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Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) [ 1 ] - Utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham ( 1748–1832) -- and his preserved body in University College, London. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1809-1873) [ 2 ] - Utilitarianism.

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jeremy bentham 1748 1832 1 utilitarianism
Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) [1] - Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) -- and his preserved body in University College, London


Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1809-1873) [2] - Utilitarianism

  • Bentham’s Introduction to Morals and Legislation opens with a ringing passage:
  • Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne.
  • ... In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire; but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system,
  • -- the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law.
  • Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light. .
  • These passages raise many issues!

Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1809-1873) [3] - Utilitarianism

  • Some of the “many issues”:
  • Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.
  • [this seems to deny that the derivation of ‘ought’ from is’ is any problem at all!]
  • On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne.
  • [If this is so, how do we ever make any mistakes? Why do we need a book to tell us what to do?]
  • ... In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire; but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system,
  • -- the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law.
  • [?? Why isn’t it already “reared,” automatically?
  • Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light. .
  • [Well, that’s one way to try to deal with critics! But why isn’t everybody automatically already persuaded, then?]

Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1809-1873) [4] - Utilitarianism

  • Community as a “fiction” - the Individualism of the Utilitarians:
  • Bentham says:
  • “The interest of the community is one of the most general expressions that can occur in the phraseology of morals: no wonder that the meaning of it is often lost.
  • When it has a meaning, it is this.
  • The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members.
  • The interest of the community then is, what? - the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.
  • [question: is “membership” in a community any more or less than simply being there?
  • Or does it imply something more - an object of loyalty, say?
  • Is Bentham saying No? .... (hard to tell ... read on!)

Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1809-1873) [5] - Utilitarianism

  • Utilitarianism [as normally understood, is a moral theory]: the theory that the Principle of Utility is the sole ultimate principle of Morals (and Politics)
  • -->That Principle says: Maximize general Utility!
  • 1. More specifically: when you have a choice to make, you should
  • (1) size up your options in respect of their effects on all individuals* whose utility can be affected by it, for better or worse
  • [*Note: the “all” needn’t even be people: animals presumably count as well.]
  • (2) Estimate the positive changes and the negative changes for each
  • (3) Sum all of these for each alternative
  • (4) Perform the one with the Maximum [hence ‘maximize’]
utilitarianism jeremy bentham 1748 1832 and john stuart mill 1809 1873 6
UtilitarianismJeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1809-1873) [6]

2. Utility - What is it?

  • According to Bentham, it consists of Pleasure and the absence of Pain
  • Why those?
  • To make a long story short, I think it’s because he thought that they are what a rational person ultimately wants. If so, utility is fundamentally Whatever satisfies Desire
  • - or is it, Whatever satisfies considered Desire?

other candidates:

(1) pleasure and pain,

(2) real enjoyments

(3) felt satisfactions -- note: need to distinguish:

(3a) gettingwhat you wanted, and

(3b) being satisfied with what you got

(4) unanalyzed goodness

utilitarianism jeremy bentham 1748 1832 and john stuart mill 1809 1873 7
UtilitarianismJeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1809-1873) [7]
  • 3. Measuring Utility
  • Doing the preceding requires that we be able to measure utility, by a metric that
  • (1) uses Cardinal measures (real numbers -- “units”)
  • (2) is Inter-personally comparable
  • There are major questions about these, especially (2)
  • 1 - can we measure utility? In units which enable arithmetic to be used?
  • 2 - can we really compare Selma’s utility with Joanne’s or Sam’s?
  • - and how about comparing Selma’s with that of Lennie the Lion?
  • Tricky schemes have been devised, such as the Von Neumann-Morgenstern Cardinalization ...
utilitarianism jeremy bentham 1748 1832 and john stuart mill 1809 1873 8
UtilitarianismJeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1809-1873) [8]
  • 3a. Measuring Utility
  • The Von Neumann-Morgenstern Cardinalization ...
  • 1. Take any individual’s utility function, from best to worst
  • 2. Take any item, h, in the spectrum, and
  • 3. form a lottery consisting of a probability of getting the most preferred outcome = the inverse probability of getting the least preferred
  • 4. adjust the probabilities until the individual would be indifferent between the lottery and h itself.
  • -> this gives you the cardinalized utility for h
  • note that this is still subjective - it does not get us
  • interpersonal validity
  • [it is also awfully tricky ....]
utilitarianism 9
Utilitarianism [9]

