Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Reflections: Utilitarianism

What can I say about a book like Utilitarianism? It's a book or treatise only a few will ever read. Normally devoured and debated by full time academics, I'm one of the odd folks who reads a treatise like Utilitarianism for pleasure and my own person gratification. John Stuart Mill's intellectual work can easily be compared to similar works like Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, John Locke's Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration, and of course Mill's other work, which I enjoyed quite a bit more than Utilitarianism, On Liberty. It's a foundational work, and it deserves a thorough and thoughtful study because it contributes so meaningfully to any conversation regarding morals, ethics, and justice.

In order to read a treatise like Utilitarianism the reader has to understand the usual method and mode by which these are written. As I have read more and more of these political, philosophical, and ideological explorations, I have seen them more and more in a modern context. In other words, they were the discussion boards and online debates before our world was so interconnected by the internet and the various social sites that link us all together (pun intended). Often the writers of these intellectual works are responding directly to a critic, but it feels as if they're writing into a vacuum. (Locke's first treatise of government feels especially vacuous). When we think of asynchronous communication now we think of emails going back and forth between senders and receivers. But even that could occur within a few days, hours, or minutes. During Mill's time a debate could extend for decades between disputants--one treatise at a time.

Having said all of that, Utilitarianism is an enjoyable and challenging read, as well as being somewhat arcane, as one would expect. Like many of the other works of this nature, it is very easy for a modern reader to get lost in the prose. The extremely long sentences which deal with multiple complex ideas and the lack of paragraph breaks or other reading cues that we're now familiar with. In addition, you might wonder where Mills or other writers like him are heading or what point they're trying to make among all of their logical contortions. One has to admire a mind like Mills and his ability to see the world from a different and more conceptual perspective than most of us can. A book like Utilitarianism is important because it informs our assumptions and our a priori convictions. We take for granted that certain knowledge, mostly accepted by Western civilization, wasn't so accepted several hundred years ago. Mill, along with other thinkers like him, helped push our understanding forward into, hopefully, a more enlightened state.

Utilitarianism is well worth a read if you already have a decent knowledge regarding the topics being discussed in the treatise. If not, it will be an especially difficult slog. Furthermore, if you're looking for a work from Mill to read, I would recommend his On Liberty much more readily than I would Utilitarianism.

Notable Quotes:
  • "Mankind are always predisposed to believe that any subjective feeling...is a revelation of some objective reality"
  • "That a feeling is bestowed on us by Nature, does not necessarily legitimate all its promptings."
  • "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied."
Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Reflections on the Revolution in France
Reflections: Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration
Reflections: Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty

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