12 November 2012

Review: Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2004 (originally 1863)

Read July 2012
by John Stuart Mill

I didn't expect to like this very much. To my surprise, following on from Bentham's An Introduction to the Priciples of Morals and Legislation, I am liking Victorian philosophy. And while I admired Bentham's work, I loved Mill's. Is the Victorian period the last point where philosophers write things they expect laymen to read and enjoy reading? I don't know enough to answer that question, actually, but Mill certainly writes in such a way. I found myself fairly well-convinced by utilitarianism as an ethical and moral approach.

Much of Utilitarianism is an attempt to justify and execute a "scientific" approach to morals. From reading A System of Logic later, I would learn that this is about induction and deduction for Mill, but though he mentions them here, I don't think they're a key part of his argument. Rather, he clarifies what utilitarianism actually is, and attempt to reclaim it against charges of being centered on immediate physical pleasures, proposing that the quality of pleasure is more important to the greatest-happiness principle than the quantity. I don't know how true it is, but I want it to be true, and I think that this observation is even more true now than in 1863: "In a world in which there is so much to interest, so much to enjoy, and so much also to correct and improve, every one who has this moderate amount of moral and intellectual requisites is capable of an existence which may be called enviable..."

Of course the supposed danger of "rational" systems of morality is coldness, as Mill points out: "It is often affirmed that utilitarianism renders men cold and unsympathizing; that it chills their moral feelings towards individuals; that it makes them regard only the dry and hard consideration of the consequences of actions, not taking into their moral estimate the qualities from which those actions emanate." But as always, he's got a comeback at the ready: "this is a complaint not against utilitarianism, but against having any standard of morality at all"! And when you might complain that he's breaking happiness down into a bunch of smaller things that aren't happiness (the Victorians were really into the idea that science was about breaking things into smaller things), he shoots back, "Happiness is not an abstract idea, but a concrete whole." Oh yeah, I guess it is. Let's all try to increase everyone's happiness!

What's less convincing is the last chapter, which is almost 40% of the book. Mill works really hard to show that utilitarianism doesn't have to be unjust, and though I want him to be right, I'm not sure that he's right for these reasons.

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