Who Wins Plato or Mill  Essay

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Plato and Utilitarians

Plato and the Utilitarians do not conceive of the good life in the same manner. Plato, through the character of Socrates, teaches that the true good life can only be attained by dedicating oneself to the pursuit of the one, the good, and the true -- the universal transcendental values that, when possessed, made one pleasing to God. (Thus, one sees Socrates teaching his students that the way to happiness is to do the will of God, which he argues can be and must be objectively discernible). The Utilitarians under the direction of the philosopher John Stuart Mill, however, view the good life in a much more subjective way. They say that is good which makes one happy and that is bad which makes one unhappy. Pain is the dictator of what is good and bad, so if it causes one pain, it cannot be good, and if it causes one happiness it must be good. Because such a rule is subjective (it is up to the individual person to decide rather than an external valuation to which all men can agree), it is very different in theory from Plato's conception of the good life. Plato says that to be happy one should respect and follow, ultimately, the will of God. The Utilitarians say the opposite, the one should respect and follow one's own will, to whatever is perceived to make it happy. As Plato argues in Euthyphro, for example, there are many problems with such a view.

Mill (1859) himself wrote that his philosophy held actions to be "right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness," which is a very similar argument to Plato's adversary in Euthyphro. Euthyphro imagines he is in the "right" when he prosecutes his father for wrongdoing. But Socrates asks Euthyphro what piety is (what is pleasing to the gods) and Euthyphro can only give a subjective answer -- piety is that which he is doing. Socrates then says, "So whatever Euthyphro does is good and therefore we should all imitate Euthyphro," and Euthyphro sees the absurdity of this logic and has to rethink his answer. But rather than admit that he may be wrong in prosecuting his father, he chooses to not face the question and rushes off, secure in his ignorance and subjectivity. Socrates meanwhile insists on an objective…

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Reference List

Mill, J.S. (1859). On Liberty. London: John W. Parker and Son, West Strand.

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