Utilitarianism - Wikipedia
In moral philosophy the appeal to intuitions plays a prominent But Mill in no way believes that the relation. in normative ethics, a tradition stemming from the late 18th- and 19th-century to derive their worth from their relation to this intrinsic good as a means to an end. Hence, the argument concludes, there is an essential tension between the kind of impersonal morality characteristic of utilitarianism and the maintenance of.
Here it sometimes becomes difficult to disentangle egoistic versus utilitarian lines of thought in Shaftesbury. If one should help others because that's the right thing to do — and, fortunately, it also ends up promoting one's own interests, then that's more like utilitarianism, since the promotion of self-interest is a welcome effect but not what, all by itself, justifies one's character or actions. Further, to be virtuous a person must have certain psychological capacities — they must be able to reflect on character, for example, and represent to themselves the qualities in others that are either approved or disapproved of.
Animals also lack the capacity for moral discrimination and would therefore seem to lack the moral sense. This raises some interesting questions. It would seem that the moral sense is a perception that something is the case.
So it isn't merely a discriminatory sense that allows us to sort perceptions.
The History of Utilitarianism
It also has a propositional aspect, so that animals, which are not lacking in other senses are lacking in this one. The virtuous person is one whose affections, motives, dispositions are of the right sort, not one whose behavior is simply of the right sort and who is able to reflect on goodness, and her own goodness [see Gill]. Similarly, the vicious person is one who exemplifies the wrong sorts of mental states, affections, and so forth.
Shaftesbury approached moral evaluation via the virtues and vices. His utilitarian leanings are distinct from his moral sense approach, and his overall sentimentalism. However, this approach highlights the move away from egoistic views of human nature — a trend picked up by Hutcheson and Hume, and later adopted by Mill in criticism of Bentham's version of utilitarianism. For writers like Shaftesbury and Hutcheson the main contrast was with egoism rather than rationalism.
Like Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson was very much interested in virtue evaluation. He also adopted the moral sense approach. However, in his writings we also see an emphasis on action choice and the importance of moral deliberation to action choice.
Hutcheson, in An Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil, fairly explicitly spelled out a utilitarian principle of action choice. Joachim Hruschka notes, however, that it was Leibniz who first spelled out a utilitarian decision procedure. In comparing the moral qualities of actions…we are led by our moral sense of virtue to judge thus; that in equal degrees of happiness, expected to proceed from the action, the virtue is in proportion to the number of persons to whom the happiness shall extend and here the dignity, or moral importance of persons, may compensate numbers ; and, in equal numbers, the virtue is the quantity of the happiness, or natural good; or that the virtue is in a compound ratio of the quantity of good, and number of enjoyers….
R, —4 Scarre notes that some hold the moral sense approach incompatible with this emphasis on the use of reason to determine what we ought to do; there is an opposition between just apprehending what's morally significant and a model in which we need to reason to figure out what morality demands of us. But Scarre notes these are not actually incompatible: The picture which emerges from Hutcheson's discussion is of a division of labor, in which the moral sense causes us to look with favor on actions which benefit others and disfavor those which harm them, while consequentialist reasoning determines a more precise ranking order of practical options in given situations.
Scarre, 53—54 Scarre then uses the example of telling a lie to illustrate: However, in a specific case, if a lie is necessary to achieve some notable good, consequentialist reasoning will lead us to favor the lying. But this example seems to put all the emphasis on a consideration of consequences in moral approval and disapproval.
Stephen Darwall notesff. It is the motives rather than the consequences that are the objects of approval and disapproval. But inasmuch as the morally good person cares about what happens to others, and of course she will, she will rank order acts in terms of their effects on others, and reason is used in calculating effects.
So there is no incompatibility at all. Hutcheson was committed to maximization, it seems. Hume was heavily influenced by Hutcheson, who was one of his teachers.
His system also incorporates insights made by Shaftesbury, though he certainly lacks Shaftesbury's confidence that virtue is its own reward. In terms of his place in the history of utilitarianism we should note two distinct effects his system had. Firstly, his account of the social utility of the artificial virtues influenced Bentham's thought on utility. Secondly, his account of the role sentiment played in moral judgment and commitment to moral norms influenced Mill's thoughts about the internal sanctions of morality.
