Mill, John Stuart (1806–73)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC054-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2005
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

8. Happiness, desire and will

Mill’s single ultimate standard of theoretical reason is enumerative induction. His single ultimate standard of practical reason is the principle of utility; its standard is the good of all. But what is the good? According to Mill, it is happiness, understood as ‘pleasure, and freedom from pain’ (1861a: 210) (see Happiness). His case rests on the following principle of method:

The sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it. If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so.

(1861a: 234)

Mill is not claiming that the conclusion that happiness is desirable follows deductively from the premise that people in general desire it. He gives some ground for that misinterpretation when he compares the move from ‘desired’ to ‘desirable’ to those from ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ to ‘visible’ and ‘audible’. Nevertheless, his procedure is simply an appeal to reflective practice, just as in the case of enumerative induction - where again the ‘sole evidence’ that enumerative induction is an ultimate norm of reasoning is that we acknowledge it as such ‘in theory and in practice’.

However, a question which is appropriate by Mill’s own principle of method is whether reflective practice shows that happiness is the only thing we desire. Do not human beings, in theory and in practice, desire things other than happiness? Mill anticipates this question and responds to it at length. He claims that when we want a particular object for its own sake and with no further end in view (let us say, when we have an underived desire for it), then we desire it because we think of it as enjoyable: ‘to desire anything, except in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant, is a physical and metaphysical impossibility’ (1861a: 238). But this does not mean that we desire all objects as means to our pleasure. The desire for an object is genuinely a desire for that object; it is not the desire for pleasure as such. Mill’s way of marking this is to say that the object is desired as a ‘part’ or an ‘ingredient’ of happiness, not as a means to it. His rejection of psychological egoism was one of the points on which he took himself to be at odds with Bentham (§3). When a person does something because they think it will be pleasant - for example a generous person who gives a present - it does not follow that they are acting selfishly (see Egoism and altruism). Generous people take pleasure in the prospect of giving, not in the prospect of getting pleasure; their desire to give is not derived from the desire to get pleasure. Giving is a part of their happiness, not a means to it.

Thus Mill’s case for the claim that happiness is the sole human end, put more carefully, is this: ‘Whatever is desired otherwise than as a means to some end beyond itself, and ultimately to happiness, is desired as itself a part of happiness, and is not desired for itself until has become so’ (1861a: 237). Nothing here assumes Hume’s view that every action must ultimately flow from an underived desire. That is a quite separate issue, and Mill’s view of it is closer to that of Kant or Reid than to that of Hume. He insists ‘positively and emphatically’

that the will is a different thing from desire; that a person of confirmed virtue, or any other person whose purposes are fixed, carries out his purposes without any thought of the pleasure he has in contemplating them, or expects to derive from their fulfilment.

(1861a: 238)

This distinction between purpose and desire is central to Mill’s conception of the will. When we develop purposes we can will against mere likings or aversions: ‘In the case of an habitual purpose, instead of willing the thing because we desire it, we often desire it only because we will it’ (1861a: 238). Every action is caused by a motive, but not every motive is a liking or aversion:

When the will is said to be determined by motives, a motive does not mean always, or solely, the anticipation of a pleasure or of a pain.... A habit of willing is commonly called a purpose; and among the causes of our volitions, and of the actions which flow from them, must be reckoned not only likings and aversions, but also purposes.

(1843: 842)

The formation of purposes from desires is the evolution of will; it is also the development of character. Mill quotes Novalis: ‘a character is a completely fashioned will’ (1843: 843). Not that this reflects the whole of his view of character; character for him requires the cultivation of feeling as well as the cultivation of will: ‘A person whose desires and impulses are his own - are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture - is said to have a character’ (1859: 264). Developed spontaneity of feeling is part of fully-perfected character, but certainly moral freedom is too - ‘none but a person of confirmed virtue is completely free’. As noted in §7 above, Mill does not address the crucial question of what it is for a purpose to be informed by reason. Still, the distinction between purpose and desire does allow him to recognize conscientious action, action which flows not from any inclination but solely from a habit of willing; he asserts the possibility and value of a ‘confirmed will to do right’ (1861a: 238), distinct from motives of anticipated pleasure and pain. That ‘virtuous will’, however, is not for him an intrinsic good, as it is for Kant. It is

a means to good, not intrinsically a good; and does not contradict the doctrine that nothing is good to human beings but in so far as it is either itself pleasurable, or a means of attaining pleasure or averting pain.

(1861a: 239)

Citing this article:
Skorupski, John. Happiness, desire and will. Mill, John Stuart (1806–73), 2005, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC054-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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