John Stuart Mill on quality and competence

by Miller, John Joseph.

Abstract (Summary)
Traditionally, John Stuart Mill has been described as a transitional thinker who fails to understand fully the values that he espouses. Critics contend that Mill cannot simultaneously espouse both utility maximization and the protection of autonomy as supreme principles of morality. Like his moral philosophy, Mill’s political thought is also rejected for interspersing, seemingly at random, elements of utilitarianism with concerns about respecting autonomy. More recent attempts to bring Mill’s commitment to utilitarianism into line with his respect for autonomy are not wholly successful. I offer an interpretation of Mill’s moral philosophy which reconciles the tension between utility maximization and respect for autonomy, and I argue that my interpretation of Mill’s moral philosophy also allows us to interpret his political thought. In chapter one, I offer an outline of two main themes grounding Mill’s political philosophy: competence and participation. I argue that most objections to Mill’s claims in Considerations on Representative Government are, at bottom, objections to Mill’s desire for competence in government. Finally, I argue that the principles of competence and participation stem directly from a commitment to utility maximization and autonomy protection respectively. iii In chapter two, I take up several prominent attempts to reconcile Mill’s claims about utilitarianism with his desire to protect autonomy. Each attempt, I argue, captures a valuable insight even while it fails to render consistent all of Mill’s claims about morality. In chapter three, I consider Mill’s controversial distinction between the quality of a pleasure and the quantity of the pleasure. I argue that Mill’s qualitative hedonism here really is very similar to what Rawls defends as the Aristotelian principle. I go on to argue that, by taking the higher pleasures seriously, Mill provides a strong utilitarian defense of the absolute protection of autonomy. In chapter four, I defend the higher-pleasures interpretation against several serious objections. I begin by defending Mill’s hedonism from the naturalistic fallacy. I then look at two versions of the objection that qualitative distinctions between pleasures are conceptually incoherent. I then explore the relationship between the lower and higher pleasures, arguing that Mill’s account does leave room for the pursuit of lower pleasures. Finally, in chapter five I return to the question of Mill’s political philosophy. I argue that by rendering consistent the tension between utility maximization and the protection of autonomy, we can also make sense of Mill’s commitments to competence and participation. I argue that, far from being a transitional thinker, Mill actually had a consistent and powerful account of moral and political philosophy. iv
Bibliographical Information:


School:University of Virginia

School Location:USA - Virginia

Source Type:Master's Thesis



Date of Publication:

© 2009 All Rights Reserved.