Bentham, in contrast to Mill, represented the egoistic branch — his theory of human nature reflected Hobbesian psychological egoism. If anything could be identified as the fundamental motivation behind the development of Classical Utilitarianism it would be the desire to see useless, corrupt laws and social practices changed. Accomplishing this goal required a normative ethical theory employed as a critical tool. What is the truth about what makes an action or a policy a morally good one, or morally right?
But developing the theory itself was also influenced by strong views about what was wrong in their society. The conviction that, for example, some laws are bad resulted in analysis of why they were bad. And, for Jeremy Bentham, what made them bad was their lack of utility, their tendency to lead to unhappiness and misery without any compensating happiness.
If a law or an action doesn't do any good, then it isn't any good. He famously held that humans were ruled by two sovereign masters — pleasure and pain. Yet he also promulgated the principle of utility as the standard of right action on the part of governments and individuals.
Actions are approved when they are such as to promote happiness, or pleasure, and disapproved of when they have a tendency to cause unhappiness, or pain PML. Combine this criterion of rightness with a view that we should be actively trying to promote overall happiness, and one has a serious incompatibility with psychological egoism.
Thus, his apparent endorsement of Hobbesian psychological egoism created problems in understanding his moral theory since psychological egoism rules out acting to promote the overall well-being when that it is incompatible with one's own.
For the psychological egoist, that is not even a possibility. This generates a serious tension in Bentham's thought, one that was drawn to his attention. He sometimes seemed to think that he could reconcile the two commitments empirically, that is, by noting that when people act to promote the good they are helping themselves, too.
But this claim only serves to muddy the waters, since the standard understanding of psychological egoism — and Bentham's own statement of his view — identifies motives of action which are self-interested.
Yet this seems, again, in conflict with his own specification of the method for making moral decisions which is not to focus on self-interest — indeed, the addition of extent as a parameter along which to measure pleasure produced distinguishes this approach from ethical egoism. Aware of the difficulty, in later years he seemed to pull back from a full-fledged commitment to psychological egoism, admitting that people do sometimes act benevolently — with the overall good of humanity in mind.
Bentham also benefited from Hume's work, though in many ways their approaches to moral philosophy were completely different. Hume rejected the egoistic view of human nature. Hume also focused on character evaluation in his system. Actions are significant as evidence of character, but only have this derivative significance. In moral evaluation the main concern is that of character. Yet Bentham focused on act-evaluation. There was a tendency — remarked on by J. Schneewindfor example — to move away from focus on character evaluation after Hume and towards act-evaluation.
Recall that Bentham was enormously interested in social reform. Indeed, reflection on what was morally problematic about laws and policies influenced his thinking on utility as a standard. When one legislates, however, one is legislating in support of, or against, certain actions. Character — that is, a person's true character — is known, if known at all, only by that person. If one finds the opacity of the will thesis plausible then character, while theoretically very interesting, isn't a practical focus for legislation.
Further, as Schneewind notes, there was an increasing sense that focus on character would actually be disruptive, socially, particularly if one's view was that a person who didn't agree with one on a moral issues was defective in terms of his or her character, as opposed to simply making a mistake reflected in action. But Bentham does take from Hume the view that utility is the measure of virtue — that is, utility more broadly construed than Hume's actual usage of the term.
This is because Hume made a distinction between pleasure that the perception of virtue generates in the observer, and social utility, which consisted in a trait's having tangible benefits for society, any instance of which may or may not generate pleasure in the observer. But Bentham is not simply reformulating a Humean position — he's merely been influenced by Hume's arguments to see pleasure as a measure or standard of moral value.
So, why not move from pleasurable responses to traits to pleasure as a kind of consequence which is good, and in relation to which, actions are morally right or wrong? Bentham, in making this move, avoids a problem for Hume. On Hume's view it seems that the response — corrected, to be sure — determines the trait's quality as a virtue or vice. But on Bentham's view the action or trait is morally good, right, virtuous in view of the consequences it generates, the pleasure or utility it produces, which could be completely independent of what our responses are to the trait.
