Mill: On Utilitarianism, Roger Crisp (Routledge)
It is probably fair to say that moral philosophy suffers from something of an image problem amongst those new to philosophy. Apart from in areas such as medical ethics and animal rights (which seldom seem to be out of the headlines), the realm of moral theory often seems to beginners to be both far removed from real life, and yet not as excitingly abstract and novel a universe as is promised by more metaphysical disciplines, and by continental philosophy in particular.
Even more seriously, it often seems that people equate the very idea of moral judgement with an attitude of finger-wagging Victorianism, an attitude of moralising. In some ways this is not surprising, given the public image of those moral philosophers to whom students are likely to be introduced first: Immanuel Kant, a straitlaced eighteenth-century provincial academic, and John-Stuart Mill, a frock-coated Victorian reformer. However, as the first chapter of Roger Crisp’s engaging book Mill: on Utilitarianism suggests, his subject’s life was far from dull. Arrested at the age of seventeen for distributing leaflets on contraception, and later scandalised by a very public relationship with a married woman, his life and views are a long way from our latter-day notion of Victorian “family values”. And it is worth adding that, though he is often seen as the father of British liberalism, he took on board distinctly socialist ideas in the area of private property and education (the omission of this latter strand of Mill’s thought is one of the book’s few disappointments).
Mill’s guiding force, the utilitarian credo that when we act we should try and bring about the greatest happiness or pleasure for the greatest number of people possible, is as well known as any philosophical principle. But what do we understand by “happiness” or “utility”? This fundamental question is often set aside in discussions of Mill, but it is good that Crisp spends some time on it at the outset, since it is the just the kind of question which may be an effective antidote to viewing moral philosophy as a dry and censorious subject. After all, what could be more vital and enticing than the nature of personal happiness or pleasure, the question of what the good life consists in?
It should be said that these early chapters are, like the rest of the book, sophisticated works of philosophical interpretation and argument, and as such are not exactly easy, though they are (mostly) written as straightforwardly as one could ask for in a serious piece of philosophy. The very occasional arcane turn of phrase creeps into the early sections, but readers who avoid anxiety attacks here will go on to be rewarded by some original and subtle thought. In any case, the worst possible thing to do in introducing people to philosophy is to patronise them, and the book never does that.
It is also good to read a sympathetic interpretation of some aspects of Mill’s theory which are often rubbished. For example, Mill’s theory controversially singles out a category of “higher” pleasures, which involve the use of our distinctively human faculties in appreciating the finer things in life, and which he says are always preferable to any amount of lower “animal” or sensual pleasures. Though the view might seem austere, Crisp points out that there is no reason why pleasures should form an additive scale like weight or distance. The scale of pleasures may involve discontinuities, and a life of any amount of sunbathing and drinking for example, may not add up to enough to compensate one for missing out on friendship or education.
The central part of the book deals with a number of much written-about problems for utilitarianism’s maximising approach. Most importantly, there is its failure to put any constraints on how unequally happiness may be distributed amongst people, just so long as the total amount in the world is maximised. The danger is, of course, that the theory seems to allow victimisation of individuals or of a minority if this will make the majority much happier. One of the commendable things about Crisp’s treatment of this area is that it identifies current philosophers whose views have moved these questions on, which helps to give a sense of the questions’ continuing relevance. We get some sense that there is a live debate here, rather than just a scholarly, historical one.
Concluding chapters on On Liberty and The Subjection of Women give an idea of the range of Mill’s interests, and offer a way in to these texts through the theory of utilitarianism, without dealing exhaustively with them. As with elsewhere, Crisp has struck a good balance in being accessible and informative whilst offering some substantial philosophical views on his subject. And perhaps, after all, the best kind of introduction to philosophy is a good philosophical argument which is not oversimplified.