Liberty & Utilitarianism.
By: Anupam Gurung.

J.S: Mill[Type text]

Page 1


4 - 4 – 09.

About. Born in London in on May 20-1806 John Stuart Mill like his father James Mill aspired to be a writer. He was taught by his father thus he never had a formal education. But by the age of (10) he had read many of Plato’s dialogues. He was also familiar with the writings of Euripides, Homer and Polybius. However the fruit of his Knowledge for the world came when he portrayed his literary masterpieces like his essays On Liberty and The Subjection on Women, his System Of Logic, and his famous essays on Bentham and Coleridge in which he endorsed the Conventional Utilitarian Principle, yet made a significant departure from the Benthamite assumption. Thus in a nutshell J:S Mill was a Liberal Democrat, a Pluralist ,a cooperative Socialist, an Elitist and a Feminist.

Like Bentham, Mill also upheld the assumption that the ultimate end of every individual was in seeking the greatest happiness but he qualified (modified) this assumption by discarding the Benthamite Principle Of Utility and placing his conviction that the ultimate aim of the individual was not in attaining maximum but rather quality happiness. This modification becomes evident when Mill writes: “It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some of the pleasures are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things ,quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasure should be supposed to depend on quantity alone”(J:S Mill_On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government.Pg-7). “The distinctive characteristic of Mill‟s utilitarianism on the other hand, was that he tried to express a conception of moral character consonant with his own moral character”(Sabine_Pg-640). Mill criticized and modified Benthams Utilitarianism by taking into account “factors like moral motives ,sociability, feeling of universal altruism, sympathy and a new concept of justice with an idea of impartiality”(J:Gibbins-19th Century Political Thought and Practice.Pg_96).For Mill the ultimate happiness was not in seeking material pleasure but rather in seeking mental and intellectual pleasure. He asserted that the chief deficiency of Benthamite ethics was the neglect of individual character

and dignity which was derogatory to the individuals. Mill thus made quality happiness and the dignity of man and not the hedonistic principle of pleasure,the chief end of life. He defined happiness to mean perfection of human nature,cultivation of moral values,control over ones desires and recognition of individual and collective interests. “Mills ethics was important for liberalism because in effect it abandoned egoism,assumed that social welfare is a matter of concern to all men of good will and regarded freedom,integrity,self respect and personal distinctions as intrinsic goods apart from their contribution to happiness”(G:H Sabine-Pg_641).Mill insisted that human beings were capable of intellectual and moral pleasures,which were superior to the physical ones that they shared with the animals as he writes; “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, it is better to be Socrates satisfied than a fool satisfied.”(J:S Mill_On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government.Pg-9).Thus it seems that mills concept of utility was far from what would be described as Hedonism. “From this point of view Benthams famous pronouncement that, „Pushpin is as good as poetry‟ if it gives one the same pleasure,is simply vulgar nonsense, while Mill‟s own pronouncement, „it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied‟,states a normal reaction but is certainly not hedonism”(Sabine_Pg-640/641). In the course of proving his thesis that the principle of utility can admit a qualitative distinction of pleasures, Mill makes use of the non-utilitarian argument that pleasure cannot be objectively measured. To him the Felicific Calculus is absurd as there are no means to determine which is the acutest of two pains and which is the intensest of two pleasures except the general suffrage of those who are familiar with both. Thus while trying to save the face of Benthamism, Mill confessed its essential fallacy and introduced radical changes which changed the conventional concept of utilitarianism for ever.


J:S Mill on Liberty
“If any one is liberal, it is J:S Mill. In Mill‟s thought we find the clearest form of all elements that together make up the liberal outlook”(J:Gray_Essays in Political Philosophy.Pg-217).


