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BID 10: John Stuart Mill

The Briton John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) belonged to a school of philosophy called utilitarianism. An economist as well as a philosopher, Mill had a great impact on 19th-century British thought, not only in philosophy and economics but also in the areas of political science, logic, and ethics. His motto: “The greatest good for the greatest number.” Here Śrīla Prabhupāda points out the glaring fallacy: Who’s to say what “the greatest good” is?

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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 Kṛṣṇa consciousness. You can better the world by bringing people to Kṛṣṇa consciousness and delivering the message of Kṛṣṇa to whomever you meet. That is the best social activity you can perform.

Disciple: The goal of the utilitarians was more specifically to obtain whatever the people desire or require. Their motto is “The greatest good for the greatest number.”

Śrīla Prabhupāda: The people desire happiness. The utilitarians try to give people artificial happiness, happiness separate from Kṛṣṇa, but we are trying to give direct happiness, happiness that is connected with Kṛṣṇa. If we purify our existence, we can attain eternal happiness, spiritual 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.

Disciple: 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....”

Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes. Therefore there are educational systems in human society. Men should be educated according to the instructions given in the Vedic literatures. The Bhagavad-gītā is the grand summation of all Vedic literature, and therefore everyone should read it. But they should read it as it is, without interpretation.

Disciple: 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.

Śrīla Prabhupāda: Certainly there is the natural law of cause and effect, but if we go further to determine the ultimate cause, we arrive at Kṛṣṇa. 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 darśana, which means “to find the cause.” Therefore philosophy is called darśana-śāstra, which means “finding the ultimate cause.” If we continue to search out the ultimate cause, we arrive at Kṛṣṇa, the original cause of everything.

Disciple: 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?

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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.

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

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

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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 Kṛṣṇa. Kṛṣṇa’s energies are perfect and are working perfectly. Everything is being carried out under systematic laws, although we may not perceive these laws.

Disciple: Scientists admit that nothing can come out of nothing.

Śrīla Prabhupāda: If something emerges, there must be a cause in the background. We say that the root cause of everything is the Supreme Brahman, the Absolute Truth, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Disciple: Mill would certainly not agree that God is the cause of everything, because one of the things we see in this world is evil, and he considered God to be at war with it. Man’s role, he thought, 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.”

Śrīla Prabhupāda: Providence desires only the good. The living entity is in this material world due to the improper utilization of his will. Because the living entity 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 misusing 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 village hog, but when one develops such a mentality by eating anything and everything, God gives the facility by providing the body of a hog so that he can even eat stool. 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. In this way one continues transmigrating from body to body, in various species of life.

Disciple: 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.

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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. The government constructs prisons not because it wants to but because they are necessary. The government prefers to construct universities so that people can attain an education and become highly enlightened. But because some people misuse their independence and violate the state laws, prisons are necessary. We suffer due to our own 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 desire to create evil, but man’s evil activities provoke God to create an evil situation.

Disciple: 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 Kṛṣṇa and the demons, but these wars do not seem to be taken as serious confrontations between God and His enemies. Isn’t Kṛṣṇa’s mood always playful?

Śrīla Prabhupāda: Since Kṛṣṇa 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. The father may seem to be fighting seriously, but he is only playing: one slap is sufficient to subdue the child. Similarly, Kṛṣṇa sometimes plays by giving the demons a chance to fight Him, but one strong slap is sufficient. There is no question of fighting with God on an equal level. He is omnipotent. However, when a living entity is disobedient and harasses the devotees, God kills him. When Kṛṣṇa descends on this earth, He chastises the demons and protects His devotees (paritrāṇāya sādhūnāṁ vināśāya ca duṣkṛtām). Whenever there is a fight between the demons and the demigods, God takes the side of the demigods.

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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 śāstras.

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: God has no reason to struggle. According to the Vedas, He is so powerful that He has nothing to strive for (na tasya kāryaṁ karaṇaṁ ca vidyate). Just as a king may have many servants, ministers, and soldiers to carry out his desires, Kṛṣṇa has many energies that act according to His order. Kṛṣṇa Himself has nothing to do but play on His flute and enjoy Himself. That is why the Vedas declare, ānanda-mayo ‘bhyāsāt: “God is always blissful.”

