Posted by: Dirk | October 11, 2008

John Stuart Mill on Happiness

Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker writes about John Stuart Mill, known for On Liberty, among other works, who was educated by his father’s mentor Jeremy Bentham, whose theory of utility he rejected:

Beginning in the late eighteen-twenties, Mill took on a great deal of Continental philosophy that, then as now, was regarded as just this side of charlatanism by his bread-and-butter Anglo-Saxon colleagues. He borrowed the term “self-development” from the German Romantic philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, and considered that, rather than utilitarian pleasure, to be the end of life.

John Stuart Mill predates Frank Knight, whose idea of happiness I have put into context earlier. His point is the same. Let’s hear it from Wilhelm von Humboldt (via Richard Miniter at FEE), who is the source of Mill’s ideas:

In The Limits Humboldt argues for a conception of happiness based on what he considers a natural drive for self-development. It is in freely choosing and pursuing self-development “and in striving to reach it by the combined application of his moral and physical energies that the true happiness of man, in his full vigor and development, consists.

Exactly that, according to Mill, is what people want:

Mill’s theory of freedom does make an unwarranted assumption—that people want a rich life where knowledge increases, new discoveries are made, and new ideas found, where art flourishes and science advances. If you don’t want that kind of society, you don’t want liberty, in Mill’s sense. Part of what makes him as touching as he is great is that it scarcely occurred to him that anyone would not.

This reminds me of Amartya Sen’s capability approach, whose ideas are summarized by David Clark:

These considerations lead to the conclusion that neither opulence (income, commodity command) nor utility (happiness, desire fulfilment) constitute or adequately represent human well-being and deprivation. Instead what is required is a more direct approach that focuses on human function(ing)s and the capability to achieve valuable function(ing)s.


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