4. Bentham’s Measures of Utility:

  • (1) Intensity
  • (2) Duration,
  • (3) Probability, and

[Three other measures are listed in Bentham:

  • (4) Fecundity - likelihood of similar consequences
  • (5) Purity - unlikelihood of opposite consequences
  • (6) Propinquity - nearness in time
  • (7) Extent of the pleasures or pains in question.
  • These can be regarded as redundant - or not.
  • Whether they are to be so regarded is the important question.]
  • (1) and (7) are the tough ones.
utilitarianism 10
Utilitarianism [10]

Can we solve the problems of measurement?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: we can measure lots of things - income, for example. But they aren’t directe stand-ins for utility

The theory inevitably remains seat-of-the-pants in these respects!

This doesn’t mean it’s meaningless, but it does mean that

  • different utilitarians will disagree about a lot of things, and
  • the air of precision is large dissipated

Note: there are other, more fundamental problems, even if we could make those measurements ..... [hang on!]

utilitarianism 11
Utilitarianism [11]

5. The Utilitarian program (“to clean out the Augean stables of English Law!”)

All other principles of morals are to be deducible from the Principle of Utility, plus supporting facts about the effects of various actions and institutions...

So: why is murder wrong?

Because society is a net loser from murder:

The murderer gains less than his victims and the rest of society lose

But mightn’t this not be so? Maybe A’s murdering B would on the whole produce good results? If that is possible - as it seems to be - then utilitarianism appears to say it would, in that case, be OK.

For Bentham, remember, gains or losses are to be accounted entirely in ‘units’ of pleasure and pain. Nothing else....

We move to Mill .... [we will mention further issues about the structure of the utilitarian theory in that connection]

