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J. S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham


Edited by Alan Ryan

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From An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham

Chapter I: Of the Principle of Utility

Chapter II: Of Principles Adverse to That of Utility

Chapter III: Of the Four Sanctions or Sources of Pain and Pleasure

Chapter IV: Value of a Lot of Pleasure or Pain, How to be Measured

Chapter V: Pleasures and Pains, Their Kinds

Chapter XIII: Cases Unmeet for Punishment

Chapter XIV: Of the Proportion Between Punishments and Offences

From A System of Logic by J. S. Mill

Of Liberty and Necessity

Of the Logic of Practice, or Art; Including Morality and Policy

‘Bentham’ by J. S. Mill

‘Coleridge’ by J. S. Mill

‘Whewell on Moral Philosophy’ by J. S. Mill

Utilitarianism by J. S. Mill

Chapter I: General Remarks

Chapter II: What Utilitarianism Is

Chapter III: Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility

Chapter IV: Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible

Chapter V: On the Connection between Justice and Utility

Further Reading


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JOHN STUART MILL (1806–73) was educated by his father and through his influence obtained a clerkship at India House. He formed the Utilitarian Society which met to read and discuss essays, and in 1825 he edited Bentham’s Treatise upon Evidence. In 1826 he suffered an acute mental crisis and found that poetry helped him recover the will to live, particularly the work of Wordsworth. Having reconsidered his aims and those of the Benthamite school, he met Harriet Taylor and she inspired a great deal of his philosophy. They married in 1851. Utilitarianism was published in 1861 but before that Mill published his System of Logic (1843), Principles of Political Economy (1848) and On Liberty (1839). His other works include his classic Autobiography (1873). Mill retired in 1858 and became the independent MP for Westminster from 1865 to 1868. During the rest of his life he spent about half of each year in France and died in Avignon.

JEREMY BENTHAM (1748–1832) was educated at Westminster and Queen’s College, Oxford. He was called to the bar but found the work morally and intellectually distasteful and set out to theorize a simple and equitable legal system. The law of utility, for which he is best remembered, states that the goodness of a law can be measured in accordance with the measure in which it subserves the happiness of the individual. His democratic views are expressed in his Constitutional Code (1830). With J. S. Mill he founded the Westminster Review, the organ of his philosophical radicals. True to his principles, Bentham left his body to be dissected and his remains are on view at University College, London.

ALAN RYAN is Warden of New College and Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital and Balliol College, Oxford. At the age of fifteen he was asked to write an essay on Mill’s Liberty and concluded that Mill was more than a match for his innumerable critics and a writer with much to say to the twentieth century. The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (1970) and J. S. Mill (1974), defended that conclusion at greater length. Alan Ryan’s other books include Property and Political Theory (1984), Bertrand Russell: A Political Life (1988), John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (1995) and Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education (1998). He jointly edited The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought (1987).


Mill’s Utilitarianism is one of the best known of all philosophical texts. Any student of philosophy and almost any student of English literature and English history will at least have glanced at it, and will have heard something about the philosophical and political movement to which its author belonged. Since it is short, readable, polemical and eloquent, it has always offered an easy way into the complexities of moral philosophy and into the creed of the utilitarian movement. But it has only kept that place because utilitarianism itself is the best known of all moral theories. It is doubtless an exaggeration to suggest that ‘the greatest happiness principle’ is widely accepted as an ultimate moral principle by plain men and philosophers alike; it is certainly an exaggeration believed more readily by the opponents of utilitarianism than by its defenders.1 But much of what utilitarians argue has an immediate appeal to contemporary common sense. The idea that it is at least some argument in favour of a course of action that it gives happiness, the thought that numbers make a difference to the merits of any action or policy because they make a difference to how much happiness or misery it causes, the belief that basic morality is a matter of preventing us being a nuisance to our fellows and by extension getting us to do them some positive good – all these are familiar utilitarian claims and commonplaces of everyday argument.