J:S Mill was a passionate devotee to the cause of individual liberty. Having left behind his several celebrated opinions,but he is at his best in his literary opinion ‘On Liberty’, his important contribution to the Political Thought. In his political theory liberalism made a transition from ‘Laissez Faire’ to an active role for the state,from a negative to a positive conception of liberty. Mills conception of liberty germinated from his conception of utilitarianism. He held that the ultimate end of every individual was in seeking quality pleasure rather than maximum pleasure. He was convinced that the individual was capable of pursuing not only material but also mental and intellectual pleasure,the pleasure of perfecting one’s intellectual and moral virtues. But for this the individual would need the liberty of action,thought,speech and expression to perfect himself. Mill however distinguished between self regarding and other regarding actions of individual. The self regarding action was the action which an individual performed to perfect oneself without causing any harm to others, while that actions which could affect other individuals was what Mil regarded as other regarding actions. In On Liberty Mill stated one simple principle that governed the actions of society and the individuals in the way of compulsion and control as he writes; “the sole end for which man kind are warranted in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their members is elf protection. That is the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will to prevent harm to others”(Mill_On Liberty .Pg-75. Mill held that every individual should be left free to act, if his actions don’t endanger the same of others. But if this individual action is found to be detrimental for others, only then can the state act in its way to normalize the situation as it deems right. Thus in its negative sense it meant that the society had no right to coerce an unwilling individual,except for self defense. In its positive sense it meant the grant of a large and great amount of freedom for the pursuit of

self development and perfection. “True Liberty to Mill,was concerned with the full development of independence,self development and self control”(J:Gibbens_J:S Mill‟s Liberalism and Progress.Pg-107). In an event of a clash between the opinion of the individual and that of the community,it was the individual who was the ultimate judge. “For Mill freedom of thought and investigation,freedom of discussion and freedom of self controlled moral judgment and actions were goods in their own right”(Sabine_Pg-641). Positive liberty that is ,autonomy and selfmastery for Mill were desirable and that the individuals was to be allowed to develop their own talents and lifestyle that is a great deal of negative liberty. To Mill, the defense of his liberty for every reasonable individual was omnipotent as he writes; “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion,man kind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he,if he had the power,would be justified in silencing mankind”(Mill_ibid.Pg-79). Mill next proceeds to analyze the potential threats against the liberty of the individual. He stated that this threat against liberty of the individual came more from the society than from the state. “The threat to liberty which Mill chiefly feared was not government but the majority that is intolerant of the unconventional,that looks with suspicion on the minorities and is willing to use the weight of numbers to suppress and regiment them”(Sabine_Pg-642). Thus for Mill,the singular threat to individual liberty was more from the tyranny and intolerance of the majority in its quest for extreme egalitarianism and social conformity than from the political community. “Protection therefore,against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough;there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling against the tendency of the society to impose,by other means tan civil penalties its own ideas and practices on those who dissent from them”(Mill_Pg-68). Social tyranny was exercised in subtitle forms like customs,conventions and mass opinion. Mill offered two arguments for the liberty of expression; 1) the dissenting opinion could be true and if suppressed would rob mankind of its useful knowledge and 2) even if the opinion was false,it would strengthen the correct view by changing it. “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race the knowledge,those who dissent

from the opinion,still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right,they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error of truth, if wrong they loose the benefit of a clearer perception of truth produced by its collision with error”(Mill_Pg-79).Happiness for Mill meant individual liberty and individuality. “The contention of the essay On Liberty is that happiness so conceived is best achieved in a free society governed by the Principle of Liberty”( J:Gray_Essays in Political Philosophy.Pg-220). Mill considered that liberty belonged to a higher and advanced civilization and despotism for lower ones. “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians,liberty as a principle has no application to any state of things anterior to time when mankind has become capable of being improved by free and equal discussions”(Mill_Pg-75). Mill’s conclusions were unclear and conformed to no rule at all,but depended on quite subjective habits of judgement. “Thus he regarded prohibition of the sale of alcohol as an infringement of liberty,though compulsory education is not(Sabine_Pg-644) . According to I:Berlin; “He did not purpose a single overarching principle which normally accompanied theories of positive liberty”(Berlin_Four Concepts of Liberty). “The fundamental difficulty with Mill‟s argument was that it never really analyzed the relationship between freedom and responsibility”(Sabine_Pg-644). Criticisms are also raised on legality of Mill’s Liberalism; “What Mill‟s theory of liberty required was a thoroughgoing consideration of the dependencies of personal liberty on legal rights and obligations.”(Sabine_Pg-644). Whatever may have been the defects about his opinion, its value is far too great in Political Thought. Mill was the last utilitarian and the first male philosopher of considerable repute to consider ‘The Women Question’.

J:S Mill took his last breath in (1873) at Avignon, England.