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How Mill’s Philosophy Would Relate to Any Contemporary Social Issues Today

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It is possible to take the essay Utilitarianism as Mill’s definitive statement of his doctrine and subject it to a rigorous analysis, seeking precise shades of meaning, testing the logical consistency and coherence of the argument, by means of the techniques and criteria of the modern philosopher. This task and this approach have been undertaken here by Professor D. P. Dryer, whose thorough and careful study follows this general introduction.

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Though Mill never renounced the liberal and utilitarian tradition and mission that he inherited from his father, his mental crisis and recovery greatly influenced his interpretation of this tradition. He became critical of the moral psychology of Bentham and his father and of some of the social theory underlying their plans for reform. It is arguable that Mill tends to downplay the significance of his innovations and to underestimate the intellectual discontinuities between himself and his father. One measure of the extent of Mill’s departure from the views of Bentham and James Mill is that Mill’s father came to view him as a defector from the utilitarian cause. We need to try to understand the extent of the transformation Mill brings to the utilitarian and liberal principles of the Radicals. Some of Mill’s most significant innovations to the utilitarian tradition concern his claims about the nature of happiness and the role of happiness in human motivation. Bentham and James Mill understand happiness hedonistically, as consisting in pleasure, and they believe that the ultimate aim of each person is predominantly, if not exclusively, the promotion of the agent’s own happiness (pleasure).

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We might call this Mill’s anti apriorism about knowledge—the view runs deep, giving an anthropological and empirical character to all of his philosophy. Mill adds to it a psychological account of the underlying mechanism by which we form ideas. Here, he follows very much in the tradition of the British Empiricists—the theory being traced by Mill back to Hobbes, through Locke and Hartley, and to James Mill’s publication of The Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind—in endorsing what has become known as associationist psychology: “the theory which resolves all the phenomena of the mind into ideas of sensation connected together by the law of association”. Though Mill holds that basic human thought is possible without language, “in complicated cases [it] can take place in no other way” (System, VII: 19). As such, a study of human beings’ theoretical engagement with the world demands clarity on this “fundamental instrument of thought” (Saunders, B., 2011). Mill’s account of language turns upon a distinction between the denotation and connotation of a word. Words denote the objects which they are true of; they connote specific attributes of those objects. The word “man”, for instance, denotes, or is true of, all men—“Peter, Paul, John, and an indefinite number of other individuals”. But it connotes the attributes in virtue of which the word “man” applies to these individuals—“corporeity, animal life, rationality, and a certain external form, which for distinction we call the human” (Ryan, A., 1987). Connotation determines denotation in the following sense: to know the connotation of a word is to know the necessary and sufficient conditions to determine whether a given object is denoted by that word.

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Generally speaking, it’s worth noting that Mill was not a ‘free speech absolutist’ and, indeed, that the notion of free speech absolutism does not make much sense. Mill thought that speech that directly incited violence to others should be prevented. And many other self-labelled ’absolutists’ accept similar restrictions. They argue that fraudulent speech or speech that amounts to common assault (i.e. causes fear of physical violence) should be subject to some legal restriction (as they have been for centuries). But once you allow for this you start to realise that the borders between permissible and impermissible forms of speech are highly contested. What counts as speech amounting to assault or fraud? What kinds of speech cause real harm? People have different opinions and different experiences. Perhaps that's the real argument for free speech: to allow people to air their different opinions about the value of free speech.

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Ryan, A., 1987, The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill, 2nd edition, New York: Humanity Books.

Saunders, B., 2011, “Reinterpreting the Qualitative Hedonism Advanced by J.S. Mill”, The Journal of Value Inquiry, 45(2): 187–201.

Mandelbaum, M., 1971, History, Man and Reason, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press.

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How Mill’s Philosophy Would Relate to Any Contemporary Social Issues Today
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