So, unless Hume endorses a kind of ideal observer test for virtue, it will be harder for him to account for how it is people make mistakes in evaluations of virtue and vice. Bentham, on the other hand, can say that people may not respond to the actions good qualities — perhaps they don't perceive the good effects.
But as long as there are these good effects which are, on balance, better than the effects of any alternative course of action, then the action is the right one. Rhetorically, anyway, one can see why this is an important move for Bentham to be able to make. He was a social reformer. He felt that people often had responses to certain actions — of pleasure or disgust — that did not reflect anything morally significant at all. The circumstances from which this antipathy may have taken its rise may be worth enquiring to….
One is the physical antipathy to the offence…. The act is to the highest degree odious and disgusting, that is, not to the man who does it, for he does it only because it gives him pleasure, but to one who thinks [?
Be it so, but what is that to him? This reduces the antipathy to the act in question. This demonstrates an optimism in Bentham. This is distinct from the view that a pain or pleasure based on a false belief should be discounted. Bentham does not believe the latter. Thus Bentham's hedonism is a very straightforward hedonism. The one intrinsic good is pleasure, the bad is pain.
Utilitarianism, Act and Rule | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
We are to promote pleasure and act to reduce pain. When called upon to make a moral decision one measures an action's value with respect to pleasure and pain according to the following: One also considers extent — the number of people affected by the action. Keeping track of all of these parameters can be complicated and time consuming.
Bentham does not recommend that they figure into every act of moral deliberation because of the efficiency costs which need to be considered. Experience can guide us. We know that the pleasure of kicking someone is generally outweighed by the pain inflicted on that person, so such calculations when confronted with a temptation to kick someone are unnecessary.
It is reasonable to judge it wrong on the basis of past experience or consensus. Bentham's view was surprising to many at the time at least in part because he viewed the moral quality of an action to be determined instrumentally. It isn't so much that there is a particular kind of action that is intrinsically wrong; actions that are wrong are wrong simply in virtue of their effects, thus, instrumentally wrong.
This cut against the view that there are some actions that by their very nature are just wrong, regardless of their effects. Some may be wrong because they violate liberty, or autonomy. Again, Bentham would view liberty and autonomy as good — but good instrumentally, not intrinsically. Thus, any action deemed wrong due to a violation of autonomy is derivatively wrong on instrumental grounds as well.
This is interesting in moral philosophy — as it is far removed from the Kantian approach to moral evaluation as well as from natural law approaches. It is also interesting in terms of political philosophy and social policy.
On Bentham's view the law is not monolithic and immutable. Since effects of a given policy may change, the moral quality of the policy may change as well.
Nancy Rosenblum noted that for Bentham one doesn't simply decide on good laws and leave it at that: A law that is good at one point in time may be a bad law at some other point in time.
Thus, lawmakers have to be sensitive to changing social circumstances. To be fair to Bentham's critics, of course, they are free to agree with him that this is the case in many situations, just not all — and that there is still a subset of laws that reflect the fact that some actions just are intrinsically wrong regardless of consequences. Bentham is in the much more difficult position of arguing that effects are all there are to moral evaluation of action and policy.
This left him open to a variety of criticisms. First, Bentham's Hedonism was too egalitarian. Simple-minded pleasures, sensual pleasures, were just as good, at least intrinsically, than more sophisticated and complex pleasures.
The pleasure of drinking a beer in front of the T. Second, Bentham's view that there were no qualitative differences in pleasures also left him open to the complaint that on his view human pleasures were of no more value than animal pleasures and, third, committed him to the corollary that the moral status of animals, tied to their sentience, was the same as that of humans.
While harming a puppy and harming a person are both bad, however, most people had the view that harming the person was worse. Mill sought changes to the theory that could accommodate those sorts of intuitions. To this end, Mill's hedonism was influenced by perfectionist intuitions.
There are some pleasures that are more fitting than others. Intellectual pleasures are of a higher, better, sort than the ones that are merely sensual, and that we share with animals. To some this seems to mean that Mill really wasn't a hedonistic utilitarian.
His view of the good did radically depart from Bentham's view. However, like Bentham, the good still consists in pleasure, it is still a psychological state. There is certainly that similarity. Further, the basic structures of the theories are the same for more on this see Donner The rationale for all the rights he recognizes is utilitarian.