  • John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
  • Remarkable Victorian!
  • Philosopher, Economist, Member of parliament -
  • Author of a memorable Autobiography .
  • And subject of one of the great love stories of Victorian England...
  • 5. Mill throws a spanner into the works: he distinguishes better and worse pleasures: (5) “quality” as well as quantity
  • The “quality” / quantity Issue
  • Is it consistent to recognize “quality of pleasure”?
  • What does ‘quality’ mean??
  • If it is defined as “how good it is” - then
  • that undermines the hedonism of the theory.
  • [Because: if the good is pleasure - but some pleasures are better than
  • others! - then goodness has not been explained in terms of pleasure.]
  • 5. Mill’s solution to the ‘quality’ issue:
  • ‘Quality’ is measured (says Mill) by the preferences of the learned - that is, by those who are “competently acquainted with both” -
  • So: supposed superiority of Socratic pleasure over Pigs pleasures is thereby indicated ... (yes?)
  • Question: Is recognizing Quality compatible with Liberalism?
  • [Liberalism makes each person the ultimate authority on his own good]
  • There are two ways of doing it:
  • (1) the “learned” estimate Quality, then legislate for the rest on the assumption that their estimate is more nearly correct;
  • (2) their estimate of quality is a suggestion, but ultimately each individual makes his own estimations of quality.
  • The second is Liberal, though it probably doesn’t do what Mill seems to want (which is to make the CBC [as it used to be!] our spiritual mentors...)
  • 6. Acts and Rules
  • Does the Principle apply directly to individual acts
  • (“Act-Utilitarianism” -‘AU’), or is it confined to rules
  • (“Rule-Utilitarianism” or ‘RU’)?
  • - There’s evidence either way in Mill -
  • note the end of Ch. 2.: The helmsman doesn’t re-learn the principles of stellar navigation every time he takes a fix on his position
  • - “mankind has acquired positive beliefs as to the effects of some actions on their happiness - these are the rules of morality for the multitude, and for the philosopher, until he has found better.”
  • - A very tricky question - but it’s hard to see how RU could be preferred unless it would on the whole do better than AU.
  • - Consider Jay-walking, again...
  • Acts and Rules - continued
  • How do we evaluate rules?
  • [or do we at all? Here we need another distinction:
  • Actual rules and Ideal rules.
  • RU(1) Actual Rule-Utilitarianism
  • says that we apply the current actually accepted rules to particular cases, and claim that utility justifies the structure
  • RU(2) Ideal R-U
  • says that we should act by the rules that would be bestas measured by independently definable utilities ...
  • What is a “good rule”?
  • If we say: a good rule is one that directs us to do good acts -
  • -> then the acts are primary and rules are derivative
  • If that is so, what happened to rule-utilitarianism??
  • [We come to the intersection, we watch the traffic light - green is go, red is stop..]
  • [But suppose nobody is coming. Why stop?
  • [If the answer is that the rule is enforced, then the question is: what business do they have enforcing a rule that does no good?]
  • If it is not to be enforced, then how does rule utilitarianism differ from act-utilitarianism?
  • Acts and Rules - continued
  • Another distinction:
  • “Summary” rules versus “Practice” rules
  • Summary rule: says “this generally works, so do this!”
  • [use hammer of type H1 for nails and wood of type N1W1 ...]
  • The rule is based on induction from experience. It depends on predictions that things will continue to work well in future.
  • (And they might not - in that case you revise the rule.)
  • “Practice rule”: defines the practice
  • [deuces wild; three strikes is “out”; if the puck touches the blue line, it counts as “over” ... etc]
  • We can’t say - “well, in the past three strikes has led to “out”, and so probably it will in future too!
  • We may say:
  • Practice rules rule
  • Summary rules advise
  • Acts, Rules and Morality
  • Are moral rules more like summary rules or practice rules - or neither??
  • (a) Summary: - Why shouldn’t we murder people?
  • because in the past, murder has tended to be wrong, therefore ... (summary)?
  • [But: murder doesn’t just tend to kill people!
  • (b) Practice: Or should we say: we hereby define murder as a kind of thing “we don’t do around here....”
  • - and Murderers just aren’t “playing the game”?
  • I don’t think so!
  • - what’s wrong with dying isn’t that the game in which we die is no fun...
  • - Life isn’t a game!
  • (it’s all we’ve got!)
  • 7. Arguing for Utilitarianism
  • Mill: there “cannot be proof in the ordinary and popular meaning of the term” - for “Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof.”
  • - And resorts to shifty and intuitive procedures (Ch. IV)
  • [He’s wrong: this is not a question of “ultimate ends”. Those are given on the part of each individual. It’s a question of social means.]
  • In my view, The right test is the Contractarian one
  • (-- which Mill renounces in the Essay on Liberty: “...society is not founded on a contract, and no good purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce social obligations from it”)
  • But we understand contractarianism to say: Would a rational individual accept this rule provided everyone else did too? Will we do better in our interactions with others by accepting it?
  • That is: would we all be better off if we all did X, even though in many individual cases we’d prefer not to?
  • My benefit is then contingent on your going along, and vice versa ...
  • - It’s hard to see how Mill could reject that test.
  • 8. A Foundational Problem with Utilitarianism
  • principle of utility says that equal amounts of happiness are equally desirable, whether felt by the same or different persons” (IV)
  • people do not naturally weight the utility of others equally with their own, as Utilitarianism requires:
  • So, how would you rationally argue them into doing so?
  • Utilitarianism seems to involve potentially huge costs for individuals:
  • 8.1 Suppose A is to choose between x and y; B and C are other individuals; and the results are as follows:
  • A B C Sum:
  • x -5 5 100 100
  • y 5 0 0 5
  • Will A choose x? No. How would Utilitarianism appeal to him?
  • Suppose these are transferable utilities; then C could make a side-payment to A of, say, 11 units; that would persuade A to go for x. But what if they weren’t?
  • 8.2 The “Raskolnikov Problem”
  • The bright but poor student who thinks he can become Prime Minister if he can just get to University - but has no money. Should he murder the unpopular old pawnbroker lady? - She has a modest amount to lose, the Russian people have much to gain:
  • Raskolnikov Pawnbroker Russian People Sum:

kill her 10 -50 1,000,000 999,940

don’t 0 0 0 0

  • In General: Specific Moral Rules look Shaky, given Utilitarianism
  • Mill: “There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it”.
  • True: but Utilitarianism may not work if universal Rationality is supposed!
  • 9. Justice (Mill, Utilitarianism ch. 5)
  • Injustice = violations of such laws as ought to exist
  • Duty in general: what a person may rightly be compelled to do to fulfill it.
  • Justice: correlative right resides in some person or persons.
  • “To have a right then is to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of”
  • And, Why ought it? - “No other reason than general utility” ...
  • 9.1 Mill agrees: Negative Rights More Important:
  • - “The moral rules which forbid mankind to hurt one another are more vital to human well-being than any maxims which only point out the best mode of managing some department of human affairs.
  • - We have the “strongest and most direct inducement” for impressing these upon one another.
  • - The duty of positive beneficence is far less in degree - a person may possibly not need the benefits of others, but he always needs that they should not do him hurt
  • 9.2 Impartiality - a necessary condition of the fulfilment of the other obligations of justice - If it is a duty to do to each according to his deserts, it follows that we should treat all equal deservers equally ..
  • [the point of this is that there is no separate requirement of “impartiality” -
  • everything depends on what makes a person “deserving” in the first place.
  • 9.3 Summary on Justice [in Utilitarianism]:
  • The requirements of justice are “certain moral requirements which, regarded collectively, have highest social utility and are therefore of more paramount obligation ... which are vastly more important, and therefore more absolute and imperative, than any others”
  • [What about Raskolnikov?]
  • 10. Utilitarianism and a popular argument for Equality: Diminishing Marginal Utility
  • What is the utility of a dollar??
  • Plausible answer [assuming meaningfulness of interpersonal comparisons]:
  • The utility of the next dollar is less than that of the current one.
  • This is called Diminishing Marginal Utility
  • If you already have a million dollars, how much effort will you put out to make one dollar more?
  • [Anecdote: If Bill Gates sees a $100 bill lying on the sidewalk, it isn’t worth his extra effort to lean over and pick it up! If Joe Hobo sees it, it would be worth his going to quite a bit of trouble to get]
  • - That’s why you can induce people with low incomes to go to work on not-very-pleasant jobs, but not people with high incomes -- etc.
  • 10. Utilitarianism and a popular argument for Equality (continued)
  • Suppose this is a general truth ....
  • Then [it looks as though] transferring a dollar from a wealthy person to a poor person would improve overall utility [you move dollars from where they do less good to where they do more good]
  • So: redistribution is justified on utilitarian grounds!
  • 10.1 Why the argument doesn’t work:
  • (a) this is only consumption utility. But people with more tend to use their incomes to invest. Investment yields greater product.
  • Taking that into account, we could at least as plausibly say that the utility of income for the rich is greater than for the poor.
  • (b) The theorem grants no basic right of property. Do we seriously want to abandon property rights?
  • (c) Society’s opportunity costs from redistribution can plausibly be argued to be greater than any benefits from it. [as Hume observed ...]
  • [an ‘opportunity cost’ is a cost in lost opportunities which would otherwise be available]
  • [To Be Continued!]
  • 9.4 The other root of the problem: no allowance for action
  • Individuals act. They decide. They have interests and values - theirown
  • Utilitarianism seems interested only ineffects on people rather than in theiractions as such
  • But: should the State (especially) be trying to bring about these effects?
  • Or should it pay attention to the fact that people are doing their own things?
  • I might want to have a certain thing - But might like it better if I’ve made it myself
  • I might rather do a bad job of it myself than have you do a good one!
  • Does this independence count?
  • Utilitarianism seems to say No.
  • Shouldn’t it say Yes?
  • If so, how does it count?
  • That’s an important question!
  • - which Mill addresses (sort of) in his next major work, On Liberty
  • 10. Mill: An Essay On Liberty
  • The Essay seems to offer a very different view than Utilitarianism!
  • Subject: Not the “liberty of the will”, but the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual--> Not only, or even mainly, government

10.1 Tyranny of the Majority

  • The theory behind democracy: Rulers should be “identified with the people” - so, people thought, there is no fear of its tyrannizing over itself
  • --> Do the people have no need to limit their power over themselves?
  • - “self-government” does not “express the true state of the case”
  • --> The “people” who exercise the power are not the same as those over whom it is exercised - the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest
  • In any case, the tyranny of the majority acts not just through public authorities - When society is itself the tyrant, protection against magistrates is not enough
  • There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence
  • The likings and dislikings of society are the main thing which has practically determined moral rules
  • - No recognized principle by which the propriety or impropriety of government interference is customarily tested

10.1 SocialTyranny

  • Mill objects to this: “The likings and dislikings of society are the main thing which has practically determined moral rules”
  • Let’s distinguish between:
  • (1) the rule that society enforces; and
  • (2) its reason for enforcing that rule
  • Mill is saying that the rule should be justified on the basis of its net benefits to individuals
  • But “social tyranny” is where people simply like or dislike other people behaving this or that way
  • This is what he means when he says that there is “No recognized principle by which the propriety or impropriety of government interference is customarily tested”
  • “I like society being this way” is not a “principle”
  • “People would be better off in respects x and y if we reinforced rule R” is a “principle”

