Mill on Ethics & Religion: Collected Works vol. X

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Source: Editor's introduction to The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume X - Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by F.E.L. Priestley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985).

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Introduction by F.E.L. Priestley

the essays collected in this volume are the main documents for the illustration and exposition of John Stuart Mill’s thoughts on ethics and religion and their function in society. Since his system of ethics is avowedly Utilitarian, these documents, arranged chronologically, present the development of Mill’s Utilitarianism as given in published utterance. Questions about the precise nature of his doctrine are capable of being approached in various ways, of which we have, in this edition, chosen two. 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. It is also possible to follow the patterns of thought, and the patterns of exposition, in the successive works included here, and to treat them in terms of the history of ideas—in this case the development of Mill’s ideas—and in terms of rhetoric, or what might be called the strategy or tactics of presentation and argument. This is to remember that Mill is not purely a philosopher, but a man of letters and a controversialist. It is this second task, and this second approach, that I undertake in this general introduction.


It is natural for discussions of Mill’s variations from Benthamism to start with evidence of his discontent or restiveness under Bentham’s rule, and the main documents called in to supply that evidence are the Autobiography and the essays on Bentham and on Coleridge. As one reads Mill’s retrospective account of what he himself was like before the mental crisis of 1826, that is, during the period of complete committal to Benthamism, one is struck by how closely the portrait of the young Mill resembles the portrait the more mature Mill draws of Bentham. Bentham’s “principle of utility” was “the keystone” which “gave unity” to his conceptions of things, and formulated for him “a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy, . . . a religion.”1 The “description so often given of a Benthamite, as a mere reasoning machine,” he says, “was during two or three years of my life not altogether untrue of me.” Zeal “for what I thought the good of mankind was my strongest sentiment. . . . But my zeal was as yet little else, at that period of my life, than zeal for speculative opinions. It had not its root in genuine benevolence, or sympathy with mankind; though these qualities held their due place in my ethical standard. Nor was it connected with any high enthusiasm for ideal nobleness.” “[My] father’s teachings tended to the undervaluing of feeling”—as also did Bentham’s. (76-7.)

As he looks back on what he was, Mill recognizes of course in himself the suppressed potentialities that differentiate him from Bentham: “no youth of the age I then was, can be expected to be more than one thing, and this was the thing I happened to be,” but of the absent “high enthusiasm for ideal nobleness,” he comments: “Yet of this feeling I was imaginatively very susceptible; but there was at that time an intermission of its natural aliment, poetical culture, while there was a superabundance of the discipline antagonistic to it, that of mere logic and analysis” (76-7). He also recognizes from this later perspective the power of his father’s feelings, but the fact remains that the feelings are given little place in James Mill’s system. The whole Benthamite system of the regeneration of mankind, to which the young Mill fully subscribed, was to be the “effect of educated intellect, enlightening the selfish feelings” (78). The inevitable egoism of man was to be modified into an enlightened egoism.

The first movement of emancipation from the narrow mould of Benthamism was a very slight one: the rejection of Bentham’s contempt for poetry. This came first through “looking into” Pope’s Essay on Man, and realizing how powerfully it acted on his imagination, despite the repugnance to him of its opinions. It is significant that in retrospect Mill connects this momentary stirring of the imagination by poetry, quite apart from the appeal of its opinions, with the “inspiring effect,” “the best sort of enthusiasm,” roused by biographies of wise and noble men. These stirrings are, as he points out, of greater meaning from the vantage-point of maturity than they were at the time. They did not affect the “real inward sectarianism” of his youth; they were evidence merely of a suppressed potentiality (79-80). It is, nevertheless, this suppressed potentiality which distinguishes the young Mill from Bentham himself.

The actual process of cracking the shell of his “inward sectarianism” begins with his mental crisis in the autumn of 1826. The great end of Benthamism was the production of pleasure (or, to accept Bentham’s extension, happiness). Now Mill found his life devoid of happiness. To the vital question, “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” his “irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, ‘No!’ ” And, as he puts it, “the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.” (94.)

What is strongly suggested by Mill’s account, and by the criticism of the doctrine of association taught him by his father and Bentham which immediately follows in the Autobiography, is that the crisis of apathy, of loss of incentive, had brought home to him with full force the objection commonly made to Utilitarianism as a system of ethics, that it provided no source of obligation. “I was,” he says, “. . . left stranded . . . with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail; without any real desire for the ends which I had been so carefully fitted out to work for: no delight in virtue, or the general good. . . . [N]either selfish nor unselfish pleasures were pleasures to me.” To “know that a feeling would make me happy if I had it, did not give me the feeling.” “. . . I became persuaded, that my love of mankind, and of excellence for its own sake, had worn itself out. . . .” (97-8, 95.) The cause of his state he finds in the education to which he had been subjected, which was, as he recognizes, the kind of education through which Bentham and James Mill looked for the progressive improvement of mankind. His teachers, he says, “seemed to have trusted altogether to the old familiar instruments, praise and blame, reward and punishment,” linked to behaviour in the educational pattern of association derived from Helvetius (96). These associations Mill now saw as artificial and mechanical, not natural. They are, in fact, deliberately created or cultivated prejudices (or, to use a more modern terminology, states of conditioning). There is thus a conflict between this whole area of Bentham’s thought and that area which concerns itself with critical analysis. Bentham’s constructive thought, his plan for progress through enlightenment, reveals a fatal dichotomy. In so far as it is conceived in terms of rewards and punishments to induce the desired behaviour by mechanical association, that is, in so far as it derives from Helvetius and Beccaria, it is at odds with the kind of enlightenment represented by Bentham’s critical attacks on received notions and stereotyped habits of thought, conducted through rational analysis. As Mill points out, “we owe to analysis our clearest knowledge of the permanent sequences in nature; the real connexions between Things, not dependent on our will and feelings; natural laws. . . .” “The very excellence of analysis . . . is that it tends to weaken and undermine whatever is the result of prejudice. . . .” (97, 96.)

A consideration of these passages in the Autobiography indicates first of all that Mill is separating the two aspects of Bentham’s system, the constructive and the critical, and showing why he largely rejects the former, while still generally approving of the latter. This whole procedure suggests a detached and rational weighing of Benthamism difficult to reconcile with the obvious agitation of Mill’s mind at this time. But to a large extent the agitation is in fact connected with the detached rational estimate. There can be no doubt that the maturing Mill became intellectually dissatisfied with the narrow and rigorous schematization which both Bentham and his father delighted in. Nor is there much doubt that any wavering or back-sliding, any questioning of the orthodox doctrine of what was to James Mill, as to John Stuart, a “religion,” smacked to both of heresy and betrayal. It is significant that as late as 1833, Mill is still anxious to keep his heretical views from his father. Some of the anguish, then, is undoubtedly that of a pillar of the faith, beset by intellectual doubts, and in constant communion with the founder of the church.

But much in the Autobiography also suggests a less rational and perhaps even more powerful influence at work. This is an enormous sense of the impoverishment of his own nature, of the denial of a vital part of it, of a suppression of its full potentialities, through the narrowness of the system in which he had been educated. It would be hard to find in any autobiography a passage with more dreadful implications than the one in which Mill records that he read through the whole of Byron, “to try whether a poet, whose peculiar department was supposed to be that of the intenser feelings, could rouse any feeling in me” (103). The nightmarish sense of a paralyzed sensibility, to be tested by the most violent provocation at hand, as if one were applying a powerful current to a nerve one feared to be dead, conveys a profound sense of despair, more profound than that in Arnold’s “buried life.”

As is well known, it was from Wordsworth’s poems that Mill derived “a medicine for [his] state of mind,” “a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings. . . .” “From them,” he says, “I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. . . . I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. . . . And the delight which these poems gave me, proved that with culture of this sort, there was nothing to dread from the most confirmed habit of analysis.” (104.) One is again reminded of Arnold, and his tribute to Wordsworth as the poet who, “when the age had bound Our souls in its benumbing round, . . . spoke, and loosed our heart in tears,” and who “shed On spirits that had long been dead, Spirits dried up and closely furl’d, The freshness of the early world.”2

In his depression, Mill had been brought to the belief that “the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings . . . ” (96). Since he had been taught by his education not only that the proper exercise of the mind was this habit of analysis, but also that “the pleasure of sympathy with human beings, and the feelings which made the good of others . . . the object of existence, were the greatest and surest source of happiness” (97), he had seemed to be faced with a dilemma. It is from this dilemma that Wordsworth delivered him, as the last sentence quoted above shows.

In his rebellion, emotional and intellectual, against Bentham, Mill sees himself, in retrospect, as if in violent reaction. He notes of a later stage that he had “now completely turned back from what there had been of excess in my reaction against Benthamism” (169). He describes himself, during the reaction, as influenced by the Coleridgeans, and moving towards their position. But he also speaks of the truths “which lay in my early opinions, and in no essential part of which I at any time wavered” (118).

The central question of the nature of Mill’s Utilitarianism clearly involves his attitude towards Bentham and Bentham’s system. But the implications of his reaction against Bentham are neither clear-cut nor simple. An analogy is suggested by his own description of his early enthusiasm for Benthamism as a religion. Heretics are not all of one sort: some reject the old religion totally and subscribe to another set of beliefs, some wish to abandon parts of the orthodox doctrine as excrescences or debasements or perversions, some question the definitions and doctrines and seek a re-definition. Mill had obviously been brought up to accept Benthamism as the full and orthodox doctrine of the utilitarian creed. As a heretic, he could either see himself as rejecting Utilitarianism or as rejecting Bentham’s definition of it. It is clear that he saw himself as doing the latter.


That Mill’s heresy is of the “revisionist” sort is made evident not only by the very obvious fact of his defence of Utilitarianism in the essay on that subject, but by an examination of the essays on Bentham and on Coleridge. The “Remarks on Bentham’s Philosophy” which Mill wrote anonymously in 1833 as an appendix to Lytton Bulwer’s England and the English is notable for its direct challenge of Bentham’s interpretation of the doctrine of Utility: “he has practically, to a very great extent, confounded the principle of Utility with the principle of specific consequences. . . . He has largely exemplified, and contributed very widely to diffuse, a tone of thinking, according to which any kind of action or any habit, which in its own specific consequences cannot be proved to be necessarily or probably productive of unhappiness . . . is supposed to be fully justified. . . .”3 This confusion has been the “source of the chief part of the temporary mischief” Bentham as a moral philosopher “must be allowed to have produced” (7-8). He has ignored the question whether acts or habits not in themselves necessarily pernicious, may not form part of a pernicious character. In ignoring states of mind as motive and cause of actions, Bentham is in fact ignoring some of the consequences, for “any act . . . has a tendency to fix and perpetuate the state or character of mind in which itself has originated” (8). And by thus limiting consideration of the morality of an act to “consequences” narrowly conceived, Bentham has, Mill implies, given some sanction to those who see Utilitarianism as merely a doctrine of expediency; “a more enlarged understanding of the ‘greatest-happiness principle,’ ” which took far more into account than Bentham’s “consequences,” would not be open to this interpretation (7).

Although Bentham entitles his work Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, it is perhaps fortunate, says Mill, that he concerns himself mainly with legislation rather than morals, “for the mode in which he understood and applied the principle of Utility” was more conducive to valuable results in relation to legislation (7). But even here, the narrowness of his definition of the principle leads him to fail in “the consideration of the greater social questions—the theory of organic institutions and general forms of polity; for those . . . must be viewed as the great instruments of forming the national character . . . ” (9). The deficiency in Bentham’s understanding of the principle of Utility is further aggravated, in his speculations on politics, by the deficiency of his method of “beginning at the beginning”: he starts with a view of man in society without a government, and then considers sorts of government as alternative constructions to be hypothetically applied and evaluated. This method, says Mill, “assumes that mankind are alike in all times and all places, that they have the same wants and are exposed to the same evils, and that if the same institutions do not suit them, it is only because in the more backward stages of improvement they have not wisdom to see what institutions are most for their good” (16). This is vastly to over-simplify the real problem of politics. It is to ignore the function of political institutions as “the principal means of the social education of a people,” to be fitted specifically to the particular needs of the circumstances and national character at a particular stage of civilization. Since different stages demand the production of different effects, no one social organization can be fitted to all circumstances and characters.

The reductive simplicity of this aspect of Bentham’s thought proceeds ultimately from the similar simplicity of his view of human nature. He “supposes mankind,” writes Mill, “to be swayed by only a part of the inducements which really actuate them; but of that part he imagines them to be much cooler and more thoughtful calculators than they really are” (17). He ignores the profound effect of habit and imagination in securing political acquiescence, and the effect upon habit and imagination of continuity of political structure and especially its outward forms. He ignores, in short, what Burke calls “prejudice,” and which Burke rightly recognizes as to some extent indicating an adaptation of institutions, “associated with all the historical recollections of a people,” to their national character (17). It is this historical continuity “which alone renders possible those innumerable compromises between adverse interests and expectation, without which no government could be carried on for a year, and with difficulty even for a week.”

If the narrowness of Bentham’s view of human nature introduces such serious deficiencies into his political thought, in the area of moral thought Mill sees its effect as positively vicious. In asserting that “men’s actions are always obedient to their interests,” Bentham by no means intended “to impute universal selfishness to mankind, for he reckoned the motive of sympathy as an interest. . . . He distinguished two kinds of interests, the self-regarding and the social. . . .” But the term interest in vulgar usage gets restricted to the self-regarding, and indeed the “tendency of Mr. Bentham’s own opinions” was to consider the self-regarding interest “as exercising, by the very constitution of human nature, a far more exclusive and paramount control over human actions than it really does exercise.” As soon as Bentham has shown the direction in which a man’s selfish interest would move him, he habitually “lays it down without further parley that the man’s interest lies that way” (14). This assertion Mill goes on to support with quotations from Bentham’s Book of Fallacies. “By the promulgation of such views of human nature, and by a general tone of thought and expression perfectly in harmony with them,” he flatly charges, “I conceive Mr. Bentham’s writings to have done and to be doing very serious evil. . . . It is difficult to form the conception of a tendency more inconsistent with all rational hope of good for the human species, than that which must be impressed by such doctrines, upon any mind in which they find acceptance.” “I regard any considerable increase of human happiness, through mere changes in outward circumstances, unaccompanied by changes in the state of the desires, as hopeless. . . . No man’s individual share of any public good which he can hope to realize by his efforts, is an equivalent for the sacrifice of his ease, and of the personal objects which he might attain by another course of conduct. The balance can be turned in favour of virtuous exertion, only by the interest of feeling or by that of conscience—those ‘social interests,’ the necessary subordination of which to ‘self-regarding’ is so lightly assumed.” (15.)

Mill reinforces his case by further criticism of Bentham’s psychology—the inadequacy of his list of motives, or “springs of action,” the inferiority of his doctrine to Hartley’s in omitting “the moral sense,” the falseness of his notion that “all our acts are determined by pains and pleasures in prospect,” as implied in the calculus of consequences (12). Mill also introduces something like Godwin’s distinction between the morality of an act and the virtue of the actor. The virtuous man is deterred, not by a view of consequences, or of future pain, but from the painful “thought of committing the act,” a pain which precedes the act. “Not only may this be so,” Mill adds, “but unless it be so, the man is not really virtuous.” Again, consequences depend on deliberation, but he who deliberates “is in imminent danger of being lost” (12). Mill might seem here to be arguing a doctrine of “moral sense,” an immediate, not deliberative apprehension of the moral quality of an act. He is certainly defining virtue in terms of moral disposition, or motive, like the intuitionists. But in view of his rejection in Utilitarianism of any cognitive element in “moral sense,” we must conclude that here the deterrent “painful thought” performs only a psychological, not an epistemic function. What Mill is doing, then, is substituting an account of moral sense in terms of his empirical psychology for that offered by the intuitionists. His reference to Hartley serves to remind us that Hartley also attempts to reconcile in this fashion, at least to some degree, the opposed empirical and intuitionist schools of moral philosophy.

