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John Stuart Mill's Addition to the Views of Bentham on Utilitarianism

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Utilitarianism is “the view that the right action is that, among the open choices, results in the greatest good (usually defined as pleasure/happiness) for the greatest number of persons,” (class glossary). One such theorist is John Stuart Mill. Heavily influenced by Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill adopted the view of utilitarianism and strengthened it by altering the way in which happiness is defined. In this essay, I will explain how Mill adds on to Bentham’s version of utilitarianism. I will explain the concept of mental cultivation, why it is important to happiness, and how this concept is related to the right of free speech.

Part of Bentham’s view was that everyone had the ability to define their own, subjective happiness with the calculus of felicity. This entailed rating an experience in seven different areas including intensity, duration, and certainty. For example, the action of partying instead of studying would score high in intensity (strength of pleasure), but low in purity (indicating a strong probability that the pleasure would be followed by displeasure). In this rating system, there is no measure of quality, only quantity. In Bentham’s words: “Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.” John Stuart Mill refuted this, claiming that happiness is more objective than this, and that it is not defined solely by the individual. To support this, Mill added a qualitative aspect to the measure of happiness. This qualitative aspect takes the form of mental cultivation. As Mill expresses in the following quote: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question,” humans are capable of experiencing higher pleasures than those experienced by a pig. Mental cultivation is the act of becoming educated on the foundations of knowledge in order to experience higher pleasures. Thus, in contrast to Bentham, Mill believes that people should prefer “poetry” over “push-pin”. Mill argues that anyone who engages in mental cultivation will come to realize that some pleasures are of a higher quality than others. This realization will make them competent judges. Mill believes that because mental cultivation can lead to individual and social growth, it facilitates happiness.

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In order for mental cultivation to be successful, people need to be introduced to new ideas. Thus, in order to facilitate mental cultivation, people need the right to free speech. Free speech can show someone that the life they’re living isn’t making them as happy as they could be, or that what they believe isn’t correct. This allows mental cultivation to take place by disallowing people to hold unchallenged beliefs dogmatically. Introducing people to a marketplace of ideas that is unhindered by restriction can stop people from stagnating in their journey of mental cultivation. For example, say a person is born into a religion, and is never introduced to any other ideas or philosophies due to the overbearing government they live under. This person may not be as happy practicing this religion as they would another, or none at all. However, since they live in a place with no freedom of speech, they are unable to practice mental cultivation as they don’t have the opportunity to be introduced to new ideas.


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