Mill vs. Bentham

Topics: Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill Pages: 8 (2799 words) Published: December 13, 2006
In what ways did John Stuart Mill's version of utilitarianism differ from that of Jeremy Bentham? Which do you consider preferable?

The Cambridge International Dictionary of English defines utilitarianism as "the system of thought which states that the best action or decision in a particular situation is the one which most benefits the most people". This is the main idea of the system of thought and it is from this the beliefs and opinions of John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873), Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) and other early utilitarians were developed. Jeremy Bentham, a friend of J. S. Mill's father and the mentor of J. S. Mill, is usually considered the founder of British utilitarianism. J. S. Mill adapted Bentham's ideas and philosophies to meet the criticism utilitarianism encountered in Victorian times, expressing his version in the essays Utilitarianism (1861) and On Liberty (1859). Although the differences between the ideas of Bentham and Mill are very few, Mill's adjustments are important and greatly alter the basic foundations of the system.

To fully understand the origins of the ideas and opinions expressed by Mill and Bentham it is useful to examine their backgrounds and influences. John Stuart Mill was the eldest son of James Mill, a British historian, economist and philosopher. He was educated entirely by his father, who was a strict disciplinarian, and by the age of 10 had read all the Latin and Greek authors commonly read in the schools and universities of the time. His main reading, however, was history and by this age had read the whole works of the historian Herodotus, and was acquainted with the satirist Lucian, the historian of philosophy Diogenes Laërtius, the Athenian writer and educational theorist Isocrates, and six dialogues of Plato. While the training of the young Mill has aroused amazement and criticism, its most significant effect was the close association it encouraged with his father, James Mill. As a boy, he often spent much time in his father's study and regularly accompanied his father on his walks. Inevitably he acquired many of his father's opinions and his way of defending them. He did not, however, receive this information passively as the duty of collecting and weighing evidence was impressed on him at every turn from a young age. Mill accepted this strict form of education up until he was around the age of 20 when he went though a ‘mental' crisis and became apathetic about utilitarianism. He continued to intellectually believe in the legitimacy of the ideas of utilitarianism but was no longer interested in promoting it. He believed that his father's method of education was too analytical and ignored the development of his emotional self. He spent time reading literature, particularly poetry, of the Romantic period to cultivate the emotions that had been neglected by his father's style of education. He became less of a ‘manufactured man', produced to his father's specification, and began to form his own ideas, considering his father's views to be narrow and doctrinaire. After this, Mill decided to develop a new version of utilitarianism that did not conflict with his newly discovered attitude.

Jeremy Bentham was born into a wealthy Tory family and was educated at Westminster school and Queen's College, Oxford. He trained as a lawyer and was called to the bar in 1769. He soon, however became disillusioned with the law, especially after hearing the lectures of the leading authority of the day, Sir William Blackstone (1723-80). Instead of practising the law, he decided to write about it, and he spent his life criticising the existing law and suggesting ways for its improvement. Bentham was closely associated with the doctrine of Utilitarianism and the principle of `the greatest happiness of the greatest number' but this was only the starting point of a radical critique of society, through which he aimed to evaluate the usefulness of existing institutions, practices and beliefs. He lived...

Bibliography: Burr and Goldinger, Philosophy and Contemporary Issues. New York: Macmillan, 1992
Dinwiddy, John
Warburton, Nigel. Philosophy: The Classics. London: Routledge, 1999
Russell, Bertrand
Knowles, Dudley. Political Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2001
Crisp, Roger
Mill, J. S. On Liberty. Penguin Books, 1982
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