Most people have a good idea what is meant when, say, one politician accuses another of sacrificing justice for merely utilitarian considerations, or someone declares that city planners have sacrificed aesthetics to utility; but if they had accused each other of preferring ‘teleological’ to ‘deontological’ considerations, not one person in a hundred would have had the least idea what they were arguing about. This is far from saying that many people have a very clear idea of what was at stake in nineteenth-century arguments between utilitarians and their critics. Innumerable students of English literature go through their whole lives believing that the portrait of Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times is the last word on utilitarianism and on utilitarianism’s impact on education, on imagination, and on individual character. But Mill’s essay makes it clear that Dickens was attacking a straw man; utilitarianism proposed as its ideal the happiness of fully developed human beings, not the commercial success of the stunted creatures Mr Gradgrind set out to produce. Mill attacked ‘that creature Dickens’ for his disparaging view of female emancipation in Bleak House but generally thought well enough of him to feel his death as a personal loss; there appears to be no evidence of his reading Hard Times, and therefore no knowing what he made of it.2


Utilitarianism is associated above all with two men – Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). There were other distinguished utilitarians, among them Mill’s father and John Austin; since then there have been innumerable moral philosophers, philosophers of law and economic theorists who would have described themselves as utilitarians. None the less, it is Bentham’s brutally clear statement of ‘the greatest happiness theory’ and Mill’s anxious reflections upon that theory which between them define utilitarianism. Bentham was the son of a Tory lawyer and was almost as precocious as J. S. Mill; he went to Westminster School at seven and Queen’s College, Oxford at the age of fifteen. He loathed both places, and all his life resented the hypocrisy of a university which forced its students to swear their belief in the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England but really cared for nothing but its own privileges. He was called to the bar in 1768, but almost immediately decided that the practice of the law was less important than its reform. For the next sixty-four years he wrote increasingly complicated proposals for that reform.

His earliest works are generally his most readable. Certainly that is true of the Fragment on Government of 1776 in which he demolished Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England together with the doctrine of the social contract and the theory of natural right. Its publication coincided neatly with the American Revolution, a revolution aimed at drawing up a new social contract for the protection of the natural rights of Americans. In 1789 he published his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, seven chapters of which are printed here. (It had been written some time before 1780, according to his preface.) It has always been taken to be the definitive statement of Bentham’s utilitarianism; it is certainly the clearest and plainest statement. It in turn coincided with the outbreak of the French Revolution, though this was inspired by principles which Bentham dismissed as nonsense.

Much of Bentham’s energy was devoted to his project for a new design of reformatory, which he named the Panopticon on the strength of the prison’s main feature – a central observatory which would enable the gaoler to keep an eye on all his prisoners at any hour of the day or night and without their being aware of it. (The prison was designed on a star plan, with corridors radiating out from this central office.) Bentham offered his design to the government in the early 1790s, but nothing ever came of it, and after years of argument he was paid £23,000 for the time and expense the scheme had cost him. The effect on him of what he thought was ill-treatment by successive governments was to turn him from a believer in benevolent despotism into a believer in radical democracy. In early life, he had thought that an enlightened monarchy would be only too willing to institute legal reforms along utilitarian lines; the Panopticon affair disillusioned him, and he concluded that only a government which was answerable to the electorate at frequent intervals and constantly under its eye would be reliably benevolent.3

Bentham became a friend of James Mill in 1808, when J. S. Mill was two years old. For ten years, the Mill family spent part of every summer with Bentham, and for many years they lived near him in Queen’s Square, Westminster. James Mill was widely thought of as Bentham’s mouthpiece, the man who turned Bentham’s doctrine into the basis of a political movement.4 Whether he always felt at ease in this role is doubtful, for he was a strong-minded man of a fierce and independent temper. Bentham’s existence was not very much affected by the increasing awe in which he was held by the radicals; he continued to write ever more difficult essays on ever more difficult subjects until he died a fortnight after the passing of the Reform Act of 1832. His influence on the English radicals and on an international public came through pamphlets and through letters – his impact in Spain, Greece and Latin America is still to be properly chronicled and assessed. Although Bentham always took a close interest in J. S. Mill’s education, there is no evidence that he played any role in its design; but whoever designed it, J. S. Mill’s education is justly famous.5 He was taught Greek at three, read the Roman historians before he was ten, embarked on logic at twelve and in his early teens learned economics by assisting his father in the composition of his Elements of Political Economy.

