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john stuart mill

Jeremy Bentham

I remember visiting a professor of mine a few years ago during her office hours and seeing a “Bush/Cheney 1984” bumper sticker tacked on her cork-board. That was, I admit, probably my first experience with academic bias, and I was shocked. I asked her what she meant by it. Her response was typical enough; it was something generally about a police state, the abolition of civil liberties, and the military-industrial complex. I’m no great fan of President Bush, but I had to fight against my inborn loyalties to the GOP and simply nod my head.

While her decision to put the sticker up in her university office is questionable, the satire isn’t lost on any of us. We tend to think of George Orwell’s 1984 as the “right-wing” allegory; its counterpart, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, seems to be more critical of left-wing trends. This makes sense: Orwell was something of a libertarian socialist, where at the time he wrote Brave New World Huxley was still working in the elitist, Modernist circles of the Bloomsbury Group.

Though Huxley himself was never exactly a Conservative, his dystopia takes on characteristics of a distinct strain of British liberalism that remains influential today: Utilitarianism, specifically the school derived from Jeremy Bentham.

Bentham’s thought has always, to varying degrees, been identified with classical Hedonism, following such statements as “Nature has placed man under the governance of two sovereign masters, ‘pain’ and ‘pleasure.’ It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”[1] Where we tend to use the term “Hedonism” as an inherently derogatory term, Bentham sees the pursuit of pleasure as a logical correlative to the new, sophisticated, Darwinian understanding of mankind. To Bentham and his followers, it’s unreasonable to suppose man, the animal creature he is, could be motivated by any factor but pleasure or pain. It follows that something is either pleasurable, or it’s not; things that are pleasurable should be maximized, and things that are painful should be minimized. In the words of Betham’s chief disciple, James Mills, the Utilitarian believes:

The concern of government is with the former of these two sources: that its business is to increase to the utmost the pleasures, and diminish to the utmost the pains, which men derive from each other.[2]

We see this taken to an extreme, though perfectly logical, conclusion in Huxley’s classic. Through methods of limiting the depth in which individuals can think, keeping them on a strict regimen of stimulants, and the deconstruction of interpersonal relationships, the World Controllers of this society have induced a perpetual state of elation into the public. As Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller for Western Europe, put it: “Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness.” The Controllers forbid theology, claiming God isn’t “compatible” with the tools used to enforce that perpetual elation. The bond between a mother and child would cause unspeakable grief should any harm come to one or the other; so natural conception is made impossible. Literature and philosophy are purged from the public to prevent the anxiety and potential for existential dissatisfaction that it breeds. And if humanity really desires nothing but maximal pleasure and minimal pain, Controller Mond’s world is Paradise itself.

This is how we tend to see Hedonism and, by extension, Utilitarianism. Kirk, we know, famously lashed out against “Benthamism”. Dr. Bradley J. Birzer gives an excellent summary of Kirk’s criticism of Utilitarianism in his article “More than ‘Irritable Mental Gestures’: Russell Kirk’s Challenge to Liberalism”. If I may excerpt a bit here, a quote from The Conservative Mind:

National character, the immense variety of human motives, the power of passion in human affairs—these [Bentham] omitted from his system; he radiated an absolute confidence in the human reason. Taking his own personality for the incarnation of humanity, he presumed that men have only to be shown how to solve the pleasure-and-pain equations, and they will be good; their interests will lead them to co-operation and diligence and peace.

But Kirk wasn’t the first critic of Bentham’s Utilitarianism. There was first a more sympathetic critic: John Stuart Mill, the son of James Mill, Bentham’s close friend, secretary and collaborator. While the elder Mill—an orthodox Benthamite—is little known today, the more sophisticated Mill the Younger remains one of the hallmark thinkers of Classical Liberalism.