Where Bentham is successful, Mill argues, is in those areas which do not involve moral philosophy. Penal law, for example, “enjoins or prohibits an action, with very little regard to the general moral excellence or turpitude which it implies. . . .” The legislator’s object “is not to render people incapable of desiring a crime, but to deter them from actually committing it” (9). Again, in his efforts to reduce law to a science, in his deductions of principles, and the separating of historical, technical, and rational elements, in his exploding of “fantastic and illogical maxims on which the various technical systems are founded” (10), in his concepts of codification of the law, Bentham, operating purely critically, is brilliantly successful, and Mill pays him full tribute.

How far Mill’s estimate of Bentham, in this essay of 1833, is accurate or just to Bentham need not concern us here. What we are solely concerned with is to determine the exact state of Mill’s own thought, and particularly of its relation at this point to Utilitarianism.

What we first note is the sharp separation of Bentham as moral philosopher from Bentham as analyst and proponent of the philosophy of law, the first being attacked as not only inadequate but positively pernicious, the second being praised almost without qualification. We note secondly that Bentham the moral philosopher is described almost totally in terms of what he derives from Helvetius and Beccaria: the egoistic psychology, the reduction of motive to simple, undifferentiated pleasure and pain, the defining of virtue and vice simply by means of consequences, the restriction of consideration to the action and not including the virtue of the actor or his motives, the mechanical theory of association which, by linking pain or pleasure to certain actions, will “educate” the egoistic individual into socially useful behaviour. The extent to which Bentham in fact modifies the rigorous pattern of Helvetius and Beccaria is minimized. Mill suggests, indeed, that the modifications weigh very lightly in Bentham’s own habits of thought.

What we have in this essay is, then, a point-by-point rejection of practically all the main elements in the structure of the system of Utilitarianism as conceived by Helvetius and Beccaria. It is clear that if their system is taken to be the pure and orthodox doctrine, Mill is at this moment an anti-Utilitarian. But it is also clear from the essay that this is not how the matter appeared to Mill. He insists rather that the structure he is attacking is not the true doctrine, but a false one raised entirely upon the foundations of a false psychology, a false view of human nature. He is, in short, not the type of heretic who rejects the whole religion, but the type who sees himself, not as a heretic, but as the exponent of the true faith, warped in its transmission by the narrowness of vision of the prophets before him.


The essay on Bentham, written in 1838 as a review of Bentham’s collected Works,4 and the essay on Coleridge, published in 1840, continue the pattern established by the essay of 1833. But in the meantime Mill had been provoked by Sedgwick’s Discourse into a defence of Utilitarianism. This, being a public and avowed performance, and not, like the earlier essay, anonymous, gave Mill a limited opportunity, as he says, to insert into his defence of “Hartleianism and Utilitarianism a number of the opinions which constituted my view of those subjects, as distinguished from that of my old associates.” “My relation to my father would have made it . . . impossible . . . to speak out my whole mind . . . at this time.” He was obliged “to omit two or three pages of comment on what I thought the mistakes of utilitarian moralists, which my father considered as an attack on Bentham and on him.”5

The modern reader, with the less-guarded essay of 1833 to place beside the defence of 1835, can savour the ironies of the situation. As he reads Mill’s scornful rejection of Sedgwick’s argument that “waiting for the calculations of utility” is immoral, since “to hesitate is to rebel,”6 he is likely to recall the passage Mill wrote in 1833: “The fear of pain consequent upon the act, cannot arise, unless there be deliberation; and the man as well as ‘the woman who deliberates,’ is in imminent danger of being lost.7 And as he reads the attack on Sedgwick’s contention that the principle of utility has a “debasing” and “degrading” effect (66), he remembers, from the text of 1833, that “the effect of such writings as Mr. Bentham’s, if they be read and believed and their spirit imbibed, must either be hopeless despondency and gloom, or a reckless giving themselves up to a life of that miserable self-seeking, which they are there taught to regard as inherent in their original and unalterable nature” (16).

Mill’s relation to his father has not only made it impossible, as he says, to speak out his whole mind; it has undoubtedly forced him into a degree of disingenuousness. As he begins his defence of the theory of utility against Sedgwick’s attack, he lays down a caveat: “No one is entitled to found an argument against a principle, upon the faults or blunders of a particular writer who professed to build his system upon it, without taking notice that the principle may be understood differently, and has in fact been understood differently by other writers. What would be thought of an assailant of Christianity, who should judge of its truth or beneficial tendency from the view taken of it by the Jesuits, or by the Shakers?” (52.) In the context, the implication is that the wrong understanding of the principle of utility is Paley’s; in the context of the essay of 1833 the wrong view can also be Bentham’s. “A doctrine is not judged at all until it is judged in its best form” (52). This caveat is repeatedly, but often unobtrusively, inserted into the attack on Sedgwick. Mill speaks of the doctrine of utility “when properly understood.” He insists that “clear and comprehensive views of education and human culture” must form the basis of a philosophy of morals; that “all our affections . . . towards human beings . . . are held, by the best teachers of the theory of utility” to originate in the natural human constitution; he accuses Sedgwick of “lumping up” the theory of utility with “the theory, if there be such a theory, of the universal selfishness of mankind” (71; italics added).

It is clear to those who know the essay of 1833 that the caveat is directed against Bentham, that Bentham is the counterpart of the Jesuits and Shakers, but no explicit sign of this intention appears. The only mention of Bentham in the whole essay is indeed, when set against the context of 1833, highly misleading: Paley, says Mill, would doubtless admit that men are acted upon by other than selfish motives, “or, in the language of Bentham and Helvetius, that they have other interests, than merely self-regarding ones” (54). This remark does not, it will be noted, actually make any statement about the doctrines of Bentham and Helvetius, but only about their language—specifically the term “interest”—but it permits the reader to interpret it as a statement about doctrine.

Mill does, however, in spite of these ambiguities, insert some of those ideas that he sees as modifications or correctives of Benthamism. When, for example, he attributes the “lax morality taught by Paley” to Paley’s confusion of utilitarianism with expediency, and objects at length to the narrow definition of “consequences” (56), he directs nominally against Paley the same arguments he directed in 1833 against Bentham. His insistence on the importance of poetry, along with autobiographies and novels, in broadening views of human nature, in supplying knowledge of “true human feeling” (56), and in the formation of character, again parallels passages in the Autobiography and in the essay of 1833. So does his list of feelings—the chivalrous point of honour, envy and jealousy, ambition, covetousness; although his immediate point is to analyze them all into products of association, he is nevertheless suggesting an enlargement of Bentham’s “springs of action.” And his comment upon the effects of the “excessive cultivation” of “habits of analysis and abstraction upon the character” records precisely the same rebellion as that recorded in the Autobiography. The steady emphasis upon character and motive, the inclusion of effects on character among “consequences” of an act, and the tendency to turn attention away from Bentham’s sort of “consequences” to these, insert into the essay, at least by implication, many of the fundamental criticisms of Bentham made in 1833.


By 1838 James Mill, as well as Bentham, was dead, and John Stuart Mill was free to write without wounding his father by his heresy or disloyalty. The essay on Bentham is his first public exercise of this freedom. His emancipation is proclaimed in the opening paragraph, where he praises in perfectly equal terms Bentham and Coleridge, “the two great seminal minds of England in their age,” the proponents of the philosophy in which Mill had been reared, and of the philosophy which he in general thinks of as its antithesis. In the context of the relatively long essay on Bentham, this first paragraph and the one following it create a peculiar effect. We are told that both men effected a revolution in the “general modes of thought and investigation” of their time, that both were closet-students, never read by the multitude, that their influences have “but begun to diffuse themselves” over society at large, Bentham’s over the “Progressive class,” Coleridge’s over the “Conservative,” and that to Bentham it was given “to discern more particularly those truths with which existing doctrines and institutions were at variance; to Coleridge, the neglected truths which lay in them”—talents which suggest in broad and relatively conventional terms Progressive and Conservative attitudes.8 The reader of 1838 might well have wondered why this very general preamble and this laudatory but unspecific tribute to Coleridge should preface a long and detailed essay concerned exclusively with Bentham. As we are now able to recognize, and as probably the reader of 1840 could recognize with the essay on Coleridge before him, the introductory paragraphs are not an introduction to the essay on Bentham. They are an introduction to Mill’s thoughts about Bentham, which is a somewhat different and more complex subject. We can now see, with the Autobiography available to us, why Mill thinks of Coleridge as well as Bentham at this point. The reader of “Coleridge” would understand the force of the final introductory sentence about each philosopher’s approach to doctrines and institutions.

Any reader, however, is likely to feel that the treatment of Bentham in the essay contrasts in its severity with the praise in the introduction, and indeed Mill himself at a later date had misgivings.9 The contrast is perhaps more apparent than real. As in the essay of 1833, Mill does not underestimate what he takes to be Bentham’s real achievement: “to refuse an admiring recognition of what he was, on account of what he was not” is an error, he says, “no longer permitted to any cultivated and instructed mind” (82). The praise he now gives Bentham goes a good deal further than Mill was willing to go in 1833. At that time it was difficult for him to value any but the critical side of Bentham’s philosophy. Now he discriminates and elaborates. Bentham is still the great “subversive, or, in the language of continental philosophers, the great critical, thinker of his age and country” (79). But his importance is to be estimated fully neither by the quality of his critical analysis—which shows no subtlety or power of recondite analysis—nor by his achievement in the area in which he really excelled, the correction of practical abuses. His importance lies in his widespread and lasting influence. “It was not Bentham by his own writings; it was Bentham through the minds and pens which those writings fed—through the men . . . into whom his spirit passed” (79). And this spirit was not purely negative and critical; it included a positive and constructive element. He “made it a point of conscience” not to assail error “until he thought he could plant instead the corresponding truth” (82). But again, his real value lies not in those conclusions he took for truth, but in the method, combining critical analysis with positive synthesis. He reformed philosophy, but it “was not his doctrines which did this, it was his mode of arriving at them.” “It was not his opinions, in short, but his method, that constituted the novelty and the value of what he did; a value beyond all price, even though we should reject the whole, as we unquestionably must a large part, of the opinions themselves.” (83.)

Freed of the necessity of accepting and praising Bentham’s opinions, and free to make this radical disjunction of his method from its doctrinal product, Mill can praise whole-heartedly. It was the doctrines that had been the stumbling-block. As soon, however, as he begins to examine the method to which he has ascribed a revolutionary novelty, he is seized by fresh doubts. The novelty and originality are perhaps not in the method after all, but in “the subjects he applied it to, and in the rigidity with which he adhered to it” (83). The method, considered as a logical conception, has certain affinities “with the methods of physical science, or with the previous labours of Bacon, Hobbes, or Locke. . .” (83). The novelty now becomes “not an essential consideration” of the method, but of its application. And here the novelty appears in “interminable classifications,” “elaborate demonstrations of the most acknowledged truths.” “That murder, incendiarism, robbery, are mischievous actions, he will not take for granted without proof. . . .” (83.)

Up to this point, one gets a sense of deliberate anticlimax, starting with a great seminal mind, dismissing the doctrines and opinions produced by it, praising the method it developed, only to cast suspicion on the originality involved, and ending with a reduction to the phrases above, with the slighting “interminable,” “elaborate,” “most acknowledged.” Having thus invited the reader virtually to dismiss Bentham, doctrines, method, and all, Mill proceeds to a patient and detailed demonstration of the value, despite its and its begetter’s shortcomings, of Bentham’s method, the “method of detail.” In it Mill sees an “application of a real inductive philosophy to the problems of ethics.” And so, after an anticlimactic nadir, we come back to praise.

The peculiarity of this pattern is open to more than one explanation. It could be a purely rhetorical device, in which Bentham’s opponents are thrown off balance and disarmed by concession after concession, until, just as all seems conceded and their victory complete, Bentham’s greatness is re-asserted on grounds they had overlooked. But one gets the sense here rather of following the windings of Mill’s own mind, as he sorts out what he himself has acquired from Bentham: not doctrine, for much of that he had rejected in 1833; not method, for he himself had argued for an imitation of the inductive sciences rather than of geometry in moral and political philosophy. It could then only be the way in which Bentham had developed and applied the method, the precise nature of the “habit of analysis” he and James Mill had taught their pupil. From his father Mill had learned, he believed, subtlety of analysis; from Bentham the “exhaustive method.”10

And this of course brings Mill back again, after giving Bentham due credit, to the limitations of the “habit of analysis” in general, and to Bentham’s limitations in particular. In what seems to be a general anxiety in this work to be fair to his subject, he first explains the sort of breadth Bentham’s mind possessed: “he sees every subject in connexion with all the other subjects with which in his view it is related. . .” (88-9). He thus preserves himself against one kind of narrow and partial views—but “Nobody’s synthesis can be more complete than his analysis” (89), and a system based upon an imperfect analysis will be exceedingly limited in its applicability. Bentham’s analysis is limited in various ways: first of all by his contemptuous dismissal of all other thinkers and schools of thought, whose speculations he dismissed as “vague generalities.” The “nature of his mind,” says Mill, “prevented it from occurring to him, that these generalities contained the whole unanalysed experience of the human race” (90). One catches here, particularly in the last phrase, a hint of Mill’s own discovery, recorded in the Autobiography, of the vast areas of human experience, and especially of the unanalyzed and unanalyzable experience embodied in imaginative writing, which Bentham so glibly dismissed.

Furthermore, in ignoring thinkers of the past, Bentham is ignoring “the collective mind of the human race.” “The collective mind does not penetrate below the surface, but it sees all the surface.” And by refusing to consider views opposed to his own, Bentham limits his own vision, for “none are more likely to have seen what he does not see, than those who do not see what he sees” (91).

It is at this point that Mill develops his theory of the half-truth, conceived generally in terms of polarity. “The hardiest assertor . . . of the freedom of private judgment—the keenest detector of the errors of his predecessors, and of the inaccuracies of current modes of thought—is the very person who most needs to fortify the weak side of his own intellect, by study of the opinions of mankind in all ages and nations, and of the speculations of philosophers of the modes of thought most opposite to his own.” “A man of clear ideas errs grievously if he imagines that whatever is seen confusedly does not exist. . . .” (91.)

Bentham’s most serious limitation, however, was “the incompleteness of his own mind as a representative of universal human nature. In many of the most natural and strongest feelings of human nature he had no sympathy; from many of its graver experiences he was altogether cut off; and the faculty by which one mind understands a mind different from itself, and throws itself into the feelings of that other mind, was denied him by his deficiency of Imagination.” (91.) Behind these sentences lie not only the explanation of the incompleteness of Bentham’s analysis of human nature, of the reductive simplicity of his “springs of action,” but also a strong suggestion of Mill’s own experience in the early years recorded in the Autobiography—of the sensitivities of an imaginative child and youth dismissed as nonsense. This suggestion is reinforced by the description Mill gives, immediately after this passage, of the sort of Imagination Bentham lacked—a description in words taken from Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads of 1800. Without this imagination, Mill continues, “nobody knows even his own nature, further than circumstances have actually tried it and called it out” (92). There can be no doubt that at this point he is recalling his own emotional crisis, and the release of self-knowledge he owed to Wordsworth.

Bentham’s knowledge of human nature is “wholly empirical,” that is, based on his own experience, and “he had neither internal experience nor external. . . .” “He was a boy to the last. Self-consciousness . . . never was awakened in him.” “Knowing so little of human feelings, he knew still less of the influences by which those feelings are formed. . . .” (92, 93.) Mill’s sentences flow on, one after the other, evenly, balanced, poised, and almost totally damning.

From Bentham’s denial of “all truths but those which he recognizes” flows the bad influence he has had upon his age: “he has, not created a school of deniers, for this is an ignorant prejudice, but put himself at the head of the school which exists always. . . : thrown the mantle of intellect over the natural tendency of men in all ages to deny or disparage all feelings and mental states of which they have no consciousness in themselves” (93).

