How Does John Stuart Mill Balance Individual Freedom With the General Welfare of the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number?
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.
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.
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).
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.
Thomas Hodgskin, The Natural and Artificial Right of Property, Contrasted. (London: R. Steil, 1832). http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/hodgskin-the-natural-and-artificial-right-of-property-contrasted.
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1772–1834),” (by Michael Moran). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/coleridge-samuel-taylor-1772-1834
Ian Shapiro, “Lecture 7 – The Neoclassical Synthesis of Rights and Utility.” http://oyc.yale.edu/political-science/plsc-118/lecture-7