Jon's Reviews > The Utilitarianism

The Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill
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's review
Jun 13, 2009

really liked it

What explains why it is that some things are judged right and others judged wrong? If I vacuum my apartment by day, my roommate is satisfied and my actions are right; but if I do the same in the twilight hours of the night, he reproaches me and accuses me of doing wrong. If I mock my friend for one of their silly eccentricities, and I do it in the spirit of humor, my conduct is usually considered welcome and appropriate; but if I do the same such that it touches on a point of sensitivity for them, then I have injured their feelings and thought to have done wrong. If I kick a dog because it is in imminent danger from an oncoming car, I have done right; but if I kick that same dog because it is obstructing my view of the television, this same action is considered wrong.

The examples may not be very imaginative, but the point of them all is the same: the question of right and wrong comes up everywhere, at every juncture of life. The reasons why one thing is right and another wrong seems to vary as much with each occasion as the varieties of life provide. It would be a bold proposition then to claim that all things right and wrong, all without exception, are accounted for by a single principle. But that is exactly what John Stuart Mill proclaims. And what's more, that principle is the one described by Utilitarians: the Greatest Happiness principle.

It is a very daring idea, and one that does not come to the intuition naturally: that the same reason vacuuming late at night is wrong is related, ultimately, to the reason why my insensitive humor was wrong, and why kicking a dog without good cause was wrong. That is the issue for discussion in Mill's famous essay. He wants to prove that Utilitarian creed not only does explain the wide array of moral phenomena, but that it is the best theory to do such; and other alternatives such as Kant's "intuitve" explanations, or that by the 18th century British "inductivists", to use Mill's sobriquets, are not as well fitted as his Utilitarian mantra. It is to this that his dissertation on Utilitarianism is devoted. And it is this that composes the sixty some pages and dense argument that follows.

I wouldn't dare begin to recount the shape of those arguments; that would certainly tire this audience and burden this entry with an amount of work that would be exhausting to complete. Let me instead enter a quick critique of Mill, and leave the rest for the reader to sort for themselves.

I think a lot of praise can be said for Mill's essays. They are obviously very famous, and I think rightly so. Mill takes up a very difficult problem, cogitates on it seriously, gives it the cast of dignity and depth that all good philosophers do to their subject, and supplies a lot of argument that must certainly have advanced the discussion and illuminated new areas for debate. His ability for argument, line to line, is some of the most effective I have ever read--though this is displayed better in his essay "On Liberty" then in "Utilitarianism". So there are many virtues of this essay, which commend it to interested readers.

That said however, Mill's essay "Utilitarianism" suffers from major problems in arrangement and coherence. "Utilitarianism" is not really one whole argument, but really four different ones, each after a purpose slightly different, and relating to one another at best implicity, or at worst not at all. Mill is stingy when it comes to elaborating what is the purpose to which his argument is aimed; and instead prefers to run off with the argument, to whatever corners his mind thinks fit, leaving it to the reader to deduce how it is one chapter, on justice for example, fits with another on sanction, or another one the definition of Utilitarianism. The material rather appears a sequence of intellectual spasms, than it does a project well-ordered for the progress of moving the reader through the problems of moral philosophy and ultimately achieving their persuasion. Each chapter resembles more its own advocate, each appealing the point a different way, than it does a harmony of argumentation, with the problem of accounting for right wrong neatly reduced to components and carefully argued and the conclusion confidently drawn out. Chapter 2, on the definition of Utilitarianism, veers off in strange courses and does not keep a straight trajectory; and Chapter 4, on what proof Utilitarianism is susceptible, ends with so much apathy on the part of Mill, one wonders whether he has even convinced himself, to say nothing of the reader.

The criticism that I find most damning is Mill's neglect to harness the fruits of his labor; for by the end of each chapter, even if he has proved, for example of Chapter 5, that the notion of justice is left in tact, and Utilitarianism does not sacrifice the integrity of that hallowed idea, and reduce it to a means, for the sake of its avowed ends--even if we grant that as true, then question remains: how much of the truth is it? That is: what have you, Mill, proven about the merits of Utilitarianism? He, in Chapter 1, explains that much of his argument can only be demonstrated, but not really proven; because ends are not susceptible to decisive argument, but can only be assented to, that his burden of argument must therefore be less. I don't know if this claim is correct, but even if it were, I'm not sure it excuses the confusion of arrangement and argumentation that is present in "Utilitarianism". Confusion on the part of the reader should not be apologized for on the part of their apprehension, rather the fault lies with Mill for making his larger arguments so inscrutable.

Though this be a great work of philosophy. For this fundamental failure, I can only give Mill four stars.

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