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Philosophy and the Pandemic,part II: Utilitarianism according to John Stuart Mill

Έγινε ενημέρωση: 16 Νοε 2021

📝Author: Irene-Daphne Stefanou, Head of the Department of History and Philosophy of Law at “Just in Case”, Junior Student at the Law School of Athens


For a better understanding of this article, the first part of this paper will be cited: https://www.justincaseath.com/post/φιλοσοφία-και-πανδημία-μέρος-ι-ωφελιμισμός-κατά-jeremy-bentham (in Greek)


John Stuart Mill, the son of the philosopher James Mill, followed the philosophical path of Jeremy Bentham, in an attempt to mark utilitarianism as a humanitarian thinking process and to reduce its shallow – almost mathematical – tendency towards ethics and morality, which is inconsistent with their nature.


In his book, “On Liberty”, Mill accentuates the importance of individuality and of human rights. The state shall not restrict any citizen’s freedom, as long as their actions do not impede on the rights of others, and they do not harm them (as individuals) or the society (as a whole).


This logic seems unsuitable with utilitarianism because Mill prioritizes the individual’s will, in contrast with the classical theory of Bentham, that deemed the prosperity of society as a value greater than an individual’s freedom. According to Bentham’s utilitarianism, the ethical decision in a moral dilemma is the one that maximizes the prosperity of the majority, even if there is a minority that suffers the consequences. The ultimate end is to reach prosperity for any and all, however this is impossible in a realistic scenario.


Mill[1], on the other hand, believed that the mutual respect of civil liberties would ensure prosperity for the whole society in the long run. He enriched Bentham’s quantity criterion (the number of satisfied individuals + the level of satisfaction) with a distinction between superior and inferior pleasures (quality criterion), which presents many similarities with Aristotle’s respective theory in “Nicomachean Ethics”[2]. The comparison between two different pleasures requires that both have been tried; the preference of the majority constitutes the final assessment factor. However, what happens when the following problem arises? There have been numerous cases when the majority enjoys something of a lower value (ex. a ‘Simpsons’ episode instead of Hemmingway’s poetry). Mill admits that even the most educated and intellectual person can choose an inferior pleasure; however, there is an objective criterion that highlights the supremacy of a pleasure, which is the promotion of human dignity, that will lead us to the maximization of prosperity.


Now, it is time to examine how Mill’s utilitarianism would be applied in a pandemic state like the COVID-19 worldwide crisis. Mill, for starters, as opposed to Bentham, would reject the total abrogation of lockdowns during an immense amplification of COVID-19 cases for two basic reasons: first, there would be a severe violation of the right to life and health of the people in high peril groups. Second, a simple calibration that both Mill and Bentham would consider is the unending and unavoidable grief and mourning that the loss of thousands of people would cause, if the society were to be liberated from all health and social distancing measures.


Now, we shall apply Mill’s formula: at first, it seems plausible that the complete removal of all restrictions could lead to the maximization of the prosperity of the majority, as most of people are healthy (quantity criterion). However, society would be immersed in grief, as its population is ever-growing and the number of people with serious health problems is not at all tedious, which is something the respiratory virus does not overlook (quality criterion). Humans are not just numbers, and we must not allow the society to face death with apathy and insensibility.


There is a saying that the death of one person is a tragedy, but the loss of thousands of people is just statistics, which is sadly confirmed by the incomparable insensitivity that the daily news has led us to. Hundreds of people die every day, but to many, it’s just an unavoidable casualty to which they pay no attention, unless it happens in their close circle. What Mill would propose is a progressive, modest, and careful return to normalcy, with specific health measures (ex. social distancing, use of masks), until massive inoculation is achieved or an effective medicine/treatment against COVID-19 gets invented (prevention + cure). This is possible only under ideal, purely theoretical conditions of a philosophical experiment. The unpredictable factor of human psychology and thought is always present (COVID-19 deniers, anti-vaxxers, the problematic application of health measures). In conclusion, our dilemma is comprised of two equally important values; survival or human dignity[3].

[1] Sandel, J., Michael, “Justice: what is the right thing to do?” [2] Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics”, Cactus Publishing House (Official Edition in Ancient Greek), (Β 3, 1-2) «Σημεῖον δὲ δεῖ ποιεῖσθαι τῶν ἕξεων τὴν ἐπιγινομένην ἡδονὴν ἢ λύπην τοῖς ἔργοις· ὁ μὲν γὰρ ἀπεχόμενος τῶν σωματικῶν ἡδονῶν καὶ αὐτῷ τούτῳ χαίρων σώφρων, ὁ δ' ἀχθόμενος ἀκόλαστος, καὶ ὁ μὲν ὑπομένων τὰ δεινὰ καὶ χαίρων ἢ μὴ λυπούμενός γε ἀνδρεῖος, ὁ δὲ λυπούμενος δειλός. Περὶ ἡδονὰς γὰρ καὶ λύπας ἐστὶν ἡ ἠθικὴ ἀρετή· διὰ μὲν γὰρ τὴν ἡδονὴν τὰ φαῦλα πράττομεν, διὰ δὲ τὴν λύπην τῶν καλῶν ἀπεχόμεθα. Διὸ δεῖ ἦχθαί πως εὐθὺς ἐκ νέων, ὡς ὁ Πλάτων φησίν, ὥστε χαίρειν τε καὶ λυπεῖσθαι οἷς δεῖ· ἡ γὰρ ὀρθὴ παιδεία αὕτη ἐστίν.» Translation in English: “We must deem the pleasure or the sadness that follow our actions as an important factor. Because the ones that abstain from corporal pleasures and are happy thanks to that are wise and the ones that protest against this decision are promiscuous and the ones that endure tough incidents and are happy or at least not saddened by them are brave, and the sad ones are cowards. Ethics is all about pleasure and sadness. We do bad things because of pleasure and we abstain from good things because of sadness. Therefore, we must be educated in a specific way since childhood, as Plato believed, in order to be happy and sad about what we should. Because this is the right education” [3] A further analysis will be presented in a following article




Citations – Bibliography:


Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics”, Athens, Publishing House: Κάκτος (Cactus)

Sandel, J., Michael, “Justice: what is the right thing to do?” (Translated in Greek by Kioupkolis Alexandros), Athens, Publishing House: ΠΟΛΙΣ (POLIS), 2011

Cover Photo : https://dailynous.com/2020/03/27/role-philosophy-philosophers-coronavirus-pandemic/



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