The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

I. Philosophers

§ 9. Utilitarianism

In spite of the prominence of the ethical interest in his mind and in spite, also, of numerous ethical discussions in his other writings, Mill’s sole contribution to the fundamental problem of ethical theory was his small volume Utilitarianism, which first appeared in Fraser’s Magazine in 1861 and was reprinted in book-form in 1863. Perhaps, he regarded the fundamental positions of Benthamism as too secure to need much elaboration. What he offers is a finely conceived and finely written defence of utilitarian ethics, into which his own modifications of Bentham’s doctrine of life are worked. He holds that the sanctions of this doctrine are not weaker than those of any other doctrine, and that, in its own nature, it is neither a selfish nor a sensual theory. It is not selfish, because it regards the pleasures of all men as of equal moment; it is not sensual, because it recognises the superior value of intellectual, artistic and social pleasures as compared with those of the senses. But Mill fails in trying to establish a logical connection between the universal reference of the ethical doctrine and the egoistic analysis of individual action to which his psychology committed him. And he is so determined to emphasise the superiority of the pleasures commonly called “higher,” that he maintains that, merely as pleasures, they are superior in kind to the pleasures of the senses, irrespective of any excess of the latter in respect of quantity. In so doing he strikes at the root of hedonism, for he makes the ultimate criterion of value reside not in pleasure itself but in that characteristic—whatever it may turn out to be—which makes one kind of pleasure superior to another.

Mill’s social and political writings, in addition to occasional articles, consist of the short treatise Considerations on Representative Government (1860), Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform (1859), the essays On Liberty (1859) and On the Subjection of Women (1869), Essays on some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy (1831, 1844) and Principles of Political Economy (1848). The method appropriate to these topics had been already discussed in the chapters on “the Logic of the Moral Sciences” included in his Logic. He sought a via media between the purely empirical method and the deductive method. The latter, as employed by his father, was modelled on the reasonings of geometry, which is not a science of causation. The method of politics, if it is to be deductive, must belong to a different type, and will (he holds) be the same as that used in mathematical physics. Dynamics is a deductive science because the law of the composition of forces holds; similarly, politics is a deductive science because the causes with which it deals follow this law: the effects of these causes, when conjoined, are the same as the sum of the effects which the same causes produce when acting separately. Like his predecessors, Mill postulated certain forces as determining human conduct: especially, self-interest and mental association. From their working he deduced political and social consequences. He did not diverge from the principles agreed upon by those with whom he was associated. Perhaps, he did not add very much to them. But he saw their limitations more clearly than others did: the hypothetical nature of economic theory, and the danger that democratic government might prove antagonistic to the causes of individual freedom and of the common welfare. To guard against these dangers he proposed certain modifications of the representative system. But his contemporaries, and even his successors of the same way of thinking in general, for long looked upon the dangers as imaginary, and his proposals for their removal were ignored.