Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/February 1880/John Stuart Mill VI

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CLOSELY connected both in date of composition and in subject-matter is the "Utilitarianism." I find from a letter that it was written in 1854. It was thoroughly revised in 1860, and appeared as three papers in "Fraser's Magazine" in the beginning of 1861. I am not aware that any change was made in reprinting it as a volume, notwithstanding that it had a full share of hostile criticism as it came out in "Fraser."

This short work has many volumes to answer for. The amount of attention it has received is due, in my opinion, partly to its merits, and partly to its defects. As a powerful advocacy of utility, it threw the intuitionists on the defensive; while, by a number of unguarded utterances, it gave them important strategic positions which they could not fail to occupy.

It is this last point that I shall now chiefly dwell upon. What I allude to more particularly is the theory of pleasure and pain embodied in the second chapter, or rather the string of casual expressions having reference to pleasures and pains. I have already said that I consider Mill's Hedonism weak. I do not find fault with him for not having elaborated a Hedonistic theory; that is a matter still ahead of us. My objection lies to certain loose expressions that have received an amount of notice from hostile critics out of all proportion to their bearing on his arguments for utility. I think that, having opponents at every point, his proper course was not to commit himself to any more specific definition of happiness than his case absolutely required.

It was obviously necessary that he should give some explanation of happiness; and on his principles happiness must be resolved into pleasure and the absence of pain. Here, however, he had to encounter at once the common dislike to regarding pleasure as the sole object of desire and pursuit—"a doctrine worthy only of swine," to which its holders have both in ancient and in modern times been most profusely likened. He courageously faces the difficulty by pronouncing in favor of a difference in kind or quality among pleasures; which difference he expands through two or three eloquent pages, which I believe have received more attention from critics on the other side than all the rest of the book put together. My own decided opinion is, that he ought to have resolved all the so-called nobler or higher pleasures into the one single feature of including with the agent's pleasure the pleasure of others. This is the only position that a supporter of utility can hold to. There is a superiority attaching to some pleasures that are still exclusively self-regarding, namely, their amount as compared with the exhaustion of the nervous power; the pleasures of music and of scenery are higher than those of stimulating drugs. But the superiority that makes a distinction of quality, that rises clearly and effectually above the swinish level, is the superiority of the gratifications that take our fellow beings along with us; such are the pleasures of affection, of benevolence, of duty. To have met opponents upon this ground alone would have been the proper undertaking for the object Mill had in view. It surprises me that he has not ventured upon such a mode of resolving pleasures. He says, "On a question which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or which of two modes of existence is the most grateful to the feelings, apart from its snored attributes and consequences, the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both must be admitted to be final." Apart from moral attributes and consequences, I do not see a difference of quality at all; and, when these are taken into account, the difference is sufficient to call forth any amount of admiring preference. A man's actions are noble if they arrest misery or diffuse happiness around him; they are not noble if they are not directly or indirectly altruistic; his pleasures are essentially of the swinish type.

Still rasher, I think, is his off-hand formula of a happy life,[1] if he meant that this was to be a stone in the building of a utilitarian philosophy. As a side-remark upon some of the important conditions of happiness, it is interesting enough, but far from being rounded or precise. It was only to be expected that this utterance should have the same fate as Paley's chapter on "Happiness," namely, to be analyzed to death, and its mangled remains exposed as a memento of the weakness of the philosophy that it is intended to support. It was clearly his business, in conducting a defense of utility, to avoid all questionable suppositions, and to be content with what everybody would allow on the matter of happiness.

His third chapter, treating of the "Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility," has been much caviled at in detail, but is, I consider, a very admirable statement of the genesis of moral sentiment under all the various influences that are necessarily at work. Here occurs that fine passage on the social feelings of mankind which ought, I think, to have been the framework or setting of the whole chapter. Perhaps he should have avoided the word "sanction," so rigidly confined by Austin and the jurists to the penalty or punishment of wrong.

