Room P3, Evergreen Grammar School
“Yesterday we looked at Jeremy Bentham and Act Utilitarianism and discussed its advantages and disadvantages – I think most of us concluded that it was well-intentioned but had some fundamental problems to it. Yes, Farina, I know you think differently – you’ll get the chance to debate later, don’t worry! So, today we’re going to go over Bentham’s successor, John Stuart Mill, and his attempt to fix some of those problems.”
Evergreen Grammar School’s Lower Sixth Monday afternoon Philosophy class is fundamentally divided. Among the students there, about half of them are slouching, elbows on desks, eyes half-lidded – waiting for the first day of the week to be over so they can reclaim what semblance of weekend remained back at home. These are those who took Philosophy under the impression that it would be an easy, if slightly boring, subject. Working on Natural Law at the start of the year put paid to that idea.
The other half, on the other hand, listen closely, some nodding and many taking notes.
Alistair Parton is a part of the latter group.
Dr Brower walks to the side, tapping at his spacebar to advance to the new black-text-on-yellow-background-with-accompanying-photo slide. “Mill was born not far from here in Middlesex. His father was a friend of Bentham’s and agreed with his views on Utilitarianism, so he decided to raise Mill as a genius who’d be able to think his way through the Hedonic Calculus as Bentham set out.” Dr Brower grimaces. “Basically, Mill was hot-housed – he learned Greek and Latin before his teens and his father actually had him teach his older siblings himself, among other things. This brought him close to suicide before he was twenty.”
Brower’s face takes on a more open expression, looking out across the room. “It was this experience that made Mill realise that a person just can’t figure out the right and wrong thing to do in every circumstance – or, well, I suppose that they could
, with enough work, but it wouldn’t be practical or desirable to make everyone go through that work.”
Alistair purses his lips, considering. That’s basically…
He presses his pen to his notepad a little more firmly.
Dr Brower steps back towards his computer, smiling. “Mill put forward his own version of Bentham’s principle of utility, which modern philosophers see as the first form of ‘Rule Utilitarianism’.” With a flourish, he presses the spacebar again. “Instead of taking actions that maximise pleasure and minimise pain, he argued that people should follow the set of rules that maximise pleasure and minimise pain; that way, they have a guide to make those decisions. The mental burden is laid on coming up with the rules beforehand and tweaking them every so often, not on working out every action in the moment, meaning that a Rule Utilitarian won’t get overwhelmed like an Act Utilitarian would. Mill compared it to the idea of a ship’s captain taking an almanac with him, which held information about the night sky that allowed him to navigate, rather than trying to work out all of those details in the middle of a storm.” He looks up. “Yes, Jeremy?”Okay, good start, but… That’s not enough, right?
A tallish, boy with blond hair and glasses speaks from the middle of the class. “Sir, wouldn’t that just become Act Utilitarianism again after a while? A set of rules that really maximised utility would be so… So huge and complicated that someone wouldn’t be able to follow it, right?”
Brower nods. “You could argue that, yes. Alternatively, you could make the case that that set of rules wouldn’t
maximise utility for that reason – that a system of rules would have to be useable to do so in the first place.” He grins. “Keep thinking that way, though; it’ll be useful in the debate.” He glances around the class again. “Alistair?”
Alistair lowers his hand – then brushes his hair out of his steely eyes, his earlier headshaking ineffectual. Need to get that sorted soon… Where was – right. “Did Mill set out the rules he thought would maximise utility?”
Dr Brower frowns; he walks forward, then leans against his desk. “I don’t think he ever sat down and wrote out a list like Aquinas did, not really… He was an MP and a political thinker, though, and a lot of his thinking in that area is in a book called On Liberty
. A lot of people don’t think it’s fully consistent with his views on Utilitarianism but it’s still a good place to look.”
Alistair nods, his gaze turning resolute even as he angles it back towards his notes.
“Now, Mill differed from Bentham in another important way: what pleasure actually was. If you remember, Bentham…”King Henry’s Mound, Richmond Park
Monday Evening‘…the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’
What’s ‘harm’, though?
Alistair sighs. He swings his legs from atop the metal lattice, planting his solidly-shod feet on the ground and resting his head on the pillar of his hand and arm. Down at the book he gazes. “It’s… It’s like the pleasure machine. What’s to stop someone locking people up to prevent them from getting hurt – in the most specific sense?”
He growls. “Or, in the other direction, to convince people to trust no-one in academia because they think they’re part of some nonsensical conspiracy?”
He shakes his head, lying back against the metal post. It’s just too vague. You could use this to justify anything.
Then he closes his fist – the one not holding the book – and shakes his head again, leaning down to drop the text into his bag and standing, picking the whole thing up in a single, fluid motion. “Need to keep reading. Probably explains later.” Still…
His thoughts trail to a halt as he looks behind him, confirming the appearance of an elderly couple waiting patiently and a little nervously off to the side. Alistair opens his mouth slightly, then shuts it, hunching over a little in guilt and walking away to allow them to use the telescope. As he does so, he looks up slightly to take in the view of London, then back to the hole through the hedges to where he knows by now St Paul’s Cathedral is, crowning the City. And it doesn’t solve the main issue, either. No matter how much thought I put into rules, or how much I think I might be protecting people…
I could still just be hurting them.Courtyard, Evergreen Grammar School
Alistair heads through Evergreen’s main quad towards the school library, his stride neither long nor short, energised nor trudging. His head is down, his lips pressed firmly together.
A burst of noise catches his attention; he looks over. Apparently, somebody – likely Upper Sixth, since he doesn’t recognise him (not that that’s a hugely reliable indicator these days) – has taken it upon himself to climb into the boughs of one of the school’s many trees. He’s not the only one who’s noticed, either; a small group of onlookers is gathering beneath him. Frowning incredulously, Alistair stops. Then he turns to walk over…
And an expression of sorrowful, painful conflict manifests on his face. He glances down, away.
Then he sighs and, shaking his head, walks on.