Auguste Comte
Auguste Comte
March 31, 2017

Utilitarianism and Positivism

John Stuart Mill

J ohn Stuart Mill was an English philosopher, political economist and civil servant. One of the most influential thinkers in the history of liberalism, he contributed widely to social theory, political theory and political economy. Dubbed "the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century", Mill's conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state and social control.

Mill was a proponent of utilitarianism, an ethical theory developed by his predecessor Jeremy Bentham, and contributed significantly to the theory of the scientific method.


20 May 1806 Pentonville, London, England


8 May 1873 (aged 66) Avignon, France


19th-century philosophy


Western philosophy

Main interests

Political philosophy, ethics, economics, inductive logic

Chapter Ⅸ. Utilitarianism and Positivism

John Stuart Mill


Hayagriva dasa: In Essay on Nature, Mill writes: "The order of nature, insofar as unmodified by man, is such as no Being whose attributes are justice and benevolence would have made with the intention that his rational creatures should follow it as an example—It could only be as a designedly imperfect work which man, in his limited sphere, is to exercise justice and benevolence in amending."

Srila Prabhupada: Man is called a rational animal; he has a rational nature and an animal nature. Eating, sleeping, mating, and defending are activities common to animals, but a man should cultivate his rational nature. For instance, by his reason, man can understand that it is not necessary to eat meat in order to live a healthy life. It is not that man should be carried by nature's way, which says that man can eat anything. Human beings are accustomed to eating the most abominable foods, and in so doing, they become implicated. Beyond eating, sleeping, mating, and defending, man should search out the Absolute Truth. In this way, man's rationality is properly used. Otherwise, he remains an animal.

Syamasundara dasa: Mill claimed that the world, or nature, can be improved by man's efforts, but that perfection is not possible.

Srila Prabhupada: In one sense, that is correct. This world is so made that although you make it perfect today, tomorrow it will deteriorate. Nonetheless, the world can be improved by this Krsna consciousness. You can better the world by bringing people to Krsna consciousness and delivering the message of Krsna to whomever you meet. That is the best social activity you can perform.

Syamasundara dasa: The goal of the utilitarians was more specifically to obtain whatever the people desire or require.

Srila Prabhupada: The people desire happiness. The utilitarians try to give people artificial happiness, happiness separate from Krsna, but we are trying to give direct happiness, happiness that is connected with Krsna. If we purify our existence, we can attain spiritual, eternal happiness and bliss. Everyone is working hard for happiness, but how can happiness be attained in a diseased condition? The material disease is an impediment to happiness. This disease has to be cured.

Hayagriva dasa: Mill felt that virtues like courage, cleanliness, and self-control are not instinctive in man but have to be cultivated. In Nature, he writes: "The truth is that there is hardly a single point of excellence belonging to human character which is not decidedly repugnant to the untutored feelings of human nature—"

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Therefore there are educational systems in human society. Men should be educated according to the instructions given in the Vedic literatures. Bhagavad-gita is the grand summation of all Vedic literature, and therefore everyone should read it as it is. It is not necessary to interpret.

Syamasundara dasa: For Mill, there are several ways to ascertain knowledge. For instance, we can determine the cause and the effects of things by determining whether the phenomena under investigation have only one circumstance in common. If so, we can conclude that the circumstance alone is the cause of the effect.

Srila Prabhupada: Certainly there is the natural law of cause and effect, but if we go further to determine the cause, we ultimately arrive at Krsna. Everything has an original source, a cause. If you try to find out the cause of this and that, and conduct research, that is called darsana, which means "to find the cause." Therefore philosophy is called darsana- sastra, which means "finding the cause of the cause." The idea is that we ultimately arrive at Krsna, the original cause of everything.

Syamasundara dasa: But what kind of test can we apply to phenomena to find out the cause? How can we determine that God is the cause behind everything?

Srila Prabhupada: For every phenomenon, there is a cause, and we know that God is the ultimate cause. Mill may give many methods for studying immediate causes, but we are interested in the ultimate cause of everything. The ultimate cause has full independence to do anything and everything beyond our calculation. Everything that we see is but an effect of His original push.

Syamasundara dasa: If we see rain falling and want to prove that God is the cause of rain, what test can we apply?

Srila Prabhupada: The sastras, the Vedic literatures. We are advised to see through the sastras because we cannot see directly. Since our senses are defective, direct perception has no value. Therefore we have to receive knowledge through authoritative instruction.

Syamasundara dasa: In other words, when we see an apple fall from a tree, we have to see through the eyes of the sastras in order to see God in that act?