The real stress of the book lies in the last chapter, which is well reasoned in every way, and free from damaging admissions. Under the guise of an inquiry into the foundations of justice, he raises the question as to the source of duty or obligation, and meets the intuitionists point by point in a way that I need not particularize.

By far the best hostile criticism of the "Utilitarianism" that I am acquainted with is the posthumous volume of Professor John Grote. It will there be seen what havoc an acute, yet candid and respectful, opponent can make of his theories of happiness. Many of those strictures I consider unanswerable. Professor Grote also makes the most of Mill's somewhat exaggerated moral strain, and his affectation of holding happiness in contempt; "doing without it," if need be.

It was in 1860 that he wrote his volume on "Representative Government." The state of the Reform question, which led him to prepare his pamphlet on Reform, was the motive of the still larger undertaking, his principal contribution to a Philosophy of Politics. He says in the preface, that the chief novelty of the volume is the bringing together, in a connected form, the various political doctrines that he had at various times given expression to; but the mere fact of viewing them in connection necessarily improved their statement and bearings; and the six or eight months' additional elaboration in his fertile brain could not but infuse additional freshness into the subject.

In my estimate of Mill's genius, he was first of all a logician, and next a social philosopher or politician. The "Political Economy" and the "Representative Government" constitute his political outcome. People will differ as to his political conclusions, but certainly any man that wishes to judge of any matter within the scope of the "Representative Government" should first see what is there said upon it; and the work must long enter into the education of the higher class of politicians. The chapter on the "Criterion of a Good Form of Government" contains an exceedingly pertinent discussion of the relation between order and progress; and demonstrates that order can not be permanent without progress: a position in advance of Comte. The third chapter demolishes the fond theory entertained by many in the present day, that the best government is "absolute authority in good hands." Then comes a question that needs all the author's delicacy, tact, and resource, "Under what conditions is representative government applicable?" But his strongest point throughout is the exposition of the dangers and difficulties attending on democracy. This was one of his oldest themes in the "Westminster Review"; he has put it in every possible light, and discussed with apostolic ardor all the contrivances for withstanding the tyranny of the majority. He took up with avidity Mr. Hare's scheme of representation, and never ceased to urge it as the greatest known improvement that representative institutions are susceptible of. He dismisses second Chambers as wholly inadequate to the purpose in view, however useful otherwise. The discussions on the proper functions of the local governing bodies, on dependencies, and on federations, are all brimful of good political thinking. He passes by the subject of hereditary monarchy. Both he and Grote were republicans in principle, but they regarded the monarchy as preferable to the exposing of the highest dignity of the state to competition. From my latest conversations with Mill, I think he coincided in the view that simple cabinet government would be the natural substitute for monarchy.

It was in 1861 that he turned his thoughts to a review of Hamilton's "Philosophy." Writing to me in November, he says, "I mean to take up Sir William Hamilton, and try if I can make an article on him for the 'Westminster.'" He chose the "Westminster" when he wanted free room for his elbow. He soon abandoned the idea of an article. In December he said: "I have now studied all Sir W. Hamilton's works pretty thoroughly, and see my way to most of what I have got to say respecting him. But I have given up the idea of doing it in anything less than a volume. The great recommendation of this project is, that it will enable me to supply what was prudently left deficient in the 'Logic,' and to do the kind of service which I am capable of to rational psychology, namely, to its 'Polemik.'"

He was interrupted for a time by the events in America. In January, 1862, he wrote his paper on the civil war in "Fraser." He expected it to give great offense, and to be the most hazardous thing for his influence that he had yet done.

After spending the summer in a tour in Greece and Asia Minor, he wrote again on the American question, in a review of Cairnes's book in the "Westminster." This done, he set to the "Hamilton," which was the chief part of his occupation for the next two years. His interruptions were the article on John Austin in the "Edinburgh," in October, 1863, the two articles on Comte in the end of 1864, and the revision of the "Political Economy."