So, God has no reason to struggle for anything because nobody is equal to or greater than Him (na tat-samaś cābhyadikaś ca dṛśyate). But if God is not working hard, then how are things happening? Parāsya śaktir vividhaiva śrūyate: Through the agency of God’s multi-energies everything is going on systematically and naturally (svābhāvikī jñāna-bala-kriyā ca). For example, by God’s order the sun rises early in the morning, exactly on time. So although God is enjoying Himself, the universe is going on in accordance with His orders. There is no question of God struggling against evil. His various agents can kill all the evil elements in the world easily enough.

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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?

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: Therefore God has to depend on the opinion of Mr. Mill. Is it that Mr. Mill does not approve of all God’s activities?

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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. Kṛṣṇa danced with other men’s wives in the dead of night, and this activity is worshiped as rāsa-līlā. 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 judgment, 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 judgment. In all circumstances, God is good.

Disciple: 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.”

Śrīla Prabhupāda: You can neither defy nor deny real authority. We are presenting our Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement on this principle. We should carry out the orders of the authority, and Kṛṣṇa, 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.

Disciple: 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.”

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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 Kurukṣetra, Arjuna considered killing to be immoral, but when he understood from the instructions of Kṛṣṇa that the fight was necessary, he decided to carry out his duty as a kṣatriya. So this is morality. Ultimately, morality means carrying out the desires of God.

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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?

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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.

Disciple: 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.”

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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.

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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?

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

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

Disciple: 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.”

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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.

yasyātma-buddhiḥ kuṇape tri-dhātuke
sva-dhīḥ kalatrādiṣu bhauma ijya-dhīḥ
yat-tīrtha-buddhiḥ salile na karhicij
janeṣv abhijñeṣu sa eva go-kharaḥ

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 his birth worshipable, and who goes to a 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.” [Bhāg. 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 I will grow old,” he is ignorant of the 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 the Bhagavad-gītā [2.12] Kṛṣṇa 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. 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.

Disciple: Mill was not only a utilitarian but a humanist, and he felt that a humanistic religion can have a greater effect than a supernatural religion. A humanistic religion would foster unselfish feelings and would have man at the center.

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

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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.

Disciple: Ultimately, Mill considered the whole domain of the supernatural to be removed from the region of belief into that of simple hope.

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

Disciple: 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.”

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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?

Disciple: One who works for what he calls “the greatest happiness principle,” that is, the greatest happiness for everyone on earth.

Śrīla Prabhupāda: Is there any man who can do good for all?

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes, that is a fact. You may think that such-and-such 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 Kṛṣṇa 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.

Disciple: But what of Mill’s contention that the good gives the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people?

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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?

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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 Kṛṣṇa 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.

Disciple: 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.”

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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 enjoying pleasure as Socrates did. Men of Socrates’ caliber are a minimum. In the Bhagavad-gītā [7.3] Kṛṣṇa says,

manuṣyāṇāṁ sahasreṣu kaścid yatati siddhaye
yatatām api siddhānāṁ kaścin māṁ vetti tattvataḥ

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

Disciple: 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.

Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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 only by a few. The Kṛṣṇa 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.

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: That he does not know. That he has to learn from the devotees of Kṛṣṇa. 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? Only a few minutes. A wise man wants pleasure that doesn’t end in only a few minutes but that continues perpetually. As Kṛṣṇa says in the Bhagavad-gītā [5.21-22]:

bāhya-sparśeṣv asaktātmā vindaty ātmani yat sukham
sa brahma-yoga-yuktātmā sukham akṣayam aśnute

ye hi saṁsparśa-jā bhogā duḥkha-yonaya eva te
ādy-antavantaḥ kaunteya na teṣu ramate budhaḥ

Here the word akṣayam means “eternal,” and sukham means “pleasure.” Here Kṛṣṇa states 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 through bhakti-yoga.

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

Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes, that is our philosophy. In the Bhagavad-gītā [2.40] Kṛṣṇa says:

nehābhikrama-nāśo ‘sti pratyavāyo na vidyate
sv-alpam apy asya dharmasya trāyate mahato bhayāt

“In bhakti-yoga there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear.” Even if one falls down from Kṛṣṇa consciousness, he still gains from what little he has experienced. On the other hand, if one works very hard but does not take to devotional service, all his labors go in vain. There are many students who come to Kṛṣṇa consciousness for a few days and then go away, but they return again because the quality is so great. Kṛṣṇa consciousness is so potent. Except for Kṛṣṇa consciousness, everything is being dissipated by time. 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.