J.S. Mill sought to qualify Utilitarianism’s definition of “pleasure” by moving beyond the hyper-naturalism of his predecessors. He wrote,

It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and valuable than others. It would be absurd that, while estimating all other thing quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasure should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.[3]

Bentham was not altogether unfamiliar with that idea. He claimed that a pleasure should be considered according to four criteria:

1. Its “intensity.”

2. Its “duration.”

3. Its “certainty” or “uncertainty.”

4. “Its “propinquity” or “remoteness.”

But James Mill made the supreme Huxleyan error of giving his son a rigorous, varied, classical education almost from infancy. He began learning Greek at age three. By age eight he was reading Herodotus, Xenophon, and Plato in the original, began studying Latin, and was tasked on the education of his younger siblings. By twelve he’d read all the major Latin and Greek writers.[4]

Enchanted by the wisdom of the ancients (sadly none of the principle Christian thinkers; he was a lifelong atheist) Mill challenged Betham and his father’s narrow or imprecise ideas about pleasure. In his words,

Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both do give their marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties.

This made the Utilitarian case far more nuanced and, incidentally, more reasonable. He goes on to give such strikingly un-Hedonistic testimonies as,

A being capable of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at most points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.


A state of exalted pleasure lasts only moments or in some cases, and with some intermission, hours or days, and is the occasional brilliant flash of enjoyment, not its permanent and steady flame. Of this the philosophers [Jeremy Bentham, James Mill] who have taught that happiness is the end of life were fully aware as those who taught them. The happiness which they meant was not a life of rapture, but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and varied 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.


It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; it is better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.


If it may be doubted that a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world in general is immensely a gainer by it. Utilitarianism, therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character, even if the individual were only benefitted by the nobleness of others…


Next to selfishness, the principal cause which makes life unsatisfactory is want of mental cultivation. A cultivated mind—I do not mean that of a philosopher, but any mind to which the fountains of knowledge have been opened, and which has been taught, in any tolerable degree, to exercise its faculties—finds sources of inexhaustible interest in all that surrounds it: in the objects of nature, the achievements of art, the imaginations of poetry, the incidents of history, the ways of mankind, past and present, and their prospects for the future.


In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. “Do unto others as you would be done by,” and “to love your neighbor as yourself,” constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.

How far we’ve come from Bentham, and from Controller Mond! This is a Utilitarianism that, to what I can find, Russell Kirk never exactly responded to. Nevertheless, as latter-day conservatives we ought to plainly consider Millian Utilitarianism on its own distinct merits.

*   *   *

To return to Huxley and Orwell, one of the warnings we’ve heeded most stridently is against a teleological State. To dip into rather boring jargon, a teleological ethic is the belief that an action ought to be judged by its outcome; or, axiomatically, “the ends justify the means.” Its opposite is deontology, which means actions are in themselves either right or wrong. Our teleologist might say, “It would be ethical to torture a terrorist if I knew it would save innocent lives,” while the deontologist might say, “No, torture is an intrinsically evil act, and I could never condone it.

A third school of thought, virtue ethics, says that specific scenarios matter less than the character of the decision-maker. Using our torture example, the virtue ethicist wouldn’t ask whether torture is intrinsically immoral or if it’s justified to save (x) number of lives, but rather asks how a person possessing certain virtues would respond to such a quandry—especially when certain virtues are in conflict. For instance, he might ask, “In striving to be just, do I cause one man to suffer to prevent so many others from suffering?” or, “In striving to be compassionate, can I rightly use violence to prevent violence?”

When we discuss Utilitarianism, we generally mean a strictly teleological system: whatever causes the most pleasure for the most people is permissible. However, this isn’t altogether fair. James Mill wrote that the Utilitarian state must commit itself to “preventing any individual or combination of individuals from… making any man to have less than his share.” So the caricature that a Utilitarian would encourage 51% of the population to live a life of leisure and gratification at the expense of the other 49% isn’t at all right: pleasure isn’t rightly attained by injuring another, and pleasure ought to be shared as equitably as possible.