It will be noted that this is a very different accusation, in its description of the source and nature of Bentham’s bad influence, from that of 1833. Then the influence was ascribed to his positive doctrines; now it arises from his failure to recognize that his own truths are merely “fractional truths.” And after praise of “one-eyed men,” Mill sets out to assert the value of Bentham’s limited visions of these fractional truths. The assessment suggests why he has substituted “fractional” for “half”; as he details Bentham’s conception of human nature, and then the elements ignored by it, the fraction representing Bentham’s share of the whole truth becomes evidently small. “Man is never recognised by him as a being capable of pursuing spiritual perfection as an end; of desiring, for its own sake, the conformity of his own character to his standard of excellence, without hope of good or fear of evil from other source than his own inward consciousness.” This “great fact in human nature escapes him.” (95.) If he occasionally speaks of “love of justice” as inherent in almost all mankind, it is impossible to tell “what sense is to be put upon casual expressions so inconsistent with the general tenor of his philosophy” (95n). Neither the word “self-respect” nor the idea it indicates occurs even once in his writings. The sense of honour, of personal dignity, the love of beauty, of order, of congruity, the love of abstract power, of action,—none of these “powerful constituents of human nature” finds a place among his “Springs of Action.” Even his doctrine of sympathy does not include “the love of loving, the need of a sympathising support, or of objects of admiration and reverence.” These omissions arise, not from the absence of these elements in Bentham’s own nature, but from his having “confounded all disinterested feelings which he found in himself, with the desire of general happiness” (96)—that is, although Mill does not explicitly say so, from a deficiency of analysis.

In 1833, it was the reduction of motives in Bentham’s view of human nature that led to his bad influence; now the influence is minimized: “he has not been followed in this grand oversight by any of the able men who, from the extent of their intellectual obligations to him, have been regarded as his disciples.” “If any part of the influence of this cardinal error has extended itself to them, it is circuitously, and through the effect on their minds of other parts of Bentham’s doctrines.” (97.)

But having thus, after a fashion, absolved Bentham from the serious charges made in 1833, Mill now goes on to examine, “in a spirit neither of apology nor of censure, but of calm appreciation,” how much Bentham’s view of human nature will accomplish in morals, and how much in political and social philosophy. In morals, it will do nothing “beyond prescribing some of the more obvious dictates of worldly prudence, and outward probity and beneficence” (97-8). For Mill, full emphasis is on the word “outward.” In short, Benthamite ethics will be merely prudential and external. Self-education, “the training, by the human being himself, of his affections and will,” is “a blank” in his system, and without it, the regulation of outward actions “must be altogether halting and imperfect” (98). The system is not, then, valid even as a system of prudential and external ethics.

Moreover, the system is totally useless for regulating “the nicer shades of human behaviour, or for laying down even the greater moralities . . . which tend to influence the depths of the character quite independently of any influence on worldly circumstances” (98). In Bentham’s Deontology, one finds that the petite morale almost alone is treated, “and that with the most pedantic minuteness, and on the quid pro quo principles which regulate trade” (99). The fraction of truth in Bentham’s ethics has by now become an infinitesimal.

What of his social doctrine? Again, “it will do nothing . . . for the spiritual interests of society; nor does it suffice of itself even for the material interests” (99). It offers, in effect, an exact parallel with the ethics. It ignores national character as the ethics ignore individual character. “A philosophy of laws and institutions, not founded on a philosophy of national character, is an absurdity” (99). But Bentham’s opinions on national character would be even more worthless than his totally inadequate opinions on individual character. “All he can do is but to indicate means by which, in any given state of the national mind, the material interests of society can be protected,” leaving to others the important question whether the use of those means would injure the national character (99). His philosophy can, then, “teach the means of organizing and regulating the merely business part of the social arrangements”—and that is all (99). It cannot deal with anything involving reference to moral influences. Bentham mistakenly thought the business part of human affairs was the whole of them, or at least all that the legislator and moralist are concerned with. Since for Mill the “business part” cannot be dealt with without reference to moral influences, and a philosophy of morals not founded on a philosophy of character is as absurd as a philosophy of laws and institutions not founded on a philosophy of national character, Bentham’s social philosophy and moral philosophy are alike absurd.

Yet he goes on to speak of the “business part” as the field of Bentham’s greatness, “and there he is indeed great” (100). The greatness is entirely as a critical philosopher, except in the philosophy of law. As in 1833, here he can praise Bentham unreservedly. But as he turns, with obvious relief, to this area, he tries to temper his judgment on Bentham’s performance in moral and social philosophy, using a mathematical image more admirable for its neatness than for its cogency. He has, after all, reduced the “fractional truths” in Bentham virtually to vanishing point. Now he praises Bentham for having “originated more new truths” than the world “ever received, except in a few glorious instances, from any other individual. . . . Nor let that which he did be deemed of small account because its province was limited. . . . The field of Bentham’s labours was like the space between two parallel lines; narrow to excess in one direction, in another it reached to infinity.” (100.) As Mill well knows, in the mathematical juggling implied in his image, the area enclosed by his parallel lines will remain an infinite area however closely the distance between the lines approaches zero without reaching it. He has brought Bentham’s lines very close together indeed; the precise nature of their infinite extension would perhaps be hard for Mill to define.

Even his praise of Bentham’s philosophy of law is rather more tempered than in 1833 or, to put it perhaps more accurately, Bentham’s status as legal philosopher is more sharply separated from his status as political philosopher. The same accomplishments are praised, and the same large reservation is made about Bentham’s ignoring of national character in his thoughts on government. But new criticisms are introduced. “The Benthamic theory of government has made so much noise in the world of late years; it has held such a conspicuous place among Radical philosophies, . . . that many worthy persons imagine there is no other Radical philosophy extant” (105-106). Of the “three great questions in government,” the first two, “to what authority is it for the good of the people that they should be subject,” and “how are they to be induced to obey that authority,” must have varied answers according to the “degree and kind of civilization” already attained by a people, and their “peculiar aptitudes for receiving more” (106). These questions Bentham does not seriously concern himself with. The third question, “how are abuses of this authority to be checked,” has a less variable answer, and is Bentham’s main concern. His answer is, by responsibility of the authority to “the numerical majority,” whose interest he takes to coincide with the interest of the whole community. This assumption, the “fundamental doctrine of Bentham’s political philosophy,” Mill challenges. “Is it, at all times and places, good for mankind to be under the absolute authority of the majority of themselves?” Since this absolute authority will control, not only actions, but minds, opinions, and feelings, he goes on to demand, “Is it . . . the proper condition of man, in all ages and nations, to be under the despotism of Public Opinion?” (106-107.) Of the three great questions in government, then, Bentham virtually ignores two, and supplies a questionable answer for the third. The Radical philosophy which has become so dominant through his influence places all its faith in the rule of a numerical majority, a faith Mill was increasingly inclined to question.

Mill challenges, in fact, that whole concept of government which Halévy has described as “the artificial identification of interests,” and which he sees as the Benthamite doctrine. To achieve an identity of interests, Mill says, would be to achieve identity of “partialities, passions, and prejudices,” “to make one narrow, mean type of human nature universal and perpetual, and to crush every influence which tends to the further improvement of man’s intellectual and moral nature” (107). The doctrine, in short, by which Benthamism aims at producing a just yet stable society, will end by producing a static one, and the static society becomes an unjust society. There must be provision, then, for “a perpetual and standing Opposition to the will of the majority,” and not, as in Bentham’s scheme, for every ingenious means of “riveting the yoke of public opinion” round the necks of all public functionaries. “Wherever all the forces of society act in one single direction, the just claims of the individual human being are in extreme peril.” The exercise of the power of the majority must be “tempered by respect for the personality of the individual, and deference to superiority of cultivated intelligence” (108-109).

Having thus again, on the subject of government, reduced Bentham’s “fractional truth” to virtual insignificance, Mill again starts to redress the balance by asserting the value of Bentham’s “political speculations.” What he has just been suggesting as a misuse of Bentham’s “great powers,” the exhausting of “all the resources of ingenuity in devising means for riveting the yoke of public opinion closer and closer,” he now describes as pointing out “with admirable skill the best means of promoting, one of the ideal qualities of a perfect government—identity of interest between the trustees and the community for whom they hold their power in trust” (109). The shift from blame to praise of Bentham is accompanied, one notes, by a shift in interpretation of the doctrine of identity of interests: it is no longer the identity (and identification) of the interests of the individual and of the community, but of the interests of the rulers and of the community. Since Bentham relies on responsibility of the rulers to the numerical majority as the “best means of promoting” this end, a principle Mill has just attacked, it is difficult to see how the variation can salvage Bentham’s value.11 Mill also praises Bentham for his attention to “interest-begotten prejudice,” particularly as displayed in “class-interest, and the class morality founded thereon,” although noting at the same time that in the psychology of self-deception religious writers, with their superior knowledge of the “profundities and windings of the human heart,” had penetrated much deeper than he (109).

Then finally, Mill turns to the subject in which we are most interested, and which he gives every evidence of having deliberately avoided. “It may surprise the reader,” he says, and indeed it may, “that we have said so little about the first principle . . . with which his name is more identified than with anything else; the ‘principle of utility,’ or, as he afterwards named it, ‘the greatest-happiness principle.’ ” A great deal could be said on the subject, “on an occasion more suitable for a discussion of the metaphysics of morality, or on which the elucidations necessary to make an opinion on so abstract a subject intelligible could be conveniently given.” But a discussion of the principle of utility is not “in reality necessary for the just estimation of Bentham” (110). On the face of it, to say that the discussion of a philosopher’s “first principle,” the principle with which his name is identified, is not necessary for a just estimation of him is a surprising dictum. It is here also of very great importance. Obviously, if the principle of utility is irrelevant to an estimate of Bentham, Bentham is irrelevant to an estimate of the principle of utility. The process of separation of Bentham from the doctrine is complete.

But the fact of Bentham’s Utilitarianism remains to be explained, or even explained away. It is there in Bentham’s system, Mill says in effect, from a special kind of psychological compulsion. To Bentham, “systematic unity was an indispensable condition of his confidence in his own intellect,” and the principle of utility serves to create that systematic unity: “it was necessary to him to find a first principle which he could receive as self-evident, and to which he could attach all his other doctrines as logical consequences” (111). This was, then, a psychological necessity for Bentham; he had to have a system. But the value of his thought clearly does not lie in the system or in the achievement of its construction. The implication is strong that another principle might easily have given him another system, that this would have given him equal confidence, and produced equally valuable results. This is why, presumably, an estimate of his achievement does not depend on the validity of his principle or of his system.

Thus, by another route, Mill brings us back to the conclusion that Bentham’s greatness does not lie in his body of doctrines, but in his method. Yet the method itself, which for Bentham is clearly inseparable from system-building, has been opened further to criticism. As to the “greatest-happiness principle,” Mill records his entire agreement with the principle “under proper explanations”—a significant qualification. These explanations he obviously has no intention of going into in detail at this time, but he drops a few hints. “We think utility, or happiness, much too complex and indefinite an end to be sought except through the medium of various secondary ends. . . .” Mankind, being “much more nearly of one nature, than of one opinion about their own nature,” can agree more readily about these intermediate ends than about the first principles; and “the attempt to make the bearings of actions upon the ultimate end more evident than they can be made by referring them to the intermediate ends, and to estimate their value by a direct reference to human happiness, generally terminates in attaching most importance, not to those effects which are really the greatest, but to those which can most easily be pointed to and individually identified” (110-11). So much for the “felicific calculus.”

Then Mill repeats the charge of 1833: that Bentham ignores, among his “consequences,” the effect of actions upon the agent’s own mind and character. He further expands this theme. “The cold, mechanical, and ungenial air which characterizes the popular idea of a Benthamite” is a result of Bentham’s one-sided treatment of actions and characters solely in terms of the moral view. And again, this error belongs to him, “not as a utilitarian, but as a moralist by profession” (112). Mill’s correction is to distinguish three aspects of every human action: the moral (of its right and wrong), the aesthetic (of its beauty), the sympathetic (of its loveableness). “The first addresses itself to our reason and conscience; the second to our imagination; the third to our human fellow-feeling” (112). In effect, Mill is rejecting the tendency of strict Utilitarianism to ignore the morality of the agent, as he has done in insisting on effects on character as consequences. He does not here, like William Godwin, distinguish and separate the morality of an action (judged by consequences) and the morality of an agent (judged by motive or intention), since he clearly sees these as only artificially separable. His introduction of the aesthetic is also notable—it clearly reflects the response recorded in the Autobiography to narratives of great lives, and it brings Mill at this point curiously close to the school of Shaftesbury.

It seems certain that thoughts of his own childhood and youth are in Mill’s mind at this point, since he moves directly from these considerations of the qualities of an action to Bentham’s peculiar dislike of discussions of taste (“as if a person’s tastes did not show him to be wise or a fool, cultivated or ignorant, gentle or rough, sensitive or callous, generous or sordid, benevolent or selfish, conscientious or depraved,” Mill observes (113) in a tone of rebuke), and to his equally peculiar opinions on poetry. The famous “pushpin is as good as poetry” is shown to be less anti-cultural than its quoters usually suppose, but “All poetry is misrepresentation” is allowed to be Bentham’s characteristic view (114). This view proceeds, as does Bentham’s intricate and involved style, from a fallacious view of the nature and possibility of precision in language. The view carries with it the paradox that in trying to write with absolute precision, Bentham “could stop nowhere short of utter unreadableness, and after all attained no more accuracy than is compatible with opinions as imperfect and one-sided as those of any poet or sentimentalist breathing” (115).

So closes the “impartial estimate” of Bentham’s “character as a philosopher, and of the results of his labours to the world.” And again, the paradoxical statement, that after “every abatement . . . there remains to Bentham an indisputable place among the great intellectual benefactors of mankind” (115). What is one to make of the paradox? Is the praise merely the tribute of personal loyalty to an early guide, philosopher, and friend, all of whose ideas have been outgrown? This is perhaps the dominant impression given by the footnote Mill added to refute Brougham’s view of Bentham’s character, but here the concern is with defence of character. In the essay itself, there is no separation of Bentham the man from Bentham the philosopher, which would have been an obvious way of paying personal tribute. It is, on the contrary, clear that Mill, while undercutting and dismissing virtually all Bentham’s claims to serious consideration as a thinker, nevertheless retains in some peculiar way a great respect for him as an intellectual influence and force. And although his specific praise is directed almost entirely to the critical side of Bentham’s work, to his demolishing of legal fictions, and so on, it is apparent that Mill, as in 1833, sees him as more than a preparatory destroyer, more than a Voltaire, for example. He is not merely the wrecker clearing old houses from the site to prepare for new building; he is in some sense an architect of the new, even if his plans seem all wrong. I spoke earlier about different kinds of heretic, and perhaps Mill would not object to the suggestion of an analogy drawn from the history of Buddhism. The two great branches of Buddhist thought were named (by the later branch) the Hīnayāna, or Inferior Vehicle, and the Mahāyāna, or Great Vehicle. Ānanda, the first reciter of the Scriptures (Sūtra), was held by the Mahāyāna to have had an imperfect grasp of their meaning, and to have taught them to disciples with an equally imperfect grasp. He nevertheless made the Great Vehicle, the more enlightened interpretation, possible; and also, through his own teachings and those of his disciples, established the Buddhism which the Mahāyāna would re-interpret and reform. If one grants that Utilitarianism has no Buddha, and consequently no inspired Scriptures, it is still possible to see Bentham as the Ānanda of Utilitarianism, the Benthamites as Hīnayāna Utilitarians, and Mill as seeking to establish Mahāyāna Utilitarianism. This would make Bentham, like Ānanda, a “great seminal mind,” one who has opened up “rich veins of original and striking speculation,” one who has been “the teacher of the teachers,” whose modes of thought have “inoculated a considerable number of thinking men.” He has established a whole school of Utilitarians and Radicals, based on his Inferior Vehicle; this is the great preliminary accomplishment to prepare for the Great Vehicle. Consequently, although Bentham’s statement of the doctrines is now to Mill erroneous and therefore unimportant as a statement of the true religion, Bentham himself is to be honoured.