10.1 SocialTyranny

  • But “social tyranny” is where people simply like or dislike other people behaving this or that way
  • A question for utilitarianism:
  • Some utilities are independent of other persons [eating, say]
  • Some aren’t [playing tennis, say]
  • should my utility derived from my assessment of your conduct count the same with my utility derived from eating chocolate?
  • [for standard utilitarianism, it’s hard to see why it wouldn’t]
  • Take democracy (we’ll be examining it more toward the end of this lecture set)
  • If 51% of people would like to see Jones hanged, does that outweigh Jones’ interest in not being hanged?? Do they need any reason for this?
  • (That would be “mob rule” ...)
  • Is there a principled objection to mob rule?
  • Or is it only the longer-run effects on general utility that determine this??
  • 11. The Principle of Liberty - an amazing-looking principle!
  • The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number if self-protection - to prevent harm to others
  • --> This “very simple principle” is “entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of control”
  • [This seems to put him in with Hobbes, Locke, and Kant....]
  • --> Anti-Paternalistic: “His own good, physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant - cannot be compelled because it will make him happier - Or because in the opinions of others it would be wise or even right
  • --> The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In self-concerning matters, his independence is, of right,absolute.
  • --> Doesn’t apply to:
  • (1) children; (2) the insane; (3) those in “backward states of society”

12. The idea of a “Sphere of action in which society has only an indirect interest”:

  • --> Spelling this out: it includes action that
  • (a) affects only the agent
  • (b) or, “if it also affect others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation”
  • [to which JN Adds:
  • (c) and the said “others”, given what we know of their actual preferences, plainly would consent if they were consulted.]

13. Which “domains” meet these criteria? Mill proposes:

  • 1. “inward domain of consciousness”: liberty of conscience, thought and feeling, opinion and sentiment
  • [also, of expressing and publishing opinions- which would seem to take us out of that “inward domain”]]
  • 2. tastes and pursuits (“plan of life as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow”
  • 3. of combination [Free association] - to unite for any purpose not involving harm to others (if of full age and not forced or deceived)


  • - taking dope?
  • - pornography?
  • - becoming a Seventh Day Adventist?
  • - ** joining the Nazis?
  • ** Why might this be different??
  • - because Nazism is a moral/political “ideology”
  • 14. Liberty of Thought and Discussion - a special case
  • --> Size of the “consensus” against doesn’t matter:
  • “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”
  • --> [Note: whether a proposition is true is not a function of what you think:
  • truth: the facts are there, for all to see if they just look carefully enough.
  • Voting on what’s true is an absurdity in these contexts.]
  • --> claim:Silencing expression “robs the human race”
  • >> If p is true, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth
  • >> if p is false, they “lose the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error”
  • 14. Liberty of Thought and Discussion continued
  • [Assumptions:
  • (a) error is detectable
  • (b) free discussion increases the likelihood of detecting it
  • (c) error is relatively low in cost.
  • Any or all of these might not be true in some circumstances.
  • (a) error may be extremely difficult to detect
  • and we must distinguish between being detectable and being detected
  • [the former doesn’t imply the latter!]
  • - there’s also the social identification of error - a large problem.
  • (b) - But it may not be, especially when transmitted from A to B in a context in which B is highly likely to believe what A says just because A says it - as with religious belief via the priesthood, e.g.]
  • (c) error could be spectacularly high in cost - it’s not obvious that we wouldn’t be justified in suppressing speech when it is so, and also quite likely
  • [think of schools that teach “jihad” or Nazism or ...]
  • 14. Liberty of Thought and Discussion continued
  • --> Mill emphasizes the difference between
  • (1) presuming an opinion to be true because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and
  • (2) assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation
  • [This is analogous to the difference between Chartered monopolies and “natural” ones: Which is more likely to give you the real thing??]
  • Examples: (1) The Rushton Case
  • [A researcher at Western who collected data about racial differences, with a view to supporting the hypothesis that the black race originated first, white second, yellow third in time. Among the differences between races for which he collected a great deal of what he claimed to be good evidence: increasing intelligence and sexual control.]
  • [Political ruckuses were engendered when the nature of his research became known - Administrators at Western resisted pressure to have him fired -- even the Premier of Ontario said that he should be! Other academics have not fared quite so well...]
  • Mill says of “the present age”: it is “destitute of faith, terrified at skepticism” - people cling to opinions because they “don’t know what to do without them” -
  • Society’s claim: only the wicked would desire to weaken these “salutary beliefs” ...
  • (2) Global Warming -
  • All the press releases [until very recently] say that there is a “consensus” among the “scientific community”
  • [Except for a whole lot (several thousand) of extremely reputable climatologists who debunk the official view.
  • The consensus is especially among non-climatologists ...]
  • [But the government money goes to the yea-sayers, not the debunkers...]
  • GW is prime territory for statistical manipulation and data selection
  • [example: most thermometers on the surface of the earth are affected by urban warming, which of course does increase with more buildings heated, more cars, etc.]
  • and the question of what to do about inherently uncertain far-future problems is a major issue - totally unmentioned in popular literature...
  • [cf. Al Gore for a spectacularly bad example - and he got a Nobel Prize!]

