The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

21
MILL’S
CONSEQUENTIALISM

Philip Kitcher


The tangles of Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is one of the most popular, and perhaps the most prominent, of all secular approaches to ethics, and John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism is typically viewed as the classic formulation of the position. Its canonical status is slightly odd. For Mill was not the originator of Utilitarianism: that honor must go to Jeremy Bentham, whose Principles of Morals and Legislation appeared decades before Utilitarianism. (Bentham’s Principles was published in 1781; Utilitarianism originally came into print in three issues of Fraser’s Magazine in 1861; the essays were collected into a single volume in 1863.) Nor did Mill offer the most elaborate and wide-ranging exposition and defense of Utilitarianism: that work was done by Henry Sidgwick, whose Methods of Ethics ran through seven editions, from 1874 to 1907. Sidgwick explored many fundamental questions about Utilitarianism, issues that had not been addressed by the writings of Bentham and Mill, and it is no overstatement to claim that his book is “the clearest and most accessible formulation of what we may call ‘the classical utilitarian doctrine’” (John Rawls, in Sidgwick 1981: v). Given Bentham’s concern with questions of social theory (many of which are entangled with features of late eighteenth-century Britain), it is hardly surprising that we do not go to the originator to learn about Utilitarianism. Yet Sidgwick’s concentration on the philosophical questions might seem to favor his work as the canonical source. Why then do those concerned with Utilitarianism turn so immediately to Mill?

There is one obvious reason. Mill was supposed to be the apostle of Utilitarianism – that was part of the point of the peculiar (and monstrous) educational regime to which he was subjected. In fact, Mill was more of an apostate than Sidgwick, and, as I shall be trying to show, he broke with the framework of classical Utilitarianism far more radically than commentators usually recognize. Yet his book (or essay, or sequence of essays?) has two features that make it a good candidate for the canon. It is short (as Sidgwick’s is not) and it is written in that clear, yet elegant, prose that makes Mill a joy to read.

Mill’s refinement and defense of the earlier version of Utilitarianism, articulated by Jeremy Bentham and by James Mill (J. S. Mill’s father and Bentham’s close friend), is

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