John Stuart Mill
The story has it that John Stuart Mill started reading original Greek texts (as well as English) at three years of age. By eight years old he was reading Latin and had translated several works into English. By twelve he had completed an extensive study of classical literature, history, mathematics and logic. With his father James Mill (a prominent preacher and political organizer) and uncle Jeremy Bentham as his tutors, it is little wonder that his natural genius flourished.
Mill is the prominent 19th century philosopher. His particular influence is in political thought. Wherever you find a debate over freedom of speech and expression, you are certain to find direct or indirect influences from Mill. He was a prototype advocate of personal liberty and limited government authority, a position based on his highly developed Utilitarian ethics, which in turn draws from his empirical approach to logic and knowledge.
Mill wrote many works on many subjects. Among his most enduring efforts are the following:
Deontological ethics: based on reason, intention, and duty. Usually derived from the work of Immanuel Kant.
Consequentialist Ethics: based on the effects, or consequences, of actions. Utilitarianism is the primary form of consequentialist ethics.
Mill developed a powerful conception of ethical values based on the consequences of action. He clearly defined which consequences would count in determining an action right or wrong: they are pleasure and pain. All living things seek pleasure and avoid pain. Since the business of ethics is to produce the best possible world, the goal will be to maximize the total amount of pleasure in the world and minimize the total amount of pain.
At first this may sound trivial or even perverse to some people who regard pleasure as usually connected to something immoral. Mill meant pleasure and pain in its most basic way. For example, hunger causes pain, so hunger is an evil. On Mill's account, preventable death is a deprivation of pleasure, and so counts as an evil. Twenty thousand people die from hunger every day. Many of them children. That is a lot of pain.
In the United States, we throw more edible food in the garbage each day than it would take to feed the twenty thousand people who will die that day for lack of food. We in the U.S. have a surplus of pleasure.
Mill's major moral point is that we must judge the ethical value of actions on the overall consequences it has for people, in terms of pleasure and pain. The Greatest Happiness Principle holds that the more pleasure and the least pain an action causes, the better it is morally. We should seek to perform those actions and adopt those policies that lead to the greatest happiness. Distributing food to starving people would decrease much pain, so we ought to do it.
Still, one might point out (as some do) that this nation owes nothing to the people of other nations.
Mill's response to such sentiments is that national, geographical, and political categories are not an objective basis for ethical values. The greatest happiness principle, on the other hand, builds upon values that are universal to everyone - pleasure and pain. So the only consistent general moral principle must be:
Seek the greatest good for the greatest number.
That is a clear expression of the Utilitarian ethic. It is not an exotic notion. Many policy decisions are made on this basis. For example, the decision to use atomic weapons of mass destruction on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan in Word War II is often defended as a calculation against the number of lives lost versus lives saved. Some argue that an allied invasion of the Japan mainland would have cost many more lives overall than the 250,000+ people killed by the two bombs. Whether the facts in this appeal are straight is one matter, but it is clear that this is a utilitarian appeal. Less deaths = less pain = moral justification.
Utilitarianism is one of the most powerful moral ideas around. John Stuart Mill gave the clearest and most sophisticated account of that philosophical theory. Keep the elements of this view in mind and you are liable to hear someone use them to justify an action before long.