John Stuart Mill joined his father in the East India Company in 1823, and rose steadily to become its chief official – the so-called ‘Examiner of India Correspondence’ – shortly before the Indian Mutiny of 1857 finally persuaded the British Government that India could not be governed by the ghost of a trading company. But unlike James Mill, he took little interest in India; his impact on nineteenth-century Britain was the result of a formidable intellect and a capacity for writing lucid, authoritative accounts of complicated doctrine. He had something close to a God-given talent for the textbook – but not the usual, secondhand object; his talent was for the first-hand rendered comprehensible and comprehensive. Within a couple of decades of his youthful assaults on the intellectual conservatism of English universities, they were employing his System of Logic (1843) and his Principles of Political Economy (1848) as the required reading for their young men.

Mill was no ‘ivory tower’ intellectual. He grew up with the ‘Philosophical Radicals’, middle-class reformers of a generally utilitarian persuasion who had since the end of the Napoleonic Wars demanded parliamentary reform, legal reform, greater democracy and accountability in all aspects of politics and administration.6 Although he came to think their views altogether too narrow, he never deserted the radical cause; in the 1830s he edited the London and Westminster Review, and if he attacked his own side with as much gusto as he attacked his opponents, it was always in the name of an enlarged radicalism. He went on to defend the French Revolution of 1848 against all its English critics, and added chapters in defence of socialism and co-operativism to his Principles of Political Economy. After he had retired from the East India Company, he served briefly as MP for Westminster (1865–8), and in the debates on the second Reform Bill came closer to gaining the vote for women than anyone before or after him until the case was conceded in 1918. He had long been known to favour the abolition of every legal disability suffered by women, and in Considerations on Representative Government (1862) treated the opponents of female suffrage as so far beneath contempt as to deserve no argument whatever. The Subjection of Women (1869) revealed the extent of his feminism, though it disappointed those of his friends who would have liked a more uninhibited defence of easy divorce. After losing Westminster at the general election of 1868, Mill retired to Avignon. Harriet Taylor, whom he had met in 1830, and married in 1851 on the death of her husband, had died there in 1858, and Mill died there himself in May 1873.

Mill was unusual in the Victorian age in never suffering a crisis of religious faith – unless we count the breakdown he suffered in 1826 when he turned against his father and Bentham. In conventional terms, he was brought up an agnostic, and remained one all his life. He published posthumously ‘Three Essays on Religion’ (written at various times between 1854 and 1869) which argued that there was no reason to suppose Christianity true, though some reason to think there might be a less than omnipotent deity playing some part in human affairs. The real message of the essays was that the religious sentiment might be applied to this-worldly matters, that ‘the religion of humanity’ could and should be inculcated in a society which was already less than wholly Christian.


Of all Mill’s works, three have no difficulty in finding a modern audience. Mill’s Autobiography (published posthumously, written in two instalments in 1853–4 and 1869–70) gives a moving account of the education he enjoyed (or suffered) at the hands of his father, of the nervous breakdown which followed, of his recovery under the impulse of Wordsworth’s poetry, and of the Platonic but passionate friendship with Harriet Taylor which simultaneously restored his emotional health and drove him out of polite society. Liberty (1858) is such a deeply felt defence of the right of individuals to be left alone unless they are causing real damage to other people that hardly anyone puts it down without reading it straight through. Even those who find the arguments unconvincing find it hard to resist the manner. Utilitarianism (1863) is rather different. It has less of the personal appeal which makes the Autobiography and Liberty so compelling; but it is a model of philosophical exposition. It seizes the reader’s attention, invites him to consider argument after argument, every one of them lucidly expressed, energetically defended and its rivals briskly seen off. As much as Plato, who can seize our attention across two and a half millennia by sheer argumentative energy, Mill never lets go of the reader.