When we turn to the essay on Coleridge, first published in 1840, we have been led by the Bentham essay into certain expectations. We are now to see examined the other “seminal mind,” and perhaps to inspect other half or fractional truths. A reader with a clear memory of the earlier essay might also wonder whether Coleridge’s truths are to be subjected to the same rather devastating scrutiny as Bentham’s. The opening of the essay is so close in its pattern to the earlier one as to arouse this suspicion. For here again, Bentham and Coleridge are praised equally as “the great questioners of things established”; Bentham, “beyond all others,” has led men to ask of a received opinion, Is it true?; Coleridge, What is the meaning of it? Both have exerted influence far beyond their immediate followers. Coleridge is praised for his Burkean sense of the collective wisdom enshrined in long-established beliefs, whose duration is “at least proof of an adaptation in it to some portion or other of the human mind, . . . some natural want or requirement of human nature which the doctrine in question is fitted to satisfy. . . .”12 Each of them thus sees what the other does not.

In all this expansive tolerance and appreciation, the harsh comments on Bentham seem forgotten, and the reader who recalls phrases from the essay on Bentham is likely to read with some surprise the pronouncements, “If a book were to be compiled containing all the best things ever said on the rule-of-thumb school of political craftsmanship, and on the insufficiency for practical purposes of what the mere practical man calls experience, it is difficult to say whether the collection would be more indebted to the writings of Bentham or of Coleridge,” and “Of their methods of philosophizing, the same thing may be said: they were different, yet both were legitimate logical processes.” (121.) And those who remember the whittling away of Bentham’s claims to originality here discover that his originality is greater than Coleridge’s: “Bentham so improved and added to the system of philosophy he adopted, that for his successors he may almost be accounted its founder; while Coleridge . . . was anticipated in all the essentials of his doctrine by the great Germans of the latter half of the last century. . .”; “he is the creator rather of the shape in which it has appeared among us, than of the doctrine itself.” (121.)

After this opening, very close in its tone of relaxed generosity to the introduction in the companion essay, Mill turns to an elaboration of his theory of half-truths, which he now gives not merely a supplementary rôle, as in the first essay, but a function of active dialectic. He emphasizes the importance, “in the present imperfect state of mental and social science, of antagonist modes of thought,” illustrating by examples of the controversy between primitivists and progressivists, and between supporters and opponents of aristocracy (122). But just when his reference to “Continental philosophers” has led the reader to expect a further development of the dialectic pattern, he virtually rejects it for a theory of alternative extremes between which opinion oscillates. All that is positive in opposed opinions is often true, and it would be easy to choose a path “if either half of the truth were the whole of it,” but it is very difficult to frame, “as it is necessary to do, a set of practical maxims which combine both” (123).

He finds at this point, in other words, no evidence in the history of opinion to support a belief either in the dialectic process, by which thesis and antithesis produce a synthesis, or in half-truths which become supplementary and form a whole. Even if a just balance between extremes exists in the mind of the wiser teacher, “it will not exist in his disciples, still less in the general mind” (124). Improvement consists only in a lessening of the amplitude of swings of the pendulum. The image suggests a remote hope of an eventual dead centre, but the passage is, for Mill, curiously pessimistic.13 In this context he treats the “Germano-Coleridgian doctrine” in terms of reaction against eighteenth-century empiricism. What the change here in the exposition of half-truths as oscillations rather than as supplementary discoveries implies, is that Mill is prepared to grant only limited validity to the “Germano-Coleridgian doctrine,” viewing it as an excessive swing of the pendulum rather than as a valuable corrective and completion of its opposite half-truth.

And this indeed is what his treatment suggests. As he describes the opposed philosophies, the versions he offers indicate, if not a bias, at least a very uneven grasp of the two. When he ascribes to Kant, for example, a claim that the human mind has “a capacity, within certain limits, of perceiving the nature and properties of ‘Things in themselves,’ ” and when he describes what he takes to be Coleridge’s (and Kant’s) theory of perception and of a priori truths (125), one feels that his comprehension is so faulty as to suggest that he has not taken the metaphysical and epistemological parts of their philosophy very seriously. In similar fashion, he seems to accept unquestioningly the vulgar misinterpretation of the “common sense” of the Scottish school. There is no reason to suspect Mill in this of deliberate distortion or bias. As he says, “Disputants are rarely sufficient masters of each other’s doctrines, to be good judges what is fairly deducible from them,” or, he might have said, to be good judges of the doctrines. And, he continues, “To combine the different parts of a doctrine with one another, and with all admitted truths, is not indeed a small trouble, nor one which a person is often inclined to take for other people’s opinions. Enough if each does it for his own. . . .” (128.) Mill recognizes indeed that each philosophy, the empirical and the rational, “has been able to urge in its own favour numerous and striking facts” which have taxed the metaphysical resources of the other philosophy to explain. His own opinion, which he presents, he says, as a “bare statement,” is that the truth lies with empiricism, with “the school of Locke and of Bentham” (128).

Taken as a declaration of adherence, not to these two philosophers and their doctrines in detail, but to the general philosophy which they represent, this “bare statement” makes it clear that whatever half-truths he is going to find in Coleridge will not be found in his metaphysical positions, in his theory of knowledge, or of the imagination. The philosophical Coleridge who today attracts so much attention, particularly from literary critics, forms no part of Mill’s concern. And if the reader has been led by the openings of this and the companion essay on Bentham to expect the Coleridge half to be fitted neatly to the Bentham half, as indeed he might well be, he will be surprised by the relative scarcity of specific references to Bentham and his ideas. He will find, after a description of the state to which English institutions were brought in the eighteenth century, an expansion of the comparison made in the first essay: “This was . . . a state of things which . . . was sure in no great length of time to call forth two sorts of men—the one demanding the extinction of the institutions and creeds which had hitherto existed; the other that they be made a reality: the one pressing the new doctrines to their utmost consequences; the other reasserting the best meaning and purposes of the old. The first type attained its greatest height in Bentham; the last in Coleridge.” (145-6.)

The one extensive and important reference to Bentham is in relation to first principles of government. Coleridge’s theory of government, although “but a mere commencement, not amounting to the first lines of a political philosophy,” is still asserted to be superior to any other the age has produced, including the Benthamic (153). “The authors and propounders” of the Benthamic theory (presumably Bentham and James Mill) “were men of extraordinary intellectual powers, and the greater part of what they meant by it is true and important. But when considered as the foundations of a science, it would be difficult to find among theories proceeding from philosophers one less like a philosophical theory, or, in the works of analytical minds, anything more entirely unanalytical.” And Mill then proceeds to apply to the “complex notions” of “interest” and “general interest” the sort of critical analysis Bentham liked to apply to traditional phrases, “breaking them down into the elements of which they are composed” (153). The analysis reveals and challenges many of Bentham’s assumptions.

It first challenges Bentham’s assumption that the interests of the middle class are most likely to be identical with the general interest, interpreting “interest” in Benthamic terms: “If by men’s interest be meant what would appear such to a calculating bystander, judging what would be good for a man during his whole life, and making no account, or but little, of the gratification of his present passions, his pride, his envy, his vanity, his cupidity, his love of pleasure, his love of ease”—one notes how Mill here implies that Bentham unconsciously substitutes an “ideal spectator” for the actual man, and also how once again he calls attention to the limitations of Bentham’s “springs of action”—“it may be questioned whether, in this sense, the interest of an aristocracy, and still more that of a monarch, would not be as accordant with the general interest as that of either the middle or the poorer classes. . .” (154). The point here is that interests in this idealized form would in fact be identical. Every man, no matter what his class, would take the same detached, unimpassioned, and unbiased view of the consequences of each action. “And if men’s interest, in this understanding of it, usually governed their conduct,” Mill adds, “absolute monarchy would probably be the best form of government” (154). He thus suggests a complete hiatus between the psychological premisses on which Bentham’s political system is founded, and its conclusions, which favour a democracy with power in the hands of the middle class.

But men in fact, he goes on, “usually do what they like, often being perfectly aware that it is not for their ultimate interest, still more often that it is not for the interest of their posterity. . .” (154). Nor, when they do believe an object is permanently good for them, do they assess its value accurately. The problem of politics is not whose permanent interests are likely “to be most in accordance with the end we seek to obtain,” but “who are they whose immediate interests and habitual feelings” are. And the end itself, the “general good,” is “a very complex state of things, comprising . . . many requisites which are neither of one and the same nature, nor attainable by one and the same means.” “A government must be composed out of the elements already existing in society, and the distribution of power in the constitution cannot vary much or long from the distribution of it in society itself.” (154.)

Mill makes no explicit connection between these criticisms of Bentham and the ideas of Coleridge, but an implicit connection is established by the tenor of the whole essay, which constantly sets up the views of Coleridge, or of the “Germano-Coleridgian school,” against the esprit simpliste of the eighteenth-century thinkers. Where the Lockean school, for example, had in thinkers like Condillac “affected to resolve all the phenomena of the human mind into sensation, by a process which essentially consisted in merely calling all states of mind, however heterogeneous, by that name,” a philosophy consisting “solely of a set of verbal generalizations, explaining nothing, distinguishing nothing, leading to nothing” (129), Coleridge not only takes up the more complex analysis of Hartley, but tries to solve difficulties remaining in Hartley’s system.14 Again, the Continental philosophes, in their simple optimism, assume that the destruction of institutions will itself establish the ideal society. Coleridge, on the other hand, is aware of the problems of establishing and maintaining a society, of the difficulty of obtaining the habit of obedience and acquiescence on which a society depends. He defines the three requisites: a system of education in discipline, a feeling of allegiance or loyalty, and a principle of social cohesion (a national sense or sense of community). The recognition of these requisites by the Germano-Coleridgian school provides the first inquiry into the “inductive laws of the existence and growth of human society.” This school is the first to have produced a philosophy of society, “in the only form in which it is yet possible, that of a philosophy of history, . . . a contribution, the largest yet made by any class of thinkers, towards the philosophy of human culture” (139). Mill sees this contribution as springing particularly from their recognition of national character, and its formation by national education, which is at once the source of permanence and of progress in a society, the first as a system of discipline, the second as a stimulant to the faculties. The Germano-Coleridgian school, in their views on “the various elements of human culture and the causes influencing the formation of national character, . . . throw into the shade everything which had been effected before. . .” (141).15

Coleridge’s views on the Established Church and on the English Constitution are also set against the context of the eighteenth-century thinkers, the simple views both of those who clung to them because they were there, and of those who hoped great things from their abolition. Coleridge’s clear separation16 of the function of the Church as the clerisy from the functions of a church as a religious body, his objection to identifying the Church with its clergy, constitute in Mill’s view a fruitful analysis of a complex relationship of an institution to its society. Similarly, his views on the opposite interests of the State in permanence and progression, and his relating of these interests to the five classes of citizens, strike Mill as a valid analysis of the English political scene.

Even in political economy, where he finds Coleridge generally “an arrant driveller” he praises his opposition to “the let alone doctrine,” and his insistence on “the idea of a trust inherent in landed property.” The first opposes the dominant eighteenth-century purely negative view of government, in favour of a view of the State as “a great benefit society, or mutual insurance company, for helping . . . that large proportion of its members who cannot help themselves,” and Mill quotes with approval Coleridge’s three “positive ends” for government to pursue. The second rejects the Lockean view of property, as absolute proprietorship, in respect to land, as distinguished from the produce of labour. Mill here develops his own argument, that “when the State allows any one to exercise ownership over more land than suffices to raise by his own labour his subsistence and that of his family, it confers on him power over other human beings” (156-8). This power the State ought to control.

There are clearly a number of leading ideas which Mill shares with Coleridge, and which no doubt he acquired from the Coleridgians. But any Coleridgian must be struck by the limitations, rather than the extent, of the influence. It is significant that the greatest bulk of quotation is from Church and State and Literary Remains. The emphasis throughout is on political and social thought, and particularly on modes of analysis, not unlike Bentham’s, but yielding very different results. One gets the impression that Mill has been most struck by seeing the “habit of analysis” at work in a mind operating from very different assumptions than Bentham, and capable of more subtle analysis. More important still, it is a mind alive to the complexity of human nature, of human society, of human institutions, and a healthy corrective to the arid and formalist reduction of eighteenth-century thought. Contact with this mind has brought Mill out of the eighteenth century—but it has not destroyed totally his allegiance to his upbringing.


If Mill’s residual allegiance is evident in the essay on Coleridge, it is vastly more so in that on Whewell. As we have seen in the review of Sedgwick, if an outsider attacked Bentham, Mill sprang to the defence, even if the attack made charges he himself had made. In part he responds, one senses, as to a family affair: it is one thing to criticize one’s relatives; for a stranger to make the same criticisms is a different matter. But there is more to it than this. At an earlier stage, it seems clear, Mill had hoped to establish a distinction between Benthamism and Utilitarianism. If, as seemed evident, Utilitarianism was becoming fixed in the popular mind as a system of egoistic hedonism, as what Carlyle called a “pig philosophy,” the fault was Bentham’s, and it was necessary, for the defence of Utilitarianism, to disavow a great part of his doctrines. The public must be taught that Benthamism is not true Utilitarianism. This is a conviction which Mill holds unwaveringly, however much his emotional attitude towards Bentham shifts and changes. The Benthamite doctrines he attacked in 1833 he continues to reject. But he does come to a questioning of his early tactics. If these failed to break the popular identification of Benthamism and Utilitarianism, then attacks on Bentham’s doctrines merely provided support for the opponents of Utilitarianism. The comparison with religious reformers again springs to mind. Worshippers who are firmly held within the general faith, but discontented with the formulation of its doctrines, can be led into a reformed church; but attacks on the established orthodoxy will not necessarily convert the pagan—they may simply provide aid and comfort to the enemies of religion.

So Mill felt by the 1850s. The reaction again Utilitarianism, powerfully voiced by Carlyle, had been gaining in strength. It was soon to be reinforced by the eloquence of Ruskin and the savage comedy of Dickens. Utilitarianism itself was in danger. As Mill later recorded in the Autobiography (153), he continued to think his criticism of Bentham’s doctrines in 1838 (and presumably also in 1833) was just, but he came to doubt “whether it was right to publish it at that time.” The doubt is clearly as to tactics: “Bentham’s philosophy, as an instrument of progress, has been to some extent discredited before it had done its work, and . . . to lend a hand towards lowering its reputation was doing more harm than service to improvement.” This doubt as to tactics is expressed more strongly in 1854-5 than in 1861, as Professor Robson has noted.17 Later, as Mill comments in the Autobiography, when he sensed a “counter-action . . . towards what is good in Benthamism,” he felt justified in reprinting the “Bentham” and “Coleridge” essays, especially as he had “balanced” his criticisms of Bentham by “vindications of the fundamental principles of Bentham’s philosophy” (153)—which earlier he would have called fundamental principles of Utilitarianism. Where he has toned down the explicit distinction between and separation of “Benthamism” and “Utilitarianism rightly understood,” this is a change, not of his own doctrine, but of tactics. The new tactics are to include defence of Bentham, supplemented by a restatement of the fundamental principles. The new testament of Utilitarianism is to enlarge and correct the old, but not explicitly reject it.

The way in which the new tactics operate is first illustrated in the essay on Whewell’s moral philosophy. The separation of Benthamism from the “principle of utility” is included, but not emphasized. “It would be quite open to a defender of the principle of utility, to refuse encumbering himself” with a defence of either Paley or Bentham. “The principle is not bound up with what they have said in its behalf, nor with the degree of felicity which they may have shown in applying it.”18 Whewell is wrong in imagining that Bentham either thought himself, or was thought by others, to be the discoverer of the principle. He was instead the first to erect on the principle, as a foundation, “secondary or middle principles, capable of serving as premises for a body of ethical doctrine not derived from existing opinions, but fitted to be their test.” This “great service,” which for the first time makes possible “a scientific doctrine of ethics on the foundation of utility,” Bentham performed “in a manner, as far as it goes, eminently meritorious, and so as to indicate clearly the way to complete the scheme” (173). His eye was focussed rather on the exigencies of legislation than on those of morals.

