Mill & Hegel: Competing Conceptions of Truth

November 14, 2008

John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism” and Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Philosophy of Right explicate both thinkers’ belief that the pursuit of private happiness is central to human decision-making processes. Mill advocates the Greatest Happiness Principle, which states that individuals are naturally inclined to weigh utility to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Hegel fundamentally agrees with Mill’s assertion but, in accordance with his logic, the individual and his/her interests do not exist in a vacuum. Other institutions, such as the family and civil society, temper the subjective drive to fulfill pleasure. Yet, at the same time, these institutions formulate and attempt to achieve their own particular interest in the same manner as individuals. For example, the familial unit creates its own subjective interest as an entity because the individuals composing the family relegate their own pursuit of happiness in recognitive deference to the family’s subjective interests. In other words, the family is individuated within a society of families. Despite sharing the same foundational belief, Mill and Hegel strongly disagree regarding the value of humans’ pursuit of happiness in the political realm. Understanding this difference in the political writings of Hegel and Mill hinges on an analysis of their conceptions of truth or, as labeled by Hegel, the actual. It is the issue of truth to which I will now turn.

For Mill, truth is nothing more than the result of individuals’ respectful acknowledgement and sharing of their subjective conceptions of happiness. Through this process, people determine what is right not only for themselves but also their nation. Mill’s writings on freedom of the press relative to the maintenance of free and happy individuals embody his conception of truth. He argues that people in a society are best equipped to participate in the decisions of their country if multiple news sources subjectively provide information on issues concerning the national welfare. The multiplicity of views results in rational public deliberation and, in the end, the most rational argument is adopted. Here, by rational argument, I mean that which is perceived by the individuals to provide the most utility. Hegel’s perception of truth is in stark contrast. He asserts that truth is not a transient concept determined by the subjective will of a collective of individuals. Truth exists as the universal will – which is determined by the will of God – and is manifested concretely in the state. The subjective only exists in the Hegelian dialectic to be overcome in pursuit of the universal will. While subjectivity may subsist at stages, it is progressively synthesized with the actual until the rational ultimate end is reached. Hegel writes: “What is rational is actual and what is actual is rational.”[1]

It is important to note that Hegel formulated his conception of truth in the tumultuous aftermath of the French Revolution, which he attributed to subjectivity’s triumph over the universal will. He was also strongly influence by the German unification movement, which he adamantly supported. Keeping the historical context in mind, the Hegelian critique of Mill’s Utilitarianism is illuminated. Within the political realm, subjective rationality does not, for Hegel, guarantee a stable order in which individuals can pursue happiness. Through persuasion, for example, the particular interests of individuals can dominate the public discourse and divert the common will from its objective ends, which is the happiness of man as freedom. Or, the clash of particular interests, under certain circumstances, can paralyze the rule of law. Hegel would also argue that the universal will is central to the continuation of the state. The subjective will’s degradation of the actual may produce the disintegration of the state as a national entity.

The declining nation has lost the interest of the absolute; it may indeed absorb the higher principle positively and begin building its life on it, but the principle is only like an adopted child, not like a relative to whom its ties are immanently vital and vigorous. Perhaps it loses its autonomy, or it may still exist, or drag out its existence, as a particular state or a group of states and involve itself without rhyme or reason in manifold enterprises at home and battles abroad.[2]

Since the state is both the embodiment and transcendence of the each individual’s will, happiness is achieved when individuals serve the state. Thus, the stability of the state and the freedom of its subjects are maintained. In other words, truth begets happiness when the individual realizes and submits to the universal will. Applying Hegel’s writings to their historical context, his construction of the political aimed to simultaneously attempt to guard against terrors like those perpetrated during the French Revolution while also providing a framework with which a single German state could be constructed and maintained.

Mill would contend that Hegel’s rigid logic mistakenly relies on an unwavering belief in a determinable and particular actual. Throughout Mill’s writings, religion is considered an irrational force impeding the progress of man and, therefore, the core concept of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is flawed. Early in the text of “Utilitarianism” Mill directly counter’s those who criticize his conclusions as dismissive of God’s will from their own turf. In a broadside against utilitarianism’s religiously-inclined detractors, Mill argues that God desires the happiness of individuals and that His will is not founded in a concrete set of laws. Humans are agents capable of constructing a common truth or will. He writes: “If it be meant that utilitarianism does not recognize the revealed will of God as the supreme law of morals, I answer, that the utilitarian who believes in the perfect goodness and wisdom of God, necessarily believe that whatever God has though fit to reveal on the subject of morals, must fulfill the requirements of utility in a supreme degree.”[3] Essentially, the will of God accommodates and, in fact, promotes the subjective pursuit of truth defined as greatest happiness because God’s will as law is unknowable. There is, however, a deeper assumption in Mill’s claim. If God’s will is indeterminable, individuals must discern the nature of His character. In this line of reasoning, the Creator is, for both Mill and Hegel, compassionate because creation is irrational if His intention is to deprive or destroy the creation. The act of creation is necessarily constructive and well-intentioned. Assuming the existence of a Creator, I find the logic of this argument compelling because it implies that individuals are agents. To start by accepting the assertion of a benevolent God and then, like Hegel, build a claim that mortals can determine the nature of a particular universal law willed by God, however, is tenuous. While Hegel champions the progression of reason, his foundational belief in an ascertainable universal will is without persuasive logical grounding.

Mill and Hegel both articulate theories of progress and believe that the individuals pursue their own interests defined as happiness. Their beliefs diverge, however, when they attempt to articulate the parameters of a just socio-political order. Mill contends that harmony and freedom are attained through the free and open pursuit of multiple subjectivities. Ubiquitous realization of the predominance of private welfare for individuals creates a rational public discourse which, in turn, produces governance interested in securing individual freedom. Hegel, in contrast, believes that the private welfare, while logical at the level of the self and family, must ultimately be restrained to maintain individual freedom. Instead, particular interests of individuals must be synthesized into the universal will concretely manifested in the state. At the core of the thinkers’ differences are their conceptions of truth. Mill’s truth is rooted in the subjective whereas for Hegel it is exists in a singular, objective form. Assuming the existence of God, the logic supporting the Creator’s benevolence convincingly substantiates Mill’s argument. Hegel’s presupposition that the universal will is particular and knowable, though compatible with the logic of his argument, is an otherworldly claim that undercuts his theory of law.

[1] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, trans. and ed. T.M. Knox (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 10.

[2] Ibid, 317.

[3] John Stuart Mill, “Utilitarianism,” in Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Considerations on Representative Government, ed. Geraint Williams (London: Everyman Press, 1993), 22.


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