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Utilitarianism explained

  • Nov 18, 2010

You can't beat this kindle edition!  It is FREE and is a great rendition of the book!!!

I read this book for a graduate Mill seminar in Philosophy. Recommended reading for anyone interested in philosophy, political science, and history. If you could only read one book to grasp the genius of Mill, this is the book to read!

John Stuart Mill, 1806-73, worked for the East India Co. helped run Colonial India from England. Minister of Parliament 1865-68 he served one term.

Mill develops a theory of morality in Utilitarianism. He argues against the group of people who think that morality is intuitive. Intuitionists think that God put morality in us, thus, morality is a priori. Moral rules or principles were programmed in us, we can see these rules, they are binding, however they do acknowledge that on a case by case basis we still need to use them to reason out the ultimate answer for a particular case.

Mill also believes that there are a set of moral principles that we ought to be thinking about. Intuitionists today think that case by case we can reason out what is right or wrong. However, they would be suspicious that of believing there were general moral principles. Intuitionists say it is not up to us to investigate what is right or wrong. Mill would disagree. Mill doesn't like Intuitionists theory because they can't prove their view; and they can't explain why "lying is wrong" as an example. In addition, they do not provide a list of these innate morals we are suppose to have, and they do not have a hierarchy for them to resolve the conflict between two morals when they arise.

Background on essay, written in 1861 came out in 3 magazine articles, pretty scanty which sometimes drives one crazy trying to deduce what Mill is saying. A lot of interpretation is necessary.

Chapter 2: The second paragraph is official statement of the theory.

"The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness."

Happiness=pleasure and freedom from pain. This makes him a Hedonist philosophically.

Higher Pleasures Doctrine- Jeremy Bentham says how valuable pleasure was based on 2 dimensions that we evaluate our experience of pleasure by, intensity and duration. Bentham says this determines quantity in pleasure. Bentham said this determined how much a given experience adds to a person's happiness.

Mill adds a third value to evaluate pleasure by and that's its quality, how good it is. Many don't understand Mill's idea that pleasure has value and quality. Most people think that Mill is really talking about quantity, or they don't believe one can be a hedonist, that pleasure is the only thing that has value, and yet think that there is something more to judging how valuable an experience is than the intensity and the duration of the pleasure it contains. So, they say that one of two things must be going on here. Of course, some people are sure it is one thing, and some are sure it is another. Either what Mill is talking about when you get right down to it is quantity in pleasure and different experiences, or all the different things he says about quality can be somehow resolved into quantity. So that really what is going on is that when Mill talks about a pleasure being of a higher quality that just means that there is a lot more pleasure there that the quantity is much greater. Or, Mill is giving up on hedonism at this point and he is admitting that some things are valuable aside from pleasure. So, when he says an experience like reading a good book or something like that is more valuable than an experience of some kind of animalistic pleasure, that really what he is saying is this experience is more valuable for reasons that go beyond the amount of pleasure involved. In addition to how much pleasure is involved there is also that maybe the experience is more beautiful or more noble or something like that and this gives it additional value. So something other than the amount of pleasure involved gives it additional value. Mill can be a consistent hedonist and he can consistently say that pleasure is the only thing that can have value and yet it is still the case that some pleasures are just more valuable than other pleasures.

In John Stuart Mill's autobiography, he tells readers how he benefited and suffered from having one of the most unique educational experiences known to humankind. His father, James Mill, was personally involved in the education of John and his other siblings John was a brilliant student who read Greek by the age of three and Latin at eight years old. By the time he matured to adulthood, he was extremely well read. Thus, John received an academically rigorous education at home; however, it was devoid of any interaction and social contact with other children his own age. In adulthood, he developed very strong views about the advantages that universal education would have on improving people's characters, which would lead to fostering social change for the better. In addition, he held very strong beliefs on reforming university curriculum to improve Britain's intellectual class. Mill summarized many of his ideas on education in 1867 after accepting the position as Rector of the University of St. Andrews. In his Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St. Andrews, one of the points that he made in his speech was the responsibility that universities had in building their student's characters. In large measure, the type of curriculum the university taught to its students would in part shape one's character. More importantly, the proper university curriculum would ultimately provide student's with the tools necessary to continue to learn throughout their lives, critically analyze, and if necessary become agents for change in society. He thought that this goal was best served in two ways. First, he believed immersing students in Western civilization's classical works especially the great works of the Greeks and Romans was an important foundation of knowledge. Secondly, he also believed that reading contemporary works of literature was of paramount importance to develop the human character.

