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The Unexamined Life

Normative ethics is the attempt to say which actions are right and which actions are wrong. In this particular view, it may thus be inferred that normative ethical theories are anchored on the notion of “the right”. There is, however, another notion that logically takes priority over the notion of the right and this is the notion of “the good”. Logically speaking, one is warranted to say that the notion of the good serves as a necessary condition for the notion of the right. Elucidating it further, the basis for determining whether an action is right or wrong depends on what our definition of the good is.

It is ultimately, the definition of the good that determines what actions are right and what actions are wrong. This philosophical paper seeks to explicate John Stuart Mill’s arguments on the notion of the “good” as presented in his work Utilitarianism. Furthermore, it seeks to show that Mill’s ethical stand stands in direct support of Socrates’ view in the Apology that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Clearly, Socrates belongs to the period within which he was born, habituated and cultured – ancient Greek society.

It is important to note that ancient Greek society may be characterized as a society, which adopts several variants of virtue ethics. In his work entitled Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill attempts articulate what the good is. He offers a moral principle, which he calls the principle of utility. In another work entitled “On Liberty”, Mill defends freedom of thought and discussion. This paper argues that although Mill may have some remarks on Utilitarianism that may support Socrates’ view, the more substantive arguments may be found in his another work, On Liberty. Mill contends that happiness is the only intrinsically desirable thing.

This is the basic argument of the principle of utility. Mill argues that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure. ” (Mill, 1991, X. 210). Happiness is thus, the principle of action. As was stated at the onset of this paper, although Mill may have some remarks on Utilitarianism that may support Socrates’ view, the more substantive arguments may be found in his another work, On Liberty.

As I reckon it, to rely merely on Utilitarianism will be more detrimental to the task that this paper wishes to pursue. This is because of the fact that even Mill has certain arguments against virtue ethics itself. Virtue Ethics, as an ethical theory also faces several problems that needs to be resolved. In his work, Utilitarianism, Mill writes: “…no ethical standard decides an action to be good or bad because it is done by a good or a bad man, still less because done by an amiable, a brave, or a benevolent man, or the contrary. These considerations are relevant, not to the estimation of actions, but of persons …

” (Mill, 1991, ch 2). Socrates’ statement clearly manifests his philosophical view of the good and what the good life is. By the statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, one may thus, infer that the statement in itself provides us with an estimation of the value or worth of life. This is to say that eudaimonia [in lack of a more appropriate English term, happiness] entails not only the pursuit of desires such as physical pleasures but also [and more importantly] intellectual pleasures. There is thus, a need to develop our own most human function or excellence, that is, our rational capacity.

Mill shares the same view. Warburton notes, “intellectual pleasures, those he calls higher pleasures, are intrinsically more valuable than physical lower ones” (Warburton, 2001, p. 169). With the preceding discussions, we are able to see Mill’s affinity to Socrates and the ancient Greek view on the concept of the good. Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures supports Socrates’ view that “the unexamined life is not worth living” by accounting for the need to pursue that which maximizes our distinctive human function. One may thus infer that for both Socrates and Mill, “happiness is an end in itself”.

This is to say that happiness is something that is both self-sufficient and final. Simply put, happiness is “the ultimate end of all human activity” (Warburton, 2001, p. 169). Having established Socrates and Mill’s agreement on the very notion of happiness, we will now move on to some of Mill’s ideas on freedom of thought, discussion and speech. As stated at the onset of the paper, these ideas will further establish Mill’s defense of Socrates’ view. It is important to note that for both philosophers, the development and maximization of our rational capacity is constitutive to living a happy kind of life.

Given this, it is important to uphold the individual’s freedom of thought and speech, and a group of individuals’ freedom to discuss. In his work entitled On Liberty, Mill explores the limits of power that society [or a part of it, such as the state] may legitimately interfere with the individual. Freedom of thought should not be restrained by the society, the ruling power or the state because it hinders what Mill calls free development of individuality. Socrates was brought to court because of practicing philosophy and for encouraging other people to think.

This is due to the fact that he views such an activity as constitutive of what it means to be a human being and of what it means to live a eudaimon kind of life. Socrates chooses to die. There are many other options open for Socrates though, but these options are inimical to the conviction that he has regarding philosophy and his pursuit of truth and knowledge. The idea is simple. What does it mean to live a meaningful life? It is to live in a “thinkful manner”. This is what it means to examine one’s life and one’s beliefs.

That Socrates be silenced is unjust for Mill because society is not warranted in curtailing his freedom of thought. Mill contends [in his harm principle] that an individual “cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise (Mill, 1999, p. 51-2).

For Mill, man is a “progressive being” (Mill, 1999, p. 53). Given this, it is but rational to abide by the harm principle since this will ensure the development of individuals and their rational capacities. “Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself. ” (Mill, 1999, p. 105). Freedom and the availability of choices then, are two important conditions that promote happiness and the development of our own humanity. A truly civilized society must learn to value differing positions and ideologies.

This is because of the fact that these differences entail different ideas and different ways in and through which those ideas are arrived at. This is to say that a truly civilized society ought to create an atmosphere that is conducive for a culture of discourse to flourish. Let us now proceed with some of the arguments raised against Mill. He maintains that “happiness is desirable”. Now, given the fact that he maintains that freedom of thought should not be restrained, what we may infer is that we may have different notions of what it means for an individual to live a happy kind of life.

As to Socrates’ view that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, one may ask his/herself: “Why maximize happiness? ” Moreover, taking into consideration what kind of happiness is involved in the preceding discussions, “How should we deal with differing views and ideologies which inevitably, at one point or another, may stand in direct opposition with one another? ” Mill may have managed to explain that happiness is indeed, desirable. In addition, that like Aristotle, it is the end of all human action.

However, his account of happiness and his principle of utility, along with his views on freedom of thought in “On Liberty”, present us with a rather interesting question or scenario: that on a deeper analysis, Mill’s account of happiness inevitably resolves itself into a form of egoism where each individual pursues his or her own happiness. The problem is thus much deeper and intricate since this has serious implications on utilitarianism’s maxim, that is, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”.

Mill contends, “each person finds his or her own happiness desirable, so general happiness is the sum of the individual happiness, and itself desirable” (Warburton, 2001, p. 170). From a logical point of view, this assumption is mistaken. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. Apparently, Mill assumes that in a sense, there will still be a certain kind of uniformity with regards to human beings’ desires and wants, which then will pave the way for being able to determine what the general happiness is.

This is, however, a mere assumption. From the preceding discussions, Mill may be said to support Socrates’ view that “The unexamined life is not worth living” because first, they share the same view regarding happiness as the end of all human action and second, they both contend that the development of our rational capacity is constitutive of what it means to be a human being and of what it means to live a happy kind of life.

I would like to end this paper with some remarks from the political liberal Isaiah Berlin who explores the idea that liberty and equality oftentimes present us with a dilemma and that faced with such a dilemma, we feel the inevitability of making a choice. Berlin says: “if you have maximum liberty, then the strong can destroy the weak, and if you have absolute equality, you cannot have absolute liberty, because you have to coerce the powerful … if they are not to devour the poor and the meek…. Total liberty can be dreadful, total equality can be equally frightful… ” (Jahanbegloo, 1992).


Jahanbegloo, Ramin (1992). Conversations With Isaiah Berlin. New York: Scribner. Mill, John Stuart (1991). The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Gen. Ed. John M. Robson. 33 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Mill, John Stuart (1999). On Liberty. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press. Warburton, Nigel (2001). Philosophy: The Classics. Second Edition. Routledge.

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