Nevertheless, Utilitarianism is a curiosity. It is certainly a ‘philosophical classic’ – that is, it is widely read, it is the definitive statement of a distinctive doctrine, it is frequently controverted, and as frequently rises phoenix-like from its own ashes to be defended and controverted again. Yet Utilitarianism is unusual in the degree to which it has become a classic through the efforts of its opponents rather than those of its friends, and its use for the past eighty years as a set book in introductory courses in moral philosophy means that it is better known for its supposed faults than for its many actual virtues. That it has become a philosophical classic at all is slightly odd, for Mill never had it in mind to write a treatise on moral philosophy and he never did so.

His contribution to the reinterpretation of ‘the utilitarian philosophy’ is scattered piecemeal throughout his work. He attacked what he thought of as the debased and time serving utilitarianism of William Paley in a youthful essay on the teaching of philosophy in the University of Cambridge;7 he came to terms with Bentham in two essays devoted to him,8 as well as in a companion essay on Coleridge, and in another (printed here) which he devoted to one of Bentham’s critics and a long-standing antagonist of his own, William Whewell, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge; he explained the difference between argument in scientific and in practical matters, first in an essay on the nature of economics,9 then in the last chapter of his System of Logic; and he discussed the freedom of the will and the nature of moral responsibility, both in the Logic and in his Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy. It is arguable that his essay on Liberty contributes as much to our understanding of Mill’s moral philosophy as Utilitarianism does – indeed, I shall argue so below.

Utilitarianism was written as a series of essays in Fraser’s Magazine; they appeared in October, November and December 1861 and the three essays were recast as five chapters when they were republished as a book in 1863. Fraser’s Magazine was an intelligently written monthly review, not an academic journal – it was another twenty years before philosophical journals became part of the academic scene. Its readership was mildly radical, but not, so to speak, a ‘committed’ readership. Mill’s essays, therefore, were not written with the weight of reference of his attack on Sir William Hamilton, nor were they as ambitious as his Logic. The Logic had been a ‘manifesto’ of the empirical and inductive approach to science and social science; it was intended to be comprehensive in its scope – and so it was.10 Utilitarianism is not like that. Mill was not in any case a ‘professional philosopher’ – the breed hardly existed as a part of English academic life – and on this occasion particularly he was trying to persuade a lay audience of what seemed to him to be some fairly elementary truths. Whether he ever saw at all deeply into the logical puzzles which entangle utilitarian ethics, and whose solution and restatement provide contemporary students with their bread and butter, is problematic. What is perfectly clear is that Utilitarianism is not written to clear the logical puzzles which have intrigued Mill’s critics and commentators. It is written to persuade the readers of Fraser’s Magazine that there can be morality without religion, that a utilitarian is as well able as anyone else to do his duty just because it is his duty and without ulterior motives, that making utility or pleasure the ultimate test of good and bad conduct is far from espousing a ‘pig philosophy’ whose highest ideal is the contentment of the swinish multitude.

The character of Mill’s short essay is best appreciated by contrasting it with two works of his which were avowedly systematic and comprehensive treatises – his Logic and his Principles of Political Economy – and with Henry Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics. All three are strikingly different in tone and approach, as well as in their bulk. At some sixty pages, Utilitarianism is barely a tenth of their length. More importantly, it is brisk and polemical throughout, where they are magisterial, and ready to canvass any number of objections and alternatives. It is a highly selective snapshot of the field of ethics, avowedly intended to answer what Mill supposed to be the most common misconceptions of the utilitarian philosophy. Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics was written to be just the sort of systematic treatise Utilitarianism was not; it was a piece of professional philosophy. Certainly, it also defended utilitarianism; but its caution, its canvassing of endless small problems, its continual adjustment of the utilitarianism it defended to difficulties which its application to practice showed up, all stamp it as an academic treatise, a work of the study, and not an exercise in practical persuasion. Mill’s essay was written to strike a blow in his lifelong campaign against what he thought of as the irrational conservatism of his opponents and the dangerous narrowness of his allies.

