Garth Kimmerling's superb piece on Mill and Bentham.

Focused article from The Catholic Encyclopedia

Video: Utilitarianism
Professor Lawrence Hinman lectures on the ethics of utilitarianism.  To view this video you must be able use RealVideo. This resource is valuable, but if it does not work for you, then go on to another.

World Hunger Resources
Many web resources on hunger. Notably, a video lecture by Professor Peter Singer who is one of the prominent Utilitarian social moral philosophers today.


John Stuart Mill: Classic Liberal

Were we to make a list of the most widely used philosophical works, Mill's On Liberty will be high on the list.  Wherever debates over freedom of thought, speech, and expression take place, you can be sure that Mill's arguments will be found.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Library Association (ALA) are major organizations with ongoing agendas for free speech and against censorship.  Both end up frequently in major court battles and both appeal directly to Mill's arguments for freedom of thought and expression.  Many people disagree with the agendas of these groups and support forms of censorship. It is meaningful for all sides in the debate to know about the formative work in this area: Mill's On Liberty.  The work is not very long, is written is fairly accessible (i.e. non technical) language, and truly is a necessary work for every educated individual to be familiar with.

The No Harm Principle
It is important to understand that philosophers are held to standards of reasoned account for their claims.  Many people can make claims and give opinions.  The great philosophers are thinkers who seek to back up their claims in the most thorough ways.  Mill bases his appeals to personal liberty on one central idea;

"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." [On Liberty, part 1]

Political authorities have used force for many purposes: the christian inquisitions tortured people in order to convert them to christianity and save them from hell; many countries ban books and movies to prevent people from polluting their minds with bad ideas; American Slave holders forbade enslaved people from reading to keep them from "getting ideas"; tens of thousands of people are in prison in order to dissuade them from ruining their minds and bodies with drugs (your choices: just say "No" or just go to jail); suicide is illegal, even if the person is suffering great pain, because it offends the moral sensibilities of the many (Oregon and the Netherlands are the sole exceptions at present).  People have varied opinions about which uses of state force are acceptable, but it is clear that many such uses are designed to save people from themselves.  You, yourself, may have been attended to by people who want to save you from your own bad decisions and lifestyle.

Mill's ethics is based on the maximization of happiness (maximum pleasure, minimum pain).  The purpose and mandate of a government is to set policies that support the maximization of happiness.  Force can only be justified where the pain prevented is greater than the pleasure lost.  Mill argues that the form of government that gives rise to the greatest potential happiness is one that allows each competent individual to pursue their own happiness.  Forcing people to think or act a certain way tends against this ideal.  So, the only circumstances in which force against one person is justified are those in which harm to another person is to be prevented. This idea is commonly expressed as; "The right to swing your fist ends as the other person's nose." 

Social Tyranny
Mill was not concerned only with the use of force by government against individuals and groups, but also by the use of social force against the unpopular individual.  He called such force, the Tyranny of the Majority;

"Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. ." [On Liberty, part 1]

Perhaps you have felt or witnessed such social force at work.  In youth it is called peer pressure.  A recent example is the case of a Port Orchard, Washington Eagle Scout who lost his belief in God some years into his participation in the Boy Scouts.  His scout leader found out about his change in religious conviction and reported it to the regional scout director.  The regional officials gave the scout ten days to change his beliefs or be expelled from the Boy Scouts.  Apparently he did not see the light and his membership was nullified. 

Now this case, and other like it, is controversial.  Some folks maintain that the Boy Scouts have every right to set standards of belief for their members. I am not here attempting to influence this issue.  It is clear, however, what Mill would say in this case.  He would ask; "Does the lack of belief in a supreme creator harm any other?"  It does not seem to, so Mill would regard this as a case of social force to "enslave the soul itself."  I think that he would regard the Boy Scouts as employing a Tyranny of the Majority over the single individual.  I am interested in what you think about this case - but read On Liberty first.

Next - Read Part II of Mill's On Liberty Go to the next page


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