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Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill
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Utilitarianism (1863)

by John Stuart Mill

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Not my favorite of Mill's writings, but this one is definitely a bit more complex than the excerpts in textbooks would suggest. It is not a long read, and if not entertaining, it is at least well enough written to be readable without too much tedium. Mill does tend to repeat himself a lot, as do a lot of authors from his time, but it is interesting to see what ideas he promotes besides the notion of utilitarianism in this document. ( )
  JBarringer | Dec 30, 2017 |
The trouble with Mill is that you if read a few of his then-contemporary critics, and then you think you have his measure with all your modern day access to knowledge, but all along he was throwing "mind grenades" set on "delay" and they sit in your head while you go on thinking you are rather smart. So Mill mentions the Stoics and how virtue is only a means to happiness and that there are other things, too. He mentions the Sophists and how Socrates (allegedly) challenged their ancient equivalent of what is happening in higher education today. But in mentioning the development of utilitarianism from Epicurus to Bentham (and unfortunately I have not read Bentham cover-to-cover as I will do in the future), so just when I think to myself: "Mill, you really are 'drawing a long bow here' [a favourite saying of one of my favourite professors]", the mind grenade goes off and my hubris is dashed and I am glad I didn't say it out loud but there you have it - it was certainly there. There is no mention of Aristotle and the "golden mean" and how achieving a mean across the spectrum of virtues achieves happiness, but, as Mill says, there are many things that amount to happiness in addition to leading a virtuous life, so bringing up Aristotle doesn't make a good deal of sense. One interesting aspect of the essay is the long note in the last few pages where Mill extends a good deal of courtesy to Herbert Spencer, someone I have read more about in Jack London's Martin Eden than I ever did in all the other secondary sources I have read put together. While Mill does not quite agree with Spencer, Spencer claims (according to Mill) that he was never against the doctrine of utilitarianism. So the Greatest Happiness Principle it is but if we do not also take into account Mill's ideas of liberty (in On Liberty), then the present-day situation where we are told what to like and what will make us happy and many of us go along with that and eat our smashed avocado, living in our high density housing, and paying for cups of coffee that we could make at home for a fraction of the price, which are not only much better, but we could also be happier because we were actually doing something for ourselves, while, as Tolstoy or even my mother would say, "in reality", we are succumbing to the biggest scam ever and then wondering why we are not happy at all. And J.S. Mill says all this in just under 122 pages of thick paper dating from 1895, which is nice, but with each cover-to-cover completion of classic works I edge ever-closer to the abyss of what I don't know and it scares me. ( )
  madepercy | Nov 7, 2017 |
ongoing...
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
I didn't expect to like this very much. To my surprise, following on from Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles 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.
1 vote Stevil2001 | Nov 12, 2012 |
Sections from Bentham's Principles of Morals and Legislation and Mill's On Liberty, and Utilitarianism. ( )
  vegetarian | Oct 17, 2012 |
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There are few circumstances among those which make up the present condition of human knowledge more unlike what might have been expected, or more significant of the backward state in which speculation on the most important subjects still lingers, than the little progress which has been made in the decision of the controversy respecting the criterion of right and wrong.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 087220605X, Paperback)

This expanded edition of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism includes the text of his 1868 speech to the British House of Commons defending the use of capital punishment in cases of aggravated murder. The speech is significant both because its topic remains timely and because its arguments illustrate the applicability of the principle of utility to questions of large-scale social policy.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:48 -0400)

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How do we decide what is "good" and what is "bad"? According to the ethical theory of Utilitarianism, to do good is to "always perform that act, of those available, that will bring the most happiness or the least unhappiness." By far the most widely read introduction to this theory, John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism is one of the most important and controversial works of moral philosophy ever written. In this major contribution to ethical history, Mill's treatise defends the view that all human action should produce the greatest happiness overall, and that happiness itself is made up of "higher pleasures," such as the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual, and "lower pleasures," such as the physical. The relationship of utilitarian theory to other ethical systems, and powerful arguments in its favor-especially when concerning justice-are brilliantly discussed. How do we weigh options to maximize happiness for self and for those around us? From common-day dilemmas to large-scale social decisions, this exposition remains as relevant today as it was to intellectual and moral dilemmas of the nineteenth century.… (more)

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