. The young John Stuart Mill participated in the movement. For years, Mill's father had been grooming his eldest son to be the heir to the utilitarian movement, of which Bentham was a leader. Bentham helped the Mill family through difficult financial times, including moving them into a cottage on his property, and later leasing a house for which the Mills paid a modest rent.

John Stuart Mill's education was demanding, to say the least. His father, who had always been a remarkably hard worker and was himself the author of several important works, intended for his eldest son to be his and Bentham's professional and intellectual successor. To that end, the young Mill read Greek and Latin before age 10 and was working on advanced mathematics by age 12. But he did not interact with children his own age, or even engage in ordinary children's activities. When he wasn't studying, he was tutoring his younger siblings. Throughout his education, utilitarian principles were instilled in the young Mill. As Mill writes in his autobiography (published posthumously in 1873), he began his teenage years "with an advantage of a quarter of a century over my contemporaries."

Victorian Morals

Mill espouses a negative view of Victorian values. In The Subjection of Women (1869), for example, Mill writes unflinchingly about the condition of Victorian wives. The complete and sole requirement of a Victorian woman was a marriage that produced offspring. And upon marriage, a woman's entire existence became legally subsumed by her husband. By law, wives were slaves, the property of their husbands. A woman's husband owned her body, her children, and any property she had prior to marriage. Thinkers and activists such as John Stuart Mill challenged laws involving issues ranging from custody rights and divorce to prostitution and enforced co-habitation.

Mill's moral philosophy chafes against the Victorian norms of his day. Victorian morality was typified by, among other virtues, sexual austerity, strict codes of conduct, and a class-based deference to authority. Child labor, abuse and neglect, poverty, and prostitution were rampant. It's worth noting, however, that this era also saw the introduction of public education, improved housing for the poor, public health policies, and factory regulations, in large part because of writers who railed against these disgraceful conditions.

Understanding Mill

Empiricism and Liberalism

Mill's defense of utilitarianism occurs within the framework of his empiricism. Empiricists think knowledge and morality are derived from experience. The natural world is real, and people's interaction with the natural world makes them who they are.

Human beings are, in the empiricist's view, no different from any other natural thing. Of paramount importance to human beings is happiness. The best society is one organized around the principle of utility, which promotes the greatest happiness for all. It is in this context that liberty is to be understood. According to Mill, any well-developed society should protect and preserve liberty; constraint should be limited to that conduct that may harm others, creates a public nuisance, or violates a duty to others. Liberty is, Mill argues, grounded in "utility in the largest sense," that is, "founded on the permanent interests of a man as a progressive being." Mill's view of human nature, then, which is at the root of his philosophical liberalism, is that it is capable of realizing potential, both individually and across history. A person has to develop his or her own potential according to a self-designed plan.

Naturalism and Associationism

Mill's defense of utilitarianism is also based on ethical naturalism. In this view, morality, as something that is either true or false, is definable through the causes and effects of human actions. For Mill, an action is moral if it produces human happiness. It is immoral if it produces unhappiness. This relationship between humanity and morality is an understandable part of the natural world.

The theory of associationism suggests that the mind organizes sensations and ideas according to associations. The Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested four areas of association among sensations and ideas: proximate occurrence in time, frequency, similarity, and contrast. While Mill agreed with his mentors that a pair of sensory experiences can form an association in the mind, he posited that these associations could take on characteristics that were not part of the original experiences. Thus, although knowledge is based on experience, associationism allows people to understand ideas beyond experience. With regard to utilitarianism, the human understanding of happiness is capable of evolving beyond a search for pleasure into a morality that can be taught and is not dependent on intrinsic human character traits.

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