Extract 7: Mill on the importance of character

May 4, 2011
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Mill was deeply influenced by Aristotle.  It could be argued that Mill’s definition of happiness, which embraces goals, expectations and activity, is much closer to the Greek idea of human flourishing or eudaimonia. In this extract the academic Daniel Jacobson traces some extracts from Mill’s writings which put such emphasis on character rather than consequences. It’s a seriously A* point, well worth meditating on, and of course, vital to an understanding of just how much Mill’s utilitarianism is different from Bentham’s. PB

In Utilitarianism, Mill sharply distinguishes between judgments of character and of action, consistent with utilitarian orthodoxy. He thus writes, “there is
no point which utilitarian thinkers (and Bentham pre-eminently) have taken more pains to illustrate than this”: that “the motive has nothing to do with the moralityof the action, though much with the worth of the agent” (2.19). Contrast this with Kant’s view that the motive of acting from a good will out of duty alone is the only thing that gives an action moral worth.

While this is genuinely Mill’s view, he emphasizes the importance of moral character and development far more radically elsewhere. In “Remarks on Bentham’s Philosophy,”he writes, “the great fault I have to find with Mr. Bentham as a moral philosopher…is this: that he has practically, to a very great extent, confounded the principle of Utility with the principle of specific consequences” of action, by ignoring the role of character in action (CW 10, pp. 7-8). Character-based ethics or virtue ethics is now studied at A2. Aristotle was a leading proponent of virtue ethics, and argued that developing excellent habits of character was the secret of the happy life.

This theme is developed at length in On Liberty (1859), especially Chapter 3, paragraph 4, where he writes: “It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what mannerof men they are that do it. Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely isman himself.” I argue in my handout on Mill (available on this site) that the radicalism of On Liberty, a much greater work than Utilitarianism, is at odds with some of the logic of the utilitarian worldview – and as we read Mill’s essay, we feel him struggling with the tensions this throws up, for example, in the problem of how to protect the rights of an individual against the sometimes irrational demands of the mob for satisfaction (shades of today’s tabloid press!).

I believe that Mill’s agent-centered focus, and the self-other asymmetry of his moral theory, cannot be captured by any traditional form of utilitarianism; but this must be the topic of another day. The point at hand is that Mill’s remarks about character in Utilitarianism are far less unorthodox, as
my reading would predict.





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