Socrates and Mill on the unexamined life

Samantha asked:

In the Apology, Socrates says, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ (38a) Do you think that J.S. Mill would agree? More generally, do they agree about the nature of the good life? Explain why or why not.

Answer by Graham Hackett

I’ll start with a quote from JS Mill

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.” (Utilitarianism)

Sometimes, when we read JS Mill today, we may form the impression that what is being said is glaringly obvious. This is because much of the matter discussed by him has now come to be regarded as settled and received opinion in the 20th century. We know that Socrates (through Plato) believed that everything, even the most taken-for granted concepts, such as courage, prudence, temperance etc should be subjected to the most rigorous questioning. Philosophic examination of this type, plus contemplation of ultimate questions of truth and justice constituted the “examined life” for Socrates. Famously, as you indicate in your question,  Socrates, at his trial  declared that he would choose death rather than live the unexamined life. Lest we get carried away with the nobility of his sentiment, we would have to admit that living the examined life was not something that Socrates thought was a road which should be taken by all. We know that, as described in The Republic, only a small privileged group would be able to do this, thus befitting them for just rule.

Although he may seem like a million miles distant from Socrates, J.S Mill also has a version of an “examined life”, although it is very much different from Socrates version. The source to read for this is “On Liberty”, published in 1859. Of course, the main aim of that essay is that the promotion of liberty and free speech is essential for a healthy body politic, but Mill is eager to argue that it also promotes happiness. 

There are several reasons for a permissive attitude to liberty of thought and speech. Mill says;

“Those who desire to suppress it (a controversial opinion), of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”

In general, freedom of speech enables/ allows people to come to a clear and lively understanding of truths about the world. What amounts to the same thing, the silencing or censorship of expression prevents people from arriving at a clear and vivid understanding of true beliefs about the world. In addition to the promotion of free speech, Mill also has strong views on how science should progress,  Scientific theory should develop using inductive methods, and no theory should ever be regarded as the final word.

My understanding is that as well as being of instrumental significance for a healthy state, the liberties Mill describes, together with his robust views on science give us an alternative view to Socrates as to what might constitute an ‘examined’ life.

So JS Mill would certainly agree with Socrates that the examined life is a desirable one. However, there are points of difference to note between the two. What is it that constitutes the ‘examination’ in this examined life? For Socrates the process is based on theoretical analysis, abstraction  and contemplation. Concepts such as honesty, truth, courage and justice have a real unchangeable metaphysical existence; they can be discovered and known. In comparison, Mill eschews the metaphysical realm, and abandons any attempt to find a priori explanations for our concepts. Truth is a matter of empirical research, and discovering it is an ongoing eternal process. For example, liberty of speech and the resulting improvement in public living, is more than a set of governing practices. It is a culture or way of life of a community defined by equality of membership, reciprocal cooperation, and mutual respect and sympathy located in civic society. On Mill’s view, democratic participation is a way of life that unites two higher pleasures – sympathy and autonomy. 

You also mention, in your question whether Socrates and Mill would agree about what constitutes the good life.  I am a bit less secure about my answer here, but I would assume that, for Socrates, the good life would involve the search for truth and justice, and living in accordance with what one finds. The spirited, appetitive and rational elements of ones soul are in harmony. It is highly likely that Socrates felt that this good life would also deliver happiness.  Mill begins with happiness – his utilitarian approach involves that the goal of life is to maximize it. However, his writings indicate that for him, happiness (utility) is a richly nuanced concept, leading to a concept of the good life every bit as complex as the more metaphysical pursuit of Socrates.

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