The Moral Philosophy of John Stuart Mill

Essay by tortrisUniversity, Bachelor'sA+, April 2004

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At the very heart of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism is a concern which can be traced back to the Biblical parable of the house built on sand - an improper foundation. With this in mind, Mill audaciously sets out to develop a "foundational program" of morality, one that incorporates a principle that can be the basis for all other moral thinking. To find this foundational principle, the naturalistic Mill examines the common, fundamental beliefs of humanity. Mill finds his foundation in the statement that "pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends". While it is possible to bolster such a statement with rational supporting arguments, Mill accepts that there can be no definite "proof", necessitating that it be both intuitive and, with some explanation, self-evident. A thorough understanding of this statement (and its slightly less self-evident role as the foundation of the most influential moral theory of the 19th century) is crucial, as its effect on Mill's moral outlook as a whole is impossible to overstate.

It is imperative at this juncture to contrast the metaphysical naturalism of a figure such as Hobbes with the metaphysical and ethical naturalism one finds in Mill. Mill does not believe in the "naturalistic fallacy" which caused Hobbes such grief, and is therefore free to move from an empirical statement, such as "human beings tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain", to a normative one, like "therefore, pleasure is good, and pain is bad". This normative presupposition is Mill's basic preface to the foundational statement above, and it is necessary (and easy) to accept the former to explain the latter.

The tenets of utilitarianism that have been raised thus far, namely that pleasure is necessarily a "good" thing and that, furthermore, it is the only intrinsically good thing,