Srila Prabhupada: God has made His laws so perfect that one cause effects one thing, and that in turn effects another, and so on. We may see an apple grow and explain it as "nature," but this nature is working according to certain laws. An apple has a certain color and taste because it is following specific laws set down by Krsna. Krsna's energies are perfect and are working perfectly. Everything is being carried out under systematic laws, although we may not perceive these laws.

Syamasundara dasa: Scientists admit that nothing can come out of nothing.

Srila Prabhupada: If something emerges, there must be a cause in the background. We say that the root cause of everything is Brahman, the Absolute Truth.

Hayagriva dasa: Mill certainly did not see God as the cause of evil. In fact, he considered God at war against it. Man's role is to help God end this war. He writes: "If Providence is omnipotent, Providence intends whatever happens, and the fact of its happening proves that Providence intended it. If so, everything which a human being can do is predestined by Providence and is a fulfillment of its designs. But if, as is the more religious theory, Providence intends not all which happens, but only what is good, then indeed man has it in his power, by his voluntary actions, to aid the intentions of Providence...."

Srila Prabhupada: Providence desires only the good. The living entity is in this material world due to the improper utilization of his will. Even though he wants to enjoy this material world, God is so kind that He gives him facilities and directions. When a child wants to play in a certain way, he is guided by some nurse or servant hired by the parents. Our position is something like that. We have given up the company of God to come to this material world to enjoy ourselves. So God has allowed us to come here, saying, "All right, enjoy this experience, and when you understand that this material enjoyment is ultimately frustrating, you can come back." Thus the Supreme Lord is guiding the enjoyment of all living beings, especially human beings, so that they may again return home, back to Godhead. Nature is the agent acting under the instructions of God. If the living entity is overly addicted to misuse his freedom, he is punished. This punishment is a consequence of the living entity's desire. God does not want a human being to become a pig, but when one develops such a mentality by eating anything and everything, God gives the facility by providing the body of a hog. God is situated in everyone's heart, and is noting the desires of the living entity from within. According to one's desires, God orders material nature to provide a particular body.

Hayagriva dasa: Mill further writes: "Limited as, on this showing, the divine power must be by inscrutable but insurmountable obstacles, who knows what man could have been created without desires which never are to be, and even which never ought to be, fulfilled?" Thus Mill concludes that the existence of evil, or pain and death, excludes the existence of an omnipotent God. He sees man in a position to "aid the intentions of Providence" by surmounting his evil instincts. God is not infinite in His power, because if He were, there would be no evil.

Srila Prabhupada: Evil is undoubtedly created by God, but this was necessary due to the human being's misuse of his free will. God gives man good directions, but when man is disobedient, evil is naturally there to punish him. Evil is not desired by God, yet it is created because it is necessary. Although a government constructs prisons, it prefers to construct universities so that people can attain an education and become highly enlightened. Because some people misuse their independence, prisons are necessary. We suffer due to our evil activities. Thus God, being supreme, punishes us. When we are under the protection of God, nothing is evil; everything is good. God does not create evil, but man's evil activities provoke God to create an evil situation.

Hayagriva dasa: In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is at war with Satan. In Vedic literatures, there are also wars between the demigods and the demons, as well as Krsna and the demons, but these wars do not seem to be taken as serious confrontations between God and His enemies. Isn't Krsna's mood always playful?

Srila Prabhupada: Since Krsna is all powerful, when He is fighting with demons, He is actually playing. This fighting does not affect His energy. It is like a father fighting with his small child. One slap is sufficient. Krsna gives the demons a chance to play by fighting Him, but one strong slap is sufficient. There is no question of fighting with God. He is omnipotent. However, when a living entity is disobedient and harasses the devotees, God kills him. Paritranaya sadhunam vinasaya ca duskrtam (Bg. 4.8). When Krsna descends on this earth, He chastises the demons and protects His devotees. Whenever there is a fight between the demons and the demigods, God takes the side of the demigods.

Hayagriva dasa: Mill saw it more like an actual struggle between God and Satan, or evil.

Srila Prabhupada: There is struggle because the demons are always transgressing God's rules. A demon is one who rejects God's rules, and a demigod is one who accepts them. That is the main difference, as stated in the sastras.

Hayagriva dasa: But Mill pictures God Himself as struggling hard in the fight to conquer the demons.

Srila Prabhupada: God has no reason to struggle. According to the Vedas, He is so powerful that He has nothing to do. Just as a king may have many servants, ministers, and soldiers to carry out his desires, Krsna has many energies that act according to His order. Krsna Himself has nothing to do. He is playing His flute and enjoying Himself. That is ananda. Although He is enjoying Himself, the universe is going on in accordance with His orders, through the agencies of His multi-energies. There is no question of God struggling. He doesn't even have to fight. His various agents can easily enough kill all the evil elements in the world.