Why Free Speech?

  • Is it really to promote knowledge?
  • - What about promoting fun?
  • Little speech is seriously directed at human knowledge
  • Much of it is personal communication
  • - or just nattering!
  • Then there’s artistic expression...
  • The Liberty Principle prima facie protects all these, not just knowledge-promotion
  • political speech:
  • Is there a special need to protect this? (Mill thinks so - plausibly!)
  • - It has a special liability to distortion and flummery

15. Of Individuality, as one of the Elements of Well-Being

  • Mill says that “Free development ofindividuality” is one of the leading essentials of well-being - “There has been a time of excessive spontaneity and individuality”- but not now!
  • [Q: Is originality a public asset? -- “Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom”; All good things are due to Originality ...
  • [Q. Is distinctiveness a personal good? Are you happier by being different?
  • Note that the Principle of Liberty implies nothing about this...
  • [everybody, including the total conformist, has the right to liberty]

16. Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual

16.1 The division: To individuality - what “concerns the individual”

  • To society - the part which “chiefly interests society”
  • [Often individuals are concerned about other individuals...
  • [Can “society” be anything but all the individuals there are?
  • [Need a better conceptual fix on this...]

• Social Duties: Mill says: “one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit:” [why?]

  • 1. in not injuring the interests of one another [our old friend, negative rights]
  • 2. in each bearing his share of the costs of defending the society or its members from injury and molestation [oops: but how do you determine those??]
  • 3. We need disinterested exertion for the good of others - But not “by whips” (taxes, for instance?!) - charity should not be in the political arena]
  • 17. Relation of Liberty to Utility
  • BIG problem: Can Liberty be founded on Utilitarianism?
  • Needed to assume: interference with liberty costs more than it’s worth...
  • - are we sure that’s true?
  • Mill: (1) “All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good”
  • [question: how does he know this?]
  • (2) “rashness, self-conceit, pursuit of animal pleasures at the expense of feeling and intellect get a less share of favourable sentiment from others”
  • -->Difference: whether others displease us in respect of
  • (a) things in which we think we have a right to control him, or
  • (b) things we know that we don’t.
  • Society has had ample opportunity to influence people from nonage to maturity: It does not also need “the power to issue commands and enforce obedience in the personal concerns of individuals”
  • - When society does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly and in the wrong place
  • Mills examples of petty tyranny:
  • Public to-dos about Railway travelling on Sunday -
  • [in Ontario, 1970s, it was Shopping on Sundays]
  • or Sunday opening of Museums
  • liquor?
  • drugs?
  • polygamy?
  • Mill on Representative Government:
  • --> “The Ideally Best Form of Government”
  • Consider the “good despot” - “One man of superhuman mental activity managing the entire affairs of a passive people”
  • Would that be a good thing? [Aristotle thoughts so]
  • “What sort of human beings can be formed under such a regimen?”
  • - The public at large would remain without information and without interest on all the “greater matters of practice”
  • [Question: what’s so great about such “matters”?? Note Utilitarianism’s bias in this direction ...]
  • “Both their intelligence and their moral capacities are equally stunted.”
  • “No difficulty” to show that the ideally best form of government is that in which the sovereignty is vested in the entire aggregate of the community; each having a voice and being occasionally called on to take actual part in the government.
  • [Is there really “no difficulty” about this?!]
  • --> The case rests on two principles:
  • 1. Security: the rights and interests of any person are only secure when the person interested is himself able, and disposed, to stand up for them
  • 2. Prosperity: The general prosperity attains a greater height in proportion to the amount and variety of the personal energies enlisted in promoting it.
  • Question: how does participation in government promote that??
  • [Why would those “personal energies” be better exerted under the thumb of majority rule??]
  • Free communities - more exempt from social injustice and crime, and more prosperous
  • The striving, go-ahead character” [of America] is “the foundation of the best hopes for the general improvement of mankind”
  • --> Irresponsible rulers need the aquiescence of the ruled more than they need any activity they can’t compel ...
  • When Representative Government is Inapplicable
  • 1. people not willing to receive it.
  • 2. not willing and able to do what is necessary for its preservation
  • 3. Willing and able to fulfil the duties it imposes on them.
  • Characterfit for representative government:
  • - jealous of any attempt to exercise power over them not sanctioned by long usage and by their own opinion of right
  • - care very little for the exercise of power over others
  • [rather than seeing the vote as an opportunity to extort from the minority]
  • aversion to the multiplication of public employments
  • (contrasts with “the bureaucracy-ridden, who would rather pay higher taxes than diminish by the smallest fraction their individual chances of a place for themselves or their relatives”)


