Mill's Version of Utilitarianism
J. S. Mill agreed with Bentham on the basic principle of utility, namely that “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” But Mill made a distinction that Bentham did not: Mill distinguished between the “quality” of pleasures, not just the “quantity” as Bentham had done in his hedonic calculus.
John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism emphasized quality of pleasure rather than the quantity. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they know only their side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”
Mill responded by describing a different theory of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites. You cannot measure pleasures on quantity alone, but must include quality.
Since Mill has come down on the side of Socrates instead of the fool, he has separated mental pleasures, which he called “higher” pleasures, from physical pleasures, which he implies are “lower” pleasures.
Mill's On Liberty
Mill worked with his wife Harriet Taylor on
Mill's discussion of freedom first takes up the issue of the right to free expression and discussion of ideas. He maintains that society is harmed by the suppression of free speech regardless of whether the ideas in question are true or false. For one, even unpopular ideas that are censored might in fact be true.
Finally, dissenters from any viewpoint will bring forth fresh challenges to ideas and force people to re-examine grounds for their convictions. Without this exercise, our “true opinion will become a dead dogma, not a living truth.”
When it comes to free speech, Mill would say that the case of Galileo showed that the majority is often wrong and that a lone individual is often right. Humans are fallible and need to be exposed to ideas that will force them to compare the accuracy of their own beliefs against the new idea.
Free speech that caused immediate harm could be restricted. You cannot shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Mill's defense of personal liberty is rooted in utility, being based on what will promote the social good and prevent harm. His example is:
Mill is pointing out that when it comes to free speech, context matters. This principle is similar to the “clear and present danger” criterion that the U.S. Supreme Court uses to determine when free speech may be limited.
Mill's other famous book is The Subjection of Women, which was a passionate call for equal rights for women, long before the modern feminist movement. It was highly unusual for a man to write such a feminist treatise in the nineteenth century.
The Public and Private Spheres
The example of the corn-dealers and shouting fire in the crowded theater show that Mill recognized a difference between public and private behavior. What you do in the “public sphere” is subject to censure. What you do in private is your own business. About this private sphere Mill writes:
Added to this freedom of expression is “the liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like.” In addition, “There is the liberty for individuals to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others.” In sum, “No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be the form of government; and none if completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified.” A century and a half after Mill wrote, his thoughts still hold true: namely that censorship, intolerance, and imposed conformity are some of the greatest dangers that a society can face.