This judgment of Bentham is in substance the same as that of 1838, but the difference in tone, and the lessening of emphasis on the negative interpretation, and increase on the positive, reveal the new approach. Bentham’s deficiencies are not denied, nor left unmentioned—his practical conclusions in morals were “mostly right,” “as far as they went,” but “there were large deficiencies and hiatuses in his scheme of human nature and life, and a consequent want of breadth and comprehension in his secondary principles, which led him often to deduce just conclusions from premises so narrow as to provoke many minds to a rejection of what was nevertheless truth” (173-4). He is the Bacon of moral science, not only in having, like Bacon, established a method, but also, like Bacon, in having worked many problems on insufficient data. Again, these are the same judgments as in 1838, shorn of the condemnatory tone and the rhetorical expansion. No suggestion is now made that Bentham’s shortcomings have led him into dangerous error, or that he has rendered any real disservice to the cause of Utilitarianism. All the emphasis is on his positive, though limited, service to morals. There is a further important positive defence of Bentham in this essay. Mill charges Whewell with a “serious injustice” to Bentham, in citing the Deontology as “the authentic exposition of Bentham’s philosophy of morals,” for making that book representative of all Utilitarianism, and for creating an “imaginary sect, of which the Deontology is to be considered the gospel.” The work “was not, and does not profess to be written by Bentham” (174-5). Yet Mill himself had, in 1838, deplored the Deontology, without denying Bentham’s authorship.

In conformity with the new tactics, most of the essay is a defence of the principle of utility, in the broader sense Mill would accept. In this sense, Whewell himself becomes a Utilitarian, since he speaks of moral rules as means to an end, and “of the peace and comfort of society; of making man’s life tolerable; of the satisfaction and gratification of human beings; of preventing a disturbed and painful state of society.” “When real reasons are wanted, the repudiated happiness-principle is always the resource.” In asserting that “when general rules are established, the feelings which gather round these ‘are sources not of opposition, but of agreement;’ that they ‘tend to make men unanimous; and that such rules with regard to the affections and desires as tend to control the repulsive and confirm the attractive forces which operate in human society . . . agree with that which is the character of moral rules,’ ” Whewell is actually expressing Benthamism (192-3).

Much also of the essay is defence by attack on Whewell’s own intuitionist moral theory. Here Mill can apply the actual analytic method of Bentham to the concept of “right” and of “Rights.” With a debator’s ruthlessness, he pushes Whewell’s Voluntarism into a conclusion he can charge with Hobbism, and with a combination of logic and fierce wit he exposes Whewell’s three “vicious circles.” He reduces Whewell’s doctrine to farce by comparing Whewell and Bentham in “a parallel case,” the “principles of the art of navigation” (191).

But at two points he finds himself dealing with charges against Bentham very like charges he has himself made. The first is that Bentham does not sufficiently recognize “what Dr. Whewell calls the historical element of legislation.” Bentham imagines, says Whewell, “that to a certain extent his schemes of law might be made independent of local conditions,” although he recognizes “that different countries must to a certain extent have different laws” (195). Mill, too, had complained of Bentham’s ignoring “national character.” He had seemed, in fact, in the essay on Coleridge, to be in sympathy with the view that the “long duration of a belief . . . is at least proof of an adaptation in it to some portion or other of the human mind. . .” (120). Now he writes: “The fact that . . . a people prefer some particular mode of legislation, on historical grounds—that is, because they have been long used to it,—is no proof of any original adaptation in it to their nature or circumstances, and goes a very little way in recommendation of it as for their benefit now” (196). What Whewell calls “an historical element,” which looks very much like what Mill called “national character,” is now reduced to “the existing opinions and feelings of the people,” which are indeed “partly the product of their previous history” (196). These opinions and feelings, Mill now says, limit what the legislator can do, not what is desirable to be done. Bentham is to be defended, then, by separating in him the ideal legislator and the practical.19 This would seem to be a topic on which Mill has either modified or suppressed his earlier views. He appears here to be giving a sanction to a priori schemes of legislation, schemes which in Bentham’s case he has found to be based on too narrow a view of human nature to be tenable. He seems also to be lessening the importance of that inductive science of politics he had praised in the Coleridgians. But this is not the only possible conclusion. Given Mill’s doctrine of progress, and his tendency to see national character in terms of stages of progress in political maturity, changes in national character are clearly an essential process towards a conceivable ideal political society. His real quarrel with Bentham, which is suppressed here, is that his views on national character, like his views on human character, are so narrowly based as to be virtually worthless.

Similarly, when he defends Bentham against Whewell’s charge that he “does not fully recognise ‘the moral object of law’ ” (196), we recall Mill’s own complaint, that man is “never recognised by him as a being capable of pursuing spiritual perfection as an end; of desiring, for its own sake, the conformity of his own character to his standard of excellence, without hope of good or fear of evil from other source than his own inward consciousness” (“Bentham,” 95). We recall that for “self-education; the training, by the human being himself, of his affections and will,” Bentham’s system provides a complete blank (ibid., 98). This complaint is so identical in essence to Whewell’s charge that Mill’s reply here provides an extreme example of the new tactics. Since Whewell is primarily concerned with moral philosophy, Mill has to defend Bentham as a moral philosopher, and the charge he now has to deal with is a highly central and important one. He is obviously in a difficult position. “It is fortunate for the world,” he had written in 1838, “that Bentham’s taste lay rather in the direction of jurisprudential than of properly ethical inquiry” (ibid., 98). Now he is faced with defending incompetence. It is significant that he delays this vital issue until the end of his essay, that he gives it very brief treatment, and that he seizes gladly upon the particular issue of the laws of marriage to escape from further dealing with the general charge. His specific general defence of Bentham, that no one more than he “recognises that most important, but most neglected, function of the legislator, the office of an instructor, both moral and intellectual” (197), neatly side-steps the whole issue of what sort of moral instruction Bentham’s legislator conceived of giving, or was capable of giving.

Throughout the essay, one can sense that Mill is happiest in attacking Whewell, happy in defending Utilitarianism in his own terms, and not happy but skilful in defending Bentham at carefully chosen points and by carefully chosen stratagems. It must have been with a feeling of relief that he turned to the other half of the new tactics, the definition of Utilitarianism in terms of his own doctrine. Here he could be much more master of the field of battle, choosing his ground and the directions of attack to suit his own purposes. For Utilitarianism is rather a campaign than a philosophical treatise. The essay on Whewell had in several ways prepared for the main battle: in its devastating attack on the intuitionist school, in its rejection of the notion that Utilitarianism was incompatible with religious orthodoxy, and in its suggestion of a universal, if often unconscious, acceptance of the principle of utility. The reduction of possible moral theories to only two possibles, the breaking of the link between the attacked theory (the intuitionist) and orthodoxy, and the argument that even those who thought they were intuitionists (like Whewell) were really Utilitarians, prepared the way for asserting Utilitarianism as the only possible universal ethical doctrine.


In the “General Remarks” which constitute the opening chapter of Utilitarianism, Mill lays the foundation for the arguments to follow. As in the Whewell essay, he reduces the choice of schools of moral philosophy to two, the a priori and the a posteriori, rejecting the first, and asserting that whatever consistency any moral beliefs have attained is mainly due to the “tacit influence of a standard not recognized” by the a priori moralists, but indispensable to them.20 He points to the endless controversies and disagreements over the criterion of right and wrong, over the summum bonum, over the foundation of morality, to suggest that the whole a priori effort to derive a moral system from a first principle has been a mistaken one, and that the demand for proof of first principles is futile. He repeats, by implication, his old charge that those who attempt to create a system of moral or political science on the analogy of mathematics, instead of the inductive sciences, are doomed to failure. But now his argument is reinforced by the contention that the confusion about the status and function of first principles extends to the sciences, including mathematics: “the detailed doctrines of a science are not usually deduced from, nor depend for their evidence upon, what are called its first principles.” Algebra, for example, “derives none of its certainty from what are commonly taught to learners as its elements, since these . . . are as full of fictions as English law, and of mysteries as theology” (205). This attack on the a priori and deductive in its traditional home and birthplace is a powerful preparation for his argument for the a posteriori moral philosophy.

Again, questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. There is a “larger meaning of the word proof,” a kind of proof which is “within the cognisance of the rational faculty,” and which that faculty deals with otherwise than “solely in the way of intuition.” This is the mode by which “considerations may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to the doctrine; and this is equivalent to proof” (208). The description of the mode, and the explicit rejection of the purely intuitive, again suggest the method of the inductive sciences. Mill intends, he says, to give such “rational grounds” for accepting or rejecting “the utilitarian formula” (208).

But first it is necessary that the formula should be correctly understood, not dealt with in “the very imperfect notion ordinarily formed of its meaning,” but cleared of grosser misconceptions and mistaken interpretations (208). These may, of course, include, although Mill does not say so, the misconceptions and misinterpretations, not only of the enemies of Utilitarianism, but also of its advocates. Of all the tasks before him in the essay, the restatement of what the doctrine is, the freeing of it from the adverse limitations imposed on it by Bentham, is obviously of the utmost importance. And here he can at last present his own interpretation, free of the necessity of either attacking or defending Bentham, at least explicitly. The second chapter, “What Utilitarianism Is,” becomes a defence and exposition of the doctrine according to Mill.

Before offering the formal definition from which he intends to develop his exposition, Mill deals with what he calls the “ignorant blunder” of supposing that the Utilitarians, “those who stand up for utility as the test of right and wrong,” use the term utility in the colloquial sense of the useful as opposed to the pleasurable (209). Since the doctrine as developed by Helvetius, Beccaria, and Bentham defines utility in terms of pleasure and avoidance of pain, the modern reader might find this apparent reversion to the classical separation of utile and dulce surprising and irrelevant. But partly through Bentham’s own insensitivity to the aesthetic, and partly through the narrow concept of education characteristic of the founders of the doctrine and many of their followers, Utilitarianism had indeed come to be associated with an ignoring of the aesthetic, and with an arid and doctrinaire approach to education and life. This view of the philosophy is immortally enshrined in Dickens’ Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild in Hard Times, and in his address to “Utilitarian economists, . . . Commissioners of Fact,” urging them to cultivate in the poor “the utmost graces of the fancies and affections, to adorn their lives, so much in need of ornament,” and not to drive romance utterly out of their souls. Mill himself had experienced the sort of starvation of the imagination and feelings Dickens is talking of, and had, like Dickens, recognized it as an unfortunate aspect of Benthamism. The new tactics I have spoken of lead him here to no admission of the source of this view of Utilitarianism, but merely to a dismissal of it as an ignorant blunder.

In accordance with the same tactics, he defines “the creed” in strict Benthamite terms: “Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” Again, “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends. . . .” (210.) The creed, as a confession of faith, is to be totally orthodox. He and Bentham are of the same faith. The difference is to lie in exegesis.

The first point to clarify concerns the nature of pleasure. To see in the pursuit of pleasure “a doctrine worthy only of swine” (here Mill undoubtedly recalls Carlyle’s phrase, “pig-philosophy”), to identify Utilitarianism with Epicureanism, and hold both in contempt, has been the practice of its “German, French, and English assailants.” But the Epicureans themselves recognize that “a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness.” Every known Epicurean theory assigns “a much higher value as pleasures” to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of moral sentiments (the hierarchy suggests that of Hartley) than to those of “mere sensation.” It is true that Utilitarian writers in general have “placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures chiefly in the greater permanency, safety, unconstliness, &c., of the former”—(an obvious allusion to Bentham’s use of the “felicific calculus” to give qualitative hierarchy a quantitative basis)—but it is “quite compatible with the principle of utility” to recognize that, as a matter of fact, “some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and valuable than others,” and it would be absurd, since quality enters into our estimation of all other things, that the “estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone” (210-11).

The insistence on qualitative assessment means more than a mere rejection of Bentham’s famous remark about push-pin and poetry. It involves primarily a rejection of the reductionist Helvetian psychology, which tended to analyse all pleasure ultimately down to simple sensual pleasure, in favour of the Hartleian, which recognizes that the process of association actually gives rise to a qualitative hierarchy of pleasures, ending with those of theopathy and the moral sense. Hartley thus offers an escape from the genetic reductionism which says, in effect, since all feelings, including the loftiest, originate in simple pleasure-pain reactions of sensation, they are ultimately nothing but these simple reactions. It is the reductionist psychology implicit in the calculus which lays Utilitarianism open to the charge of being simple hedonism. Moreover, it is the Hartleian, rather than the Helvetian psychology, which allows the possibility of Mill’s doctrine of progress, which allows him to assert that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

Since the term “pleasure” is so strongly associated with simple hedonism, Mill not only follows Bentham in substituting for it the broader term “happiness,” but moves from it to the still broader one, “satisfaction.” He thus broadens the whole base of the theory. In escaping from the narrow circle of the reductionist psychology, he may seem to be building his own circular argument. When he says, for example, that it is an “unquestionable fact” that “those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties” (211), the “fact” is unquestionable because those who do not so choose are ipso facto judged not “equally acquainted” or “equally capable.” And when he asserts that “no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base” (211), it is clear that selfishness and baseness denote a person of no feeling and conscience. But what Mill is actually doing is calling attention to a range of motives qualitatively different from simple pleasure, and confirmed by observation as operative in human nature. The establishing of an ideal of higher conduct, of pursuits suitable to a “being of higher faculties,” and the refusal to sink into a low category, may be motivated by pride, by the love of liberty and personal independence, by the love of power, the love of excitement, but it is most properly described as proceeding from “a sense of dignity.” And this in fact, says Mill, leads to the greatest happiness. It is a necessary part of his doctrine of progress that men, unless rendered incapable “not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance,” will voluntarily choose the higher pleasures (213).

Beccaria and Bentham had avoided qualitative assessments in the belief that the quantitative is more certain and more readily determined. Mill rapidly dismisses the calculus of pleasure and pain. Quantity of pleasure and pain is no more readily measured than quality. In either case, the only test is in “the feelings and judgment of the experienced” (213).

And finally, the Utilitarian standard is not “the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” Utilitarianism could, therefore, only attain its end “by the general cultivation of nobleness of character” (213-14). By this line of argument, Mill has brought the doctrine round to an apparent total conformity with orthodoxy, to the view that virtue is the sole source of happiness. The doctrine of utility becomes “the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and . . . to the whole sentient creation.” The two great obstacles are selfishness and want of mental cultivation, which both make life “unsatisfactory.” The “highest virtue which can be found in man,” as long as the world is in its present imperfect state, is the readiness to make an absolute sacrifice of one’s own happiness. “The utilitarian morality does recognise in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others.” And, paradoxically, “the conscious ability to do without happiness gives the best prospect of realizing such happiness as is attainable” (214-18). By this point, the simple original statement of doctrine, “that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends,” might seem to have been transformed out of existence. The transformation is no doubt partly tactical, at least in its mode of presentation, to show the compatibility of the doctrine with orthodox morality, but for the most part it is an elaboration of Mill’s genuine view of the doctrine, as more briefly suggested in his earlier attacks on Bentham. If there is a special tactical intention in his assertion that “in the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility,” it is still a profound part of Mill’s interpretation of the doctrine, that “as between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires” the agent to be “as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator,” and that the doctrine of utility is as connected as any other ethical system with “beautiful or more exalted developments of human nature” and with varied “springs of action” (218-19).

This is the major re-statement of the essay. Mill easily disposes of some of the common charges against the doctrine, once he has established his own definition. Like William Godwin, he distinguishes between the morality of an action and the moral worth of an agent, and acknowledges that most actions will have a view to the good of a small circle of immediate family and friends, rather than the whole of society. Like Godwin, too, he dismisses the notion that every act must proceed from a detailed and deliberate calculation of consequences. Many of these points, like the defence against the charge that the doctrine is one of mere expediency, had been dealt with in the “Whewell” essay.

