Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill

This fairly short book has struck me with how John Stuart Mill absurdly contradicts himself every step of the way. Perhaps that sounds harsh, but I honestly expected more than what the contents provided given how lauded this philosophy is and how celebrated John Stuart Mill is in history. This work was suppose to be his main philosophical driving force for many of his progressive ideas, but at every point there is a contradiction that makes it more vacuous than it seems at first glance. I fear that such a charge will be given the worthless accusation of hypocrisy because I suggest Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy is open-ended and adaptable, so why should John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian philosophy not be seen as malleable? The difference lies within the respective aims; Friedrich Nietzsche dedicated himself to preemptively ending nihilism in the West which has become part of Existential Philosophy while John Stuart Mill aimed to provide a philosophy for communities and a perfected form of a social system. As such, I assess his philosophy by different criteria and I find no issue by judging each by different standards when their aims are not the same.

My first criticism is that John Stuart Mill deliberately conflates utility and happiness; those aims aren’t always the same. They surely overlap a great deal, but they aren’t the same and pretending they are can lead to negative drawbacks. This issue broadens throughout the book since Mill seeks to apply the principle of happiness to everything from the social order, to justice, to wealth disparity, and even to the concept of self-sacrifice. I fear that he broadens it to the point where selfish aims like rich people gaining more than the rest can be qualified as part of Utilitarianism while paradoxically social systems like Communism and Socialism which are about a more equal distribution of wealth can also be called Utilitarianism. He doesn’t answer the question of how Utilitarianism can work with economics except to argue that ether position is meant for maximizing the happiness of all people. He insists that an ideal society is one where people only seek to further the happiness of others without any personal regard for themselves and to the objection of selfish or hostile people existing for their own narrow-minded aims, he argues that it can be enforced through the influence of inducements. Inducements seem to be his suggested enforcement method and these inducements include public opinion of individuals as a censure of their harmful actions to the community in order to impose the community’s collective will upon all individuals within it. Unfortunately, for people who support John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian philosophy, I think this shows the limits of Western Philosophy where modern psychological studies (not necessarily the hard sciences) have absolutely shattered antiquated notions about the rational model of human beings and the expectations therein. Inducements are secondary and don’t work to motivate people towards a philosophical outlook like John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian philosophy; what is crucial, according to modern psychology, in understanding how to motivate people is their self-conceptions on what their group orientation is (their social identity) and more importantly, their intrinsic desires. Their intrinsic motivation is of paramount importance to their happiness so if they don’t desire to strictly help others and don’t agree with helping other people as being beneficial for their happiness despite the benefits that it affords other people, then we have a clear discord in the conflation of happiness with utility.

J.S. Mill argues there is a qualitative element to judging experiences for the community. The quality of experience arguments struck me as peculiar. John Stuart Mill argues that people who have experience with a subject matter should give their opinions on that subject matter for whether it is positive or negative for the community as a whole. Essentially, the majority view on any specific experience should be directed by the community in determining whether the quality of an experience is worthwhile for everyone. J.S. Mill insists on going by whatever the majority of people say is for the best for this determination, but he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the obvious problems. What if the people who experienced a particular event like a film or eating a particular food were evenly split on adapting it into the community or throwing it out? There couldn’t be a reliance on the will of the majority should such situations occur and it shows the failings of this idea despite how often we may rely on reviews before making an decision in the information age. A more devastating issue, part of the many self-contradictions of this philosophy, arises when John Stuart Mill first claims the majority view shouldn’t be imposed to destroy personal liberties of individuals, but then he argues that people should vote on whether to discard people’s personal liberties should the will of the majority find it fitting to do so. This opens societies up to vigilante justice and mob violence being a go-to method to enforce societal rules as a consequence. John Stuart Mill never tackles mob violence or the mob mentality in any of his assessments on happiness being the founding principle. At best, all he says is that we should pursue pleasures (he distinguishes intellectual pleasures as higher and more worthy than the “animal” pleasures of physical intimacy) and decrease to the best of our ability what causes pain. The quality argument creates problems with this since quality is assessed as what the majority opinion is, therefore the pros and cons are decided by a popularity contest. Why should this be problematic? Well, let me give a hypothetical, consider if a community decided shooting heroin was good for all people because of the quality of happiness despite the horrible health effects, the health risks and early deaths weren’t as important to the community as the feeling of happiness experienced by doing heroin, and the majority view didn’t budge from this issue despite the horrific social consequences. According to John Stuart Mill’s philosophy, this isn’t wrong so long as the majority agree that the feeling of elation from heroin is much greater to the happiness of the community than the negative health effects. Consider the real world example of Jim Jones’s leading his flock to mass suicide in Jonestown, the justification being conspiracy theories about the US government intelligence agencies including beliefs that the US would torture their children upon capture, the strong faith in Jesus Christ as their forgiving Lord and Savior, and the belief the world was too inhumane to continue living in. If we apply Utilitarianism to the Jim Jones mass suicide, then nothing they did was morally wrong under the maximizing happiness principle since they believed that they would go to heaven due to their unyielding faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior which would be the highest happiness attainable for any Christian. Even excluding the Christian element, all that is required under John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian philosophy is the majority agreeing that the quality of happiness in committing suicide is greater than the negative drawbacks of continuing to live. John Stuart Mill explains that personal liberties should be removed in favor of the majority opinion which further reinforces that what happened in Jonestown is indeed permissible under his form of Utilitarianism.