As an intellectual himself, Mill was especially interested in the development of the character of gifted people who had the ability to develop a higher intellect than most of their peers. Mill's writings are replete with advice as to what knowledge he thought was most worth attaining to develop one's character and intellect. Looking at what Mill wrote regarding the proper kind of education the intellectually gifted should receive in a university, is where one can then start to ascertain what side he would support in the canon vs. multicultural debate. Although I will use key passages from his writings to illuminate why Mill would ultimately champion the supporters of an increased multicultural curriculum for universities, I also find there is evidence in his writings that he would insist that student's posses a knowledge base in the canon. As an example, in his essay titled Civilization in 1836, which was written when he was 30 years old, one finds Mill's early and life long penchant for studying the classics of ancient Greece and Rome. "Such is the principle of all academical instruction which aims at forming great minds. Ancient literature would fill a large place in such a course of instruction; because it brings before us the thoughts and actions of many great minds."

I find the influence that the classic Greek cultural had on Mill is most illuminating. Williams found that Mill's experience with the Greeks was largely comprised of his reviews he wrote for his friend, George Grote; on his multi-volume work, Grote's History of Greece, as well as Mill's own translations of several of Plato's dialogues. To say that Mill was enamored with the classical Greeks would be a gross understatement. In a review of Grote's work Mill penned the following about the Greeks. "They were the most remarkable people ever to have existed: in historical literature, oratory, poetry, sculpture, architecture, mathematics, physics, politics, and philosophy they made the indispensable first steps, originating speculation and freedom of thought." Mill's interest in the Greeks was in primarily what they had to contribute to present society in the study of politics and philosophy. He thought the Greeks in these two areas had the most influence both on Western civilization as a whole, and was very useful in character formation in educating both the masses and the intelligentsia. In his review of Grote's works, Mill wrote that, in essence, the Athenian democratic model "afforded the mental tranquility which is also one of the conditions of high intellectual or imaginative achievement." Thus, the Athenian society based on liberty would become the historical foundation that Mill would use to defend his own political as well as philosophical views for the improvement of society.

Some 31 years after writing his essay Civilization, Mill's theories for properly educating citizens and the proper makeup of a university curriculum were brilliantly articulated in his Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St. Andrews in 1867. In this speech, he decried the idea of what universities had become. "Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings." He understood that only people with a well grounded education in liberal arts could become the intellectual nucleus that was ultimately necessary to lead and improve society.

Mill's book On Liberty makes his most passionate argument for fostering a pluralistic society. In essence, he articulated the argument that people needed to have more freedom than they had to develop their characters. Mill's concern was that if a majority of people in society were invested with unlimited power they could tyrannize the minority. Although On Liberty is a major treatise of political philosophy, it is also recognized more generally as a work of social philosophy--more so than any other work by Mill. It is not just about what kind of government we should have and how it should behave, but also more importantly, it is about what kind of society we should have and how we aught to live together.

Mill makes a cogent argument in chapter two of On Liberty that really gets to the essence of his arguments. In the chapter, he questions whether society should censor new doctrines simply because they do not conform to its current norms or beliefs. He says that essentially there are three things that may be true of new doctrines when they are proposed. 1) The doctrine might be true; 2) it might be false; and 3) it might be partially true. Mill provides a variety of reasons why the censorship of new doctrines is a bad idea. He believed that most doctrines contain only partial truths but not the whole truth. As an example, when he examined the history of religion he found this to be the case. Although he saw most laudable teachings in Christianity he thought that Judaism and the Koran also had laudable teachings for humankind that were not found in the New Testament. Thus, for the betterment of humankind he believed the best teachings of all three religions should be combined. I believe Mill's real genius as an intellectual was depicted by his impressive ability to find the little kernels of truth in other people's doctrines and synthesize them. Mill postulated that there were few original thinkers in history, and that most ideas that members of society adopt are really the best bits and pieces of a larger doctrine.


Utilitarianism explained

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December 18, 2010
This is an amazing review, Michael! Very detailed. I especially enjoyed the inclusion of the quote from Chapter 2. Bravo!
December 18, 2010
Adriana, thank you for the compliment.
December 20, 2010
No problem! I nominated this piece for a few Lunch awards too! Hope you win one. :)
About the reviewer
Michael Neulander ()
Ranked #44
Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
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This is an electronic edition of the complete book complemented by author biography. This book features the table of contents linked to every chapter and footnote. The book was designed for optimal navigation on the Kindle, PDA, Smartphone, and other electronic readers. It is formatted to display on all electronic devices including the Kindle, Smartphones and other Mobile Devices with a small display.


John Stuart Mill's book Utilitarianism is a philosophical defense of utilitarianism in ethics. The essay first appeared as a series of three articles published in Fraser's Magazine in 1861; the articles were collected and reprinted as a single book in 1863. It went through four editions during Mill's lifetime with minor additions and revisions.

Although Mill includes discussions of utilitarian ethical principles in other works such as On Liberty and The Subjection of Women, Utilitarianism contains Mill's only major discussion of the fundamental grounds for utilitarian ethical theory.

-- Excerpted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

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