Nevertheless, Conservatives have always been suspicious of teleological systems. All of the great Revolutionary movements have placed the “justice” of their “vision”, or ends, before their means; and so the human race has suffered the Reign of Terror, the Holocaust, and the devastating famine following the Soviet collectivization of agriculture. Our Conservative forefathers, starting with Burke, rightly warned against planned societies. It seems humans are incapable of pursuing such extravagant designs without causing incredible injury.

But Conservatism—and much of our counterpart on the Left—has fallen into a dissatisfying deontology, a suffocating legalism. Dissident Conservatives—most of them Traditionalists, from philosophers like Roger Scruton and Rod Dreher, politicians such Patrick J. Buchanan, and publications like The Imaginative Conservative, The New Criterion, and The Salisbury Review—reject a purely deontological State. They’re uncomfortable with viewing education as merely a system for preparing young people for the job market, or marriage as a contract between two individuals. To expand on the latter, they might approve of legal arguments for monogamous, opposite-sex marriages as the optimal child-rearing environment, but disbelieve in “marriage” being reduced to such a basically Darwinian function. Nor do they approve of the more common right-wing arguments against the moral impermissibility of homosexuality—in other words, it isn’t so much that homosexual marriage is bad, but that heterosexual marriage is uncompromisingly good. We sympathize with Evelyn Waugh as he mocks Victorian moralism, but don’t mislead ourselves by thinking he disapproved of morality.

*  *  *

Without swallowing the Utilitarianism of J.S. Mill whole, his ideas could prove immensely useful as we continue to work out how to articulate Tradition in the modern world.

Moving beyond the utopianism of teleology and the legalism of deontology, the Traditionalist generally embraces a form of virtue ethics, grappling with ideas that begin with Aristotle and were looked on favorably by thinkers influential to varied strains of Conservatism, such as St. Thomas Aquinas David Hume, Jacques Maritain, Edmund Burke, and nearly all the Founding Fathers. We should be clear that virtue ethics are concerned entirely with neither the ends nor the means, but the place from which a decision arises. It’s far more difficult to embrace virtue ethics—not to or against its credit—because one will never be a steadfast rule to follow. All decisions must be made in their own time, and in between major quandaries we have to strive constantly to improve our character. When working in the pursuit of virtue, we’ve got to have an idea of from where virtue emerges, what its successes and failures look like, and so on. This is, by nature, an unending process, but if history teaches us nothing it’s that the answers don’t all fit in a book—at least not one written by human hands, fully comprehensible to the human mind.

It’s difficult to discuss Millian Utilitarianism’s teleology. A teleological ethic that, in Mill’s words, seeks to cultivate “a noble character”—that is to say, virtue—seems to defy the first category altogether. We tether him to the Utilitarian school because his ultimate goal, even in discussing virtue, is to make men happy. Conservatives suppose that, if forced to choose an object for a teleological ethic, we would choose something else entirely: pleasing God, perhaps, or the exercise of charity. But Conservative thought also supposes that non-Christians, and even non-theists, benefit from our philosophy. In other words, we believe that there’s a benefit in this world to Tradition. Tradition, we know, is tantamount to wisdom; it’s all philosophy and art that’s emerged from the Western tradition; it’s a guide to benevolent statesmanship and responsible citizenry. But to what end? Mill’s claim, that the object of life is happiness isn’t incorrect. It may be incomplete, but we would certainly object more strongly to its opposite: the purpose of life and the State isn’t (we hope) to encourage misery en mass.

It’s important to note that Mill’s definition of “pleasure” is altogether different than Bentham’s, and more compatible to the Conservative schema, because the connotations of “pleasure” and “happiness” are ultimately worlds apart. That a government should promote “pleasure” is sufficiently eerie that Huxley devoted an entire best-selling novel to drawing the idea to its inevitable ends. But happiness, given Mill’s exposition, is (I) achieved by cultivating the “higher faculties”, (II) dependent on “nobility”, and (III) manifested through compassion and self-sacrifice. Moving beyond both a planned society and disinterested legalisms, we could hardly conjure a more “Conservative” formulation.

