Utilitarianism ‘On Liberty’ John Stuart Mill

‘On Liberty’ Utilitarianism

‘On Liberty’, The canonical statement of Mill’s utilitarianism can be found in Utilitarianism. This philosophy has a long tradition, although Mill’s account is primarily influenced by Jeremy Bentham and Mill’s father James Mill.

Mill’s famous formulation of utilitarianism is known as the “greatest-happiness principle”. It holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings, within reason. Mill’s major contribution to utilitarianism is his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures. Bentham treats all forms of happiness as equal, whereas Mill argues that intellectual and moral pleasures are superior to more physical forms of pleasure. Mill distinguishes between happiness and contentment, claiming that the former is of higher value than the latter, a belief wittily encapsulated in the statement that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”

Mill defines the difference between higher and lower forms of happiness with the principle that those who have experienced both tend to prefer one over the other. This is, perhaps, in direct contrast with Bentham’s statement that “Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry”, that, if a simple child’s game like hopscotch causes more pleasure to more people than a night at the opera house, it is more imperative upon a society to devote more resources to propagating hopscotch than running opera houses. Mill’s argument is that the “simple pleasures” tend to be preferred by people who have no experience with high art, and are therefore not in a proper position to judge. Mill supported legislation that would have granted extra voting power to university graduates on the grounds that they were in a better position to judge what would be best for society. It should be noted that, in this example, Mill did not intend to devalue uneducated people and would certainly have advocated sending the poor but talented to universities: he believed that education, and not the intrinsic nature of the educated, qualified them to have more influence in government.

The qualitative account of happiness that Mill advocates thus sheds light on his account presented in On Liberty. As Mill suggests in that text, utility is to be conceived in relation to mankind “as a progressive being”, which includes the development and exercise of his rational capacities as he strives to achieve a “higher mode of existence”. The rejection of censorship and paternalism is intended to provide the necessary social conditions for the achievement of knowledge and the greatest ability for the greatest number to develop and exercise their deliberative and rational capacities.

‘On Liberty’ Economic philosophy

Mill’s early economic philosophy was one of free markets. However, he accepted interventions in the economy, such as a tax on alcohol, if there were sufficient utilitarian grounds. He also accepted the principle of legislative intervention for the purpose of animal welfare. Mill originally believed that “equality of taxation” meant “equality of sacrifice” and that progressive taxation penalized those who worked harder and saved more and was therefore “a mild form of robbery”.

Given a tax break to the rich, Mill agreed that inheritance should be taxed. A utilitarian society would agree that everyone should be equal one way or another. Therefore receiving inheritance would put one ahead of society unless taxed on the inheritance. Those who donate should consider and choose carefully where their money goes—some charities are more deserving than others. Considering public charities boards such as a government will disperse the money equally. However a private charity board like a church would disperse the monies fairly to those who are in more need than others.

Later he altered his views toward a more socialist bent, adding chapters to his Principles of Political Economy in defense of a socialist outlook, and defending some socialist causes. Within this revised work he also made the radical proposal that the whole wage system be abolished in favour of a co-operative wage system. Nonetheless, some of his views on the idea of flat taxation remained, albeit in a slightly toned down form.

Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, first published in 1848, was one of the most widely read of all books on economics in the period. As Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations had during an earlier period, Mill’s Principles dominated economics teaching. In the case of Oxford University it was the standard text until 1919. The text that replaced it was written by Cambridge’s Alfred Marshall.

‘On Liberty’ Economic democracy

Mill promoted economic democracy in the capitalist economy whereby labourers would elect members of management. Mill believed that this was necessary to end what he deemed to be dictatorial management of capitalist firms and to establish liberty and equality in the capitalist economy. Mill’s promotion of the right of labourers to elect management has been seen as support for economic corporatism.

Mill’s views on the environment

Mill demonstrated an early insight into the value of the natural world – in particular in Book IV, chapter VI of “Principles of Political Economy”: “Of the Stationary State” in which Mill recognised wealth beyond the material, and argued that the logical conclusion of unlimited growth was destruction of the environment and a reduced quality of life. He concluded that a stationary state could be preferable to neverending economic growth:

I cannot, therefore, regard the stationary state of capital and wealth with the unaffected aversion so generally manifested towards it by political economists of the old school.

If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compel them to it.

English: John Stuart Mill. 19th century Photog...
John Stuart Mill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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