J.S. Mill – Utilitarianism, Ch. 2

John Stuart Mill – Utilitarianism, Chapter 2, “What Utilitarianism Is”

  • Mills complains that critics’ understanding of Utilitarianism are based on misconceptions or thinly veiled contempt for the ethical theory. He gives examples of these critiques:
    1. “To suppose that life has… no higher end than pleasure – no better & nobler object of desire & pursuit – they designate as utterly mean & grovelling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine.”
      • Mill’s response: Pleasure & desire in higher faculties are superior to base ones [Mental Desires > Bodily Desires]. While it’s slightly similar to pigs, in that they do the same just at a base level, human desires are higher because the faculties deriving pleasure are higher & “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
    2. [A] That happiness is any form can’t be the rational purpose of human life & action because it’s unattainable in the first place. [B] That mean can do without this happiness & people are only ennobled through its renunciation as the only condition of virtue.
      • Mill’s response:
        • A – Mill believes the term “happiness” is what’s in dispute. It doesn’t mean constant ecstasy. It’s the balance between pain & pleasure, both in the short-term & the long-term.
        • B – Great numbers of people have been satisfied with less than a moderate share of happiness; the 2 components of which are tranquility [being free of pain] & excitement [joy & thrills to overcome pain] in moderation.
    3. That it’s exacting too much to require people to act always in promoting the general interests of society.
      • Mill’s response: It’s the business of ethics to tell us what our duties are, or at least how to test them. No ethical system requires the motive of everything we do be out of a duty or obligation. Our sense of duty mostly condemns or requires specific actions. Most other actions don’t come into it.
    4. That it makes men cold & unsympathizing, chilling moral chilling moral feelings towards individuals, taking only the dry & hard considerations of consequences of action & not taking the moral estimate the source of those actions.
      • Mill’s response:
        • If by not allowing judgment about the rightness or wrongness of an action to be influenced by an opinion about the opinions about the qualities of a person, we’re no longer talking about Utilitarianism but arguing against having no moral standards.
        • No ethical standard says an action is good or bad because it’s done by a good or bad man. The goodness or badness of a person is based on their actions not the other way around. But good people can act improperly from time to time.
    5. That it is a Godless doctrine.
      • Mill’s response: That all depends on the moral character of God & what he wants for us. If God wants his creatures to be happy & that was the purpose for their creation, the utility is a profound religious doctrine. If you mean that Utilitarianism doesn’t recognize the revealed will of God as the supreme law of moral, then Mill answers that a Utilitarian who believes in the perfect good & wisdom of God necessarily believes that whatever God’s decided to reveal to us about morals must fulfill the requirements of utility in a supreme degree. The revelations allow us to interpret God’s will. Beyond that point it’s no longer about Utilitarian ethics but Theology.
    6. That it mixes up the expedient & the right.
      • Mill’s response:
        • The expedient generally means what’s expedient for the particular interest of the agent himself. Or, in a better sense, what’s expedient for some immediate object, some temporary purpose but violates a rule whose observance is expedient in a much higher degree. The expedient in this sense is hurtful.
        • This is not about gaining a temporary present advantage for a specific individual to deprive mankind of a good or inflict evil on it for his benefit. Utilitarianism is for weighing conflicting utilities against one another & marking out the region within which one or the other preponderates.
    7. “That there is not time… for calculating & weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness.”
      • Mill answers that there’s been enough time in human existence to learn through experience the tendencies of action on which experience all the prudence & the morality of life is dependent.
    8. That Utilitarians make their own particular cases exceptions to moral rules when they see utility in the breach of a rule than its observance.
      • Mill’s response: There is no ethical creed which doesn’t temper the rigidity of its laws by giving some latitude in the moral responsibility of the agent for accommodation to particularities of circumstance & under every creed, self-deception & dishonest casuistry get in.

Author: knowit68

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