Mill on Bentham and Coleridge

Tyler Cowen recommends Mill’s essays on Bentham and Coleridge as among the best essays ever written, a great introduction to Mill’s thought, and the most sophisticated perspective on a form of neo-Benthamism today, namely the effective altruism as a movement”.

I found the key ideas familiar (partly because Tyler is constantly recommending them), but I was glad to read them from the man himself.

According to Mill, Bentham’s chief contribution was to exemplify and spread the idea that we should demand detailed, systematic reasoning in political philosophy. The principle of utility was not original to Bentham, but his attempt to systematically apply it to evaluate existing institutions, and to generate proposals for reform, was singular. Bentham’s strength was not in his conclusions, but his approach:

The questioning spirit, the disposition to demand the why of everything, that had gained so much ground and was producing such important consequences in these times was due to Bentham more than to any other source. […] In this age and this country, Bentham has been the great questioner of things established.


He was not a great philosopher, but was a great reformer in philosophy. He brought into philosophy something it greatly needed, for lack of which it was at a stand-still. It was not his doctrines that did this, but his way of arriving at them.

Getting back to politics: Mill takes a dim view of Bentham’s actual assessments and proposals. He sees Bentham as unusually narrow in thought and sensibility, and remarkably uninterested in the philosophy and political thought of others (he failed in deriving light from other minds”). One of Bentham’s biggest mistakes, according to Mill:

Man is never recognised by him as a being capable of pursuing spiritual perfection as an end, of desiring for its own sake the conformity of his own character to his standard of excellence, without hope of good or fear of evil from any source but his own inward consciousness.


He only faintly recognises, as a fact in human nature, the pursuit of any other ideal goal for its own sake: • the sense of honour and personal dignity—that feeling of personal exaltation and degradation that acts independently of other people’s opinion or even in defiance of it; • the love of beauty, the passion of the artist; • the love of order, of congruity, of consistency in all things, and conformity to their end; • the love of power, not in the limited form of power over other human beings, but abstract power, the power of making our volitions effective; • the love of action, the thirst for movement and activity, a force with almost as much influence in human life as its opposite, the love of ease.


Man, that most complex being, is a very simple one in Bentham’s eyes.

My Hansonian side raises an eyebrow: was Bentham more right than Mill on this point?1

The it’s mostly signalling” model is compatible with the claim that people do, in fact, have motives like those Mill lists above; it does not make them unreal, or factors we can ignore in our political philosophy. And at the normative level, there’s nothing to stop us cultivating and doubling down on our dispositions to pursue excellence, even while recognising that those dispositions are rooted in status competition. We can choose to see the motives we have as noble, even if we think the forces that shaped them are not. But—Bentham would ask—how, exactly, can we justify this choice? Why not some other motives?

Conservatives have an easier time here than progressives, because they are willing to reject the question. Elsewhere, Mill tries to justify claims about higher pleasures” with mostly teleological arguments. These would not satisfy Bentham—teleological arguments appeal to contingent facts about the kind of beings we happen to be, which would strike Bentham as too unprincipled, too contingent, too lacking in selflessness. The pursuit of higher pleasures” which shapes Mill’s progressive ambitions is, ultimately, based on a conservative commitment to a local ideal of high culture and human excellence.

In Mill’s reading, Coleridge agrees with Bentham that political philosophers must employ careful reasoning to justify their positions, and laments the tendency of conservatives to overlook this. By contrast, he thinks that progressives tend to overestimate their powers of reason and understanding, and should recognise that the conservative inclination to trust tradition over explicit reasoning has merit. Reformers should be recognise that existing traditions have merits that they do not understand, having been exposed to selection pressures that we can think of as a form of historical and collective reason. Reformers should also recognise, of course, that the reforms they propose will have consequences they cannot foresee.

So—one of the most fundamental disagreement between conservatives and progressives is about how to weigh tradition (historical reason) against explicit reason.

So—yay to Bentham’s demand for careful, systematic reasoning in philosophy, but boo to those who forget that, often, tradition is smarter than you are.

There’s another narrowness to Bentham’s method: reason is about what we have in common. The demand of reason is both an opportunity and a threat, and Coleridge, Mill and the German Romantics all want to resist this demand at some margins.

There’s a lot more in both essays, but I’m out of time. I’ll close with one of Mill’s opening remarks:

Theoretical philosophy, which to superficial people appears so remote from the business of life and the outward interests of men, is in reality the thing on earth that most influences them, and in the long run outweighs every other influence except the ones it must itself obey.

I agree—with emphasis on the last seven words.

  1. The big insight of evolutionary theory is that very simple algorithms can generate very complex systems. It’s impressive that Bentham saw this possibility, decades before Darwin.↩︎

Writing philosophy epistemology political philosophy conservatism metaphilosophy john stuart mill jeremy bentham samuel taylor coleridge