Mill wrote as a polemicist, even if he was a polemicist whose main aim was to reconcile the disciples of Bentham and the followers of Coleridge. His essays on Bentham and Coleridge are the work of a man concerned with the broad intellectual and political culture of the age, not the work of a philosopher in the academic twentieth-century sense. There is nothing of what today is described as ‘conceptual analysis’ either in the essays or in Utilitarianism, nor are they restricted to narrowly ‘moral’ topics. It is not just that Bentham was a legal reformer, and Coleridge a poet – Coleridge’s philosophical writings on morals and politics are as voluminous as Mill’s. It is rather that Mill wrote to defend utilitarianism as a guide to practice in all walks of life; to do that he certainly had to interpret the principle of utility in such a way as to clear it of confusion and to render it acceptable to his readers. But essays in persuasion are not on all fours with essays in analysis, and to understand Mill, it is necessary to understand what his purposes were. To understand those, we must look briefly at the history of utilitarian ethics, and at Mill’s biography.


Mill thought that he had been the first person to employ the term ‘utilitarianism’ when he coined the term ‘utilitarian’ to describe the allegiances of himself and his friends in the 1820s. He was certainly not the first, for Bentham himself had done so in 1781; but if he was less original than he supposed, it is none the less worth noticing that writers whom the twentieth century unhesitatingly describes as ‘utilitarians’ were not themselves conscious of defending an ‘-ism’. Eighteenth-century rationalists and reformers, such as Beccaria and Helvetius, who argued that the test of institutions was their contribution to human happiness or the utilité générale now seem to us to have been Mill’s forerunners and early defenders of utilitarianism. But this is largely an illusion fostered by hindsight. It is not merely that they themselves evidently were not conscious of playing such a part, any more than Galileo was conscious of being a precursor of Newton. The crucial point is that they were neither appealing to, nor concerned to construct, a systematic moral theory which needed to be articulated, clarified and defended. Even William Godwin, whose Political Justice is a systematic moral and political treatise and gives an account of what he called ‘political justice’ that identifies political justice with the pursuit of the greatest happiness, was not a fully fledged utilitarian.11

This may seem a perverse judgement, when Godwin derived from this account of justice extreme conclusions which are often cited to show the difficulties utilitarianism can face. So, for instance, Godwin argues that gratitude is not a virtue – if justice demands that we pursue the greatest happiness, I do no more than my duty in bestowing a gift on the person to whom it does most good; since I do no more than my duty, he or she has no call to be grateful. Conversely, if I bestow it where it does less than the most good, I am failing in my duty and gratitude is even more out of place; it would be very much like expressing gratitude for a gift of stolen goods. By the same token, family loyalties are misguided. In a memorable passage, Godwin raised the question whether I ought in a fire to save Archbishop Fenelon or Archbishop Fenelon’s chambermaid, supposing that the chambermaid is my mother or my sister.12 The answer was clear; I ought to rescue the Archbishop because he would do more good than the chambermaid. The fact that I was related to her was neither here nor there. In later editions, Godwin slightly softened the argument and agreed that the domestic affections could themselves contribute to the greatest happiness. Still, there is no doubt that he took the greatest happiness to be the test of the justice of my actions – does it not follow that he was a ‘utilitarian’ in the full sense of the term?