In my own personal opinion, I think that perhaps the worst failing of Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill is that at no point is the truth a factor in his assessment of maximizing happiness. Utilitarianism is far removed from the supposedly cold logical stereotype that it is given because the truth of a belief as any sort of qualitative value is never brought up by John Stuart Mill in his book. The assessment is focused narrowly on how happy a belief or experience makes a person and what the consensus of such a belief is. I had initially thought that perhaps the shared experiences among the majority of people who had taken part in a particular subject matter was somehow related to following the truthfulness of a claim or expertise, but I realized it was not so upon reading further since it is based upon majority sentiments instead of facts. The veracity of a claim or an experience is never once considered in the book. As already established, this leads to far too many dangerous and counterproductive consequences. Truth itself is valuable for its own sake and understanding fact from fiction is incredibly beneficial in preventing harmful behavior and horrifying tragedies like Jonestown; where the horrifying consequences of the doubtless flock of people with their faith in Jesus Christ ran amok and caused a mass suicide in which the Christian faithful believed they would go to an eternal paradise in heaven to be with Jesus. Obviously, John Stuart Mill couldn’t possibly have accounted for such scenarios, but the existence of such scenarios when applied to Utilitarian philosophy bears merit in questioning the very matter of the utility claim. If it can’t prove useful against such modern objections, then has the Utilitarian philosophy aged well and can it truly benefit modern times or have we already bore witness to its limitations due to the incompatibility with modern situations? Of course, an objection could be raised here that no philosophy can truly do that, Jonestown itself is an extreme example, and the point of progress is to add onto existing ideological structures, but J.S. Mill himself tried to depict this as the perfect philosophy, so I think these criticisms of mine are food for thought that people should explore and ponder. Jonestown might be an extreme example, but it happened and if Utilitarianism can’t tell us that it is wrong, then is it really useful as it claims to be? It is my belief that no system can truly benefit humanity without a rational outlook based upon fact-finding research.

Not all of this is purely negative regarding the contents of the book, John Stuart Mill excels at criticism of other philosophies and viewpoints just like in his mostly excellent work of Three Essays on Religion. In his book Utilitarianism, he makes an argument about justice that I agree with insofar as he recognizes that all the pleasantries and social enforcement are but a means of revenge to enforce societal consequences upon an individual who has violated the society’s norms and ethics and uses the example of the crime of murder. Insofar as he doesn’t try to add his own paradoxical view of the principles of Happiness and Utility as being the core of Justice, I can largely agree with his summation. His argument against a Hobbesian outlook where he points out that narrow-minded interests would be paramount because absolute power is easily lost against whatever destroys the one holding the reins of power at the very next instance of social upheaval is a solid argument. It gets directly to the point of the failings of a Hobbesian outlook. However, I was most intrigued by his arguments against the social contract; I hadn’t expected this one at all and I was truly blindsided because I had believed that Utilitarianism was built upon the premise of the Social Contract. To my astonishment, John Stuart Mill completely repudiates it; he seems to present Utilitarianism as an alternative and not an additional support structure as I had assumed. John Stuart Mill maintains that the Social Contract is an argument of pure fiction. At no point did anyone who was birthed into a society that maintains the social contract ever actually agree to anything that the social contract claims, J.S. Mill argues that there was never a point where we joined together as a whole society to agree to the Social Contract so it can’t be considered legitimate because nobody consented to it. Furthermore, this fiction of the Social Contract is simply maintained because people grew up with it and were taught it from their adult figures and parents, but that isn’t the same as consenting to it and instead it is accepted after the fact that it is taught. J.S. Mill argues that the Social Contract as a form of “justice” was imposed upon people by creating make-believe consent by court systems to punish perpetrators for crimes in court trials in order to pretend that the criminals somehow agreed with the rule of law despite never once being asked for their consent in actuality.

To conclude, despite my misgivings, I did enjoy the book and I’m glad he wasn’t going on a random racist tangent against all Asian people like in Three Essays on Religion. I enjoyed Three Essays more despite that major failing because J.S. Mill seems to excel when making criticisms of other philosophical or theological arguments. He definitely had a sharp wit and I do enjoy reading him despite this book being so excessive in verbiage, sometimes I had to re-read sentences because he would go on lengthy run-on sentences about an array of topics before getting to the point. Nevertheless, Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill is a very short read of only five chapters and two of which are barely a few pages in length. I can’t agree with his philosophy after reading his explanations and justifications though. I think I’ve made it sufficiently clear as to why that is. Utilitarianism can’t possibly function as intended because it bases itself on mob mentality and not the validity of the arguments made. Oddly enough, the cold logical calculus as a stereotype for this philosophy is entirely unjustified because at no point is fact-based information ever a factor at all. I think that was the strangest revelation for me when reading J.S. Mill’s book as there is nothing preventing mob violence or mob rule so long as the majority believe violating personal freedoms maximizes happiness. J.S. Mill was certainly an intelligent person, but I think that the obvious drawbacks of his book is the paradoxical arguments, the generalization of any action (including martyrdom) as a form of maximizing happiness, and the lack of safeguards for personal freedom of individuals. I would personally rate this book as a 3 out of 5, but I would recommend, especially given how quickly this book can be read, that people read it on their own and draw their own conclusions.

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