Mill considered the problem of what human beings do from two different perspectives. First, he observed that certain motives correspond to certain actions in very consistent, even invariable sequences. This fact means that human actions are predictable and that a scientific study of human behavior is possible—from this insight, made by Mill and some of his contemporaries, the modern social and behavioral sciences arose. In particular, Mill observed that human beings always act to maximize their own pleasure. Since this observation is essentially a behavioral law, it would be useless to expect human beings to do otherwise, or to argue with them that they should do otherwise.

However, Mill also examined human actions from an ethical standpoint. On the surface, this second perspective would seem to conflict with the first. Ethics concerns what human beings ought to do and assumes freedom of choice, while the study of human behavior focuses on what human beings do and what makes them do it. Mill was able to combine these two perspectives because he believed that the pursuit of pleasure that motivates human beings does not necessarily conflict with acting for the general good of society, the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Different kinds of pleasures exist, and we can learn to eschew the baser in favor of the higher. Moreover, Mill saw the study of human behavior as being at the service of ethics. By scientifically studying the effects of human actions, we may discover those actions that most advance the happiness of all. Mill rejects the idea that we know right from wrong intuitively, arguing instead that we must judge our actions by their consequences.

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