  • People think that only monarchy or aristocracy has interests opposed to the general interest of the community:
  • -->to tax heavily, to possess and exercise unlimited power...
  • - they’re wrong! It is surely possible that the ruling power may be under the dominion of sectional or class interests
  • In any case, there is the problem of:

Majoritarianism - The Fundamental Problem of Democracy

  • If the majority are whites, Catholics, English, poor ...
  • how then will the blacks, Protestants, Irish, or rich fare??
  • (These things are not in the real interest of the majority, true -
  • “But a king only now and then, and an oligarchy in no known instance, have taken this exalted view of their self-interest:
  • and why should we expect a loftier mode of thinking from the labouring classes?”)
  • The Problem of Power
  • “It is a universally observed fact that
  • (1) to prefer selfish interests to those which one shares with others and
  • (2) to prefer immediate and direct interests to those which are indirect and remote
  • -- are most especially called forth and fostered by the possession of power
  • “Let them be ever so modest and amenable to reason while there is a power over them stronger than they, we ought to expect a total change in this respect when they themselves become the strongest power.”
  • No form of government is rational which requires “exalted principles of action” in the conduct of average human beings
  • A famous saying by Lord Action: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
  • class: “any number of persons who have the same sinister interest”
  • >> no class should be able to exercise a preponderant influence
  • e.g., Labourers vs. employers -- these two classes should be equally balanced -- have an equal number of votes in Parliament
  • “The representative system ought to be so constituted as to maintain this state of things.”
  • [OK: how?]
  • Democracy: “Two very different ideas”
  • (1) Government of the whole by the whole people, equally represented
  • (2) government of the whole people by a mere majority
  • The latter, strangely confounded with it, is a government of privilege - the inevitable consequence of the manner in which the votes are now taken, the “complete disfranchisement of minorities”
  • “In a representative body actually deliberating, the minority must of course be overruled - But should it have no representatives at all?
  • In a really equal democracy, a majority of the electors would always have a majority of the representatives; but a minority of the electors would always have a minority of the representatives
  • Proportional Representation [from an idea of Thomas Hare’s]
  • (1) Divide number of voters by the number of seats in the House
  • (2) every candidate who obtained that quota is returned, regardless of local constituency;
  • (3) Any elector votes for any candidate, AND delivers an ordered list of other names;
  • (4) His vote is counted for one candidate; but his first choice fails to be returned, his second is counted if he would win; etc. -
  • He gets his more-preferred candidate into office (not necessarily his first-preference...)
  • (Mill claims that Mr. Hare’s system would help the chances of Parliament containing the êlite of the country. ... is he right?
  • [Doubtful: but will anything do that??]
  • Extension of the Suffrage: Weighted Voting for Elites ...
  • Everyone entitled to vote
  • (“the great majority of voters would be manual labourers.”
  • [not true today, btw]
  • Danger: (1) too low a standard of political intelligence and (2) class legislation” [but maybe that’s true anyway!]
  • >> Mill’s proposal: “the opinion of the higher moral or intellectual being, is worth more”
  • - they should get more votes
  • (The heavier weighted vote should not be “in consideration of property” -- only “individual mental superiority”)
  • i.e., More votes for the smart...)
  • “equal voting is not among the things which are good in themselves”
  • - q: is this compatible with democracy? [prima facie, no...]
  • Democracy, no matter how you slice it: further comments by JN
  • 1. Democracy and utility:
  • Should we expect democracy to maximize utility?
  • requirements:
  • a) people would need to know how to get what they want by political means
  • b) or at least, the people they elect must know this
  • c) and those people can be relied on to do that
  • But we can’t expect any of those things.
  • The difficulty is that our premise is that Jones knows what Jones wants
  • but it doesn’t follow that he knows how to get it, nor that he knows whom to elect who will get it, nor that they know any more...
  • Democracy, no matter how you slice it: further comments by JN
  • 2. The problem is that the motivation of the office-seeker is to get elected, not to do anybody any good!
  • The system works if that motivation correlates more or less with that of seeking the public good ...
  • but it’s not clear that it does.
  • Demagoguery looks more promising!

