Mill, Utilitarianism II. What utilitarianism is

The principle of utility

¨   utility (= usefulness) not contrasted to pleasure but includes it

¨  “Actions are  right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” (7)

¨  Happiness = pleasure and absence of pain (not their result)

¨  Unhappiness = pain and privation of pleasure

¨  Questions of interpretation:

1.       Why does Mill use the plural “actions are” rather than “an action is”?

2.       Why does he write “in proportion as”?

3.       Why does he write “tend to”?

4.       Why does he use “absence” in one place and “privation” in the other?

¨  NB: Mill’s principle was often misinterpreted as stated about “an action”.

Objection 1: Pleasure is an ignoble end of life. (7-12)

¨  Hedonists give pleasures of intellect, feeling, imagination and moral sense higher value than the swinish pleasures of mere sensation. (8)

¨  Usual basis: greater permanence, safety, etc. (quantitative)

¨  But pleasures differ in quality as well as quantity. (8)

¨  Criterion for A being a better kind of pleasure than B: Those who can experience and enjoy both prefer A, irrespective of any felt moral obligation to prefer it.

¨  Such people prefer a life using their higher faculties.

                (NB: even if they themselves are more discontented.)

¨  “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” (10)

¨  Nobility of character helps to make others happier. (11)

Questions about “higher” pleasures

  1. Contrast Bentham: “Quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry.” Who is right?
  2. Is preference of those capable of experiencing and enjoying two kinds of pleasures the right criterion for deciding which is better? (What other criterion is possible?)
  3. In recognizing qualitative superiority of one kind of pleasure to another, is Mill really abandoning hedonism? Why, or why not?
  4. Identify strengths and weakness of Mill’s position.

¨  Your objections: anti-autonomous, subjective, relative, privileges the elderly

Objection 2: Happiness is not the end, because it is unattainable. (12-15)

¨  It could still be a goal to reduce unhappiness.

¨  A life with many and varied pleasures and few and transitory pains is possible.

¨   chief barriers: selfishness, no “mental cultivation”

¨   required mental cultivation possible for all in civilized countries

¨  Great sources of human suffering (poverty, disease, misfortunes) can with care be reduced and eliminated.

¨  Is Mill’s optimism justified? Why, or why not?

Objection 3: Noble humans renounce pleasure. (15-17)

¨  Such renunciation is noble only if it promotes the happiness of others.

¨  Promoting the general happiness can inspire personal sacrifice.

¨  Utilitarians want social arrangements and education to align pursuit of one’s own happiness with contribution to the general happiness.

¨  Does Mill respond adequately to the charge that utilitarianism proposes an ignoble ideal? Why, or why not?

Objection 4: Promoting the general welfare is too high a demand. (18-19)

¨  Distinguish the rule of action from its motive.

¨  Rule à whether the action is right or wrong.

¨  Motive à what the moral worth of the agent is.

¨  Standards of morals concern right action, not motive.

¨  Thinking of consequences for everybody is needed rarely by a few people in a position of influence.

                Comment: no longer true, with globalization

¨  Otherwise think of the few people affected.

¨  Or notice one’s action is of a socially pernicious kind.

¨  Is Mill right to emphasize external behaviour (in contrast to Kant)? Why, or why not?

Objection 5: Utilitarianism makes men unsympathetic calculators. (20-21)

¨  Actions are judged by their consequences.

¨  But one can also judge moral worth of agents (as revealed by their actions).

¨  And one can appreciate other “beauties of character”.

¨  Does Mill adequately respond to the portrait of “Gradgrindism” in Dickens’s Hard Times (1854)?

Objection 6: Utilitarianism is a godless doctrine. (22)

¨  If God desires the happiness of His creatures, utilitarianism is profoundly religious.

¨  Utilitarians have as much right as any moral theorists to interpret God’s will.

¨  Could a devout theist accept Mill’s response to the charge of godlessness? Why, or why not?

Objection 7: Utilitarianism sacrifices principle to expediency. (22-23)

¨   not in the bad senses of ‘expedient’:

¨  one’s own benefit at the expense of others

¨   short-term gain at long-term expense

¨   exceptions to general rules like ‘do not lie’:

¨   justified only if beneficial all things considered (including effect on the liar’s habit of veracity)

¨   such exceptions ought to be explicitly stated

¨   their limits ought to be recognized

¨  Is such utilitarian calculation practical in complex cases?

¨  Does utilitarianism open the door too widely to exceptions to moral rules? Why, or why not?

Objection 8: no time to calculate before acting (22-25)

¨  There has been all of human history to discover the effects of actions (e.g. of murder and theft).

¨  Beliefs thus formed found popular morality.

¨  It can be improved as more is discovered about effects.

¨  Besides the fundamental principle of morality, we need subordinate principles to apply it.

¨  What does this reply tell us about Mill’s conception of moral thinking?

Objection 9: Utilitarians will see exceptions that benefit themselves.

¨  Every moral theory:

¨   allows for exceptions to moral rules.

¨   recognizes conflicts of obligations.

¨   room in such cases for rationalizing immorality

¨   utility provides a standard lacking in other theories:

¨   for judging if an exception is justified

¨   for resolving conflicts of obligations

¨  Is Mill’s reply to this objection adequate? Why, or why not?

Are there any merits of utilitarianism?