I. The Higher Faculties

President John Quincy Adams wrote, “To furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is… the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind. It prolongs life itself and enlarges the sphere of existence.”[5] This is very much along the lines of both Mill’s philosophy and the tradition of Liberal education that Imaginative Conservatives so cherish. Note that none of the three insist that all men and women must somehow foster and enjoy the fruits of the intellect; we’re not forced to come to any of the nonsensical conclusions that Leftists recently have, such as a compulsory university education via shaming the laborer who hasn’t got a college degree. On the contrary: the spirit of this phrase has much more to do with the ethos of education in the early 20th century than the perverted intellectualism of the ‘60s-onward.

My grandfather is a voracious reader. When I lived at home, he would pop over for a visit every day or two and ask to borrow a few books. For a while it was Shakespeare; then he got a taste for James Rollins, my guilty action-adventure pleasure; then it was a study of Mormonism; then David McCullough’s 1776. Into his 80s he’s still to be found awake at at midnight, propped up in bed with all the lights on, happily perusing whatever book happens to come his way, until his eyes start to close behind his iconic black-rimmed spectacles. After a tour in the Navy he became a career fireman—which, in our little city, is a devilishly political post—and his degrees were in pyrotechnics. When he wasn’t on a midnight shift, or puttering around the old house tightening screws, or masoning the pillars at the mouth of the driveway, or hunting quail with his old hounds, or doting on his four children, he was making ample use of the modest formal training he had in the humanities to improve his own mind. That’s characteristic of those older generations, and it’s something my own knows nothing about. Most 30-year-olds and under will never pick up a novel after they graduate from college. Autodidactism, once the norm, was killed off by dreary, overly cerebral education “reform”. That all young men and women have access to basic education is a triumph for the human spirit; that they’re being educated in how to be productive consumers is a huge defeat; that literature and theology and history are treated as instructions in Marxian, Feminist, and Postcolonial theory is a death-knell.

The Conservative, like Mill, sees a liberal education as an ongoing process, one that begins in the home, enhanced at school, and sustained through a lifelong passion. As Yeats didn’t say, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” We’d do well to re-reform the education system along Conservative-Millian Liberal lines: to rescue it from the dictatorship of academia, to let students engage with the Great Books, to train them how to process the content on their own, and to remind them—as good Utilitarians—that the humanities are good for something other than tacking that extra zero onto your paycheck. They’re a pleasure.

II. Nobility of Character

Nobility is a hands-down for Conservatives. We all believe in it, and we all think it’s terribly lacking in our modern West. Our disagreement arises over what we exactly mean by nobility. Is it institutional—do we believe, like Burke, in a formal aristocracy? Is it an innate characteristic—do we prefer Jefferson’s meritocratic natural aristocracy?

Wherever we fall, all Conservatives would agree will Mill in saying that, whoever’s in charge of the state, all men and women should aspire to a noble character, regardless of their role in the community. This, of course, hasn’t always been the case: the Puritans, who were in many respects Conservative, would very likely have seen the aspiration to nobility as conflicting with the virtue of humility. But for most of us, Mill’s concept of nobility—in which he poignantly includes “dignity”—is highly appreciable. It’s very probably the closest we could get to “natural rights” without spilling over into callous, arbitrary ideologism. It would be so much better for our society to say, “You mustn’t rob your neighbor because he doesn’t deserve to be the victim of your greed, and you oughtn’t allow yourself to be possessed by that spiritual sickness.” Our current, “You mustn’t rob your neighbor because he has the right to keep his things,” is cold and inhuman. By all means, whichever path we take, arrest the robber. But it would be far better for the spirit of the law to be noble rather than self-referential. As Henry George wrote,

Social reform is not to be secured by noise and shouting, by complaints and denunciation; by the formation of parties, or the making of revolutions, but by the awakening of thought and the progress of ideas. Until there be correct thought, there cannot be right action, and when there is correct thought, right action will follow.

