John Stuart Mill and Slavery

January 9, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the mind of John Stuart Mill, free education for children is one of the major duties of society in order to maximize not only happiness but a higher form of pleasure. In fact, John Stuart Mill’s version of utilitarianism was the basis of most of his liberal beliefs including the emancipation of slaves and equal rights for women. In his response to Thomas Carlyle on the subject of slavery, he states “Work, I imagine, is not a good in itself. There is nothing laudable in work for work’s sake. To work voluntarily for a worthy object is laudable; but what constitutes a worthy object?” (Mill, Jan 1850) Utilitarianism renders Carlyle’s main argument that slavery is good for the slave because the slave is put to work moot.

This characterizes much of Mill’s philosophy. John Stuart Mill encapsulates utilitarianism when he states that: “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” (Mill, 1863) While this statement makes utilitarianism sound like a hedonic philosophy, Mill took a social approach to explaining utilitarianism. One should note even here that Mill did not say personal happiness or personal pleasure even that is a fairly expected interpretation.

One could also note that Mill often used the arguments of utilitarianism to promote projects that he felt were beneficial to the social order. The above quote about slavery comes as a direct challenge to Thomas Carlyle who argued that slavery was part of the natural order and that it was ultimately beneficial since it put the slaves to work. In the context of utilitarianism, neither argument is solid since slavery was created from an unjust system of piracy and kidnapping. Furthermore, work cannot be an end in itself and must have a higher purpose.

Fortunately, we need not extrapolate Mill’s position from other works as he attacks the belief that making pleasure and freedom the only desirable ends is somehow “a doctrine worthy only of pigs.” (1863) John Stuart Mill states that some kinds of pleasures are more desirable than others. He specifically notes that in judging pleasures, “we take into account the quality as well as the quantity.” (1863) In other words, there are mental pleasures which last longer are the higher pleasures and they have the quality. There might be a pleasure in eating beef, but it is a pleasure that is lower because it is a transitory animal desire that is being fulfilled.

In discussing the higher and the lower pleasures he makes the judgment that “it is an unquestionable fact that the way of life that employs the higher faculties is strongly preferred to the way of life that caters only to the lower ones are equally acquainted with both and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both.” (1863) While he makes a point when he offers up the examples of intelligent human beings, educated persons and person of feeling refraining from choosing to be foolish, ignoramuses or selfish, it does seem like there is a little too much positivism in the argument. After all, human beings can be capable of being intelligent and foolish in equal measures. A respected community leader could become caught up in a scandal involving prostitutes. Medical doctors are the most enthusiastic purchasers of cigarettes even though they know the dangers.

On the other hand, we are talking about an ideal state in which people can choose the best possible way to bring higher pleasure to the most people. Mill answers this challenge by noting that “Men’s infirmity of character often leads them to choose the nearer good over the more valuable one.” (1863, p. 7) There are other dynamics including addiction, compulsion and mental illness. These were not the kind of dynamics that would often appear in 19th century philosophy and certainly not in the ubiquitous state that they enjoy today.

John Stuart Mill makes an argument for the education of children when he states: “I believe that before they devote themselves exclusively to the lower pleasures they have already become incapable of the higher ones. In most people a capacity for the nobler feelings is a very tender plant that is easily killed, not only by hostile influences but by mere lack of nourishment; and in the majority of young persons it quickly dies away if their jobs and their social lives aren’t favorable to keeping that higher capacity in use.” (1863)

In order to enjoy the higher pleasures in life, people need to be educated. The social milieu that characterized 19th century discourse was brutal and highly polarized. Children would begin working at a young age and they would never have the chance to be exposed to the higher pleasures. The capacity for nobler feelings that John Stuart Mills characterizes as a very tender plant would automatically die and shrivel in an environment that lacks education.

Mill continues his discourse by stating that “Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they don’t have time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to lower pleasures not because they deliberately prefer them but because they are either the only pleasures they can get or the only pleasures they can still enjoy.” In this case, Mill is talking about someone who has a choice of higher or lower pleasures. However, in the case of these men, the lower pleasures are more available. There are several difficulties in this discourse. The most prominent question is what constitutes a lower and a higher pleasure. Generally, we can say that lower pleasures are basic and carnal pleasures like food and alcohol or dangerous carnal relations. The higher pleasures are mental pleasures like reading poetry or going to the symphony. Yet, where does that put folk music or popular literature? The pleasure from reading Tolstoy is different than the pleasure that comes from reading a romance involving a vampire and a young girl; however, can we put these books in different levels of pleasure? Or are they both higher pleasures because they are both signs of literacy? How would John Stuart Mill judge the act of reading Varney the Vampyre? Thankfully, the discussion of exactly what constitutes higher or lower pleasure is outside the scope of this paper. John Stuart Mill makes a case for the fragility of higher pleasures. People may want to engage in higher pleasures, but often they are blocked from enjoying these higher pleasures due to the societal pressures of employment and daily life.

Free education for all children means that children from all walks of life are given the choice between higher and lower pleasures. Furthermore, Mill would see the societal obligation to educate children to be the highest pleasure of all since it is a pleasure that is based on helping the most people and doing harm to the fewest. John Stuart Mill believed that everyone should indulge in higher pleasure, yet he knew that not everyone would indulge. He felt that if given a choice that more people would indulge in higher pleasure and therefore more people would have the chance since there is often a social pull in choosing one’s pleasure.

In conclusion, John Stuart Mill defined utilitarianism in the light of higher and lower pleasures. He believed that the higher pleasures were the best choices and that these choices were not always easy to make. He championed the education of all children in order to make sure that every citizen of Britain had the choice between higher and lower pleasures, since the default often went to the lower ones, especially in the cases where people lacked the ability to read or write or think critically about their social order.

Works Cited

Mill, John Stuart (Jan 1850). The negro question. Originally published in Fraser’s Magazine. Retrieved from

Mill, John Stuart (1863). Utilitarianism. Edited by Jonathan Bennett in Sep 2005.

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