There is no conclusive answer to the question, but there are strong reasons for saying that he was not. For one thing, he talked constantly of the ‘justice’ of our actions, and his theory was couched in terms of ‘rights’. A self-conscious utilitarian is, as we shall see, aware that considerations of justice fit rather awkwardly into utilitarianism; and utilitarians would be cautious about employing the concept of rights – Bentham, indeed, thought that except in legal contexts, all talk of rights was nonsense. For another, Godwin gave pride of place in his scheme to the doctrine that individuals possess what he calls ‘the right of private judgement’, the right to act only on their own view of what is right and wrong. What he called ‘the unspeakably beautiful doctrine’ that every individual be guided by his or her own judgement and by nothing else meant that Godwin was a ‘philosophical anarchist’; governments were intrinsically illegitimate since they claimed the right to violate the most precious right their subjects possessed. It is a doctrine which is exceedingly hard to reconcile with utilitarianism, though one which is not too hard to trace back to Godwin’s background as a Dissenting minister. Finally, Godwin’s conception of moral judgement and moral argument owes everything to eighteenth-century rationalism and nothing to nineteenth-century utilitarianism. He held that justice was grounded in the nature of things and in the eternal reason which underpinned the organization of the universe; this was at least a rationalistic view of ethics and perhaps a view which presupposed some kind of theism. In all these ways, Godwin’s ethics is far removed from Mill’s.13

Hume is another seeming ancestor of utilitarianism who turns out on closer inspection to be something rather different. Hume certainly held many views which utilitarians hold, and his cast of mind is one which many utilitarians have found sympathetic. Hume was entirely opposed to contractarian theories of government; he did not think that governments had acquired their authority over their subjects through any sort of social contract in fact – most governments, he said, had originated in force and fraud; and he was sure that any such contract would have been futile in principle – since only those who actually signed would have been bound by it, leaving their descendants as free as ever. Moreover, it was no easier to explain why we ought to take any notice of promises which we ourselves had made than to explain why we ought to take any notice of the wishes of our government. All authority needed explanation; and an explanation which made sense of the obligation to keep promises would make equally good sense of the obligation to obey government – but without deriving the latter obligation from the former.

Hume explained both in terms of the contribution of conventions and conventionally accepted institutions to general utility. Did this make him a utilitarian? Again, not entirely. What Hume was interested in was the way in which the mind leaped from factual premises to moral judgements – I observe that a friend has broken a promise; I judge that he has done wrong; but what takes me from the observation to the judgement? Hume saw that this was not a logical process, strictly considered.14 That is, if I say ‘he said that he would take his aunt to hospital; he did not do so; nothing prevented him from doing so; I approve very much of his behaviour’ I might be expressing an odd moral position, but I would not be contradicting myself. For Hume, an inference was a matter of reason only if self-contradiction was involved in denying the inference. So ethics was not a matter of reason. It must, therefore, be a matter of feeling. In Hume’s view, what launched moral judgements was the dictate of a moral sense. This moral sense was simply one of the human faculties, and Hume’s account of its workings is presented as a psychological description. Hume’s aim was not to present us with a standard by which we could test our existing moral intuitions and remodel them where necessary. If he had any aim other than that of gratifying a legitimate curiosity about the nature of moral attitudes, it was that of curbing sectarian strife by inducing in his readers some scepticism about the claims of revealed religion and some tolerance towards the variety of moral outlooks to be found among mankind. Mill neither believed in a moral sense, nor contented himself with describing its deliverances. Utilitarianism – at least in so far as Mill subscribed to it – was a reforming doctrine, and although Bentham and Mill accepted a view of human psychology much like that of Hume, both Bentham and Mill were hostile to any suggestion that we possess a ‘moral sense’.

