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Durham University

Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS)

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Publication details for Dr Maria Dimova-Cookson

Dimova-Cookson, Maria (2003). 'Bentham, Mill and Green on the Nature of the Good'. Journal of Bentham Studies 6.

Author(s) from Durham


The purpose of this paper is to compare three thinkers with respect to one moral issue. The three thinkers are Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Hill Green.

These are thinkers of three successive generations. The influence Bentham had on Mill, as well as the influence Bentham and Mill had on Green, is undisputed. Unlike Mill, however, Green did not see himself as a disciple of the utilitarian school, so one could question whether Green is a natural follower of the first two philosophers.. It will be demonstrated here that there is a notable progression of ideas from Bentham, through Mill, to Green: a progression that throws light on the nature of the good.

The issue this paper will address is how each thinker dealt with the potential conflict between the personal good and the common good. The "personal good" is synonymous with "the good of the individual" or with "personal happiness", while the "common good" is synonymous with "the good of society" or "general happiness". A common feature of the three philosophers is that each preferred to pre-empt the possibility of such a conflict. They would rather see these two goods—the individual and the social—as either in natural harmony with each other, or as essentially reconcilable. What happens though in cases where such a conflict exists and cannot be amicably resolved? It is a fact that cases where the personal good and the common good are antagonistic exist and the three philosophers had to face up to this fact. My task is to address each thinker in turn and see how his philosophy dealt with this problem.

The paper focuses on the cases of irreconcilable conflict between the common good and the personal good. It deals with two possible solutions to this conflict: when it is resolved in favour of the first, and when it is resolved in favour of the second. We shall see that the three thinkers tended to give priority to the common good over the personal good (though this is less true of Mill than of the other two). However, Bentham, Mill and Green were all genuinely concerned with the good of the individual and all gave serious theoretical backing to this concern. As giving priority to the personal good over the common good is a more difficult task than giving priority to common good over the personal good, I have paid special attention to how each of the three philosophers dealt with the former.

None of the three thinkers addressed directly the moral issue this paper raises. So my aim is to find answers that are not readily available. In the process of reviewing each thinker in turn, I will try to resolve the problems that are touched but not dealt with. The conclusions are that (1) all three philosophers play animportant role in the process of emancipating the status of the personal good, (2) that addressing the cases of irreconcilable conflict between the personal and the common good is an essential part of any theory of the nature of the good, and finally that (3) T H Green’s moral philosophy is best suited to give a satisfactory solution to such irreconcilable conflicts.

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