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Mill, Intuitions and Normativity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 March 2013

University of


It is the purpose of this article to offer an account of Mill's metaethics. Expanding upon clues given recently by Dale Miller, and previously by John Skorupski, I suggest that when it comes to the foundations of his philosophy, Mill might share more with the intuitionists than we are accustomed to think. Common wisdom holds that Mill had no time for the normativity of intuitions. I wish to dispute, or at least temper, this dogma, by claiming that Mill's attitude towards intuitions is far more complex and ambivalent than is generally thought. I argue that, according to Mill, our belief in the reliability of inductive moves and apparent memories, as well as the desirability of pleasure, is vindicated by something akin to intuition. Although his endorsement of the normativity of these intuitions might seem to be in tension with the arguments he offers against the ‘intuitionist school’, this tension is only apparent.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013

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1 See Ryan, A., The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill, 2nd edn. (Basingstoke, 1987), p. 189CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The first edition of this work was published in 1970.

2 C. Macleod, ‘Was Mill a Non-Cognitivist?’, Southern Journal of Philosophy (forthcoming).

3 See Miller, D. E., J. S. Mill (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 1720, 44Google Scholar; Miller, D. E., ‘John Stuart Mill's Moral, Social, and Political Philosophy’, Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Mander, W. (Oxford, forthcoming)Google Scholar; Skorupski, J., John Stuart Mill (London, 1989), pp. 194, 228–9, 286Google Scholar; and Skorupski, J., ‘Introduction: The Fortunes of Liberal Naturalism’, The Cambridge Companion to Mill, ed. Skorupski, J. (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 134, at 6–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Stafford, W., John Stuart Mill (London, 1998), p. 57Google Scholar, for instance, is not untypical: ‘Mill believes that intuitivism is at once irrational, and a bastion of conservatism in moral and politics. It makes opinions their own proof, and feelings their own justification.’

5 Taking Mill's theory of practical and theoretical reason to be parallel does not involve any special innovation. See Ryan, The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill, p. 187.

6 See, for instances of the contrast, Mill, Autobiography, ch. 7, Collected Works [hereafter CW] I: 233, 269; Mill, System, VI.iv.4, CW VIII: 859; Mill, Coleridge, CW X: 120, 125; Mill, Whewell on Moral Philosophy, CW X: 193; Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism, ch. 1, CW X: 307–8; Mill, Grote's Aristotle, CW XI: 487. Quotes from Mill will be taken from The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J. M. Robson (Toronto, 1963).

7 Mill, Letter to Theodor Gomperz, 19 August 1854 (183), CW XIV: 239.

8 Mill, Autobiography, ch. 7, CW I: 233.

9 Mill, Examination, ch. 6, CW IX: 82.

10 Mill, Examination, ch. 6, CW IX: 82.

11 Mill, Examination, ch. 11, CW IX: 177.

12 Mill, Examination, ch. 11, CW IX: 177.

13 Mill, Examination, ch. 11, CW IX: 180.

14 Mill, Examination, ch. 11, CW IX: 180.

15 Mill, Examination, ch. 21, CW IX: 380.

16 See Mill, Theism, CW X: 442; cf. Mill, Examination, ch. 4, CW IX: 36.

17 Mill, System, II.v.6, CW VII: 238.

18 Mill, Examination, ch. 6, CW IX: 68.

19 Mill, Examination, ch. 6, CW IX: 68.

20 Mill, System, II.vii.4, CW VII: 276.

21 Mill, Coleridge, CW X: 125.

22 Ward, W. G., On Nature and Grace: A Theological Treatise (London, 1860), p. 26Google Scholar.

23 Mill, Examination, ch. 10, CW IX: 164n.

24 Mill, Examination, ch. 10, CW IX: 165n. More precisely, Mill claims that Ward would be considered an effective champion of the school, were his work not addressed specifically to Catholics.

25 Mill, Examination, ch. 10, CW IX: 165n.

26 We should distinguish between the abstract intuition, conceptually prior to presentation of apparent memories that apparent memories are generally trustworthy and a concrete intuition that this apparent memory is trustworthy. It is not clear whether Ward and Mill are referring to the concrete or the abstract intuition, or indeed if they even adequately make this distinction. The abstract intuition can be inductively established from instances of the concrete, and it seems to me unnecessary to suppose that anything beyond the concrete intuition is vindicated as such, and so I will not consider this issue further in this article. A fuller account of Mill's views on intuition would need to take a position on this issue, however, for the same distinction can be made with respect to intuitions regarding induction and pleasure.

27 Mill, Examination, ch. 10, CW IX: 166n.

28 Mill, Examination, ch. 10, CW IX: 165n.

29 It would clearly be naïve to suppose that philosophical usage of the term ‘intuition’ has remained stable between the nineteenth century and our time. Most obviously, the dominance of philosophy of language in the twentieth century has connected ‘intuition’ with the manifestation of conceptual or linguistic competence. (We possess an intuition about whether some Gettier case is knowledge in virtue of basic competence with the term ‘knowledge’ that is, in some sense, being made explicit by these judgments in fringe cases.) Nevertheless, I assume that enough connects intuitions new and old – that they are at their base not entirely different concepts which merely happen to be expressed by the same word – to draw on the recent debate without being overly anachronistic.

30 Bealer, G., ‘A Theory of the A Priori’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 81 (2000), pp. 130, at 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Weinberg, J. W., ‘How to Challenge Intuitions Empirically Without Risking Skepticism’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 31 (2007), pp. 318–43, at 321CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Bealer, ‘A Theory of the A Priori’, p. 3.