Mill’s view was that it was true as a matter of psychological fact that we possess distinctively moral reactions to the objects of approval and disapproval. To that extent, no one could deny that we possess a ‘moral sense’. ‘It is a fact in human nature, that we have moral judgements and moral feelings. We judge certain actions and dispositions to be right, others wrong; this we call approving and disapproving them. We have also feelings of pleasure in the contemplation of the former class of actions and dispositions – feelings of dislike and aversion to the latter; which feelings, as everybody must be conscious, do not exactly resemble any other of our feelings of pain or pleasure.’15 The important question, however, was not whether we had such sensations, but how they related to the distinction between moral and immoral actions or dispositions. What Mill was invariably at odds with was the claim that the distinction between the moral and the immoral is a ‘peculiar and inscrutable property in the acts themselves, which we perceive by a sense, as we perceive colours by sight’. There were two distinct questions to be answered; one, whether there are distinctively moral reactions, the other, what the test is of the morality and immorality of conduct or character. Only if the second question is kept distinct from the first can we answer the question whether a person’s moral reactions are rightly focused. Mill’s complaint against all ‘intuitive’ theories of morality was that they made criticism impossible by making our moral reactions self-justifying; if moral distinctions are just what our moral sense perceives when it is working properly, there is no room for argument about whether we might be wrong.

Mill regarded William Paley as an unequivocal utilitarian because he denied the conclusions of the intuitive theory of ethics. He was not, however, a utilitarian of Mill’s persuasion in one crucial respect. Paley treated the contribution of actions and dispositions to the general happiness as an index of their morality or immorality, but not because the general happiness is itself the ultimate goal. Rather, the general happiness is an index of God’s wishes; what makes actions and sentiments right or wrong is that God commands or forbids them. Their status as moral or immoral is a matter of divine legislation. This doctrine, as may well be imagined, Mill will not entertain for one moment. Although he disagreed with Kant on almost every issue in philosophy, they stood together in insisting that questions of good and evil cannot be reduced to divine prescription and proscription. It must always be possible for us to ask whether God’s commands are themselves good; and if an evil deity commanded us to do his bidding, the moral course would be to resist. Mill did not object to linking God and utility; if God was moved by the general happiness to issue a moral code and support it with sanctions, so much the better. But the goodness of God, and of his code, depended upon the standard to which he and it referred, not upon God’s own say-so.

Paley was further lowered in Mill’s eyes by the mean-spirited account of virtue which he derived from his deplorable account of morality and immorality. For Paley held that action out of a regard for the general welfare was not virtuous; to act virtuously demanded reference to God’s commandments, and the reference required was that we must act in order to secure our own eternal happiness. Altruistically doing good for the sake of others was not virtuous. God tells us what to do, and attaches to his commandments a promise of rewards and a threat of punishment. Paley takes the surprising position that to be virtuous is to act self-centredly out of a regard to these threats. Mill takes the common-sensical view that this sort of selfish behaviour may be better than nothing but can hardly be the height of virtue. Virtue demands that we act out of respect for the law and its purposes, not out of a desire to save our own skins. Add to this Paley’s notorious willingness to invoke his doctrines to justify mental reservations by clergymen who found it hard to believe the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, and his defence of the political and moral laxity of eighteenth-century public life, and Mill’s unwillingness to have utilitarianism tarred with the sins of Paley is understandable. None the less, Paley was unequivocally a utilitarian, even in Mill’s eyes. But he was, as Mill said, simply a very bad one.

Mill was more willing to acknowledge as utilitarian precursors some thinkers who were doubtfully utilitarian at all. He described Aristotle as a ‘judicious utilitarian’ and declared that the teachings of Jesus contained the perfection of the utilitarian doctrine. How sincere he was in that latter declaration is an open question; there is some distance between claiming that ‘love thy neighbour as thyself' is a good utilitarian principle and claiming that Jesus was a utilitarian. Polemically, of course, Mill was well advised to imply that Jesus had been a utilitarian; it cleared utilitarianism of the taint of atheism. Philosophically it was rather less plausible. Indeed, the ethics of both Aristotle and Jesus illustrate quite neatly one way in which utilitarianism is distinctive and Aristotle and Jesus are not utilitarians.