He doesn't attempt a mere appeal to raw intuition. Instead, he argues that those persons who have experienced both view the higher as better than the lower. Who would rather be a happy oyster, living an enormously long life, than a person living a normal life? Mill also argued that the principle could be proven, using another rather notorious argument: The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible is that people actually see it…. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it.
If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself were not, in theory and in practiced, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so.
Moore — criticized this as fallacious. He argued that it rested on an obvious ambiguity: We are morally obliged to follow those social rules and precepts the observance of which promotes happiness in the greatest extent possible.
Whewell claimed that utilitarianism permits murder and other crimes in particular circumstances and is therefore incompatible with our considered moral judgments. Take, for example, the case of murder. There are many persons to kill whom would be to remove men who are a cause of no good to any human being, of cruel physical and moral suffering to several, and whose whole influence tends to increase the mass of unhappiness and vice.
Were such a man to be assassinated, the balance of traceable consequences would be greatly in favour of the act. CW 10, Mill gives no concrete case. Since he wrote — together with his wife Harriet Taylor —a couple of articles on horrible cases of domestic violence in the early s, he might have had the likes of Robert Curtis Bird in mind, a man who tortured his servant Mary Ann Parsons to death [see CW 25 The Case of Mary Ann Parsons]. Mill answers in the negative. People should follow the rule not to kill other humans because the general observance of this rule tends to promote the happiness of all.
This argument can be interpreted in a rule utilitarian or an indirect act utilitarian fashion. Along indirect act utilitarian lines, one could maintain that we would be cognitively overwhelmed by the task of calculating the consequences of any action.
We therefore need rules as touchstones that point us to the path of action which tends to promote the greatest general happiness. Just as the Nautical Almanackis not first calculated at sea, but instead exists as already calculated, the agent must not in individual cases calculate the expected utility. In his moral deliberation the agent can appeal to secondary principles, such as the prohibition of homicide, as an approximate solution for the estimated problem. Apparently, the act utilitarian interpretation finds further support in a letter Mill wrote to John Venn in I agree with you that the right way of testing actions by their consequences, is to test them by their natural consequences of the particular actions, and not by those which would follow if everyone did the same.
But, for the most part, considerations of what would happen if everyone did the same, is the only means we have of discovering the tendency of the act in the particular case. CW 17, Mill argues that in many cases we can assess the actual, expected consequences of an action, only if we hypothetically consider that all would act in the same manner.
This means we recognize that the consequences of this particular action would be damaging if everyone acted that way. A similar consideration is found in the Whewell essay.
If a hundred breaches of rule homicides, in this case led to a particular harm murderous chaosthen a single breach of rule is responsible for a hundredth of the harm.
This hundredth of harm offsets the expected utility of this particular breach of rule CW 10, Mill believes that the breach of the rule is wrong because it is actually harmful. The argument is questionable because Mill overturns the presumption he introduces: If the breach of the rule is actually harmful, then it is to be rejected in every conceivable version of utilitarianism. The result is trivial then and misses the criticism that act utilitarianism has counter-intuitive implications in particular circumstances.
There is one crucial difficulty with the interpretation of Mill as an indirect act utilitarian regarding moral obligation. If the function of rules was in fact only epistemic, as suggested by indirect act utilitarianism, one would expect that the principle of utility — when the epistemic conditions are satisfactory — can be and should be directly applied. But Mill is quite explicit here. The utilitarian principle should only be applied when moral rules conflict: From an act utilitarian view regarding moral obligation, this is implausible.
Why should one be morally obliged to follow a rule of which one positively knows that its observance in a particular case will not promote general utility? As mentioned, Mill arrives at a different conclusion.
His position can be best understood with recourse to the distinction between the theory of objective rightness and the theory of moral obligation introduced in the last section. Seen from the perspective of an all-knowing and impartial observer, it is — in regard to the given description — objectively right to perpetrate the homicide.
However, moral laws, permissions, and prohibitions are not made for omniscient and impartial observers, but instead for cognitively limited and partial beings like humans whose actions are mainly guided by acquired dispositions. Their capacity to recognize what would be objectively right is imperfect; and their ability to motivate themselves to do the right thing is limited.