Mill: “The Subjection of Women”

  • Sex is “entirely irrelevant to political rights”
  • - If there be any difference, women require it more than men since, being physically weaker, they are more dependent on law and society for protection
  • - If it is considered “suitable and proper that women should think, and write, and be teachers,” then it is wrong that women should be in “personal servitude”; if the political disqualification has no principle to rest on
  • The legal subordination of one sex to the other - is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement;

Mill: “The Subjection of Women” continued

  • - the distinction [between men and women) is not the result of argument - it rests solely on feeling - so, the worse it fares in argument, the more its adherents are sure that their feeling must have some deeper ground, not reached by argument” - But
  • 1. the opinion rests upon theory only [i.e. ideology]
  • 2. Never the result of deliberation - but merely that from the very earliest society, every woman was in a state of bondage to some man
  • All men desire to have, not a forced slave but a willing one; not a slave merely, but a favourite > so, they “enslave their minds” - e.g., they “turn the whole force of education to effect their purpose”
  • - women are fed the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men (not “self-will and self-control, but submission”)

Mill: “The Subjection of Women”

  • [current] Moralities say it is the duty of women to live for others; to “have no life but in their affections” - the only ones they are allowed to have (to husbands and children)
  • So, “the object of being attractive to men became the polar star of feminine education and formation of character”
  • But: Custom is “no basis for putting women’s political subjection to men.”
  • Human beings are no longer born to their place in life -- are free to employ their faculties to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable - The subordination of women is “an isolated fact in modern social institutions”

Natural differences

  • everybody dogmatises about it
  • But The only relevant thing is:
  • analytic study of the laws of the influence of circumstances on character
  • Profound knowledge of the formation of character is indispensable to entitle any one to affirm even that there is any difference, or what the difference is, between the two sexes considered as moral and rational beings.
  • Conjectures are all that can at present be made..
  • [note that Mill apears to think that the natural presumption is that they are the same]
  • The real reason for this is perhaps not founded on “analytic study”...]
  • [-- It was promoted by his knowledge of Harriet Taylor!]

Summary on Mill

  • His utilitarianism - complex and not entirely clear
  • Are moral rules founded on the maximization of social utility?
  • all but impossible to say, since the thesis depends on a sort of measurements that we can’t do
  • Utilitarianism as such: problematic
  • On Liberty: Locke, Hobbes, and Kant revisited:
  • - individual liberty
  • not to be interfered with except where it would lead to harm to others
  • - hard (but not impossible) to apply
  • - is it based on utilitarianism? Mill thinks so - I don’t

Summary on Mill continued

  • Representative Government
  • He thinks it clearly the best form of government
  • - but on grounds of individual liberty.
  • - surely a problem!
  • (utility, with a few assumptions, looks more promising ...)
  • Mill’s view is somewhat elitist: plural votes for the intelligentsia
  • [That can’t obviously be squared with democratic principle]
  • Proportional Representation
  • [This can; but how much will it help??]
  • Women
  • The rules have been made by men, for the benefit of men
  • Women entitled to equality [why?]
  • [2 kinds: (a) political, and (b) before the law]
  • No significant differences in the qualities of person that count have been based on anything but prejudice [this is questionable, actually ..]
  • way ahead of his time in this matter...