In the third chapter, on the ultimate sanction of the principle of utility, he turns to the accusation that Utilitarianism provides no basis for obligation. In what might be termed the prototype of the doctrine, as presented by Helvetius, this accusation is well grounded. The psychology of Helvetius is so firmly fixed in egoistic hedonism that the impartial and disinterested spectator Mill posits is an impossibility, as is any motive which could lead to a preference for the general pleasure over the personal. But as we have seen, Mill’s radically different view of human nature, including a relatively orthodox view of moral character, creates for him no such problem. The aim of the Utilitarian philosophy is, as he defines it, to create through the improvement of education a “feeling of unity with our fellow-creatures” and to root it deeply in our character (227). When he links this aim with Christ’s intention, he is again asserting the compatibility of his doctrine with Christian ethical orthodoxy, and at the same time intimating that the source of obligation, in Christian and Utilitarian alike, must lie in moral disposition. Both ethics must rely on the formation of moral character, on the sentiments of the “ordinarily well brought up young person” (227).

The external sanctions of reward and punishment, whether physical or moral, whether from God or from our fellow men, along with disinterested devotion to God or to one’s fellow men, can be just as operative for any ethical system. So too with the internal sanction of the sense of duty. The pain attendant on the violation of duty is the essence of Conscience. Granted, says Mill, that Conscience is a highly complex feeling, “encrusted over with collateral associations,” but its binding force is constituted by it qua feeling—“a mass of feeling which must be broken through in order to do what violates our standard of right.” The ultimate internal sanction of all morality, then, is “a subjective feeling in our own minds.” Where the feeling does not exist, nor does the sanction. The belief in God, as an internal sanction, apart from expectation of reward or punishment (the external sanction), “only operates on conduct through, and in proportion to, the subjective religious feeling.” It will be noted that Mill by-passes the hotly argued question of the nature of Conscience: “Whatever theory we have of the nature or origin of conscience,” he says, “this is what essentially constitutes it”—a feeling (228-9). He thus sweeps aside the whole tradition, represented by the Cambridge Platonists and their successors, of Conscience as rational and cognitive in essence. This is again a reflection of his own views and at the same time a tactical move. It is not unorthodox to define Conscience as a feeling, and he has already argued that Utilitarianism is directed towards, and is capable of, producing such a feeling. The true Utilitarian will develop a Christian Conscience.

If the Christian objects that the Utilitarian Conscience is “implanted,” whereas the Christian is innate, Mill has an answer. Those who prefer the innate may consider the “regard to the pleasures and pains of others” as the innate feeling which is the essence of Conscience. And this indeed would be orthodox Utilitarianism as well. But acquired moral feelings are just as natural as innate ones. Echoing Burke’s “Art is man’s nature” (and behind Burke, Aristotle) Mill asserts, “It is natural to man to speak, to reason, to build cities, to cultivate the ground, though these are acquired faculties”; the “moral faculty, if not a part of our nature, is a natural outgrowth from it. . .” (230). Indeed, the Utilitarian philosophy is based upon the naturalness of the social feelings of mankind. If social sentiments were artificial associations, they “might be analysed away” (231). Ultimately, then, the source of the feeling of the obligation is in the Conscience, which is itself a development and cultivation of the natural social feelings. And once again, apart from the elimination of the supernatural, Mill has suggested the compatibility of Utilitarianism and orthodox Christianity. He has also, of course, developed in detail an area of human behaviour and an area of Utilitarian theory neglected by Bentham.

The fourth chapter, “Of what sort of proof the principle of utility is susceptible,” has been prepared for in the first chapter. The logic of the argument of this chapter, like that of the previous chapters, is rigorously examined in Professor Dryer’s essay (lxxiiiff below). What is important in the context of my argument is the discussion of virtue, which again has the effect of radically modifying the original doctrine, despite Mill’s assertion to the contrary. The doctrine, says Mill, maintains “not only that virtue is to be desired, but that it is to be desired disinterestedly, for itself.” The Utilitarians “not only place virtue at the very head of the things which are good as means to the ultimate end, but they also recognise as a psychological fact the possibility of its being, to the individual, a good in itself. . . ; and hold, that the mind is not in a right state, . . . not in the state most conducive to the general happiness, unless it does love virtue in this manner...” (235).

This is a very clever, and very carefully composed statement. It gives the appearance of putting Utilitarianism even more on the side of orthodoxy, of recognizing virtue as an end in itself, along with happiness. It would be easy for the orthodox to miss the qualifications. “Actions and dispositions are only virtuous because they promote another end than virtue”—that is, happiness. Once Utilitarians have decided “what is virtuous,” they then “place virtue at the very head” (235). Would their decisions concerning what is virtuous coincide with the decisions of the orthodox? Is the “virtue” to be desired by the Utilitarians identical with the “virtue” to be pursued by the orthodox Christian? And is there not a difference between accepting virtue as an end in itself, and accepting “as a psychological fact” that it may become “to individuals” an end in itself? In fact, the modifications of Utilitarian doctrine are here more apparent than real. The associationist explanation of how minds come to think of what were originally means to an end as part of the end itself does not affect the real category of virtue. It does, however, by implication, perhaps remind the orthodox that in their own ethical system, virtue was originally a means to salvation, not an end in itself.

The psychological emphasis in this statement about utility and virtue might at first sight seem a digression from the subject of the chapter. It is instead a necessary preparation, for the only “proof” of which the principle of utility is susceptible is psychological. It can be determined only by “practised self-consciousness and self-observation, assisted by observation of others” (237). Examination of the psychological evidence leads Mill to an account, in terms of Hartleian associationism, of the relations of will, desire, and habit. The will to virtue must start by desire and become habitual through education. “Will is the child of desire, and passes out of the dominion of its parent only to come under that of habit” (239). Habit alone imparts certainty in establishing a stable state of the will. The state of the will is a means to good, not intrinsically a good. Hence nothing is a good that is not pleasurable or a means to pleasure or to avoiding pain, and “the principle of utility is proved.” Whether the proof induces assent or not, Mill leaves to “the consideration of the thoughtful reader” (239). The kind of thoughtful reader he hoped for is undoubtedly someone like Professor Dryer, whose patient and careful analysis below ought to be read with care. The ordinary reader, less patient and less expert, might well be brought up short by Mill’s last paragraphs. After so much movement away from the original pleasurepain formula, after pleasure had given way to happiness, then to satisfaction, then apparently to the pursuit of virtue, he has suddenly, in the space of one long paragraph, been whirled rapidly through a lecture on the psychology of volition to a Q.E.D. of the original premisses. The performance is a tour de force that must have had for many readers the baffling fascination of a magician’s trick. What is significant for the argument I have been conducting, however, is that in thus coming back full circle Mill is completing his tactical manoeuvre. He is not discarding Bentham and the original statement of the creed; he is giving the old creed its proper interpretation. He began with the formal (and narrow) statement, he elucidated, elaborated, corrected, and defended—now he brings the whole corpus of his exposition back to its starting point in the formal enunciation of the doctrine.

The fifth chapter of the essay is, in a sense, an appendix. In choosing “Justice and Utility” as its subject, Mill is able once again to argue that the principle of utility is not a principle of mere expediency. And since the concept of justice is associated with ideas of natural law, of absolute standards, and of the general ethical position implied in the title of Cudworth’s treatise, The Eternal and Immutable Morality, its discussion permits Mill to argue in detail, as he has argued generally elsewhere, that it is possible to derive from the principle of utility moral standards and rules as satisfactory as those of the intuitionist school. He consequently starts by attacking first the philosophy of innate ideas, and then that of moral sense. First he insists that “intellectual instincts” are no more infallible in judgment than animal instincts are in action (240). Then, turning to the second school, he inquires whether we have a sense of justice, peculiar and immediate like our senses of colour or taste. This inquiry he disposes of by an inductive appeal to the evidence, listing six varied notions of what is just or unjust.

He then proceeds to an analysis of the feeling which accompanies the idea of justice, examining on the way concepts of duty, rights, doctrines of punishment, doctrines of just wage, just taxation. The only sure criterion in all these matters is social utility. And justice is “a name for certain classes of moral rules, which concern the essentials of human well-being more nearly, and are therefore of more absolute obligation, than any other rules for the guidance of life. . .”; it is “a name for certain moral requirements, which, regarded collectively, stand higher in the scale of social utility, and are therefore of more paramount obligation, than any others. . .” (255, 259). Justice “is involved in the very meaning of Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle.” “Bentham’s dictum, ‘everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one,’ might be written under the principle of utility as an explanatory commentary.” (257.)

Two things are significant about the conclusion. One is that Mill repeats the definition of justice three times, with little substantial variation, as if to drive home again and again the two claims, that justice is not only not explained away and reduced to expediency by the principle of utility, but that it retains something like absolute status, and that the traditional concept of justice as fair play for all stands at the very heart of the doctrine. The other significant thing is the introduction of Bentham’s name and his dictum, so that the pattern of affirming the unity of old creed and new exegesis noted at the end of chapter four is repeated at the end of the whole essay. Bentham is gathered in by name into the fold of the new church.


It is perhaps not too fanciful to see an analogy between Mill’s attitude towards Comte and his later attitude towards Bentham, and to see this essay as a further practice of what I have called Mill’s new tactics. Indeed the parallel is suggested by his comment at the opening of the essay, that the time has come to express a judgment on Positivism, now that Comte has “displayed a quantity and quality of mental power, and achieved an amount of success, which have not only won but retained the high admiration of thinkers as radically and strenuously opposed as it is possible to be, to nearly the whole of his later tendencies, and to many of his earlier opinions.”21 That Mill himself is one of the thinkers so described the rest of the essay makes evident. “It would have been a mistake,” he continues, “had such thinkers busied themselves in the first instance with drawing attention to what they regarded as errors in his great work. Until it had taken the place in the world of thought which belonged to it, the important matter was not to criticise it, but to help in making it known.” (264.) These sentences parallel exactly the terms in which he had defined his reasons for adopting the new tactics in dealing with Bentham. And the parallel suggests further that Mill, in seeing the need for the same tactics, sees at least something of the same relationship between Comte and Positivism as he had seen between Bentham and Utilitarianism: namely, a valid and important doctrine harmed in its definition and interpretation by the limitations of its proponent. And since Mill is not likely to extend these protective tactics to doctrines opposed to Utilitarianism, it also appears that he sees in Utilitarianism and Positivism a common cause.

This he soon makes fully explicit. He defines the “fundamental doctrine” of Positivism in very broad terms: “We have no knowledge of anything but Phaenomena; and our knowledge of phaenomena is relative, not absolute. We know not the essence, nor the real mode of production, of any fact, but only its relations to other facts in the way of succession or of similitude. These relations are constant. . . . The constant resemblances . . . and the constant sequences . . . are termed their laws. The laws of phaenomena are all we know respecting them.” (265.) Only through these laws can we predict, and in some cases, control effects. This general statement of empiricism Mill easily identifies with the scientific mode of philosophy, imperfectly but partly grasped by Bacon and Descartes, fully by Newton, Hume, and Thomas Brown; and “the same great truth formed the groundwork of all the speculative philosophy of Bentham, and pre-eminently of James Mill. . . .” “The philosophy called Positive is not a recent invention of M. Comte, but a simple adherence to the traditions of all the great scientific minds whose discoveries have made the human race what it is.” (267.)

Comte thus joins Bentham (and James Mill) as an apostle of the true philosophy, and an opponent of the Theological and Metaphysical—or, as Mill prefers to put it, a supporter of the Phaenomenal and Experiential philosophy against the “Personal, or Volitional explanation of facts” and the “Abstractional or Ontological” (267). Comte “has taken his place in a fight long since engaged, and on the side already in the main victorious.” He is on the side of the Nominalists against the Realists, of the Rationalists against the Voluntarists, the latter conflict being here defined in secular terms. Like Montesquieu, “even Macchiavelli,” Adam Smith “and the political economists universally,” Bentham “and all thinkers initiated by him,” Comte believes that “social phaenomena conform to invariable laws,” as do the phaenomena of Nature. He rejects “the whole system of ideas connected with supernatural agency,” and like Mill, sees the doctrine of Voluntarism as stemming from ignorance. “No one, probably,” Mill scoffingly remarks, “ever believed that the will of a god kept parallel lines from meeting, or made two and two equal to four; or ever prayed to the gods to make the square of the hypothenuse equal to more or less than the sum of the squares of the sides.” “In the case of phaenomena which science has not yet taught us either to foresee or to control, the theological mode of thought [that is, the Voluntarist] has not ceased to operate: men still pray for rain, or for success in war, or to avert a shipwreck or a pestilence, but not to put back the stars in their courses, . . . or to arrest the tides.” (288.) Like Bentham, Comte rejects the whole philosophy of law based on “the imaginary law of the imaginary being Nature,” along with divine rights and Natural Rights (299). In brief, Comte is, insofar as he expresses the fundamental principle of Positivism, a good Utilitarian, and conversely, Utilitarians are good Positivists. “All theories in which the ultimate standard of institutions and rules of action was the happiness of mankind, and observation and experience the guides . . . are entitled to the name Positive, whatever, in other respects, their imperfections may be” (299). As we have seen, they are also entitled, with the same qualification, to the name Utilitarian.

Granted this move towards identifying the two doctrines in their fundamental principles, it is with no surprise that we discover that “M. Comte has got hold of half the truth. . .” (313). But by this time, the other half is not in the possession of Coleridgians or Kantians. Whatever weight Mill may have given in 1838 and 1840 to the notion of a synthesis of doctrinal thesis and antithesis, that notion has now been superseded by the progressive hierarchy of Comte.22 Theological thought yields to Metaphysical, Metaphysical to Positive. The whole tradition of Germano-Coleridgian thought is now relegated to the Metaphysical. The half of truth M. Comte has not got is to be found, not there, but in “the so-called liberal or revolutionary school.” As in the earlier case of Bentham and Coleridge, and of the two traditions they represent, “each sees what the other does not see, and seeing it exclusively, draws consequences from it which to the other appear mischievously absurd” (313). The near-identity of phrasing makes more emphatic the radical change of reference. The two halves of truth now belong both within the same fundamental philosophic tradition.

To the extent to which Comte is an enemy of “the whole a priori philosophy, in morals, jurisprudence, psychology, logic,” and on the side of “observation and experiment” (300), he is, if not thoroughly Utilitarian, at least a valuable ally. In some respects (but only some), he is a sounder ally than Herbert Spencer or G. H. Lewes, both of whom fall back on a priori logic for their “ultimate test of truth” in “the inconceivability of its negative” (301). It is the total and radical nature of Comte’s rejection of “the metaphysical mode of thought” that seems to constitute his main claim to Mill’s praise (301). When the rigorous principle is applied, for example, to Bentham’s conception of social science, it leads Comte to the same conclusions as Mill had been led to earlier: that to start from “universal laws of human nature” and draw deductions from them is fallacious, because “as society proceeds in its development, its phaenomena are determined, more and more, not by the simple tendencies of universal human nature, but by the accumulated influence of past generations over the present. The human beings themselves, on the laws of whose nature the facts of history depend, are not abstract or universal but historical human beings, already shaped, and made what they are, by human society. This being the case, no powers of deduction could enable any one, starting from the mere conception of the Being Man, placed in a world such as the earth may have been before the commencement of human agency, to predict and calculate the phaenomena of his development. . . .” Facts of history must be “empirically considered” (307).23

Comte is, indeed, superior to Bentham in the greater rigour of his insistence on the empirical and inductive. “All political truth he deems strictly relative, implying as its correlative a given state or situation of society” (323). In thus emphasizing the importance of history as the body of social phaenomena from which the social scientist draws his conclusions by induction, Comte makes his greatest contribution. He is at his most striking in his long survey of universal history. This survey is concerned with “the main stream of human progress, looking only at the races and nations that led the van. . . . His object is to characterize truly, though generally, the successive states of society through which the advanced guard of our species has passed, and the filiation of these states on one another—how each grew out of the preceding and was the parent of the following state.” (318.) As Mill’s phrases, “led the van” and “advanced guard,” indicate, his approval of Comte as historian attaches to his philosophy of history as a doctrine of progress, his rôle as a new and more thorough Condorcet, more than to any really scientific quality in his historiography. Since Mill’s own Utilitarianism is strongly progressive, he welcomes the presentation of a mass of historical evidence, admittedly selective rather than truly “universal,” which offers inductive and empirical support for the “fact” of progress.