No doubt Mill would have sympathy with this idea. If Peter wants to steal Paul’s wallet, the idea that Paul has an abstract “right” to that leather pouch with little green papers in it won’t be a sound deterrent. But to foster a sense of nobility in Peter; to teach him that he’s above petty theft; to make him see that, whether it’s a five dollar bill or a Jeep Grand Cherokee, Paul is a human being who deserves to be treated with dignity and respect: that will make all the difference. Our modern obsession with a deontological legal system stems mostly from our post-Hitler paranoia of virtue-based law. But in doing so we’ve subjected ourselves to an inhumane legal system—inhumane in that we’d rather do justice to the letter of a textbook than the human beings affected by the transgression. This is, we should all agree, entirely unacceptable.

III. The Golden Rule

It’s almost impossible to imagine a Republican proposing we base a law on the teachings of Jesus. It’s somehow even more impossible to imagine that law relating to economics. The cliché, though far too general, contains its kernel of truth: mainstream American Conservatives are much more willing to justify social than fiscal policies with the tenets of the Christian faith. And yet here we have Mill, in his day a Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party, saying, “Do unto others as you would be done by” and “love your neighbor as yourself” is sound advice for the modern statesman.

Mill is generally associated with the philosophy of Corporatism, which has suffered a bad reputation from its association with Fascism. We’re liable to get in trouble here, but we’ve got to carry on. Let’s qualify the following by saying that Mill died ten years before Mussolini was born; the two certainly never collaborated. What’s more, many Traditionalists in the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party have argued that Corporatism was the de facto economic ethos of the Party between the fall of Feudalism and the rise of Thatcherism; it was almost certainly a Conservative idea that was appropriated by progressive and revolutionary thinkers who rejected pure individualism.

Mill’s Corporatism, commonly called Liberal Corporatism, suggests that decision-making in economic matters should be the result of collaboration between employers and employees. That’s more or less the gist of it. Liberal Corporatism is strongly in line with laissez-faire capitalism, defends the right to private property, and accepts individualism regardless of class (that is, it favors neither the worker nor the employer). Mill, who was himself Classical Liberal, saw a malfunction in the free-market system: between 9am and 5pm, laborers lost nearly all control over their lives. They were obliged to do what they were told, when they were told to do it, and were paid no more or less than what the boss saw fit. Mill thought this conflicted with his ideal of nobility: the employer failed to recognize the dignity and autonomy of his employees. This, of course, damages both parties, just as Peter’s theft would disgrace both himself and poor Paul. As Hilaire Belloc noted,

The proletarian mind loses the sense of home for a proletariat has no roots. It drifts from place to place. Its habitation is “the labor market.” It inherits nothing and has no hope of handing on anything to posterity. To tell the plain truth, the proletarian mind despairs. So do the minds of its masters, for the evil we do to others bears fruit in ourselves.[6]

But Corporatism isn’t only ethical; it’s a means of seeing economics without the lens of ideology, without an arbitrary scheme, and with the full knowledge that society is an organic web of profoundly interconnected individuals, neither distinct nor indistinguishable.

In the Conservative theatre, Corporatism treats the economy, in a way, as a wise man treats the body: when one “limb”—say, an industry or large company—fails to act toward the health of the whole society, the government steps in to correct its misstep. While private property is respected, and the government remains aloof when the body is functioning healthily, the economy itself is seen as the property of the whole nation, and so subject to their determination. Because individuals are dependent on one another for survival—that is, because we can’t exist both in isolation and in society—cooperation is seen as a duty, a condition of participating in the nation’s marketplace. Its concern is that society exists in harmony, self-sufficiency, and cooperation. This is neither teleological nor deontological, neither a strict list of dos and don’ts nor an exacting blueprint: it’s an aspiration to public virtue. Conservative Corporatists often point to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where he describes the Church as members of the Body of Christ: “That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it.” In so doing, we see how the Traditionalist might have immense sympathy with Mill’s own economic thought.

