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Utilitarianism: John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham Essay

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Updated: Oct 9th, 2021

Introduction

This paper is about the different view points of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham on the concept of Utilitarianism. Though Mill’s work was influenced by Bentham to a large extent, nonetheless there are significant differences in their approach that we discuss here. Mill and Bentham occupy a unique place among the philosophers and thinkers of the Enlightenment era with regards to their conceptions of utilitarianism.

Qualitative and Quantitative Happiness

The main difference between Mill’s and Bentham’s conception of Utilitarianism is that Mill, though a consequentialist, makes a case for the qualitative aspects of happiness. Bentham’s case on the other hand is the one for the “greatest happiness” of all. Thus, one needs to act in such a way that promotes the happiness of the maximum number of people. For Bentham, all kinds of happiness are equal whereas for Mill, there is a subtle element of difference in the degree and kind of pleasure that we get from our actions.

Bentham’s concept is known as Hedonistic Utilitarianism where he postulates that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should form the basis for our conduct in society. Mill, on the other hand, drew a line between individual happiness and happiness of all by stating that “we should do what we like and without impediment from our fellow creatures”. However, he qualifies this statement with “as long as we do not do them harm”. Further, the sense of personal sacrifice that is so revered in the Christian conception of things can be seen as an objection to Mill’s theory. However, Mill discounts this by stating that any sacrifice that denies happiness of self and also does not promote the general sense of well being is considered a waste.

Pushkin vs. Pushpin

A significant difference that follows from the section above is what is ultimately good for society. According to Mill’s theory, it is the qualitative separation of happiness that counts and so a “higher pleasure” is better than a “lower pleasure”. In his own work, it is better for “Socrates to be dissatisfied rather than a fool satisfied” and “better for a human to be satisfied than a pig satisfied”. Bentham, on the other hand does not seek a qualitative separation of happiness and says that a “Pushpin is as better as an Opera house” the allusion being to the children’s game that can promote happiness to the maximum number of individuals as opposed to an opera house for the select few. Mill would have certainly favored building more opera houses or rather Pushkin over Pushpin. Mill’s views can be read as an expression of what is now known as libertarian ideology whereas Bentham’s ideas can be construed as the modern welfare economics and the welfare state that places collective good over individuals.

Societal Stand

Bentham proposed several legal and social reforms that were in line with his principle of the “greater happiness” and is credited with having developed a body of thought that would encompass and provide grounding for the same. On the other hand, Mill supported legislation that favored special privileges for university graduates and it needs to be mentioned that the above reading of Utilitarianism should not detract us from the fact that Mill was not against uneducated people and that his stand was that education was important than the intrinsic value that educated people enjoyed.

Sources

Theodore C. Denise, Nicholas White & Sheldon P (1997): Great Traditions in Ethics. pp. 10-12, pp. 24-26.

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