I had a great deal of correspondence with him while he was engaged with Hamilton. He read all Hamilton's writings three times over, and all the books that he thought in any way related to the subjects treated of. Among other things, he wrote me a long criticism of Ferrier's "Institutes." "I thought Ferrier's book quite sui generis when I first read it, and I think so more than ever after reading it again. His system is one of pure skepticism, very skillfully clothed in dogmatic language." He was much exercised upon the whole subject of indestructibility of force. His reading of Spencer, Tyndall, and others landed him in a host of difficulties, which I did what I could to clear up. His picture of Hamilton grew darker as he went on; chiefly from the increasing sense of his inconsistencies. He often wished that he was alive to answer for himself. "I was not prepared for the degree in which this complete acquaintance lowers my estimate of the man and of his speculations. I did not expect to find them a mass of contradictions. There is scarcely a point of importance on which he does not hold conflicting theories, or profess doctrines which suppose one theory while he himself holds another. It almost goes against me to write so complete a demolition of a brother philosopher after he is dead, not having done it while he was alive."

During my stay in London in the summer of 1864, he showed me the finished MS. of a large part of the book. I offered a variety of minor suggestions, and he completed the work for the press the same autumn.

Of the many topics comprised in the volume, I shall advert only to one or two of the principal. After following Hamilton's theories through ten chapters, he advances his own positive view of the belief in an external world. Having myself gone over the same ground, I wish to remark on what is peculiar in his treatment of the question.

I give him full credit for his uncompromising idealism, and for his varied and forcible exposition of it. In this respect he has contributed to educate the thinking public in what I regard as the truth. But in looking at his analysis in detail, while I admit he has seized the more important things, I do not exactly agree with him either as to the order of statement or as to the relative stress put upon the various elements of the object and subject distinction.

In the first place, I would remark on the omission of the quality of "Resistance," and of the muscular energies as a whole, from his delineation of the object or external world. In this particular, usage and authority are against him to begin with. The connection of an external world with the primary qualities has been so long prevalent that there must be some reason or plausibility in it. His own father and Mansel are equally emphatic in setting forth resistance as the primary fact of externality. Mill himself, however, allows no place for resistance in his psychological theory. In a separate chapter on the "Primary Qualities of Matter," he deals with extension and resistance as products of muscular sensibility, and as giving us our notions of matter, but he thinks that simple tactile sensibility mingles with resistance, and plays as great a part as the purely muscular ingredient; thus frittering away the supposed antithesis of muscular energy and passive sensibility. Now, for my own part, I incline to the usage and opinion of our predecessors in putting forward the contrast of active energy and passive feeling as an important constituent of the subject and object distinction; and, if it is to be admitted at all, I am disposed to begin with it, instead of putting it last as Mr. Spencer does, or leaving it out as Mill does. It does not give all that is implied in matter, but it gives the nucleus of the composite feeling as well as the fundamental and defining attribute.

The stress of Mill's exposition rests on the fixity of order in our sensations leading to a constancy of recurrence, and a belief in that constancy going the length of assuming independent existence. Although he shows a perfect mastery of his position, I do not consider that he has done entire justice to it from not carrying along with him the contrast of the objective and the subjective—the sensation and the idea. Indeed, the exposition is too short for the theme; the reader is apt to be satisfied with the portable phrase "permanent possibility of sensation," which helps him to one vital part of the ease, but does not amount to a satisfactory equivalent for an external and independent world. There would have been more help in an expression dwelling upon the "common to all," in contrast with the "special to me," to use one of Ferrier's forms of phraseology. This ground of distinction is not left unnoticed by Mill, but it is simply mentioned.