Syamasundara dasa: Mill believed that God is good, but that He is involved in a world not of His own making.

Srila Prabhupada: Is God to be judged by Mr. Mill? God is good, but not as good as Mr. Mill thinks He ought to be? Is this his opinion of God? Is God good in all conditions? Or is God only good when Mr. Mill considers Him good? What is God's position?

Syamasundara dasa: Mill says that the presence of evil indicates that if God were everything, He would not be completely good.

Srila Prabhupada: Therefore God has to depend on the opinion of Mr. Mill. Is it that Mr. Mill does not approve of all God's activities?

Syamasundara dasa: He maintains that God is good, but that He is limited in His power. If His power were absolute, everything would be good.

Srila Prabhupada: How nonsensical! Everything is good! That is our philosophy. When God kills a demon, immediately flowers are showered from the sky. Whatever God does is good. Krsna danced with other men's wives in the dead of night, and this activity is worshipped as rasa-lila. However, if an ordinary man does this, he is immediately condemned as a debauchee. In all circumstances, God is good and worshipable. It is not that we subject God to our judgement, saying, "Oh yes, You are good, but not so good." Fools think, "I am better than God. I can create my own God." God creates us; we cannot create God. Unfortunately, Mill did not know what is evil and what is good. He should have known that whatever is created by God is good, even if it appears to be evil to us. We may think that such and such is evil, but actually it is good. If we do not know how it is good, that is our fault. God cannot be placed under our judgement. In all circumstances, God is good.

Hayagriva dasa: Mill was particularly interested in the role of authority. In Utility of Religion, he writes, "Consider the enormous influence of authority on the human mind....Authority is the evidence on which the mass of mankind believe everything which they are said to know except facts of which their own senses have taken cognizance. It is the evidence on which even the wisest receive all those truths of science, or facts in history or in life, of which they have not personally examined the proofs...."

Srila Prabhupada: You can neither defy nor deny real authority. We are presenting our Krsna consciousness movement on this principle. We should carry out the orders of the authority, and Krsna, or God, is the Supreme Authority. Whatever He says must be accepted without interpretation. In this way, everyone can be happy. Those who are sane do not hesitate to accept God's authority, and they become happy abiding by His orders. Those who exactly follow the instructions of the Supreme Authority are also authorities. The spiritual master is the authoritative servant, and God is the authoritative master. If we follow the instructions of the authoritative servant, we in turn become authoritative servants of the spiritual master.

Hayagriva dasa: Concerning morality, Mill writes: "Belief, then, in the supernatural, great as are the services which it rendered in the earlier stages of human development, cannot be considered to be any longer required either for enabling us to know what is right and wrong in social morality, or for supplying us with motives to do right and to abstain from wrong."

Srila Prabhupada: Morality means abiding by the orders of God. That is real morality. Other moralities are manufactured, and they differ in different countries. Religion and real morality, however, function according to the same principle. Religion means carrying out the orders of God, and morality means following those principles whereby we can fulfill the desires of God. Before the battle of Kuruksetra, Arjuna considered killing to be immoral, but when he understood from the instructions of Krsna that the fight was necessary, he decided to carry out his duty as a ksatriya. So this is morality. Ultimately, morality means carrying out the desires of God.

Syamasundara dasa: For Mill, there are two moral sanctions of conduct. One is internal, which is our conscience and sense of duty.

Srila Prabhupada: What does he mean by conscience? A sense of duty is different from the conscience. It is our duty to receive instructions from higher personalities. If we do not, how can we know our duty?

Syamasundara dasa: Mill felt that our duty is that which produces the most good for the most people.

Srila Prabhupada: That is all so vague. What if everyone wants to take drugs? Is it our duty to help them? How can a rascal understand what his duty is? One has to be trained to know.

Syamasundara dasa: Mill would say that there is a rational or guiding principle for action, and this is the golden rule of the Christians: "Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you."

Srila Prabhupada: This means that you have to approach Christ. You cannot manufacture golden rules yourself. You have to abide by the orders of Christ, and that means approaching a superior authority.

Syamasundara dasa: The second sanction of moral conduct is external: the fear of displeasing other men or God. We hope to win favor through acting morally.

Srila Prabhupada: This also means accepting authority. Therefore the Vedas tell us that if we want to be really learned, we must approach a guru. Did John Stuart Mill have a guru?