Because humans cannot reliably recognize objective rightness and, in critical cases, cannot bring themselves to act objectively right, they are not obliged to maximize happiness. For ought implies can. In regard to the given description, the fact that the assassination of a human would be objectively right does not imply that the assassination of this human would be morally imperative or allowed.
Mill differentiates between the objectively right act and the morally right act. With this he can argue that the assassination would be forbidden theory of moral obligation. To enact a forbidden action is morally wrong. First, the objective rightness of an act depends upon actual consequences; second, in order to know what we are morally obliged to do we have to draw on justified rules of the established moral code. Roughly said, actions are right insofar as they facilitate happiness, and wrong insofar as they result in suffering.
Mill emphasizes in many places that virtuous actions can exhibit a negative balance of happiness in a singular case.
But as we have seen, this is not his view. Virtuous actions are morally right, even if they are objectively wrong under particular circumstances. Accordingly, the First Formula is not to be interpreted as drafting a moral duty. It is a general statement about what makes actions right reasonable, expedient or wrong.
The First Formula gives a general characterization of practical reason. Subsets of right ones are morally right actions; subsets of wrong actions are morally wrong. We generally believe that not all actions must be judged in regard to a moral point of view.
This does not exclude us from valuing actions, which are not in the moral realm, in regard to prudence. Many artists would presumably not be comfortable with the thesis that good art arises from the goal of facilitating the happiness of humankind. This however is not what Mill means. Apart from cases of conflict between secondary principles, the First Formula does not guide action. Just as Mill speaks in a moral context about how noble characters will not strive to maximize general happiness CW 8,he could argue in an aesthetic context that artists should work from a purely aesthetic point of view.
The rules of artistic judgments, nonetheless, are justified through their contribution to the flourishing of human life. To summarize the essential points: Mill can be characterized as an act utilitarian in regard to the theory of objective rightness, but as a rule utilitarian in regard to the theory of moral obligation.
He defines morality as a system of rules that is protected by sanctions. Mill does not write, as one might expect, that only the action which leads to the best consequences is right. The actual formula, in contrast, has to do with gradual differences right in proportion. Actions which add to the sum of happiness in the world but fail to maximize happiness thus can be right, even if to a lesser degree.
This is confusing insofar as it would be unreasonable to prefer that which is worse to that which is better. For every good there is a better that one should reasonably choose until one succeeds to the best. If the First Formula expresses the ideal of practical reason, then one should expect that it requires maximization. He probably does not want to suggest that an agent should not choose the best local option. But the local best option must not represent the objective global best.
This may be the reason why Mill does not refer to maximization in the formula of utility. According to the formula of utility, actions are more or less correct insofar as they facilitate happiness CW 10, It is doubtlessly not the same to say that an action is right if it actually facilitates happiness, or to say that it is right if it tends to facilitate happiness.
The model seems to be roughly this: At the neutral point of the preference scale, actions have the tendency — in regard to the status quo — to neither increase nor decrease the mass of utility in the world. All actions that tend to facilitate happiness are right, all actions that tend to be harmful are wrong, but all are not in the same measure. An action has a high positive value on the scale of preference, if its tendency to facilitate happiness is high.
An action has highly negative value on the preference scale, if its tendency to evoke unhappiness is high. That an action tends to produce a particular consequence means that this consequence has a high probability. Mill could have wanted to say that an action is right in proportion to the probability with which it promotes happiness. This makes sense when we compare options that produce the same amount of happiness.
But what about cases in which two actions produce different amounts of pleasure? One plausible answer is that both dimensions must be regarded: Action A is better than action B, if the expected happinessfor Ais greater than the expected happiness for B.
The best action is one that maximizes the amount of expected happiness. Utility and Justice In the final chapter of Utilitarianism, Mill turns to the sentiment of justice. Actions that are perceived as unjust provoke outrage. The spontaneity of this feeling and its intensity makes it impossible for it to be ignored by the theory of morals. Mill considers two possible interpretations of the source of the sentiment of justice: He names the integration of justice the only real difficulty for utilitarian theory CW 10, Mill splits this problem of integration into three tasks: The first consists in explaining the intensity and spontaneity of the sentiment of justice.
