John Stuart Mill’s Happiness and Pain

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John Stuart Mill

Brief biography and works of John Stuart Mill, known for his philosophy on morality, in particular the pursuit of happiness or pleasure, and reduction of pain.

John Stuart Mill’s morality consists in the pursuit of happiness and the reduction of pain. He produced two most important work Utilitarianism, his moral theory, and A System of Logic, in which he argues that the laws of logic and mathematics are empirical in nature.

Early Life of John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was born in London, England on May 20, 1806. As he recounted in his 1873 Autobiography, he received an extraordinary education from his father, James Mill, Scottish philosopher and historian. He is believed to be something of a genius who learned Greek at the age of three, and who also assisted his father with writings on political economics by his early teens.

He had a breakdown in his early 20s, and at this time he reacted against the intellectual influence of his father and Jeremy Bentham, a mid-18th century English theorist in philosophy of law who advocated utilitarianism, an influence to the young Mill.

He produced his most important work, A System of Logic, in mid-life, but much remembered for his shorter later work, Utilitarianism, 1863.

Later Life of John S. Mill

He served in the East India Company, edited several periodicals, and was a member of Parliament, (1865.) Before being an MP, Mill advocated a form of utilitarianism, in a book by that name in 1861.

On Liberty (1859) became famous for its defense of civil liberties. In System of Logic (1843) he attempted to provide a rigorous account of inductive reasoning. His epistemology was empiricist.

Mill and Utilitarianism

His utilitarianism is a refinement of the influence by both his father and Bentham. He formulated his “Greatest Happiness Principle” by maintaining that the basic guide to moral action should be the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain.

This holds that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness (or intended pleasure and the absence of pain), wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

Bentham’s Earlier Theory on Pain and Pleasure

John Stuart Mill recognized two failing in the earlier theory of Jeremy Bentham:

First, Bentham weighed each unit of good or harm equally. Mill claimed that they they cannot be reduced to a mere quantitative analysis without taking into account certain qualitative aspects. For instance, losing a pet is not likely to be the same as losing a beloved human love.

Second, Mill insisted that some pleasures were of greater value than others, simple as that. He famously wrote: “it is better to be human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

Accordingly, Mill also distinguishes between “higher” and “lower” pleasures, which are taken into account in Mill’s utilitarian calculation.

Insight to John Stuart Mill Philosophy

His utilitarian ethics has a strong appeal. The criticism that arises is directed from the fact that his utilitarianism is too demanding to a point that even day-to-day behaviour turns out to become immoral, as action tends toward the increase of pleasure, and inversely, the decrease of pain. G.E. Moore, philosopher of “common sense” concept rejected his utilitarian view in favour of ethics predicated on value judgements.

However, John Stuart Mill’s philosophy is one of radical liberalism as he makes it clear that humans should only be concerned with morality in aspects that require specific conducts, otherwise a person is morally and legally free to pursue life as they deem fit.

Works by John Stuart Mill

  • System of Logic, 1843
  • On Liberty, 1859
  • Utilitarianism, 1861

Sources:

  1. McGovern, Una, Editor. Chambers Biographical Dictionary, Chambers, 2002.
  2. Stokes, Philip. Philosophy, the Great Thinkers, by Philip Stokes, Capella, 2007.