Syamasundara dasa: His father, James Mill, was also a great philosopher.

Srila Prabhupada: In any case, we must accept some authority, be it Christ or Krsna. Our duty lies in following the orders of the higher authority. Of course, we accept Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, as our authority.

Hayagriva dasa: Mill himself rejected many basic Christian tenets, and he even believed that there is no intrinsic value in the belief in the immortality of the soul. He writes: "Those who believe in the immortality of the soul generally quit life with fully as much if not more reluctance as those who have no such expectation."

Srila Prabhupada: We have daily experience of how the soul continues, even though the body changes. In our own family we can see that the body of an infant changes into the body of a boy, a young man, a middle-aged man, and then an old man. In any condition, the soul is the same. Why is it difficult to understand the immortality of the soul? If we cannot understand it, we are not very intelligent.

yasyatma-buddhih kunape tri-dhatuke
sva-dhih kalatradisu bhauma ijya-dhih
yat-tirtha-buddhih salile na karhicij
janesv abhijnesu sa eva go-kharah

"A human being who identifies this body made of three elements with his self, who considers the by-products of the body to be his kinsmen, who considers the land of birth worshipable, and who goes to the place of pilgrimage simply to take a bath rather than meet men of transcendental knowledge there is to be considered like an ass or a cow." (Bhag. 10.84.13) If a person does not understand the immortality of the soul, he is an animal. There is no question of belief. It is a fact. If a man says, "I don't believe that I will grow old," he is ignorant of facts. If he does not die when he is young, he necessarily grows old. This is a question of common sense, not of beliefs. In Bhagavad-gita, Krsna says that there was never a time when we did not exist, nor will there ever be a time when we will cease to exist (Bg. 2.12). The soul is immortal; he never takes birth, and he never dies. This is the beginning of knowledge. First of all, we must understand what we are. If we do not, we will surely be wrongly directed. We will take care of the body just as a foolish man might take care of a bird cage, and neglect the bird within it.

Hayagriva dasa: Mill was not only a utilitarian but a humanist, and he felt that a religion of humanity can have a greater effect than a supernatural religion. The religion of humanity would foster unselfish feelings and would have man at the center.

Srila Prabhupada: Without God, how can it be a religion? As I have already explained, religion means carrying out the orders of God.

Hayagriva dasa: Concerning immortality, Mill asserts that there is no evidence for the immortality of the soul, and none against it.

Srila Prabhupada: What does he need to be convinced? There is a great deal of evidence. It is mankind's misfortune that a person like Mill cannot understand a simple truth that even a child can understand.

Hayagriva dasa: Ultimately, Mill considered the whole domain of the supernatural as removed from the region of belief into that of simple hope.

Srila Prabhupada: It is neither hope nor belief, but a fact. At any rate, to those who are Krsna conscious, it is a fact. Krsna came and gave Arjuna instructions, and those instructions are recorded.

Hayagriva dasa: Mill was such a staunch humanist that he wrote: "I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures, and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go."

Srila Prabhupada: God is always good, and if one does not know the goodness of God, he is imperfect. According to all Vedic literatures, God is always good and always great. What does Mill consider to be a good man?

Hayagriva dasa: One who works for what he calls "the greatest happiness principle," that is, the greatest happiness for everyone on earth.

Srila Prabhupada: Is there any man who can do good for all?

Hayagriva dasa: Christ said that no man is good, that there is only one good, and that is God.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, that is a fact. You may think that this man is good, but he is limited in his power. He may still think in terms of his nation or society. Only a pure devotee of Krsna can be good because he abides by the order of the Supreme Good. Even if one has the desire to be a good man, it is not possible independent of God. In any case, these are all mental concoctions: good and bad. One who is not God conscious is necessarily bad, and one who is God conscious is good. This should be the only criterion.

Syamasundara dasa: But what of Mill's contention that the good gives the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people?

Srila Prabhupada: And what if the people are fools and rascals? The greatest number of people may say that cigarettes are very nice, but does this mean that they are desirable?

Syamasundara dasa: Mill makes a distinction between the quality and the quantity of pleasure. Certain pleasures are superior to others.

Srila Prabhupada: When you have quality, the quantity naturally decreases. For instance, ordinary people take pleasure in eating, sleeping, mating, drinking, smoking, and so on. The pleasure of Krsna consciousness is a transcendental pleasure, but the people who take to it are very few. Generally, since conditioned souls are fools, the pleasure that is most popular is the one followed by the greatest number of fools. According to our Vedic philosophy, man is born a fool, but he can be made intelligent through education and culture.

