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John Stuart Mill


Study Questions

Does Mill's account of justice provide adequate protection for the individual? What safeguards does Mill provide, and how might these safeguards fail?

Mill's account does provide some protection for the individual. Mill argues that individual rights do exist. They are grounded in utility, and are essential for well-being; thus they are binding in a way that other utility concerns are not. The individual is protected because individual security is necessary for general security. The issue of whether this protection is adequate is more difficult. Mill would argue that the individual does receive sufficient protection--that to say that rights exist outside of the context of utility is nonsense. Furthermore, all individuals' happiness is valued equally in utilitarianism. While it is possible that one person's rights might be violated in a particular case, it is because she is not being treated as any more important than any other individual. However, one could argue that by aggregating happiness, utilitarianism diminishes the individual. It is also fairly easy to come up with situations where violating rights might increase the total amount of happiness. Even if rights are to be weighted very heavily, it seems likely that having a few people suffer could benefit society as a whole; slaveholders in the antebellum American South may have made this argument in regard to slavery, for example. The concern, then, is that individual rights are left to the contingencies of a calculation.

What are some of the benefits and problems with having utility as the one standard by which to judge all pleasures? (Think particularly about the issue of commensurability.)

The greatest benefit of having utility as a single standard by which to judge all pleasures is that it makes it possible to compare different kinds of happiness. Whether one believes that equality of happiness is preferable, or that the least happy person should be as happy as is possible, it is still necessary to have a way of comparing different people and different kinds of happiness: utility provides a single measurement that allows for precisely this kind of comparison. This single measurement is particularly significant in the area of public policy, where we need real measurements of how people are benefiting or suffering from various policy measures. However, having a single standard for happiness also has problematic elements. For example, one could argue that having a single standard inappropriately devalues certain kinds of pleasure. How does one compare the pleasure of good health with the pleasure of watching television? Even if health is weighted more strongly than television viewing, one could argue that the two kinds of pleasures are different in kind. The mere act of comparing the two, however, implies that they are fundamentally the same. Beyond the question of whether experiences should be ranked according to their happiness quotients, there also arises the question of how to measure happiness at all. Many people cope with extreme suffering while maintaining the psychological signs of "happiness." However, the fact that people are able to remain "happy" does not mean that they are well off or have a good quality of life. Thus, this single standard may also serve to hide both inequality and grave suffering. This must lead us to wonder whether happiness is the correct standard by which to judge moral concerns.

Why does Mill say that utilitarianism can't be proven? What "considerations" does he offer in favor of the theory?

Mill says that utilitarianism can't be proven because it is impossible to prove first principles. First principles are the foundation of arguments; they are not facts that can be tested, but rather represent the system in which those facts make sense. Thus, since utilitarianism is an argument for utility as a first principle, it cannot be proven in the traditional sense. However, Mill also argues that utilitarianism can be proven in a broader sense; we do not have to arbitrarily choose first principles. Rather, it is possible to deliberate on reasons in favor and in opposition to given principles. Thus, in his essay Mill attempts to provide considerations (as opposed to proofs) in favor of utilitarianism. Mill argues that we desire the things we do because they are a means to happiness or are included in our definition of happiness. Happiness must be understood broadly, as including such general concepts as the flourishing of human culture, and the acquisition of those things that we desire. Mill says that the reader must decide for himself if this account is plausible. However, even if this account is correct, Mill does not show that people should be concerned with general happiness instead of their own. Mill simply assumes this idea, because he believes that morality must be impartial between all people. His failure to "prove" this would seem to weaken his argument, however.

How does Mill define happiness? How does this affect utility as a measuring device?

Why is Mill so concerned about showing that his theory allows for ultimate sanctions? Do you agree with Mill that punishment is the essence of morality?

Pamela is walking through the forest when she happens upon a man who is about to kill five people. He tells her that if she kills one of those people, he will let the other four go free. Pamela has reason to believe he will keep his promise. What would Mill say she should do, and why? If you disagree with Mill, explain why.

How does impartiality fit into Mill's arguments for utilitarianism? Is his assumption correct that morality requires impartiality?

Mill structures much of his essay as a reply to previous criticisms about utilitarianism. How does this affect Mill's presentation of his arguments? Stylistically, does this add or detract from Mill's discussion?

What is the role of education and socialization in Mill's theory? To what degree does Mill believe people's values are shaped by their social environment?

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