Return to Mill, John Stuart
A weary agnostic on most of the fundamental issues of philosophy, Mill bases his defense of capitalism on the ethics of Utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism is a union of hedonism and Christianity. The first teaches man to love pleasure; the second, to love his neighbor. The union consists in teaching man to love his neighbor’s pleasure. To be exact, the Utilitarians teach that an action is moral if its result is to maximize pleasure among men in general. This theory holds that man’s duty is to serve—according to a purely quantitative standard of value. He is to serve not the well-being of the nation or of the economic class, but “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” regardless of who comprise it in any given issue. As to one’s own happiness, says Mill, the individual must be “disinterested” and “strictly impartial”; he must remember that he is only one unit out of the dozens, or millions, of men affected by his actions. “All honor to those who can abnegate for themselves the personal enjoyment of life,” says Mill, “when by such renunciation they contribute worthily to increase the amount of happiness in the world . . . .”
Capitalism, Mill acknowledges, is not based on any desire for abnegation or renunciation; it is based on the desire for selfish profit. Nevertheless, he says, the capitalist system ensures that, most of the time, the actual result of individual profit-seeking is the happiness of society as a whole. Hence the individual should be left free of government regulation. He should be left free not as an absolute (there are no absolutes, says Mill), but under the present circumstances—not on the ground of inalienable rights (there are no such rights, Mill holds), but of social utility.
Under capitalism, concluded one American economist of the period with evident moral relief, “the Lord maketh the selfishness of man to work for the material welfare of his kind.” As one commentator observes, the essence of this argument is the claim that capitalism is justified by its ability to convert “man’s baseness” to “noble ends.” “Baseness” here means egoism; “nobility” means altruism. And the justification of individual freedom in terms of its contribution to the welfare of society means collectivism.
Mill (along with Smith, Say, and the rest of the classical economists) was trying to defend an individualist system by accepting the fundamental moral ideas of its opponents. It did not take Mill long to grasp this contradiction in some terms and amend his political views accordingly. He ended his life as a self-proclaimed “qualified socialist.”