Key Concepts of the Philosophy of John Stuart Mill

Updated on January 26, 2017

John Stuart Mill was a 19th Century English philosopher who was instrumental in the development of the moral theory of Utilitarianism and a political theory that’s goal was to maximize the personal liberty of all citizens. He was able to inspire a number of social reforms in England during his lifetime after the industrial revolution had causes huge gaps between the rich and the poor, rampant child labor and horrible health conditions. Mill’s political theory disregarded social contract theory, which had obsessed the previous centuries political thinkers, in favor of a theory that used his moral imperatives as its basis. His theory serves as the alternative to Marxism, which had developed as the other major political theory in the 19th century. While his political theory has been less popular due to a return to the social contract model and other proposed alternatives in the 20th century, his arguments for Utilitarianism serve as the basis for the theories status as one of the three major moral theories taken most seriously by contemporary philosophers, alongside Virtue Ethics and Deontological ethics, based on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

Mill was raised with an advanced education and was translating Greek before he was even in his teens. His teacher and mentor, Jeremy Bentham, was an enormous influence on his philosophy but Mill was able to minimize most of the major flaws in Bentham’s version of Utilitarianism to allow it to hold the status that it currently does today. Many find the relation between Mill’s political theories and his moral theories to be problematic but they both led him to be a proponent for women's rights, gay rights and animal rights at a time when both stances were thought by the majority to be absurd. In terms of making a social impact on society, Mill can be seen as one of the most successful philosophers at implementing social change through his philosophy.

Hedonism and Utilitarianism

Mill was a hedonist, and while this word has a very different meaning when used in today’s society, what it meant to Mill was that he believed pleasure was the only intrinsic good to human beings. He believed that all other ideas of good where extrinsic and simply were in the service of gaining pleasure. Pleasure itself was the one idea of the good that could lead nowhere else. One of the obvious problems with this view is that many people get pleasure from things that are harmful to other people and there are many people who get pleasure from things that do not benefit themselves and could even be harmful to themselves. Mill attempted to address this problem.

One example of a person that may get pleasure from something that harms themselves is a drug addict. In this example, what Mill would say is that while they are getting great pleasure in the short term from the drugs they are ultimately also getting a lot of pain and discomfort from their addiction. The long term pleasure they would receive from actually kicking their drug habit would greatly outweigh the pleasure that they get from the drugs. There is also the problem of people who get pleasure from simply being lazy or from simple instead of more complex things. For instance, somebody may enjoy a trashy romance novel over Shakespeare but just because they enjoy the romance novel more doesn’t mean that it is more valuable does it? Mill says no, and he separates the two into “higher” and “lower” pleasures. The distinction between the two is that somebody who is capable of understanding both the romance novel and Shakespeare would always prefer Shakespeare and the pleasure derived from the higher pleasures is always greater than that derived from the lower.

This strikes some people as being a bit elitist but the alternative is to believe that there are no objective values to judge art and therefore all art is valuable in that it gives pleasure. If this were true then all art should be judged on the number of people that it makes happy. So American Idol would be greater art than a classic novel. Mill compares it to the differences between a human and a pig. A pig is happy to be rolling in the mud but this is hardly a good existence for a human. Mill famously proclaimed, “Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”

As far as people who get pleasure from hurting others, Mill’s moral theory of Utilitarianism addresses this issue. Mill claims that it is our moral imperative to make decisions that benefit the greater good and Utilitarianism makes the claim that the moral good is “the greatest good to the greatest number of people.” Since most contemporary proponents of this theory are advocates of animal rights it is often now stated as “sentient beings” rather than as simply people. Mill’s version of Utilitarianism also has some key differences from the version put forth by his mentor Jeremy Bentham and we will address those through common objections to Utilitarian thinking.

The most common objections to this moral theory is that it is impossible to know with any certainty what consequences ones actions will lead to. (see Kant) This extends to the idea that because this theory does not protect the intrinsic value of each human being the way Kant’s theory does it can lead to cases where an individual’s rights are violated in service of the greater good. An example of this is a surgeon who kills one patient in order to get body parts for four other patients who need them to live and a judge who frames an innocent man in order to avoid a riot from citizens who are enraged by a crime.

Modern Utilitarians point out that both of these examples are outrageously contrived and Mill feels that he has an answer to both objections. He states that moral action should not be judged on the individual case but more along the lines of “rule of thumb”. What he means by this is that if a certain action can be generally determined to lead to good consequences, then that is the action that should be taken unless there is an obvious difference that is known with certainty that this time it will lead to different consequences. Mill would probably say that both examples are not situations where the consequences of killing an innocent person could be known with any certainty to lead to a better outcome. He further states, “There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it,” meaning he thinks that only an idiot could possible think that situations like these would lead to good outcomes. Still these objections persist and the matter is far from settled.

On Liberty

It is also a contention made against Utilitarianism that it is incompatible with individual liberty and Mill attempts to reject that claim through his political theory. Mill claims the ideal society is one where the individual has economic and personal freedom from the state apparatus and he bases the claim for individual freedom on the fact that it will lead to the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. In this way, we can avoid the tyranny or the majority that opponents of Democracy often fear. It is important to note that while Mill believed strongly in the right to free speech and expression and in the “harm principle”, which states that individuals should have complete freedom to the point where their actions harm others, he did not believe in the idea of inalienable rights. Mill thought that if giving citizens a certain freedom would lead to more harm than good to society as a whole then that right should be rejected. In this way, he is not in the libertarian school of thought that he is sometimes put under but is something else entirely.

Mill was a social progressive for his time. Though he still held some common racial attitudes of the 19th Century he strongly opposed the idea of slavery. He believed in the freedom of people to live the way they chose, even demonized groups such as homosexuals and also championed the idea of religious tolerance no matter what faith a person may choose. These were all based on the idea that being tolerant of others and respecting the freedom of others would maximize the happiness of society. His influence greatly improved living conditions in much of England at the time though whether his political views and his faith in moral Utilitarianism are truly compatible is still a debated issue.


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    • Robephiles profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      There is no doubt that Mill makes Utilitarianism work the best. Of the three big theories it is the one that is demonized the most but I think a lot of the points against it are overstated. The best knock at this philosophy is Philippa Foot's "mad torturer" thought experiment but Kantian ethics and virtue ethics have their own flaws to contend with.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      8 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Great summation of Mill's philosopies. He is one of my favorite philosophers and my model for what is Good and Evil in government actions which I rote about in an earlier Hub. His concept of utilitarianism is both simple and easy to grasp while also making so much sense.


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