chapter  4
18 Pages

John Stuart Mill versus Jeremy Bentham: Between the liberalism of freedom and the liberalism of happiness: Nathalie Sigot

ByNATHALIE SIGOT

John Stuart Mill clearly has a controversial place in the utilitarian tradition. For some, he is a leading figure in utilitarianism; for others, the modifications he proposed to Benthamite doctrine, which would allow it to be better defended, have led to doubts about his place in this tradition. This hesitation can be found in the work of Rawls, who describes Mill both as a utilitarian and as holding a position of “liberalism of freedom”. In contrast, Rawls considered Jeremy Bentham, one of the leading figures of utilitarianism, as a representative of the “liberalism of happiness”. This chapter intends to return to Rawls’ hesitation vis-à-vis Mill by comparing Mill’s position with that of Bentham. Thus, there is a demonstration that the differences between the two authors are actually based on their understanding of human behavior: the main difference between Bentham and Mill lies in Bentham’s belief in the possibility of changing individual behavior, while Mill thinks it possible to modify human nature. Thus our objective in this chapter is to use this divergence to understand both the place and the definition of liberty in the system of each of these authors. Hence, as long as we focus on individual behavior alone, i.e., as long as we isolate the individual, without regard for what constitutes society’s purpose, and by assuming that the individual’s behavior does not cause any negative externalities on others, liberty ends up playing a very similar role both in Mill and in Bentham: in both cases, it appears to be an instrument for individual decision-making. Liberty is therefore understood as freedom of choice and has no intrinsic value. This instrumental role of liberty appears clearly in the private sphere, even if the role played by this instrument is not entirely the same for the two authors (section “The private sphere”). However, once the individual is no longer considered as an isolated being, but rather as a member of the society – a social being – the two authors’ conceptions diverge in a radical fashion (section “The social interactions”). Thus, Bentham develops a purely negative view of liberty,1 which takes on its full meaning here: the maximization of social utility implies a set of laws that constrain individuals – and which consequently restrain their liberty, as it is defined here – in such a way that their behaviors converge toward the general interest. In other words, the aim is to modify the relative importance of the different categories of pains and pleasures that enter into the individual’s calculation, so that it is in the

interest of the individual to undertake only the actions contributing to raising social utility. In contrast, Mill rejects this mechanistic view and considers that individual liberty enables a kind of spontaneous harmonization of the interests as long as the social institutions are correctly developed. Here, liberty contributes to modifying the human nature, so that the individual spontaneously seeks general interest. We infer then that, contrary to what the Rawlsian classification leads us to believe, liberty plays an important role both in Bentham and in Mill, even if the former defends a notion of liberty that differs from the latter’s: of course, for Bentham, liberty remains an instrument and comes second to the search for happiness (as underlined by Rawls), but happiness cannot be conceived without it. As for Mill, he also defends a utilitarian position, as Rawls defines it: liberty is fundamental for him, but this does not mean that the Just explicitly precedes the Good. We then share the viewpoint of Rosen who, in a work dedicated to the utilitarian tradition, attempts to demonstrate that, within this tradition, “the task of justice ceased to be one that ordered and directed the other virtues in private and public life and became a system of rules in which liberty could flourish and happiness could be realized” (2003: 1).