John Stuart Mill 1806 – 1873 Background

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John Stuart Mill 1806 – 1873


  • A child prodigy who had a nervous breakdown at 20 and who’s life was saved by reading Wordsworth and Coleridge.

  • Would the Lyrical Ballads (Wordsworth) have saved us?

What Mill disliked about Bentham’s view:

  • What Mill disliked about Bentham’s view:

  • It failed to differentiate us from animals.

  • It failed to account for the fact that we think of some pleasures (achieving an A grade) superior to others (playing computer games).

  • A qualitative distinction.

Mill wanted to argue that some pleasures were “higher” “It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” (Mill p 260)

Here’s a list of pleasures. List them in

  • Here’s a list of pleasures. List them in

  • descending order of enjoyableness?

  • Eating an ice cream

  • Eating oysters

  • Listening to Britney Spears

  • Listening to Mozart

  • Going round an art gallery

  • Watching Neighbours

  • Reading a novel or poetry

  • Running a race

  • Playing Rugby

  • Watching Rugby

  • Doing a favour for a friend

Was Mill just a snob???????

Mill argued that the lower pleasures were of the mind, and the higher of the body.

  • He felt that, after the lower bodily needs were met we could attend to the higher spiritual, moral, cultural pleasures. (Who decides? Only someone who’s experienced both)

Vardy and Grosch comment:

  • “On this view, a person who eats and drinks in moderation in order to design elegant, ecologically –sound clothing is morally superior to the person who is anxious to produce quick, profit-making designs in order to pursue the pleasures of sex, food and drink” (1994:79)

W.D. Ross argued that this produces counter-intuitive outcomes

  • Example: who do we save in the burning bus, our son or a famous heart surgeon who has potential to save thousands?

Ross argued we have a prima facie (before anything else) duty to save our son

  • Duty

  • Instinct

  • Love

  • override………..

  • Reason (The Utilitarian application of GHP)


  • Bentham’s hedonistic utilitarianism is

  • Unworkable (imperfect knowledge + daft idea of utils)

  • Selfish

  • Counter-intuitive (happiness is not the same as pleasure)

Summary: Mill

  • Mill’s is

  • Snobbish (why isn’t my rap music as good as your Mozart?)

  • Counter-intuitive (duty and love contradict it)

  • Ambiguous (was Mill an Act or Rule Utilitarian?? Or a virtue ethicist?)

Act or Rule

  • Act = follow the action that maximises pleasure (Bentham) or happiness (Mill)

Rule Utilitarianism

  • The correctness of a rule is determined by the amount of good it brings about when it is followed.

  • Or……..the practice of following a rule (always stopping at red lights) creates greater happiness than allowing people discretion (eg stopping only when something’s coming the other way).

Which was Mill?

But on the other hand…..

  • When defending rights, he seems to be a rule utilitarian:

  • “To have a right, then, is have something which society ought to defend me in possession of. If the objector goes on to ask, why it ought, I can give no other reason than general utility.”

  • Is this the same as the traffic light example???

  • General happiness = everyone protects rights

Maybe he took a compromise position

  • Justice demands we keep the rules…unless…there’s some overriding social duty to break it in this individual case eg to save a life

  • A pragmatic rule utilitarian view?

  • Or is Mill a virtue ethicist? He argues for maximising “not the agent’s happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether” (1991:142) this requires sympathy and nobleness of character, he argues.

Mill appeals to virtue

  • Mill concedes that for everyone to accept the utility of society needs “a certain nobleness or generosity of character” (1991:142)

  • So for social utility to thrive, we need:

  • Education for all (eg to transcend selfishness)

  • Elimination of poverty (eg so all can enjoy higher pleasures of music and books)

  • Are we back to Aristotle’s habits of character?

Summary: multilevel utilitarianism

Case Study 1

Charlotte Corday

Her final words

  • She was caught and guillotined. When asked whether she had anything to say she replied:

  • “Yes. I succeeded!”

Case Study 2

  • Titus Oates

Titus Oates

  • Caught in a blizzard for a week without enough food, Titus walks out into the storm:

  • “I may be gone some considerable time,” he says, (and was).

Case Study 3

  • The East Lancs division come in on the Gallipoli beaches in the second wave at Cape Helles in 1915.

  • One of the first VCs they won was (name unknown, will fill in)

  • He threw himself on a grenade his colleague had dropped, so saving the platoon

Jim and the Indians

  • Bernard Williams argued that Utilitarian George would take job working in a chemical research plant if it was the only job available and….

  • Jim when faced with the choice of killing one Indian himself so that 20 were saved from certain death, would kill the one Indian.

  • But you and I wouldn’t necessarily do either. Why?

  • “A feature of utilitarianism is that it cuts out a kind of consideration…. that each of us is specially responsible for what he does, rather than for what other people do. This is an idea closely connected with the value of integrity." 

  • So Utilitarianism goes against the idea of personal integrity.

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