Aristotle shared a number of views with all utilitarians. His ethical theory was teleological, not deontological. That is, the fundamental concept in Aristotle’s ethics was goodness rather than duty; ‘teleological’ theories, as the name suggests, are theories which focus on the goals or ends of conduct, ‘deontological’ theories, as again the name suggests, are theories which concentrate on whether conduct conforms to rules or orders. Aristotle’s interest lay in the question of what kind of good different sorts of conduct aimed at. And Mill’s description of him as a utilitarian might be thought to be justified by Aristotle’s claim that the ultimate goal in ethics was ‘eudaemonia’ or ‘well-being’ – as for his judiciousness, nobody has ever doubted that a man who looked for virtue in the pursuit of the mean between two extremes was a paragon of judiciousness.

Granted that he was judicious, was he a judicious utilitarian, however? The answer is that he was not. He was not, because he had a very different conception of what ethics was about from any that Mill entertained. Aristotle was interested first and foremost in what ‘good’ conduct did for the agent whose conduct was in question. It was not the ‘good’ he did to others which was central; nor was it always the good he would do himself, considered in an instrumental way. What he was interested in was how the virtues such as generosity, courage, and (what most people think an odd candidate for a virtue) pride contributed to leading ‘a good life’. It is noteworthy that it is a good life on which he focuses, rather than on a life of goodness; ‘goodness’ in that sense already has overtones of living for others and self-sacrifice which are entirely foreign to Aristotle. What Aristotle relies on is the thought that nature destines men to live in society and to live the kind of social and intellectual life that a moderately well off and well educated Athenian citizen would lead. (Nature has lives planned for women, slaves and non-Greeks, too, and these have their own goodness, but of a more limited kind. It is not a reproach to a woman that she cannot lead the best life; but it would be a reproach if she did not lead a womanly life. Mill fought all his life for equality for women, looked forward to the day when India attained self-government, and thought that citizenship should be extended to everyone who was literate and employable; he was fiercely hostile to the idea that Nature planned anything for us, and was at odds with everything in Aristotle except his exaltation of the life of the active citizen and his insistence that we can pursue our own happiness in pursuing ideal ends such as knowledge and self-improvement.) The goodness of our lives was a matter of their matching the natural model; certainly, a man who leads a good life will in general and on average be happy – or ‘eudaemonic’ – but happiness is not the standard of goodness. In a sense there is no general standard of goodness in Aristotle, because goodness is a matter of functioning properly in the way Nature intends. The connection between happiness and goodness is that happiness is the effect of good functioning for a human being, rather than the test of good functioning.

It is clearer still that the attempt to pass off Jesus as a utilitarian is special pleading – at any rate in the way in which Mill does it. For Jesus comes to reveal God’s law; it is true that the law so revealed is an expansion from the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament, and the God revealed in His law is the God of Love rather than the God of Wrath. None the less, the most one can say is that God so organizes the world that those who obey His law will be rewarded with happiness and eternal life. What constitutes moral goodness is obedience to God’s commandments, and the test of an individual’s goodness of conduct is his or her conformity to those commandments. There is no question of testing the merits of divine commandment by asking whether those commandments make good sense as utilitarian precepts. We may trust that they somehow do, because we believe in a God of Love who cares for His creation, but we are not invited to pronounce on the merits of divine legislation. Among genuine utilitarians there were few real Christians; Mill and his father were agnostics, and so was Bentham, though they all had a high regard for Jesus and a correspondingly low opinion of St Paul.

An exception was John Austin. He believed that the obligatoriness of morality was a matter of divine legislation. Moral obligation was the obligation to obey the divine fiat – a close analogue to Austin’s account of the obligatoriness of domestic law, where obligation was the counterpart of the authority of the sovereign, and his authority was no more than his ability to impose his rules on the people over whom he was sovereign. But Austin was a utilitarian because he thought that the point of divine legislation was to promote happiness. He, therefore, could distinguish between the obligatoriness of moral rules and their goodness;