J.S. Mill – Utilitarianism, Ch. 4

John Stuart Mill – Utilitarianism, Chapter 4, “Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible”

  • Questions of ultimate ends can’t be proven as such. First principles can’t be proven with reasoning. But we can subject them to our senses & consciousness. Questions about ends are really just questions about what’s desirable. Utilitarianism says that happiness is desirable, & the only thing desirable as an end. What’s required to prove the doctrine?
    • The only proof of that is through experience, i.e. seeing if people actually desire happiness. The only way you could say that happiness is desirable is to see that people desire it. We have the evidence of this: happiness is a good & each person’s is a good to him, & general happiness is an aggregate of everyone’s happiness.
    • In fact, happiness being an end of conduct makes it a criterion for morality. But it’s not the only one. We need to show that people desire & desire nothing else.
    • People desire virtue & the absence of vice no less than pleasure & the absence of pain. But it’s a fact that more people desire happiness than do virtue. It’s for that reason that Utilitarianism’s opponents say people desire virtue negates Utilitarianism’s belief that people only want happiness.
    • But Utilitarians believe virtue is desirable. They may believe that actions & dispositions are only virtuous because they promote an end other than virtue. But the virtue itself might be a component of the happiness of those who want it.
      • The ingredients of happiness are various & each one is desirable in itself & not just a part of increasing the aggregate. The principle of utility doesn’t mean any given pleasure (or absence of pain) is a means to a collective thing called “happiness” & that’s why it’s desired. They’re desired for themselves & are not just means but ends themselves. As for virtue, it’s desired for itself as a means & an end to make someone happy.
    • Virtue is only desirable in relation to other things. On its own, it’s neutral. It’s like money, which itself is neutral but it takes a more desirable form once it’s clear that it can buy things. That can be gratifying. So the desire for money is indirect. You desire what it can get you. Once you follow that line to its conclusion, money represents the effect of what it can get you & how that makes you feel.
      • Most great objects in life – power, fame, etc. – actually give you immediate pleasure in themselves. But money is more indirect. They are all means to fulfill our other wishes. In the cases of power & fame, they’re both means & ends. Desire for them in themselves & their consequences are ends which form a part of the whole of happiness.
    • Happiness isn’t abstract but a concrete whole. Life would be miserable if it weren’t conducive to satisfying our primitive desires in permanence & intensity. Virtue is a good of this description. There’s no original desire or motive for it except that it’s conducive to pleasure. But unlike the love of money, power or fame, love of virtue doesn’t make you harmful to society in its excess. Utilitarianism allows for the love of money, power or fame up to a point, but there’s no limit to love of virtue.
  • Therefore nothing is desired except happiness. Whatever is desired otherwise is just a means to happiness. Those who desire virtue for its own sake, does so because they get pleasure from it, or get pain from not getting it. If either getting it or not getting it does nothing for a person, he’d be neutral towards it & wouldn’t desire it or avoid it.
    • If human nature is such that it desires nothing not having it to do with happiness or a means to it, then that’s enough to say that only things leading towards happiness are what humans want. So happiness is the sole end of human conduct, & is the criterion of morality.
  • So, where’s the proof of this? This is a question of fact & experience dependent on evidence. It can only be determined by self-consciousness & self-observation, helped by the observation of others. It’s clear desire a thing & finding it pleasant, & aversion to it & think it as painful are 2 sides of the same coin.
    • That means: to think of an object as desirable & to think of it as pleasant are the same thing; & to desire anything, except in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant, is a physical & metaphysical impossibility.
    • The only object Mill can see is that the will is something different from desire, & a person of confirmed virtue, or anyone whose purposes are fixed, carries out his purposes without thought of pleasure in them or expectation of fulfilling them, & persists in acting on them.
      • The objection is fine & admissible. Will & desire aren’t the same thing. They’re offshoots of each that can have their connections severed, especially in the case of habits. But that’s not confined to virtuous actions. Many indifferent things people do out of habit consciously or unconsciously.
      • A habitual act of the will is not a contradiction to the general prevailing intention. Will is amenable to habit & we may will out of habit what we no longer desire for itself, only that we will it.
        • But the initial decision of what was desirable was conscious despite the fact that will & desire later become divorced. Will is the child of desire & only stops being dominated by it out of habit. When that happens we can no longer assume any intrinsic good. & there’s no reason to wish the purpose virtue to be independent of pleasure & pain.
        • The state of the will is a means to a good but not an intrinsic good, which doesn’t contradict the statement that humans’ only good is what leads them to happiness.

Author: knowit68

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