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John Stuart Mill's Concept of Utility

  • Wendy Donner (a1)

I offer here an interpretation and defense of John Stuart Mill's qualitative hedonism. One of the results of Mill's well-known mental crisis was a concept of utility substantially different from the orthodox Benthamite quantitative hedonism which Mill came to regard as being fraught with difficulties. He saw Bentham's concept as being excessively narrow, and he sought to overcome its limitations by enlarging his own concept of utility. He did this by including the quality of pleasures along with the quantity in the estimation of their worth. At the same time, Mill was highly critical of the intuitionist ethical theories of his day, and propounded utilitarianism as the rational, objective, and scientific alternative. So if Mill is to succeed in his enterprise of countering intuitionism while avoiding the pitfalls of Benthamite utilitarianism, he must retain the objectivity of Benthamism while repudiating its narrowness. Mill's critics have argued that when he opened up his concept of utility to include quality, he modified his theory so radically that he can no longer be called a hedonistic utilitarian, and that he relinquished the consis- tency and objectivity of Benthamite utilitarianism along with its weak- nesses. I argue here that Mill abandons neither hedonism nor utilitarianism, and that the objectivity and consistency of his theory are not undermined.

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1 Mill John Stuart, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. Robson John M., vol. 10 (19 vols.; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 19621982), 210. (Hereafter referred to as CW).

2 John Stuart Mill edited the 1868 edition of his father's Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, adding lengthy and numerous editorial notes, further clarifying and developing the theory or setting out disagreements. See Mill James, An Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, ed. Mill John Stuart (2 vols.; reprinted New York: Augustus M. Kelly, 1967).

3 Mill James, Analysis, vol. 1, 3.

4 Ibid., 70.

5 Ibid., 71.

6 Ibid., 78.

7 Ibid., 83.

8 Ibid., 86 n.

9 CW, vol. 8, 852.

10 See Edwards Rem, Pleasures and Pains (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 18.

11 Mill James, Analysis, vol. 2, 233 n.

12 CW, vol. 8, 852–854.

13 Mill James, Analysis, vol. 2, 235 n.

14 Bowring John, ed., The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 1 (11 vols.; New York: Russell & Russell, 1962), 16. In the sections on Bentham I have been greatly helped and my discussion has been much influenced by my reading of L. W. Sumner's unpublished manuscript on Bentham, in particular, chap. 4, “Utility”, and chap. 5, “The Principle of Utility”.

15 Ibid., Vol. 4, 540.

16 CW, vol. 7, 65.

17 Ibid., 67–68.

18 Ibid., 995.

19 Ibid., 74. In his conclusion, he groups quality and quantity together, but separates them from relation.

20 Ibid., vol. 10, 211. See also vol. 10, 213, 214, 419–420, 422, 484–485; Mill James, Analysis, vol. 2, 252255 n.; Mill J. S., Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St. Andrews (London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1867), 4445.

21 Rem Edwards, Pleasures and Pains, for example, makes this error (see 32).

22 Jan Narveson has an interpretation of Mill which is in some respects similar. See Narveson Jan, Morality and Utility (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), 7982.

23 Bradley F. H., Ethical Studies (2nd ed.; London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 138.

24 Whewell William, Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, 1862).

25 CW, vol. 10, 190.

26 Ibid., 237.

27 Ibid., 206–207; vol. 8, 951–952.

28 Whewell , Lectures, 4.

29 CW, vol. 10, 187–189.

30 Ibid., 178–179.

31 Bradley , Ethical Studies, 119.

32 Ibid., 118.

35 Ibid., 119.

36 As Wesley Mitchell correctly points out, in some of his writings Bentham claims that units can be identified and intensity measured. See Halévy Elie, La Formation du Radicalisme Philosophique, vol. 1 (Paris: Ancienne Librairie Germer Bailliere, 1901), 398. Also quoted by Mitchell Wesley, “Bentham's Felicific Calculus”, in Jeremy Bentham: Ten Critical Essays, ed. Parekh Bhikhu (London: Frank Cass, 1974). 172. However, in other places he thinks differently (see Bowring, Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 4, 542).

37 See, for example, Cowan J. L., Pleasure and Pain (London: St. Martin's Press, 1968), 178; and Lewis Thomas, Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1942), 88.

38 The discussion of Mill's doctrine of cultivation which explains the education of competent agents as this relates to his procedure for measuring value is the subject of another paper. See my “John Stuart Mill's Doctrine of Cultivation”, forthcoming in Douglas Long, ed., Ethics and Social Science in the Age of Enlightenment.

39 CW, vol. 10, 213.

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
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