There is no doubt that Mill finds Comte’s analysis, in general terms, sound. He also praises the nice balance Comte observes between treating history (as Carlyle does) in terms of the influence of individuals, and treating it in terms solely of general causes. He is not unjust to the past, seeing (as Condorcet and Godwin had before him, though Mill does not note this) “in all past modes of thought and forms of society . . . a useful, in many a necessary, office, in carrying mankind through one stage of improvement into a higher.” He avoids the error of regarding the intellectual “as the only progressive element in man, and the moral as too much the same at all times to affect even the annual average of crime” (322-3). He links, in short, intellectual to moral progress. Nor does Comte think of moral progress as dependent solely on intellectual improvement. “He not only personally appreciates, but rates high in moral value, the creations of poets and artists in all departments, deeming them, by their mixed appeal to the sentiments and the understanding, admirably fitted to educate the feelings of abstract thinkers, and enlarge the intellectual horizon of people of the world” (324). Once again we hear unvoiced echoes of Mill’s view of Bentham and his limitations, from some of which at least Comte is free.

But at the same time, the balance must not be allowed to tip too far in reaction. Comte is not so far from Bentham as to hand over progress to the poets and artists. He does indeed, like Bentham, insist that “the main agent in the progress of mankind is their intellectual development,” and while it is true that the passions are “a more energetic power than a mere intellectual conviction,” the passions “tend to divide, not to unite, mankind.” “It is only by a common belief that passions are brought to work together, and become a collective force. . . .” The passions are the gale, but Reason must be the compass. “All human society,” as Godwin had argued, “is grounded on a system of fundamental opinions, which only the speculative faculty can provide,” and which only improvement of the speculative faculty can improve (316). Herbert Spencer is wrong in asserting that “ideas do not govern and overthrow the world; the world is governed or overthrown by feelings, to which ideas serve only as guides.” That is, he is wrong if he thinks this a refutation of Comte. The sentiments “are only a social force at all, through the definite direction given to them by . . . some . . . intellectual conviction,” and the sentiments do not of themselves “spontaneously throw up” convictions (317). “To say that men’s intellectual beliefs do not determine their conduct, is like saying that the ship is moved by the steam and not by the steersman” (317).

In many respects, then, Comte can be praised as another apostle of the true faith, a true Utilitarian in his fundamental principles, and free of some of the limitations of personality and of intellectual equipment which so narrowed Bentham. But his own limitations are more disastrous than Bentham’s. Even in the earlier work with which the first part of Mill’s essay deals, the Cours de Philosophie Positive, there is much that arouses Mill’s strong disapproval. In the first place, Comte’s psychology is inadequate. He gives psychology as a science no place in his classification, and “always speaks of it with contempt.” He reduces it, in fact, to a branch of physiology, totally rejecting introspection, or “psychological observation properly so called . . . internal consciousness.” As Mill dryly observes, “How we are to observe other people’s mental operations, or how interpret the signs of them without having learnt what the signs mean by knowledge of ourselves, he does not state” (296). Comte relies, as “Organon for the study of ‘the moral and intellectual functions’ ” on Phrenology, which, says Mill, is in process of becoming discredited as a science. Moreover, it tends to be entirely meaningless unless related to a psychology of association. Comte shows no knowledge, and makes no use, of the work of Hartley, Brown, and James Mill. The real scientific development of psychology has been made by Bain and Herbert Spencer. Comte’s failure to take psychology seriously as a mental science is not a “mere hiatus” in his system, but “the parent of serious errors in his attempt to create a Social Science” (298).

Probably even more culpable, from Mill’s point of view, are some of Comte’s political attitudes, his reliance on authority, his eagerness to commit power to single persons or small groups, his rejection, not only of popular sovereignty, but of any principle of responsibility. It is not only that Comte runs foul of most of Mill’s fundamental political principles, and those of the Utilitarians generally, but also of the ethical attitudes underlying them. “No one to count as more than one” is an axiom at the heart of the Utilitarian ethic. Further, Mill is clearly shocked to find that Comte relegates to the “metaphysical,” and hence to oblivion, “the first of all the articles of the liberal creed, ‘the absolute right of free examination, or the dogma of unlimited liberty of conscience.’ ” Comte accepts the legal right, but “resolutely denies” the moral right (301). On a strict Utilitarian basis, of course, Comte is quite correct, and Mill himself would found an absolute right not on natural rights but on permanent utility. But he is pushed here, as in On Liberty, away from Utilitarian relativism into something like “metaphysical” absolutism, for fear, as he says, of the use to be made of the contrary doctrine. And although Comte by no means wishes “intellectual dominion to be exercised over an ignorant people,” and is as strong an advocate of popular education as any Utilitarian, viewing the possibilities of such education with a “startling” optimism, his scheme to have a “salutary ascendency over opinion” exercised by an organized body of “the most eminent thinkers” makes Mill decidedly nervous (314). So does Comte’s dismissal of the whole revolutionary and liberal set of ideas as “metaphysical” and merely negative, and consequently as a serious impediment to the reorganization of society (301). Mill himself had insisted on the negative nature of eighteenth-century revolutionary thought, and the aberration of Rousseau in trying to found a positive philosophy of government on negation, but again he senses the presence of dangerous conclusions and applications. Though there is truth in what Comte says, Mill feels like the man “who being asked whether he admitted that six and five make eleven, refused to give an answer until he knew what use was to be made of it” (302).

Underlying his misgivings about the use Comte wishes to make of these ideas is his lively distrust of the whole programme for the future of society Comte seems to envisage. On the “statical” side of social phænomena, the laws of social existence “considered abstractedly from progress,” Comte is relatively satisfactory. On the “dynamical” side, that of social progress, the laws of the evolution of the social state, he is at his weakest, trite and often invalid (309). For Mill, of course, the “statical” is important as a preliminary to the “dynamical”; his real concern is with the means of ensuring the progress of society and of man in society. Comte’s means seem to him totally wrong.

Apart from the ideas we have been examining, there is much in the first part of the essay on Comte with which we need not concern ourselves here. The very interesting sections in which Mill discusses and criticizes Comte’s classification of the sciences, his philosophy of science, the Organon of Discovery and the Organon of Proof, the difference between Laws and Causes, and so on, are important in other contexts. Our concern has been with the ethical, and with the political insofar as it touches the ethical.

In part two of the essay, as Mill turns to Comte’s later writings, the balance of praise and blame shifts radically. None the less, the Religion of Humanity can be made to coincide in its essentials, as Mill sees them, with the essential ethical basis of Utilitarianism, and Comte can remain in some sense a high priest of the true creed. “The power which may be acquired over the mind by the idea of the general interest of the human race, both as a source of emotion and as a motive to conduct, many have perceived; but we know not if anyone, before M. Comte, realized so fully as he has done, all the majesty of which that idea is susceptible.” “We, therefore, not only hold that M. Comte was justified in the attempt to develop his philosophy into a religion, and had realized the essential conditions of one, but that all other religions are made better in proportion as, in their practical result, they are brought to coincide with that which he aimed at constructing.” (334-5.)

But if Comte is right in general principle, he is often wrong in interpretation and application. He falls into the error often charged against the Utilitarian moralists, in requiring “that the test of conduct should also be the exclusive motive to it” (335). And in his enthusiasm for loving one’s neighbour, he insists on conscious suppression of all self-regarding actions. If he merely meant “that egoism is bound, and should be taught, always to give way to the well-understood interests of enlarged altruism,” no one could object, least of all Mill. But his naïve phrenology, combined with a biological theory of organic growth or atrophy through use or disuse, leads him to something like the old ascetic mortification of the flesh (335).

Mill sees in this tendency a symptom of a general trend in Comte’s thought which underlies many of his errors, a tendency to accept as axiomatic “that all perfection consists in unity.” “Why is it necessary,” asks Mill, “that all human life should point but to one object, and be cultivated into a system of means to a single end? May it not be the fact that mankind, who after all are made up of single human beings, obtain a greater sum of happiness when each pursues his own, under the rules and conditions required by the good of the rest, than when each makes the good of the rest his only subject. . . ?” (337.) Comte’s passion for “unity” and “systematization” leads not only to a denial of the value Mill places upon variety, but to a system of compulsion towards uniformity. In Halévy’s terms, Comte plans the “artificial identification of interests,” while Mill believes in the “natural identification of interests,” as his words above indicate.

The “mania for regulation” by which Comte seems obsessed appears in full development in the cultus of the Religion of Humanity. The elaborate provision of ceremony, ritual, and doctrine strikes Mill, of course, as an unseemly imitation of Roman Catholicism. Earlier in the essay, in discussing Comte’s treatment of history, Mill had remarked that Comte had no understanding of Protestantism (321). It is equally evident that Mill has no understanding of Catholicism. It is interesting to recall how many writers, in the period from the French Revolution on into the nineteenth century, either from a conviction that Christianity ought to be destroyed, or from a belief that the Enlightenment had in fact virtually destroyed it, urge the creation of a new religion to supply the social need once filled by Christianity. And it is important to note how their conceptions differ as to what religion is, how it functions in society, and particularly how it serves as a social bond. The English Protestants define religion in terms of feeling, and of ethical attitudes. Arnold can thus express the hope that poetry can take over the task formerly performed by religion.24 Their emphasis is wholly on the individual, and the inner sentiments; they do not think at all in terms of any need of a corporate church, of corporate worship, of external ritual or sacraments. The Continental Catholics, on the contrary, think mainly in these terms, of religion as a corporate public act, of communal participation in ritual, of public symbols and festivals. The whole contrast is pointed up by Mill’s rather astonished comment that Comte proposes prayers and devotional practices, not because the individual’s “feelings require them, but for the premeditated purpose of getting his feelings up” (343). If Mill understands, as he undoubtedly does, some aspects of human psychology much better than Comte, it is also true that Comte understands others better than Mill.

The contrast is not simply that of Protestant and Catholic views of religion, however. There is also a contrast in their views of the primary need religion must fulfil for society. Just as Mill and Arnold differ in their diagnoses of English society, Mill fearing an excessive unity and uniformity, Arnold fearing an excess of individuality leading to moral and social anarchy, so Mill and Comte differ. Comte observes that in the pre-Positivist stage of society “the free development of our forces of all kinds was the important matter.” Now, “the principal need is to regulate them.” From this doctrine, Mill expresses his “entire dissent.” He sees in Comte’s scheme “an elaborate system for the total suppression of all independent thought.” It seems obvious that Comte is concerned about the instability of the French society, about what he sees as the continuing effects of the negative and destructive forces of the Revolution. He sees the intellectuals as “desiring only to prolong the existing scepticism and intellectual anarchy,” and as “rootedly hostile to the construction of the new” religious and social order (351-2). He has no faith in popular rule: “Election of superiors by inferiors, except as a revolutionary expedient, is an abomination in his sight.” He has only “detestation and contempt” for “parliamentary or representative institutions in any form,” and for a system in which the executive is responsible to an elected body (344). But Mill turns no attention to the national and historical context of Comte’s project. And for this he has a double justification. Comte himself is presenting his system not in historical and relativist, but in absolute terms, taking the French situation as universal for the Positive period of history.25 Moreover, for Mill there is no historical situation in any country in the mid-nineteenth century for which Comte’s system would be valid.

There is no need here, nor would it be appropriate, to discuss all the interesting ideas in the essay. Mill’s comments on the rôle of women, on Comte’s views of the family and of marriage, on proper wages for workmen, on the idle rich, on “useful” knowledge, on Comte’s system of education, on his limitation of books, provide links to a wide range of his writings. One curious note is that where Comte puts forward ideas which are “Positivist” in a twentieth-century sense, Mill sometimes disagrees. When Comte says, for example, that the scientist’s concern with “complete proof,” and a “perfect rationalization of scientific processes” is mere pedantry, and it “ought to be enough that the doctrines afford an explanation of phaenomena, consistent with itself and with known facts, and that the processes are justified by their fruits” (356). Mill disapproves, although he praises the comment “that the infinitesimal calculus is a conception analogous to the corpuscular hypothesis in physics; which last M. Comte has always considered as a logical artifice; not an opinion respecting matters of fact” (365).

The essay closes, in conformity with Mill’s tactics, after so much devastating criticism, with high praise. Comte, like Descartes and Leibniz, whom he most resembles, has an “extraordinary power of concatenation and co-ordination,” and has “enriched human knowledge with great truths and great conceptions of method.” He is, in fact, greater than his predecessors, “not intrinsically, yet by the exertion of equal intellectual power in a more advanced state of human preparation” (368). His absurdities appear more ridiculous than theirs because our age is less tolerant of palpable absurdities.

The “concatenation and co-ordination” clearly refer to the sweeping view of history as a record of human progress. The “great truths and great conceptions of method” must apply, not to the “systematization, systematization, systematization,” but to the fundamental Positivist principles, so closely identified with the Utilitarian, and to the scientific method, the use of history in search of generalizations and “laws” of human behaviour which Mill himself advocates.26 Comte emerges finally, then, as a high priest of Utilitarianism and of the Religion of Humanity, misled into becoming High Priest and Pontiff of his absurd cultus.


The essays which Helen Taylor published after Mill’s death as Three Essays on Religion, present, as she points out in her Introductory Notice, his “deliberate and exhaustive treatment of the topics under consideration.” She also notes that although the first two, on Nature and on the Utility of Religion, were written between 1850 and 1858, while the third, on Theism, was not written until between 1868 and 1870, Mill certainly “considered the opinions expressed in these different Essays, as fundamentally consistent,” and “his manner of thinking had undergone no substantial change.”27 Indeed, the various allusions to religious thought in his earliest ethical writings, the treatment of religious ideas in On Liberty, and in Auguste Comte and Positivism, all suggest that Mill’s opinions on what his orthodox contemporaries meant by religion, both revealed and natural, stayed virtually constant throughout his mature career. All that changed was the openness and explicitness of his attack.

The fundamentals of his position have already been made clear. His thinking is firmly rooted in empiricism; his whole concept of truth is strongly defined by the “canons of induction”—truth is what can be proved by induction from empirical experience. His concept of a true religion is consequently of a religion of naturalism, as opposed to one of supernaturalism, a religion of the this-worldly as opposed to one of the other-worldly. The sort of religion he can approve of he finds in Comte’s Religion of Humanity. The ethical system dependent on this religion is the Utilitarian. And finally, he sees this religion as an instrument of progress, of an emergent ethical evolution. These simple attitudes, which underlie all his comments on religion, provide the basic points of reference for the more elaborate treatment in the three essays.

The essay “The Utility of Religion” is directed towards persuading the reader that all the needs, both of society and of the individual, commonly thought of as satisfied by orthodox religion, can be fully satisfied without it, and that in fact the effects ascribed to religion have been due, not to religion itself, but to the force of opinion. Religious authority, by being in control of opinion and of education, has received credit for the support of the virtues, and for the instilling of them in the young, but Mill insists that the results of control by religious authority in no way differ from the results obtainable by essentially secular control: “early religious teaching has owed its power over mankind rather to its being early than to its being religious” (410). As to the sanctions religion lends to morality through its system of eternal rewards and punishments, morality needs no supernatural sanctions: moral truths are strong enough in their own evidence to retain the belief of mankind when once they have acquired it. Moreover, an application of Bentham’s calculus reinforces the impressions gained by observation that even infinite rewards and punishments postponed to the after life and never witnessed have little effect on ordinary minds. The real sanctions come from public opinion and the passions affected by it: “the love of glory; the love of praise; the love of admiration; the love of respect and deference; even the love of sympathy. . . .” “The fear of shame, the dread of ill repute or of being disliked or hated, are the direct and simple forms of its deterring power.” “Belief, then, in the supernatural . . . cannot be considered to be any longer required, either for enabling us to know what is right and wrong in social morality, or for supplying us with motives to do right and to abstain from wrong.” (417.) Cannot an ethical system for both society and the individual, then, be purely secular? Cannot the public and private morality be imposed merely by the power of education and public opinion, in the tradition of Utilitarianism? What need is there of a substitute Religion of Humanity to replace the old supernatural religion?

