Famous Philosophers: What Did John Stuart Mill Believe?

John Stuart Mill (1865)
John Stuart Mill (1865) | Source
  • John Stuart Mill is best known for believing in and improving upon Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism.
  • However he also invented the 'Harm Principle': that adult - mentally healthy - humans should be free to do anything that they like as long as none of their actions harm anyone else.
  • He makes it explicit that merely offending someone (e.g.when people state that others' homosexuality offends them) does not count as harming them.
  • Mill believes that allowing people to pursue their own interests is beneficial for society as a whole (and therefore increases general happiness for everyone) because he believes that other people who have not lived your life would not know what is best for you.
  • John Stuart Mill believes that only when an action is potentially harmful should the government prevent restrict a person's liberties on the grounds of utilitarianism.
  • An important distinction of his is that Mill believes the government has no right to deny any liberties involving harm to oneself or degeneration.
  • Therefore, if you decided that you wanted to sit at home and watch television all day and not exercise, John Stuart Mill states that you should have the right to do so without pressure from authorities.
  • He maintains however, that people should be taught the dangers of actions such as this (and things like drugs, perverted sexual acts etc.) at schools and institutions, so that they may make informed decisions when they are faced with the choice.

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John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism

  • Just like his mentor Jeremy Bentham, Mill believed in a form of utilitarianism - the idea that the most morally just action is always the one that brings about the most happiness.
  • Mill believes that "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." A utilitarian for example, would first think about how much happiness his money will bring his children before deciding how much each would inherit in order to maximise the happiness from his effort.
  • Similarly to Bentham therefore, Mill believes that the morality of actions is based upon the likelihood of certain outcomes (whether it leads to happiness or not) and not on a moral guideline bestowed to us from a greater power.

However, Mill's utilitarianism is quite different from Bentham's utilitarianism for the following reasons:

  1. Mill states that there are different types of pleasures: higher and lower, and that higher pleasures are more valuable than lower ones. This means that the quality of pleasures must be considered when making a moral decision. Bentham on the other hand believed that all pleasures are equal.
  2. Mill believes that intellectual pleasures (e.g. pleasure gained from getting a promotion, understanding shakespeare or excelling in sport) are higher than the physical, immediate pleasures (taking drugs and getting high, eating food etc.). Mill gives evidence for this by stating that people who have experienced both higher and lower pleasures will tell you that they prefer intellectual pleasures to lower ones. Therefore, even if the physical (neurological reaction) level of happiness is the same in two cases, more happiness is gained from intellectual gratification.
  3. Mill states that "it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied fool."

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The Greatest Happiness Principle

  • Mill's: 'The Greatest Happiness Principle' claims that the purpose of all humans' lives is to pursue happiness and eliminate pain - he states that all human actions are made in order to achieve this.
  • This is to say that even when a person thinks that he is doing something because of virtues (such as giving to charity or recording music), he is doing this because it leads to his happiness.
  • Similarly, people will do or not do things in order to eliminate or avoid pain immediately or for the future: it is always happiness and pain that we have in mind.

Do you agree with John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism?

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