How would Charles Darwin critique John Stuart Mill in Utilitarianism? How might Mill respond to this criticism?

Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill were both influential thinkers of the nineteenth century. The lifetime’s work of Charles Darwin has been in the realm of evolutionary biology, but his theories are highly relevant for contemporary human societies as well. John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, is best known for his conception of the principle of Utilitarianism, which finds application in modern urban societies with its inherent conflict of interests and limitation of resources. Hence, the ideas and theories of the two thinkers converge in their common application to human communities. This essay will see the theories of each of the two philosophers from the point of view of the other.

Earlier, it was mentioned that the two theories converge in their relevance to human societies. But a crucial difference exists between the two. While Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection emerged from an empirical study of the natural world, Mill’s principle of Utilitarianism is founded upon moral considerations of human existence. In other words, Natural Selection is a purely an amoral scientific principle and applicable to all living creatures, whereas Utilitarianism was strictly meant for human beings and their social organization. In the words of Richard Dawkins, the famous Cambridge biologist, biological evolution is a ruthlessly efficient process – one without any higher ‘noble’ purpose. In Darwin’s own words, “natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, wherever and whenever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.” (Charles Darwin, 1859) But Utilitarianism aspires to create a public policy framework which would fetch beneficial results to the human species as a whole. For instance, in Mill’s own words,

“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….A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” (John Stuart Mill, 1861)

Herein lays the fundamental difference between Darwin and Mill. While natural selection works for the benefit of the individual member of a species (human or otherwise), Utilitarianism places the interests of the individual human subordinate to the well being of the larger community. In the Origin of Species, Darwin does talk about Natural Selection at the group level – the evidence for which is seen in clan rivalries within species – but group selection works only insofar as it ultimately benefits the individual members of the group. Hence, it is the individual organism that is at the centre of the Darwinian view of the natural world. Modern urban societies, with unprecedented interaction between members of different ethnicities, religions and social class has made it mandatory to form universally accepted ethical codes of conduct. Only Mill’s Utilitarianism attempts to solve this imperative, whereas Darwin’s Natural Selection is completely divorced from such immediate and practical considerations. To this extent, John Stuart Mill’s can be said to help build civil societies of the future, while Darwin’s body of work only throws light on the natural history of life on earth.

1 2