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Professor puts Mill's 'Utilitarianism' essay in context with philosopher's other writings

Monday, November 13, 2017

LAWRENCE — One of the most frequently quoted phrases in philosopher John Stuart Mill's essay "Utilitarianism" — published in 1861 — is "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness."

Four decades earlier, Mill wrote "the only true end of morality, the greatest happiness of the greatest number," and in 1852 "the tendency of actions to promote happiness affords a test to which the feelings of morality should conform."

While Mill's book has become a cornerstone of the utilitarianism philosophy — based on the idea of the maximization of overall well-being — a University of Kansas philosopher says Mill's other writings provide additional context and are essential in studying his classic essay.

Ben Eggleston, professor of philosophy, has recently edited a version of Mill's "Utilitarianism" that includes related remarks from the British philosopher's other writings. This text could help students, teachers and even policymakers better understand Mill's thinking and apply utilitarian ideas to decision making, he said.

Some practical examples of utilitarianism as policies include increasing the minimum wage or instituting mandatory health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

"Mill wrote and published more or less constantly from the 1820s until his death in 1873," Eggleston said. "And because utilitarian ideas were always at the forefront of his thinking, they are discussed in many other writings of his besides his one essay called 'Utilitarianism.'"

The utilitarian theory often receives criticism that it can excuse certain immoral behavior, such as lying, as long as the choice perhaps will "do no harm" or that the benefits to the greatest number of people will outweigh the potential harm.

"It is fair to say that utilitarianism would require you to do things that we intuitively think are off-limits," Eggleston said. "The reply from within utilitarianism itself is any harms from the action itself will be counted against any benefits of making a certain decision."

He added that looking at Mill's other writings outside of "Utilitarianism" can shed more light on how Mill considered those tough moral situations.

"The related remarks in this edition of 'Utilitarianism' often contain more thorough discussions of things like truth-telling and respecting individual rights," Eggleston said. "If you read those related remarks alongside the text of 'Utilitarianism' itself, you get a much more complete picture of Mill's thinking about lots of issues."

Photo: John Stuart Mill, photo by the London Stereoscopic Company, 1870, via Wikicommons.