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Daily RC Article 170

Mill's Utilitarianism: Qualitative Pleasures, Social Progress, and Rational Freedom


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The canonical statement of Mill"s utilitarianism can be found in Utilitarianism. This philosophy has a long tradition, although Mill"s account is primarily influenced by Jeremy Bentham and Mill"s father James Mill. Jeremy Bentham"s famous formulation of utilitarianism is known as the "greatest-happiness principle". It holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings, within reason. Mill"s major contribution to utilitarianism is his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures. Bentham treats all forms of happiness as equal, whereas Mill argues that intellectual and moral pleasures (higher pleasures) are superior to more physical forms of pleasure (lower pleasures). Mill distinguishes between happiness and contentment, claiming that the former is of higher value than the latter, a belief wittily encapsulated in the statement that "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, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question."

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Mill defines the difference between higher and lower forms of happiness with the principle that those who have experienced both tend to prefer one over the other. This is, perhaps, in direct contrast with Bentham"s statement that "Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry", that, if a simple child"s game like hopscotch causes more pleasure to more people than a night at the opera house, it is more imperative upon a society to devote more resources to propagating hopscotch than running opera houses. Mill"s argument is that the "simple pleasures" tend to be preferred by people who have no experience with high art, and are therefore not in a proper position to judge. Mill also argues that people who, for example, are noble or practice philosophy, benefit society more than those who engage in individualist practices for pleasure, which are lower forms of happiness. It is not the agent"s own greatest happiness that matters "but the greatest amount of happiness altogether".

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Mill supported legislation that would have granted extra voting power to university graduates on the grounds that they were in a better position to judge what would be best for society. (For he believed that education itself, not the intrinsic nature of educated people, qualified them to have more influence in government.) Mill suggests that utility is to be conceived in relation to humanity "as a progressive being", which includes the development and exercise of rational capacities as we strive to achieve a "higher mode of existence". The rejection of censorship and paternalism is intended to provide the necessary social conditions for the achievement of knowledge and the greatest ability for the greatest number to develop and exercise their deliberative and rational capacities.

The passage explores John Stuart Mill's utilitarian philosophy as outlined in his work "Utilitarianism." Influenced by Jeremy Bentham, Mill's major contribution is the qualitative separation of pleasures, distinguishing intellectual and moral pleasures as superior to physical ones. He argues for the preference of higher over lower pleasures based on individual experience. Mill challenges Bentham's notion that all pleasures are equal and emphasizes the significance of achieving the greatest aggregate happiness for society. He supports the idea that those with experience in both forms of happiness tend to prefer higher pleasures. Mill's advocacy for extra voting power for university graduates reflects his belief in the value of education for societal benefit. He conceives utility in relation to humanity's progressive development and advocates for freedom from censorship and paternalism to foster knowledge and the exercise of rational capacities.
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