Syamasundara dasa: Mill advocated utilizing those principles that can give the pleasure of highest quality to the maximum people. He also wrote: "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied."

Srila Prabhupada: But how often will you find a Socrates? You cannot find Socrates loitering on every street. There will only be one in millions. There is no question of the maximum number of people. Men of Socrates's caliber are a minimum. In Bhagavad-gita, Krsna says:

manusyanam sahasresu
kascid yatati siddhaye
yatatam api siddhanam
kascin mam vetti tattvatah

"Out of many thousands among men, one may endeavor for perfection, and of those who have achieved perfection, hardly one knows Me in truth." ( Bg. 7.3) This is not a question of quantity, but of quality.

Syamasundara dasa: Mill felt that the highest quality of pleasure might also be enjoyed by a larger number. All men should be trained to find pleasure according to this higher standard.

Srila Prabhupada: This means that the maximum pleasure should be introduced to the maximum number of people. Unfortunately, it is not accepted by the greatest number but by a few only. This Krsna consciousness movement, for instance, cannot be understood by the masses. Only a few who are fortunate can understand. There may be millions of stars in the sky, but there is only one moon, and that is sufficient to drive away the darkness. It is not possible to have many moons, although there may be many glowworms.

Syamasundara dasa: Mill was trying to ascertain that standard of pleasure which is most desirable.

Srila Prabhupada: That he does not know. That he has to learn from the Vedas. Ordinary men take sex to be the highest pleasure, and the entire material world is existing because of sex, but how long does this sex pleasure last? A few minutes only. A man who is wise does not want pleasure that lasts only a few minutes but pleasure that continues perpetually. Nitya means "eternal," and ananda means "bliss." The Vedas state that those who are intelligent are not interested in transient pleasure but in eternal pleasure. They know their constitutional position; they know they are not the body. The pleasures of the body are transient and are sought by rascals. If one identifies with the body, he naturally seeks bodily pleasure. One who knows that he is not the body but eternal spirit soul seeks eternal spiritual pleasure.

Syamasundara dasa: Mill believed that a small amount of a higher type of pleasure is superior to a greater amount of a lower type.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, that is our philosophy. In Bhagavad-gita it is said:

nehabhikrama-naso 'sti
pratyavayo na vidyate
svalpam apy asya dharmasya
trayate mahato bhayat

"In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear." ( Bg. 3 .40) Even if one falls down from Krsna consciousness, he still gains from what little he has experienced. On the other hand, if one works according to the varnasrama dharma but does not take to devotional service, all his labors go in vain. There are many students who come to Krsna consciousness for a few days and then go away, but they return again because the quality is so great. Hare Krsna is so potent. Save for Krsna consciousness, everything is being dissipated by time, by the sun's progress through the sky. Everything in this world is transient, but because we are eternal spirit souls, we should accept only that which has permanent value. It is foolishness to be satisfied with anything else.

Syamasundara dasa: Mill would have said that the only standard we have for understanding what is desirable is the fact the people desire it.

Srila Prabhupada: We should desire Krsna, but people do not know about Krsna. People are thinking, "I love my country," or, "I love my body." What is this love? Because we are spirit soul and are within the body, we say, "I love."

Syamasundara dasa: But Mill reasons that if something is desired, it is desirable per se.

Srila Prabhupada: Living entities desire many things. A hog desires stool, but is that desirable? The men on the Bowery are interested only in drinking. Is that very desirable? Caitanya Mahaprabhu desires Krsna, and that is a different type of desire. That should be the real standard for desire. We should know what the greatest personalities, the mahajanas, are desiring, and we should make that our standard. We may desire something that is harmful for us, and not desire the good. In Bhagavad-gita, Krsna wanted Arjuna to fight, but this was not Arjuna's desire. Arjuna initially wanted to leave the battlefield, but he changed his mind because Krsna wanted him to fight. The point is that we should desire what is desired by the great personalities, not by ourselves. After all, what are we? We should always consider ourselves to be fools.

Syamasundara dasa: Mill advocated complete freedom so that everyone can express himself as he pleases.

Srila Prabhupada: That is nonsense. No one has that freedom.

Syamasundara dasa: But he felt that everyone should be free.

Srila Prabhupada: Then everyone should be a philosopher. Mill has his own philosophy, and everyone else has his.

Syamasundara dasa: He believed that if everyone is free to compete, the best will emerge.

Srila Prabhupada: That is not freedom but competition. Our viewpoint is that everyone is ultimately dependent on Krsna. Of course, in illusion we are dependent on maya, but in any case, we must be dependent.

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