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Two Pessimisms in Mill

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 June 2021

Joshua Isaac Fox*
University of Chicago, Chicago, USA


Mill defines utilitarianism as the combination of a “theory of life” and a moral claim: only pleasure and freedom from pain are desirable as ends, and the promotion of happiness is the sole goal of moral action. So defined, utilitarianism is open to ad hominem pessimistic objection: a “theory of life” which entails the impossibility of happiness fits poorly with a morality centered on its promotion. The first two challenges Mill confronts in Utilitarianism share this pessimistic structure. Interestingly, however, these challenges paint inverted pictures of the best utilitarian life: one suggests this life is satisfying but ignoble, the other that it is noble but unsatisfying. I explain Mill's treatment of both challenges as genuinely pessimistic interpretations of utilitarianism's “theory of life.” Read through the lens of Mill's engagement with pessimism, these challenges point to distinctive conceptions of dignity and satisfaction that play a significant role in Mill's ethics.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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