The second task is to make plausible that the various types of judgments about justice can be traced back to a systematic core; and the third task consists in showing that the principle of utility constructs this core.
In a nutshell, Mill explains the sentiment of justice as the sublimation of the impulse to take revenge for perceived mortifications of all kinds. If it is known that one will not accept interventions in spheres of influence and interest, the probability of such interventions dwindles. The preparedness to take revenge tends to deter aggression in the first place. Thus, a reputation for vindictiveness — at first glance an irrational trait — arguably has survival value.
This helps to explain why the sentiment is so widespread and vehement. Our sentiment of justice, for Mill, is based on a refinement and sublimation of this animal desire. This natural extension of the impulse of revenge with the help of the social feelings represents a step in the direction of cultivating and refining human motivation. People begin to feel outrage when the interests of the members of their tribe are being violated or when shared social rules are being disregarded.
Gradually, sympathy becomes more inclusive. Humans discover that co-operation with people outside the tribe is advantageous. As soon as humans begin to think about which parts of the moral code of a society are justified and which parts are not, they inevitably begin to consider consequences. This often occurs in non-systematic, prejudiced or distorted ways.
Across historical periods of times, the correct ideas of intrinsic good and moral rightness will gradually gain more influence. Judgments about justice approximate progressively the requirements of utilitarianism: The rules upon which the judgments about justice rest will be assessed in light of their tendency to promote happiness.
According to Mill, when we see a social practice or a type of action as unjust, we see that the moral rights of persons were harmed. The thought of moral rights is the systematic core of our judgments of justice. Rights breed perfect obligations, says Mill. Moral rights are concerned with the basic conditions of a good life. To have a moral right means to have something that society is morally required to guard either through the compulsion of law, education or the pressure of public opinion CW 10, Insofar as moral rights secure the basis of our existence, they serve our natural interest in self-preservation — this is the reason why their harm calls forth such intense emotional reactions.
The interplay of social feelings and moral education explains, in turn, why we are not only upset by injustices when we personally suffer, but also when the elemental rights of others are harmed. This motivates us to sanction the suffering of others as unjust. But they do not exhaust the moral realm. There are imperfect obligations which have no correlative right CW 10, The thesis that moral rights form the systematic core of our judgments of justice is by no means unique to utilitarianism.
Many people take it to be evident that individuals have absolute, inalienable rights; but they doubt that these rights can be grounded in the principle of utility. Intuitionists may claim that we recognize moral rights spontaneously, that we have intuitive knowledge of them.
In order to reject such a view, Mill points out that our judgments of justice do not form a systematic order. If we had a sense of justice that would allow us to recognize what is just, similar to how touch reveals forms or sight reveals color, then we would expect that our corresponding judgments would exhibit a high degree of reliability, definitude and unanimity. But experience teaches us that our judgments regarding just punishments, just tax laws or just remuneration for waged labor are anything but unanimous.
The intuitionists must therefore mobilize a first principle that is independent of experience and that secures the unity and consistency of our theory of justice. So far they have not succeeded. Mill sees no suggestion that is plausible or which has been met with general acceptance. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord once remarked that Mill seems to answer by example the question of how many serious mistakes a brilliant philosopher can make within a brief paragraph Sayre-McCord For the assessment of the proof two introductory comments are helpful.
These reasons are empirical and touch upon the careful observation of oneself and others. More cannot be done and should not be expected in a proof re ultimate ends. A further introductory comment concerns the basis of observation through which Mill seeks to support utilitarianism. In moral philosophy the appeal to intuitions plays a prominent role. They are used to justify moral claims and to check the plausibility of moral theories.
The task of thought-experiments in testing ethical theories is analogous to the observation of facts in testing empirical theories. This suggests that intuitions are the right observational basis for the justification of first moral principles.
Mill, however, was a fervent critic of intuitionism throughout his philosophical work. Mill considered the idea that truths can be known a priori, independently of observation and experience, to be a stronghold of conservatism.