*   *   *

In his book Beyond Liberalism, R.T. Allen quotes the tragically little-known Hungarian-British polyglot Michael Polanyi’s curious statement:

Conservative means: traditionalist, empirical, averse to a comprehensive programme. I will have no quarrel with this philosophy, because there is too little of it, and anyhow in England Tradition is Liberal.

Allen goes on to say that, “Later, [Polanyi] argued several times that the radicalism of Tom Paine must be tempered with the Conservatism of Edmund Burke, though, I… argue, his own position is really that of Burke and has nothing at all to do with Paine.” This is so often the case with the best Liberals and reformers of the age. Whether they realize it (as Chesterton and Belloc did) or not (as Allen says of Polanyi) the urge to improve the common man’s lot feels like a revolutionary impulse because the world around us is so wretched. What the reformer is surprised to learn is that he falls well within the spirit of Conservatism, that the greatest Conservative thinkers have shared his discontent, and that the wells of justice he draws from aren’t those of the radical ideologue, but of our humane and enlightened Tradition. This, to me, is the case with Mill.

I hope I’ve walked that fine line between appreciating Mill’s virtues and endorsing him entirely. I should say that my own reading in Utilitarianism has been slim, and even in Mill’s work there is plenty to find wanting. But I’d also strongly recommend his Utilitarianism to any Imaginative Conservative. There’s a great deal in there that’s very good, and it’s at least a sorry testament to the fact that the Liberal statesmen of old were in many ways more Traditional than the self-proclaimed “Conservative” politicians of today. We stand to be reminded how to return to a steadfast belief in something greater than the mere word of law, and rather in culture, nobility, and compassion, without devolving into tyranny. Mill may well serve as an invaluable ally in searching out the roots of our ancient Anglo-American order that guarantee liberty as it coexists with order, neither at the other’s expense. Bentham, we might say, is a lost cause, as he largely was to his wiser students. But it’s long time we let John Stuart stand in his own right, and meet him with a more generous mind. He has a great deal of compassion and insight we could benefit from immensely, and it would be to our own disadvantage to ignore him any longer.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


1. from An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

2. from “An Essay on Government”

3. from Utilitarianism

4. from J.S. Mill’s Autobiography

5. from his report on the establishment of the Smithsonian Institute

6. from “The Proletarian Mind”

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3 replies to this post
  1. And Edward Clerihew Bentley wrote;

    John Stuart Mill
    Through a supreme effort of will
    Overcame his natural bonhomie
    And wrote The Principles of Political Economy.

    (sorry. thanks for a thoughtful essay)

  2. In reading your essay, it came to me the reason I hang around “conservative” websites of a certain disposition. It is for the intellectual approach to problems. The “progressive” sites also publish much about which to think, but inevitably their arguments are less reasoned than polemical. It is difficult to engage one’s mind with a shrill diatribe being screamed in one’s ears. (For which reason, I also avoid certain websites which claim to be “conservative” and are really nihilistic ranters in sheep’s clothing.)

  3. I disagree entirely with the notion that Orwell’s 1984 was in any way an attack on the “Right”, and certainly not of conservatism as it existed in the Free World at the time. No, it was a scathing attack on the left and its trend towards ever greater totalitarian control. Indeed, as I wrote recently to a friend:

    Conservatives read 1984 and see it as a warning.

    Left wingers read 1984 and see it as an instruction manual.

    1984 represents left wing militant atheism/secularism brought to its logical conclusion. In the absence of any higher values, the left winger lusts for power above all else. And that’s where the whole scheme of utilitarianism falls flat. Absent the existence of God, there is no real incentive to lead a noble life. After all, being noble is often hard, whereas being a self-serving beast is often quite easy, and in a godless world will likely bring one greater rewards, at least in the short term. And, if this life is all that matters, then the short term is all that really matters, too.

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