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How Does John Stuart Mill Balance Individual Freedom With the General Welfare of the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number?

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John Stuart Mill was the most famous and influential British philosopher of the nineteenth century. He was one of the last systematic philosophers, making significant contributions in logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and social theory

He was also an important public figure, articulating the liberal platform, pressing for various liberal reforms, and serving in Parliament.

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Given this historical context, it is understandable that Bentham used reason and science to explain human behavior. His ethical system was an attempt to quantify happiness and the good so they would meet the conditions of the scientific method. Ethics had to be empirical, quantifiable, verifiable, and reproducible across time and space. Just as science was beginning to understand the workings of cause and effect in the body, so ethics would explain the causal relationships of the mind. Bentham rejected religious authority and wrote a rebuttal to the Declaration of Independence in which he railed against natural rights as “rhetorical nonsense, nonsense upon stilts.” Instead, the fundamental unit of human action for him was utility—solid, certain, and factual. What is utility? Bentham’s fundamental axiom, which underlies utilitarianism, was that all social morals and government legislation should aim for producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism, therefore, emphasizes the consequences or ultimate purpose of an act rather than the character of the actor, the actor’s motivation, or the particular circumstances surrounding the act

It has these characteristics: (1) universality, because it applies to all acts of human behavior, even those that appear to be done from altruistic motives; (2) objectivity, meaning it operates beyond individual thought, desire, and perspective; (3) rationality, because it is not based in metaphysics or theology; and (4) quantifiability in its reliance on utility.

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Why rights? No doubt, Mill’s early life and formation had a great deal to do with his championing of individual freedom. He believed the effort to achieve utility was unjustified if it coerced people into doing things they did not want to do. Likewise, the appeal to science as the arbiter of truth would prove just as futile, he believed, if it did not temper facts with compassion (Thomas Hodgskin, 1832). “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing,” he wrote. Mill was interested in humanizing Bentham’s system by ensuring that everyone’s rights were protected, particularly the minority’s, not because rights were God given but because that was the most direct path to truth

Therefore, he introduced the harm principle, which states that 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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” To be sure, there are limitations to Mill’s version of utilitarianism, just as there were with the original. For one, there has never been a satisfactory definition of “harm,” and what one person finds harmful another may find beneficial. For Mill, harm was defined as the set back of one’s interests. Thus, harm was defined relative to an individual’s interests. But what role, if any, should society play in defining what is harmful or in determining who is harmed by someone’s actions? For instance, is society culpable for not intervening in cases of suicide, euthanasia, and other self-destructive activities such as drug addiction? These issues have become part of the public debate in recent years and most likely will continue to be as such actions are considered in a larger social context (Ian Shapiro).

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As can be seen, the preservation of justice keeps the peace among the people. Therefore, there is a strong utility interest in preserving and enforcing what justice commands

Most of the applications of justice discussed earlier are ways to maintain the notion of moral rights. The Greatest happiness principle doesn’t have meaning unless each person’s happiness is valued exactly the same as somebody else’s, which is basically the idea of impartiality and equality. In addition, people are seen to have an equal entitlement to happiness, and an equal entitlement to the means of happiness.

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Thomas Hodgskin, The Natural and Artificial Right of Property, Contrasted. (London: R. Steil, 1832).

Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1772–1834),” (by Michael Moran).

Ian Shapiro, “Lecture 7 – The Neoclassical Synthesis of Rights and Utility.”

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