His argument against intuitionistic approaches to moral philosophy has two parts. The first part points out that intuitionists have not been able to bring our intuitive moral judgments into a system. There is neither a complete list of intuitive moral precepts nor a basic principle of morality which would found such a list CW 10, The second part of the Millian argument consists in an explanation of this result: What some call moral intuition is actually the result of our education and present social discourse.
Society inculcates us with our moral views, and we come to believe strongly in their unquestionable truth. There is no system, no basic principle in the moral views of the Victorian era though.
In The Subjection of Women, Mill caustically criticizes the moral intuitions of his contemporaries regarding the role of women. He finds them incompatible with the basic principles of the modern world, such as equality and liberty. What we need, Mill contends, is a basis of observation that verifies a first principle, a principle that is capable of bringing our practice of moral judgments into order.
His argument for the utilitarian principle — if not a deductive argument, an argument all the same — involves three steps.
John Stuart Mill: Ethics
Let us turn to the first step of the argument. Upon an initial reading it seems in fact to have little success. Here he leans on a questionable analogy: Can a more evident logical fallacy be given than the claim that something is worthy of striving for because it is factually sought? But Mill in no way believes that the relation between desirable and desired is a matter of definition. He is not saying that desirable objects are by definition objects which people desire; he writes instead that what people desire is the only evidence for what is desirable.
If we want to know what is ultimately desirable for humans, we have to acquire observational knowledge about what humans ultimately strive for. We know by observation that people desire their own happiness. On this basis, Mill concludes in the second step of his proof that the happiness of all is also a good: Does Mill claim here that each person tries to promote the happiness of all? This seems to be patently wrong.
In a famous letter to a Henry Jones, he clarifies that he did not mean that every person, in fact, strives for the general good. It is unclear what it means that general happiness is the good of the aggregate of all persons.
Neither each person, nor the aggregate of all persons seem to strive for the happiness of all. As he says in the letter to Jones: The fact that each person is striving for his or her own happiness is evidence that happiness as such regardless to whom is valuable.
If happiness as such is valuable, it is not unreasonable to promote the well-being of all sentient beings. With this, the second step of the argument is complete.
The result may seem meager at first. That it is not unreasonable to promote the happiness of all appears to be no particularly controversial claim. What Mill fails to show is that each person has most reason to promote the general good. One should note, however, that the aim of the proof is not to answer the question why one should be moral.
Mill does not want to demonstrate that we have reason to prefer general happiness to personal happiness. Hedonism states not only that happiness is intrinsically good, but also that it is the only good and thus the only measure for our action. To show this, is the goal of the third step of the proof. According to Mill, humans cannot desire anything except that which is either aninstrument to or a component of happiness. He concedes that people seem to strive for every possible thing as ultimate ends.
Philosophers may pursue knowledge as their ultimate goal; others value virtue, fame or wealth. That knowledge, virtue, wealth or fame is seen as intrinsically valuable is due to the operation of the principle of association. In the course of our socialization, goods, like knowledge, virtue, wealth or fame acquire value by their association with pleasure. A philosopher came to experience knowledge as pleasurable, and this is why he desires it. Humans strive for virtue and other goods only if they are associated with the natural and original tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
Virtue, knowledge or wealth can thus become parts of happiness. At this point, Mill declares that the proof is completed. A manner of existence without access to the higher pleasures is not desirable: The life of Socrates is better because no person who is familiar with higher pleasures will trade the joy of philosophizing against an even infinite amount of lower pleasures, Mill suggests.
One must not forget that Mill is a hedonist after all. What kind of life is joyful and therefore good for a particular person depends upon many factors, such as tastes, talents and character. There are a great variety of lifestyles that are equally good. But Mill insists that a human life that is completely deprived of higher pleasures is not as good as it could be. Society must make sure that the social-economic preconditions of a non-impoverished life prevail.
In one text passage, Mill even includes the happiness of animals. The Second Formula maintains that a set of social rules A is better than the set B, if in A less humans suffer from an impoverished, unhappy life and more enjoy a fulfilled, rich life than in B. More difficult is the question how to evaluate scenarios that involve unequal population sizes.
With Mill there is no explicit unpacking of this problem; but his advocacy of the regulation of birth gives us at least an indication of the direction in which his considerations would go. Let us consider the following example: Which world would be better: