Can Mill’s Utilitarianism Be Reconciled With His Defence of Individual Freedom?

“(…) it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, (…) for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this?” - John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is certainly one of the classic texts in modern political theory. His impact on the contemporary theoretical deliberations on politics, understanding of liberty, and morality must not be underestimated. As John Gray rightly notes: “The doctrine of Liberty developed by Mill (…) remains today as arguable and as controversial as it was when On Liberty was published”(1). The issue becomes even more complicated when one attempts to reconcile his Principle of Utility, as advanced in his renowned essay Utilitarianism, with his brave defence of individual freedom.
Majority of critics appear to be divided into two opposing groups, which suggest either the traditional (sometimes extremely harsh) exegesis of his texts or a revisionary view of Mill’s philosophy, often allowing a relatively successful reconciliation of that problem (2). Some interpreters tend to even deny Mill being both a utilitarian and a liberal thinker at the same time. Crisp mentions in his guidebook to Mill’s utilitarianism:
“Mill is said to be torn between utilitarianism and liberalism, and some recent interpreters have preferred to see him as ‘really’ a liberal, who clung on to the vestiges of his utilitarianism out of loyalty to his father, to Bentham and to his own earlier convictions” (3).
Yet others suggest “that the arguments and values [Mill] invokes in On Liberty are hopelessly at odds with the utilitarian ethics he espouses”(4) or even that his brave venture to syncretise utilitarianism with liberalism “was foredoomed to an ignominious failure”(5).
This article attempts to follow the revisionary view of Mill’s ethics and his political theory, thus suggesting that there is no essential predicament in reconciling his utilitarian values with the Principle of Liberty. First and foremost, Mill never supposed “utility of happiness to be as distinct from liberty”(6). His emphasis on the importance of both utility and liberty is quite evident in various texts, i.e. On Liberty, Utilitarianism, Autobiography, Essays on Politics and Culture or August Comte and Positivism. It becomes clear to Crisp that, “The liberty principle (…) cannot ground any kind of liberalism in Mill’s thought which is inconsistent with his act utilitarianism.”(7), as this would then obviously clash with Mill’s own accentuation of the fact that there may not be any right to liberty, ‘as a thing independent of utility”(8).
The first part of this article will concentrate on the fundamental logical difference between the Principle of Utility and the Principle of Liberty. Meticulous reading of Mill’s A System of Logic, with its account of the Art of Life, indicates that the Utility Principle is of rather axiological type, whereas the Liberty Principle is considered to be a “principle of critical morality”(9). Therefore, these two principles characterised by fundamental logical difference should not be regarded as either equivalent or non-equivalent. Furthermore, the self-defeating nature of traditional direct utilitarianism versus Mill’s version of indirect utilitarianism will be discussed. Mill’s understanding of utility is a truly original one and has to be always deemed different from more traditional utilitarianism of Bentham that indeed would be highly incompatible with any liberal theory. Moreover, Mill’s theory of higher pleasures seems to be critical to our debate on reconciliation of the two principles and this will be then analysed in further details. Finally, this article attempts to put large emphasis on Mill’s idea of individualism, as deriving from the principle of utility. This will be subsequently assessed with reference to his defence of free speech as well as the powers of autonomous thought and action.
Traditional interpretations of Mill’s writings often advance a view of complete incompatibility between his utilitarianism and the defence of personal freedom and individuality advanced in On Liberty. This issue has recently been revisited. First and foremost, it is believed that one should never fail to recall Mill’s key passage, in which he claims that liberty may not exist dissociated from utility: “I forego any advantage, which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right as a thing independent of utility”(10). Many readers tend to focus their attention on the alleged fallacies of Mill’s philosophy and somehow dismiss or underestimate his constant belief in both liberty and utility, so often stated in all his works. Some interpreters like Maurice Cowling, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Shirley Letwin have even attempted to accredit those ‘fallacies’ to differences in Mill’s beliefs and opinions during his life, and accordingly to inconsistencies in Mill’s writings. Although, Shirley Letwin notes that Mill “marked the birth of the ‘liberal intellectual’”(11), she disapproves of his writings as logically inconsistent. These ideas, once analysed diligently, prove to be unstable, contradictory and wrong, as C.L. Ten proves in his famous essay Mill on Liberty.
Conversely, John Gray has interestingly suggested a very captivating, yet controversial solution to the above problem. Mill’s new interpreters, of whom he is a member, come to agree that On Liberty may not be understood properly unless set in context of his other work: System of Logic, and his theory of Art of Life there proposed (12). Following this form of exegesis of Mill’s texts one comes to realise that there appears to be a fundamentally important logical difference between the two troubled principles of utility and liberty. Gray claims that the Principle of Utility is “not (…) a moral principle from which may be derived in any very direct way judgements about the rightness of actions, but (…) an axiological principle specifying that happiness alone has intrinsic goodness”(13). Hence, there is a common agreement among the new interpreters of Mill that the Principle of Utility is seen “not as a principle of right action, but as a general principle of valuation”(14). He then contrasts it with the idea of the Principle of Liberty, as a “principle of critical morality, which has important (…) implications for the rightness and justice of acts and rules.”(15). Clearly, following this understanding the question of reconciliation of the two principles may even appear ‘unnecessary’ or ‘improper’. Revisionists believe that it is due to this understanding of utility that Mill introduces his secondary principles that enable us to yield any judgements on what essentially ought to be done. Here, one can clearly see that the Principle of Liberty along with Principles of Expediency and others become indispensible and that “the apparent conflict between utilitarianism and rights is only apparent; Mill's commitments to utilitarianism and rights to liberties are compatible”(16).
Mill’s defence of liberty is though often perceived as incompatible with his faith in utilitarianism. Brink claims that: “This alleged difficulty is just a special case of the more general complaint that utilitarianism is unable to account for moral and political rights”(17). I believe that this statement interestingly outlines, what in my opinion, is an evident fault in traditional approach to this controversial issue, as it doesn’t recognise clear uniqueness of Mill’s utilitarianism. His beliefs on utilitarianism hugely vary from utilitarian ideas of Bentham or James Mill. It is important to realise that Mill was extensively disappointed and disillusioned with his mentors and that this may have even played a large part in his infamous depression. Roger Scruton, however advances that “Mill's rebellion against utilitarianism did not prevent him from writing a qualified defence of it (…)”(18). Nonetheless, he then admits “Mill recognized, the greatest happiness principle must be qualified by some guarantee of individual rights, if it is not to excuse the tyrant”(19). This qualification may have come with his special understanding and accommodation of utilitarianism in his ‘indirect’ edition of the theory.
John Gray acknowledges Mill’s originality and his exceptional understanding of utilitarianism. Hence he affirms that:
“Mill is best interpreted as holding to a version of indirect utilitarianism wherein the Principle of Utility cannot have direct application either to individual acts or to social rules because such application is in general, and in many cases necessarily, self-defeating”(20).
This self-defeating nature of direct utilitarianism of Bentham appears to have convinced Mill to consistently promote the idea of secondary principles, including those of moral nature, supposed to deal with justice and moral rights. The utilitarian direct pursuit of happiness is constrained here by those principles in order to actually promote general happiness of the larger community, instead of granting legitimacy to unrestrained and illicit pursuits of individuals. Gray further strengthens his argument and declares that “[t]he self-defeating effect of acting according to a direct calculation of best consequences suggests the necessity (…) of practical maxims which bar such action (at least in certain circumstances)”(21).
Moreover, while carefully reading Mill, we must not forget his passage on ‘telling lies’, for instance, where he apparently argues for multiplication of general happiness rather than direct pursuit of individual happiness. The following citation also indicates explicit reference to the necessary role of Mill’s secondary principles, i.e. the principle of expediency etc:
“it would often be expedient (…)to tell a lie. But inasmuch as the cultivation in ourselves of a sensitive feeling on the subject of veracity, is one of the most useful, and the enfeeblement of that feeling one of the most hurtful, (…) deviation from truth, does that much towards weakening the trustworthiness of human assertion, (…) we feel that the violation, for a present advantage, of a rule of such transcendent expediency, is not expedient.”(22)
Personal utility is here unambiguously denied its priority and the case for welfare of the community is pursued. This is only strengthened by another excerpt from Utilitarianism, where Mill claims: “justice is a name for certain moral requirements, which, regarded collectively, stand higher in the scale of social utility, and are therefore of more paramount obligation, than any others (…)”(23). The above examples indicate that the difficulty of reconciling the defence of liberty and Mill’s exceptional version of utilitarianism, if researched in wider context of his writings, may prove less troublesome than previously argued.
Exceptional nature of Mill’s doctrines can be furthermore recognised in his unprecedented theory of higher pleasures, to which there is plenty of reference in his works. This philosophical innovation within the theory of utility certainly differentiates Mill’s utilitarianism from Bentham’s hedonism, thus further strengthening my earlier argument. Mill mentions in Utilitarianism: “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification”(24). In the above citation, he explicitly propagates a “pluralistic theory of welfare”, in which, as Brink claims, the use of higher mental and other capacities has much higher value than other intrinsic goods, i.e. satisfaction of our desires or pleasures(25).
Mill, however, also recognises a very direct relationship between his theory of higher pleasures and his defence of personal freedom and individuality. There appears to be common understanding between various interpreters of Mill that higher pleasures are inconceivable in a restrained, illiberal background. Mahir Aziz identifies this relationship and mentions in his article that: “One can only seek higher pleasures if one has the liberty to do so, liberty being the central principle underlying Mill's ethical theory, Utilitarianism, and his political theory, Liberalism”(26). Whereas, Crisp affirms that: “Without individuality, there is no life of higher pleasures. In that sense, at least, individuality is the highest of all pleasures”(27).
These realisations appear to be well rooted in Mill’s own writings, where in Utilitarianism he describes conditions under which people lose their “intellectual tastes”(28). It becomes clear that the relationship between liberty (state…) and utility is of fundamental importance to Mill’s entire philosophy. One clearly cannot appreciate full happiness, to which he is capable, unless provided with necessary provisions of liberty. This idea appears to be also critical to Brink, when he states the following in his Mill’s Deliberative Utilitarianism: “Just as security from attack is a necessary condition of pursuing other goods, so too are basic liberties necessary conditions for exercising those higher capacities whose exercise is a dominant component in human happiness”(29).
John Stuart Mill’s efforts towards the defence of liberty seem to be very consistent throughout his scholarship. Isaiah Berlin even calls his desire for individual freedom and human variety as “overmastering”(30) and notes that this most persistent desire of Mill “emerges in many shapes”(31). On Liberty is undoubtedly the most significant example of such defence. Especially, the chapter “Of The Liberty Of Speech and Thought” in On Liberty appears to be of great importance to our debate. This lengthy passage also closely relates to Mill’s theory of higher pleasures discussed above. The exercise of higher human capacities becomes fundamental to his deliberations on individuality. Conversely, individuality and personal freedom of speech, opinion, belief etc., become the necessary ingredients of man’s welfare. This would then indicate explicit relationship between the two principles of utility and liberty. These relations are even suggested by Gray to be “no more than a series of analytical equivalences”(32). Roger Crisp also notes in his Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism that “Mill’s arguments for freedom of thought and expression rest on the principle of utility.”(33).
Human happiness is, for Mill, undoubtedly related to their development and growth. This issue becomes so important to Mill that he even advances the provisions of state education, as necessary for the welfare of individuals. This promotion of state intervention into what could perhaps be seen as a self-regarded sphere, which Mill normally strives to keep away from any interventionism, has often been considered a fallacy in his liberalism. Yet, for Mill, adherence to the principle of liberty has to be always justified by his utilitarianism, which makes is constantly subject to “contingencies of the sources of welfare”(34). As Crisp notes, “if social interference will maximise welfare overall, then that legitimises the interference, even if it might appear to be an encroachment on the self-regarding sphere”(35). Yet again it proves the fundamental relationship between the two principles and their complementary nature.
Moreover, consistent relationship between Mill’s advocacy of variety and individuality, and his utilitarianism does not limit itself only to his two most well known books: On Liberty and Utilitarianism. This statement does then prove falsehood of some traditional allegations of inconsistency, advanced by Himmelfarb (36), claiming that Mill’s ideas were somehow torn between various experiences of his life and accordingly had effect on the composition and content of his writings. Among other passages from Mill’s writings, the following from his 1865 book on August Comte and Positivism seems incredibly convincing:
“Why is it necessary that all human life should point but to one object, and be cultivated into a system of means to a single end? May it not be the fact that mankind, who after all are made up of single human beings, obtain a greater sum of happiness when each pursues his own, under the rules and conditions required by the good of the rest, than when each makes the good of the rest his only object and allows himself no personal pleasures not indispensable to the preservation of his faculties”(37).
One can clearly notice here his persistency in defending personal freedom, as essentially related to principle of happiness. Chin Liew Ten also notes that “[i]ndeed in Auguste Comte and Positivism (…) there is every evidence of a continued belief in individual liberty”(38). Furthermore, this conviction plays a great role in his another work – Essays on Politics and Culture, where he argues against unnecessary state interventions. Mill declares that: “Beyond suppressing force and fraud, governments can seldom, without doing more harm than good, attempt to chain up the free agency of individuals”(39). Detailed reading of Mill’s works certainly indicates his persistence in defending liberty and utility.
Mill has often been charged with inconsistency of his philosophy, logical fallacies in his works or even ingenuity of some of his ideas. Analysis of his scholarship and heritage is still undoubtedly open. However, the author of this essay strongly agrees with John Gray in his argument that “Mill’s writings contain a coherent and forceful utilitarian defence of liberal principles about the right to liberty”(40). Mill’s works, if approached holistically, appear to indicate a continuous effort to indicate the need for individual freedom and the importance of individuality to his theories of both utilitarianism and liberalism. His theoretical advancement of the notion of higher pleasures proves to be remarkably innovative, thus escaping the incompatibility of traditional hedonistic utilitarianism of Bentham, and the idea of liberalism. However, most importantly, as argued by Gray, the understanding of Principle of Utility, as a general principle of valuation, and his Liberty Principle, as a principal of critical morality, somewhat avoids the predicament of compatibility. Logical difference emanating from this perception may even prove the question of reconciliation highly inadequate. Although, Mill’s attempt to syncretise utilitarianism with his idea of liberalism may sometimes be perceived as “foredoomed to an ignominious failure” , the author believes that this essay proves no such inescapable predicament. John Stuart Mill can certainly be legitimately described as both a Utilitarian, although of a very specific innovative type, and a Liberal.

Matthew Machowski © 2009

1. Gray, J., Mill on Liberty: A Defence, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 1983), p. 18.
2. Gray’s distinction of current streams of interpretation of Mill’s philosophy is hereby followed.
3. Crisp, R., “Utilitarianism and Freedom: On Liberty,” in Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism, 173-200 (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 174; for further details of this argument see also: Berlin, I., “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” in Four Essays on Liberty, 173-206 (Oxford: Oxford, 1969); and Ten, C. L., “Mill and Liberty,” Journal of the History of Ideas 30, no. 1 (January-March 1969): 47-68.
4. Gray, op. cit., p. 2.
5. ibid.
6. Gray., op. cit., p. 5.
7. Crisp., op. cit., p. 175.
8. Mill, J. S., On Liberty, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 14.
9. Gray., op. cit., p. 11.
10. Mill, 1989, op. cit., p. 14.
11. Ten, op. cit., p. 47.
12. For further details see: Gray, op. cit., p. 10.
13. Gray, op. cit., p. 11.
14. ibid.
15. ibid.
16. Brink, D. O., “Mill's Deliberative Utilitarianism,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 21, no. 1 (Winter 1992): 67-103, , [accessed: Feb 15, 2009], p. 84.
17. ibid., p. 83.
18. Scruton, R., “Thoroughly Modern Mill,” The Wall Street Journal, 19 May 2006, .
19. ibid.
20. Gray, op. cit., p. 12
21. ibid., p. 16
22. Mill, J. S., Utilitarianism, ed. George Sher (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2001), pp. 22-3
23. ibid., p. 63
24. Mill, 2001, op. cit., p. 8
25. Brink, op. cit., p. 92
26. Aziz, M., “John Stuart Mill's Theory of Liberty and His Utilitarian Premises,” Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences 3rd Year, no. 24 (September 2005), [accessed Feb 14, 2009]
27. Crisp, op. cit., p. 199
28. Mill, 2001, op. cit., p.10-1
29. Brink, op. cit., p. 94
30. Berlin, I., “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” in Four Essays on Liberty, 173-206 (Oxford: Oxford, 1969), p. 194
31. ibid.
32. Gray, op. cit., p. 14
33. Crisp, op. cit., p. 194
34. ibid., p. 185
35. ibid.
36. For further details see Himmelfarb’s introduction to Mill, J. S., Essays on Politics and Culture, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1963).
37. Mill, J. S., August Comte and Positivism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), pp. 141-2
38. ibid., p. 55
39. Mill, 1963, op. cit., pp. 163-4
40. Gray, op. cit., p. 14
41. ibid., p. 2

1 comment:

  1. The problem with the goal of utilitarianism is, for me, an issue of both information and accuracy. It is all very well being a consequentialist - wanting the best for everyone - but not only is that 'best' viewed differently between people, but more importantly subjective value can not be measured.

    Even with perfect information and a mind-reading device it would remain impossible to attach exact values to people's subjective preferences and as such I remain of the view that 'Utilitarianism', as a goal, is misguided.