33 Bealer, ‘A Theory of the A Priori’, p. 3.

34 It is perhaps worth highlighting one departure from orthodoxy, however. It is often said that intuition connects us with necessary truths. If we gain knowledge of the trustworthiness of memory by intuition, however, it is not knowledge that memory is necessarily trustworthy. There seems, however, doubt about this condition. So, for instance, Bealer notes: ‘I am unsure how exactly to analyze what is meant by saying that a rational intuition presents itself as necessary’ (Bealer, G., ‘Intuition and the Autonomy of Philosophy’, Rethinking Intuition: The Psychology of Intuition and Its Role in Philosophical Inquiry, ed. DePaul, M. R. and Ramsey, W. (Oxford, 1998), pp. 201–39, at 207Google Scholar), and Sosa writes: ‘One might quite properly wonder why we should restrict ourselves to modal propositions. And there is no very deep reason. It's just that this seems the proper domain for philosophical uses of intuition’ (Sosa, E., ‘Experimental Philosophy and Philosophical Intuition’, Philosophical Studies 132 (2007), p. 101CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

35 Mill, System, VI.i.1, CW VIII: 833.

36 ‘To be incapable of proof by reasoning is common to all first principles; to the first premises of our knowledge, as well as to those of our conduct’ (Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. 4, CW X: 234; my emphasis).

37 Mill, Autobiography, ch. 6, CW I: 215–17.

38 Mill, System, III.iv.2, CW VII: 319.

39 Mill, System, III.iv.2, CW VII: 318.

40 Mill, System, III.iv.2, CW VII: 318.

41 See Mill System, III.xiv.4–7, CW VII: 490–508.

42 Skorupski, John Stuart Mill, p. 8.

43 Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. 4, CW X: 234.

44 Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. 4, CW X: 237.

45 Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. 4, CW X: 234. Note his claim that this is the only evidence: Mill offers no equivalent of the holistic justification of induction. As we shall see below, it remains possible that there could be evidence against this desirability of pleasure presented. What such evidence might be, however, Mill gives no indication, and this remains one of the most challenging aspects of his theory.

46 Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. 4, CW X: 234.

47 Mill, Editorial Comments on the Analysis, CW XXXI: 251. We should note, however, that he does not think this merely a truth by definition. Desire and pleasure are ‘two things [that] are inseparable; not that they are, or that they can ever be thought of, as identical; as one and the same thing’. See also Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. 4, CW X: 237–8.

48 Mill, System, VI.xii.7, CW VIII: 951. See also Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. 4 CW X: 234, cited in n. 36 above.

49 Miller, J. S. Mill, p. 44 (my emphasis). Of course, this makes up only one part of a larger argument that is designed to prove that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote aggregate pleasure.

50 Not least because Mill often praises those with an acute intuitive faculty. He writes: ‘I conceive that most of the highest truths, are, to persons endowed by nature in certain ways which I think I could state, intuitive’, and recognizes Carlyle as such a person. (Mill Letter to Thomas Carlyle, 5 July 1833 (78), CW XII: 163; Mill, Early Draft, ch. 5, CW I: 182.) Significantly, he also characterizes Harriet Taylor in this manner: one with ‘intuitive intelligence’ and ‘moral intuition’ (Mill, Autobiography, ch. 6, CW I: 193, 197).

51 Mill, Coleridge, CW X: 121.

52 Mill, Bain's Psychology, CW XI: 342.

53 Mill, Coleridge, CW X: 125.

54 See Parfit, D., On What Matters, 2 vols. (Oxford, 2011), vol. 2, pp. 464–87Google Scholar; T. M. Scanlon, ‘Metaphysical Objections’, Being Realistic about Reasons (forthcoming); and Skorupski, J., The Domain of Reasons (Oxford, 2010), pp. 420–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The views expressed by each author are different, but one commonality is a belief in irreducible norms that ‘exist’ in a different sense from ‘exists’ when it is applied within the domain of physical objects. Each takes his position to be compatible with a naturalistic ontology and epistemology. (While Parfit characterizes his position as ‘non-naturalist’, his non-naturalism is not a metaphysical view. He quotes Nagel approvingly: ‘such normative claims “need not (and in my view should not) have any metaphysical content whatever”’. (Parfit, On What Matters, vol. 2, p. 486).) Compare also Dworkin's recent claim that ‘if we want a genuine moral ontology or epistemology, we must construct it from within morality’ and that the break from metaphysics must be a ‘clean one’ involving a conception of truth from ‘within the realms of value itself’ (Dworkin, R., Justice For Hedgehogs (Cambridge, MA, 2011), pp. 418, 38Google Scholar).

55 Mill, System, III.iv.2, CW VII: 318.

56 Mill, System, III.xxi.2, CW VIII: 568.

57 Mill, On Liberty, ch. 2, CW XVIII: 231.

58 I claim that this is a ‘key difference’, though of course it is in reality a key difference only between Mill and a particularly unsophisticated intuitionist. The thinkers he targets are not, in reality, committed to the claim that, once trusted, intuitions are philosophically unrevisable. Reid, for instance, writes that ‘[w]hen we come to be instructed by philosophers, we must bring the old light of common sense along with us, and by it judge of the new light which the philosopher communicates to us’ (Reid, T., Inquiry and Essays, ed. Beanblossom, R. E. and Lehrer, K. (Indianapolis, 1983), p. 141Google Scholar, my emphasis). See Greco, J., ‘Reid's Reply to the Skeptic’, Cambridge Companion to Reid, ed. Cuneo, T. and van Woudenberg, R. (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 134–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 151, for discussion of Reid on revisability.

59 Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. 1, CW X: 208 (my emphasis).

60 I owe thanks to James Harris, Dale Miller, John Skorupski and Robert Stern for useful comments on earlier versions of this article.