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Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill

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Summary

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was an English philosopher and economist. He wrote one of his most famous essays, Utilitarianism, in 1861. Utilitarianism is a moral and legal theory, with origins in classical philosophy, that was famously propagated in the 18th and 19th centuries by Jeremy Bentham. Its general argument is that morality consists in bringing about the best state of affairs, and that the best state of affairs is the state with the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism continues to be an important theory in modern philosophy.

A knowledge of Mill's own personal biography is integral to understanding the context for his essay. Mill was raised by his father, James Mill, to be a strict utilitarian. Jeremy Bentham also aided in Mill's upbringing, and Mill was deeply influenced by Bentham's writings. Mill's childhood was rigid and intellectual, and when, at twenty-one he began to question some of his beliefs, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Mill later struggled with his sense that utilitarianism was too unemotional and that it failed to capture or understand the "higher" pleasures. Thus, Mill's writings should be understood as the product of a struggle to reconcile Utilitarianism with complexities that Bentham's theory failed to acknowledge. However, Mill never rejected utilitarianism as a moral theory, and he continued to use Bentham's framework of pleasure fulfillment throughout his own writings. Mill wrote Utilitarianism later in life, and it upholds a more complex version of utilitarianism, yet one that still embraces the most basic premises of Bentham and Mill's father.

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