Once again, as Mill proceeds to answer these questions (which he does not explicitly ask) our thoughts revert to the Autobiography and the description of the crisis of his youth. “Religion and poetry,” he now writes, “address themselves, at least in one of their aspects, to the same part of the human constitution: they both supply the same want, that of ideal conceptions grander and more beautiful than we see realized in the prose of human life. Religion, as distinguished from poetry, is the product of the craving to know whether these imaginative conceptions have realities answering to them in some other world than ours.” Religion adds to “the poetry of the supernatural” a positive belief which unpoetical minds can share with the poetical. It satisfies the craving for “the better which is suggested” by the good partially seen and known on earth, the craving for “higher things.” The question for Mill is not whether this “poetry of the supernatural” is valuable: he readily acknowledges that it meets an important psychological need—but whether it has to be connected with the supernatural. Is it necessary, he asks, “to travel beyond the boundaries of the world which we inhabit” to obtain this good, or is “the idealization of our earthly life, the cultivation of a high conception of what it may be made . . . not capable of supplying a poetry, and, in the best sense of the word, a religion, equally fitted to exalt the feelings, and (with the same aid from education) still better calculated to ennoble the conduct, than any belief respecting the unseen powers” (420).

Such a religion can even offer, in terms of the human species, the aspirations appropriate to immortality and, in conjunction with a faith in progress, an earthly Paradise: “if individual life is short, the life of the human species is not short; its indefinite duration is practically equivalent to endlessness; and being combined with indefinite capability of improvement, it offers to the imagination and sympathies a large enough object to satisfy any reasonable demand for grandeur of aspiration” (420). Once man has abandoned the “baseless fancies” of supernatural immortality, his mind will expand into new dimensions at thoughts of the Grand Etre and its limitless future. When it has expanded from love of country to love of the world, as it can be made to expand by proper training, the universal morality will be the Utilitarian:

A morality grounded on large and wise views of the good of the whole, neither sacrificing the individual to the aggregate nor the aggregate to the individual, but giving to duty on the one hand and to freedom and spontaneity on the other their proper province, would derive its power in the superior natures from sympathy and benevolence and the passion for ideal excellence: in the inferior, from the same feelings cultivated up to the measure of their capacity, with the superadded force of shame. . . . A support in moments of weakness would not be a problematical future existence, but the approbation . . . of those whom we respect, and ideally of all those, dead or living, whom we admire or venerate. . . . To call these sentiments by the name morality . . . is claiming too little for them. They are a real religion. . . .


Here is undoubtedly Mill’s lasting confession of faith. The Religion of Humanity fulfils all the conditions he demands: “The essence of religion is the strong and earnest direction of the emotions and desires towards an ideal object, recognized as of the highest excellence, and as rightfully paramount over all selfish objects of desire” (422). It fulfils them for him much more satisfactorily than orthodox (or unorthodox) Christianity.

Given an understanding of Mill’s religious position, and of the principles on which it is based, the long essay on Theism offers the reader no surprises. There can in fact be few works of Mill’s which show so little originality. Any reader familiar with nineteenth-century writings on religion will find himself constantly recalling other expressions of the same views. Much of the essay could as readily have been written by Huxley. The elaborate attack on a priori and a posteriori “proofs” of the Being and Attributes of God, carrying one’s mind back to Samuel Clarke and the eighteenth century, seems quaintly old-fashioned, especially when the a priori is so easily dismissed as “unscientific” (434). The most entertaining passages are those which exhibit the full savagery of Mill’s combative style, such as the one in Part II on man’s God-given potentialities for development: “It is to suppose that God could not, in the first instance, create anything better than a Bosjeman or an Andaman islander, or something still lower; and yet was able to endow the Bosjeman or the Andaman islander with the power of raising himself into a Newton or a Fénelon. We certainly do not know the nature of the barriers which limit the divine omnipotence; but it is a very odd notion of them that they enable the Deity to confer on an almost bestial creature the power of producing by a succession of efforts what God himself had no other means of creating.” (459.) Or again, in Part III, on God’s being either unable or unwilling to grant our desires: “Many a man would like to be a Croesus or an Augustus Caesar, but has his wishes gratified only to the moderate extent of a pound a week or the Secretaryship of his Trades Union” (466). The writing is often as lively as Mill’s best, even where the ideas are commonplace.

The criticism of Hume’s essay on miracles in Part IV (471), the remarks on brain and mind and the warning against “giving à priori validity to the conclusions of an à posteriori philosophy” in Part III (461) are of interest as examples either of Mill’s wish to be fair, or of his insistence on precise argument. But perhaps the most interesting part for its content is the final one, in which, like Tennyson and Browning, Mill asserts the value of imaginative aspirations, of hope, and of “cleaving to the sunnier side of doubt,” as Tennyson puts it. One senses again here that other side of Mill, responding in something like poetic terms to the realities of the human situation and of human psychology. “To me it seems that human life, small and confined as it is, and as, considered merely in the present, it is likely to remain even when the progress of material and moral improvement may have freed it from the greater part of its present calamities, stands greatly in need of any wider range and greater height of aspiration for itself and its destination, which the exercise of imagination can yield to it without running counter to the evidence of fact . . .” (483). Or, as Arnold put it, “men have such need of joy! But joy whose grounds are true. . . .”28

Again, when Mill praises “the tendency, either from constitution or habit, to dwell chiefly on the brighter side both of the present and of the future,” noting that “a hopeful disposition gives a spur to the faculties and keeps all the active energies in good working order,” or when he observes that it is not necessary “for keeping up our conviction that we must die, that we should be always brooding over death,” that we should not “think perpetually of death, but . . . of our duties, and of the rule of life” (484), we seem to be listening to Tennyson’s Ancient Sage. When “the reason is strongly cultivated, the imagination may safely follow its own end, and do its best to make life pleasant and lovely inside the castle, in reliance on the fortifications raised and maintained by Reason round the outward bounds.” The “indulgence of hope with regard to the government of the universe and the destiny of man after death . . . is legitimate and philosophically defensible.” Such a hope “makes life and human nature a far greater thing to the feelings, and gives greater strength as well as greater solemnity to all the sentiments which are awakened in us by our fellow-creatures and by mankind at large” (485). Throughout this last section, Mill emphasizes the importance of the imagination, not to supplant reason, but to supplement it. Ultimately it is this addition of imagination to reason, of poetry to fact, which constitutes religion, especially “that real, though purely human religion, which sometimes calls itself the Religion of Humanity and sometimes that of Duty” (488).

Although there are clear connections between the essay “Nature” and the other two essays on religion, it does not fit simply into the pattern I have been tracing, nor are the issues it discusses all related simply or exclusively to Mill’s religious thought. For some classes of reader, it will be by far the most interesting of the three essays. For students of literature concerned with the development of Romanticism, for example, it will be an important document.

It is easy to recognize in the essay a number of distinct, though related, themes. The words “nature” and “natural” have become a source, says Mill, of “false taste, false philosophy, false morality, and even bad law” (373). The last term, recalling Bentham’s attacks on the concept of Natural Law, points up the first theme: an attack on “the great à priori fallacies,” which are to be exposed here, as the list suggests, in aesthetic theory, in philosophy, and in moral philosophy (383). The attack involves the rejection of Nature as an aesthetic norm, and of Nature as an ethical norm, and the repudiation generally of the injunction to “follow Nature.” Since these “à priori fallacies,” including the establishing of Nature as a norm, are based upon what Mill sees as a false metaphysical view of Nature, the first step is to correct this view. The “Nature” of a thing is simply “its entire capacity of exhibiting phenomena.” “Nature in the abstract is the aggregate of the powers and properties of all things. Nature means the sum of all phenomena, together with the causes which produce them. . . .” (374.) There is no justification for opposing Nature and Art, “Art is as much Nature as anything else . . . ; Art is but the employment of the powers of Nature for an end” (375). In this purely empirical sense, everything is Nature, and everything must conform to Nature, Nature being simply what is.

But there is another sense in which Nature means phaenomena not caused by man, and in this sense a distinction can be made between Nature and Art. In this case, says Mill, the artificial is an improvement; man controls Nature to improve it. “If the artificial is not better than the natural, to what end are all the arts of life?” “All praise of Civilization, or Art, or Contrivance, is so much dispraise of Nature. . . .” (381.) So also in the ethical sphere. Cruelty is as natural as benevolence, and “the most criminal actions are to a being like man, not more unnatural than most of the virtues.” “There is hardly a bad action ever perpetrated which is not perfectly natural, and the motives to which are not perfectly natural feelings.” (401.) The moral man is, like the carefully tilled garden, a work of Art, not of Nature. “This artificially created or at least artificially perfected nature of the best and noblest human beings, is the only nature which it is ever commendable to follow” (396-7).

The setting up of Civilization in opposition to Nature, and the allusion to the “artificially perfected nature” of the best human beings point up the exact object of Mill’s attack. In the conflict between the competing Romantic doctrines of primitivism and progress, Mill is on the side of progress. He is particularly antagonistic towards the sentimental Romantic primitivism which exalts the natural instincts. “Savages are always liars,” he remarks (395). The sentiment of justice is wholly artificial in origin. No virtues are natural to man, merely a capacity for acquiring them (and also for acquiring vices). It is the duty of man to amend nature, including his own.

The notion of Nature as a norm is not, however, solely associated with or derived from primitivism. It is also part of Deist optimism, of the natural theology Mill attacks in the essay “Theism.” For the astro- and physicotheologians, Nature exhibited not merely a physical order, but an ethical one. But, asks Mill, “how stands the fact? That next to the greatness of these cosmic forces, the quality which most forcibly strikes every one who does not avert his eyes from it is their perfect and absolute recklessness.” Nature is totally amoral. “All which people are accustomed to deprecate as ‘disorder’ and its consequences, is precisely a counterpart of Nature’s ways.” “If imitation of the Creator’s will as revealed in nature, were applied as a rule of action . . . ; the most atrocious enormities of the worst men would be more than justified by the apparent intention of Providence that throughout all animated nature the strong should prey upon the weak.” Since Nature has no right or wrong, “Conformity to nature, has no connection whatever with right and wrong” (400).

The attack on the natural theologians links this essay with the essay on Theism, and the doctrine put forward in that essay, that the state of the natural world is compatible with a theory of a wise and benevolent, but not an omnipotent Creator, is put forward here, with an interesting reference to Leibniz. Much of the argument on the evidence offered by Nature for a posteriori discovery of the divine attributes parallels the more formal argument of the later essay on Theism. But there is much more looking backward to the eighteenth century and its controversies here; the essay on Theism, although it glances back occasionally, is solidly fixed in the world of Darwin and of the Higher Criticism.

Finally, it is possible to see in the essay on Nature a further significance. From the time of Helvetius and the early French Utilitarians, the taint of “naturalism” had clung to the doctrine. In its most narrowly rigorous form, it insisted that the sole absolute good was pleasure, the sole absolute evil, pain. It reduced motivation to the natural instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain. In referring everything in ethics and in politics to these irreducible natural elements, and explaining everything in terms of primary natural instincts, it was not indeed setting up the natural as a norm, as the pattern of what ought to be. But it was setting up the natural as the pattern of what has to be, of what is and is inescapable. Moreover, in finding the origins of normative ideas, of ideals of value, in the purely natural, it attacked the validity usually ascribed to them. Those opponents who saw in the Helvetian doctrine a system of hedonist, egoist naturalism had some good reasons for their judgment. And it is a short step from proclaiming the inevitability of the natural to accepting it as the norm. If it is inevitably natural for dogs to bark and bite, then let them delight to do so. The natural becomes the right.

The “naturalistic” fallacy can then, and historically does, become part not only of the metaphysical views of Nature associated with Shaftesburian deists, neo-classical literary critics and pre-Romantic primitivism, but also of narrowly empirical Utilitarians. And since the Utilitarians tend to be “naturalistic” in the other sense of rejecting the supernatural and the “metaphysical,” the “naturalism” ascribed to them is seen as of the most opprobrious sort. As we have seen, Mill is constantly aware of the need to break the association of Utilitarianism with the tradition of Helvetius’ pattern. The essay on Nature, in defining precisely his attitude towards Nature and the natural, and the relation of the natural to the ethical norms of Utilitarianism, is Mill’s main reply to those who still think of Utilitarianism in the old terms of the “naturalistic” fallacy.

  • University of Toronto


[1 ]The preceding quotations are from Mill’s Autobiography (New York: Columbia University Press, 1924), 47. Subsequent references to this edition are given in parentheses.

[2 ]Matthew Arnold, “Memorial Verses,” ll.45-7, 54-7.

[3 ]“Remarks on Bentham’s Philosophy,” 8 below. Subsequent references are to the present edition, and are given in parentheses.

[4 ]Though generally taken to be a review of the whole of Bowring’s edition of Bentham’s Works, the article reviews only Parts I to IV of that edition (all that had appeared to that point); for a description of these parts and their place in the edition, see Bibliographic Appendix, 512 below.

[5 ]Autobiography, 140-1. Cf. Professor Robson’s comments, cxviii below.

[6 ]“Sedgwick,” 66 below. Subsequent references are to the present edition, and are given in parentheses.

[7 ]“Remarks on Bentham’s Philosophy,” 12.

[8 ]“Bentham,” 77 below. Subsequent references are to the present edition, and are given in parentheses.

[9 ]See John M. Robson, “John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, with some Observations on James Mill,” in M. MacLure and F. W. Watt, eds., Essays in English Literature from the Renaissance to the Victorian Age (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964), 259-62.

[10 ]Cf. ibid., 267-8, where Professor Robson suggests that Mill was praising not the detail of Bentham’s method, but his very adoption of a method in ethics, politics, and sociology.

[11 ]Mill struggled with this general problem, of course, for the next twenty years, resolving it (to his satisfaction and in theory) only in his Considerations on Representative Government.

[12 ]“Coleridge,” 119 below. Subsequent references are to the present edition, and are given in parentheses.

[13 ]Going beyond this immediate context, one should note Mill’s qualified approval of the Saint-Simonian and Comtean notion of the alternation of “critical” and “organic” periods, an alternation that does not preclude a final period in which freedom would unite with order (without, for Mill, any suggestion of an Hegelian synthesis).

[14 ]This is not to argue that Mill deserted the empirical and associationist school; his allegiance is perfectly clear, whatever the modifications, in his Logic, his edition of James Mill’s Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, and in his Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy, to mention only the most obvious examples.

[15 ]While Mill remained interested in this area, he never fully worked out the problems of reconciliation here indicated; his “Ethology” was not written.

[16 ]A separation made clearer and more complete by Mill than by Coleridge, and so carrying rather different implications.

[17 ]See the Textual Introduction, cxxn and cxxin below.

[18 ]“Whewell,” 167 below. Subsequent references are to the present edition, and are given in parentheses.

[19 ]This defence is also offered in the Introduction to Bentham’s Works. In general, it may be said, Mill uses it to explain the position of the Philosophic Radicals, and especially of James Mill, on the Reform Bill of 1832 and related measures.

[20 ]Utilitarianism, 205 below. Subsequent references are to the present edition, and are given in parentheses.

[21 ]Auguste Comte and Positivism, 263 below. Subsequent references are to the present edition, and are given in parentheses.

[22 ]Cf. xx-xxi, xxix above.

[23 ]Probably Mill is here recalling not only Coleridge’s influence on him, but also Macaulay’s criticism of James Mill’s Essay on Government.

[24 ]Cf. John M. Robson, The Improvement of Mankind: The Social and Political Thought of John Stuart Mill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968), 122n: “Bain reports, without noticeable sympathy, that Mill ‘seemed to look upon Poetry as a Religion, or rather as Religion and Philosophy in one.’ ”

[25 ]Here one recalls Mill’s criticism of Bentham’s propensity to legislate for all mankind, regardless of the implications of the title of his Influence of Time and Place in Matters of Legislation.

[26 ]See especially Mill’s Logic, Book VI, Chap. x, “Of the Inverse Deductive, or Historical Method.”

[27 ]Three Essays on Religion, 371-2 below. Subsequent references are to the present edition, and are given in parentheses.

[28 ]Matthew Arnold, “Obermann Once More,” ll.237-8.