Monday, March 16, 2020

The Futility of Utility*

It was however abundantly intelligible to myself; and the more I dwelt upon it, the more hopeless it appeared.

-          Autobiography, John Stuart Mill (1873)

John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806 – 7 May 1873), usually cited as J. S. Mill, was a British philosopher, political economist, and civil servant. One of the most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism…Mill's conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state and social control.

John Stuart was educated by his father, with the advice and assistance of Jeremy Bentham and Francis Place…. His father, a follower of Bentham and an adherent of associationism, had as his explicit aim to create a genius intellect that would carry on the cause of utilitarianism and its implementation after he and Bentham had died.

Mill received a thorough liberal arts education.  At the age of three he was taught Greek; at eight, he began studying Latin; by the age of ten, he was reading Plato with ease. 

When I read, and wrote about, Gerard Casey’s magnificent Freedom’s Progress?: A History of Political Thought, I did not write at all regarding Casey’s chapter on Mill.  My note on the chapter: Mill is too confusing.  Casey notes that Mill went from a free marketeer who would accept state intervention if it proved necessary for utilitarian purposes to an advocate of socialism:

Mill is not one of the world’s great thinkers, least of all one of the most consistent.  He has an annoying and persistent habit of giving with one hand and taking with the other.

Casey would ask, regarding what Mill is well known for: was Mill a utilitarian?  His arguments, Casey finds, are not always consistent in this regard.  So why am I bothering with Mill today?  The reason is to be found in the opening quote of this post – his hopelessness.  Returning to his autobiography, as some background is in order:

From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham, and especially from the commencement of the Westminster Review, I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.

Bentham is known as the founder of utilitarianism, and in this school of thought Mill is joined with him at the hip.  Mill, it seems, made it is purpose in life to transform the world in accord with utilitarianism; his happiness in life was bound up in this purpose.

But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream. It was in the autumn of 1826.

His object in life did not satisfy for long, it seems:

In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: "Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?"

A self-reflecting utopian?  For this, I give Mill much credit.

And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, "No!" At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

He was all of twenty years old at this point.  He did finally break out of this stage, when “reading, accidentally, Marmontel's ‘Mémoires,’” and a passage relating to Marmontel’s father’s death:

A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my been grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless….

He never did waver “in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life”:

But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.

He found that his happiness was to be found in other-regarding action.  This is further emphasized by his second realization:

The other important change which my opinions at this time underwent, was that I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances, and the training of the human being for speculation and for action.


The maintenance of a due balance among the faculties, now seemed to me of primary importance. The cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed.

To the extent that Mill was a utilitarian, it now could be said of him that such an object was not sufficient for happiness; instead, one can read his words and find something approaching an Aristotelian-Thomistic telos: the proper development of the individual toward other-regarding action.


While researching this piece, I came across the following from BLTC Research, on the despair of John Stuart Mill.  To Mill’s response of “NO” to his question: would he be happy if his dreams came true – all of the measures that Mill considered would lead to happiness were put in place – BLTC writes:

Two centuries after his birth, J.S. Mill's question is no less relevant. In spite of decades of political, social and economic reform - and unprecedently high living standards - the incidence of depression, anxiety disorders and suicide is statistically rising across the developed world. At best, it can be said that average emotional well-being is not measurably improving.

Unlike Mill, BLTC does not despair:

…tomorrow's biotechnology allows sentient life to be animated by gradients of bliss that's orders of magnitude richer than anything accessible today. Whether or not this scenario ever comes to pass, anyone who holds a classical, "hedonistic" utilitarian ethic is forced to accept that biological interventions offer the only technically effective long-term solution to life's miseries.

In case you think that you mis-read this…What is BLTC Research?

BLTC RESEARCH was founded in 1995 to promote paradise-engineering. We are dedicated to an ambitious global technology project. BLTC seek to abolish the biological substrates of suffering. Not just in humans, but in all sentient life.

They aren’t kidding.  They want to alter DNA, “in all sentient life” – including human life:

In the new reproductive era ahead, biotechnology will make us smarter, happier and just possibly nicer. Post-Darwinian superminds can abolish "physical" and "mental" pain altogether.

I am reminded of Lewis’s Abolition of Man, when he notes the steady conquest of nature by some men in order to lord it over other men.  It will be Human nature that is then the last part of Nature to surrender to Man:

The battle will indeed be won.  But who, precisely, will have won it?

Well, it won’t be won by man – not human man.

*Special thanks to Prof. Jennifer Frey, and her lecture: What is the Purpose of Life? Classical and Contemporary Answers


  1. To want to avoid pain because it's too strong to handle - as opposed to its signifying something best avoided... it reveals a shallowness and a weakness that's barely even worthy of contempt. It's the same kind of "thinking" that brought us safe spaces.

    Even from a purely systems perspective, pain is one of the feedback channels that tell us what needs to be done and what needs to be avoided. If you take away pain and leave only pleasure and lack of pleasure... lack of pleasure becomes the new pain. And if you set the maximum intensity of discomfort a person can feel at a low level, you've got a new problem - what then is the difference between pricking a finger and being torn apart by a hungry beast? Do the authors of this brilliant idea think the pain "feature" is unnecessary, that it's enough to tell apart "bad" from "really bad" consciously?

    Don't our feelings (including pain), and their relative intensity, shape and regulate our conscious perception of reality? What will "no pain" do to people's attitude towards cruelty, for example? We can take a cue from the effect that "no love, no heartbreak, no children - just sex" has had on society, and that was just a regular propaganda campaign without effect on our nuts and bolts.

    The problem with these people is that they think they're smart, but they can only fiddle with dials and have no notion of how the parts work together. Any technology guy will tell you that's the worst sort of idiot to allow near a complicated system.

    This is Nilo by the way... decided to change my online persona to something a bit more anonymous...