His chapter on the application to our belief in the permanent existence of mind is, I think, even more subtile than the preceding on matter. The manner of disposing of Reid's difficulty about the existence of his fellow creatures is everything that I could wish. It is when, in the concluding paragraph, he lays down as final and inexplicable the belief in memory, that I am unable to agree with him. This position of his has been much dwelt upon by the thinkers opposed to him. It makes him appear, after all, to be a transcendentalist like themselves, differing only in degree. For myself, I never could see where his difficulty lay, or what moved him to say that the belief in memory is incomprehensible or essentially irresolvable. The precise nature of belief is no doubt invested with very peculiar delicacy, but whenever it shall be cleared up it may very fairly be capable of accounting for the belief that a certain state now past as a sensation, but present as an idea, was once a sensation, and is not a mere product of thought or imagination.—(Cf. "The Emotions and the Will," third edition, p. 532.)

I may make a passing observation on the chapter specially devoted to Mansel's "Limits of Religious Thought." It is a considerable digression in a work devoted to Hamilton, but Mansel's book touched Mill to the quick; in private, he called it a "loathsome" book. His combined argumentative and passionate style rises to its utmost height, Mansel sarcastically described his famous climax—"to hell I will go"—as an exhibition of taste and temper. That passage was scarcely what Grote called it, a Promethean defiance of Jove, inasmuch as the fear of hell never had a place in Mill's bosom; it was the strength of his feelings coining the strongest attainable image to give them vent.[2]

Mill could not help adverting to Hamilton's very strong and paradoxical assertions about free-will; but, as he never elaborates a consecutive exposition of the question, I doubt the propriety of making these assertions a text for discussing it at full. Mill's chapter is either too much or too little; too much as regards his author, too little as regards the subject. The connection of punishment with free-will should be allowed only under protest; the legitimacy and the limits of punishment make a distinct inquiry. Punishment, psychologically viewed, assumes that men recoil from pain; there may be other springs of action besides pain or pleasure; but, as regards such, both reward and punishment are irrelevant. I think Mill very successful in illustrating the independence of moral good and evil on the question of the will. He is not too strong in his remonstrance against Hamilton's attempt to frighten people into free-will by declaring that the existence of the Creator hangs upon it. It was quite in Hamilton's way to destroy all the other arguments in favor of a doctrine that he espoused, in order to give freer course to his own. He damages the advocacy of free-will by his slashing antinomy of the two contrary doctrines. It is certainly a clearing of the ground, if nothing more, to affirm, as he does so strongly, that "a determination by motives can not escape from necessitation." Such admissions give an opponent some advantage, but only as respects him individually. The general controversy, however, must proceed on different lines from his, and hence the waste of strength in following his lead.

Hamilton's attack on the study of mathematics was a battery of learned quotations brought out to confound Whewell and Cambridge. It is not very convincing; it hardly even does what Mill thinks toleration of hostile criticism tends to do, namely, bring out the half-truth neglected by the other side. It was not worth while to write so long a chapter in reply; but Mill, partly from what he learned from Comte, and partly from his own logical studies, had a pat answer to every one of Hamilton's points. Most notable, in my view, is the paragraph about the disastrous influence of the mathematical method of Descartes in all subsequent speculation. He seems there to say that the a priori spirit has been chiefly kept up by the example of mathematics. Now, I freely admit that the axioms of mathematics have been the favorite illustration of intuition; but there is no certainty that, in the absence of that example, intuitionism would not have had its full swing during the last two centuries. Mill admits that the crudity of Bacon's inductive canons had an equally bad effect on English speculation; but all this shows simply that error is the parent of error.

The two subjects taken up while the "Hamilton" was still in hand—John Austin and Comte—deserve to be ranked among the best of his minor compositions. The "Austin" article took him back to his early days when he worked with Bentham and attended the lectures of Austin at University College. It does not seem to contain much originality, but it is a logical treat. The two "Comte" articles are still more valuable, as being Mill's contribution to the elucidation of Comte's philosophy. It will be long ere an equally searching and dispassionate estimate of Comte be given to the world; indeed, no one can again combine the same qualifications for the work.

  1. Happiness was "not a life of rapture; but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive, and having, as the foundation of the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing."
  2. Grote thought that the phrase was an echo of something occurring in Ben Jonson, where a military captain's implicit obedience is crowned by the illustration, "Tell him to go to hell, to hell he will go."