This Week’s Special: John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism.”
by Daniel A. Kaufman
One of the two most well-known, most influential works in moral philosophy – the other is Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals – Utilitarianism has the virtue of being highly readable, intuitively plausible (at least on first glance), and blissfully short. Moral philosophy done at its very best.
The theory is based on a very simple idea, namely that happiness is the supreme good – where by ‘happiness’ Mill means “pleasure and the absence of pain” – and all other things are valuable only insofar as they are either a direct or indirect means to happiness. Mill takes this as a fundamental fact about us, partly inspired by Bentham, who identified the pleasure principle as a basic, natural imperative, but also on the grounds of a kind of “everyman” appeal. In Chapter 4, Mill writes:
[T]he 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 practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness.
Given that happiness, hedonically conceived, is the supreme good, it is unsurprising that Mill maintains that our fundamental duty is to advance the cause of happiness and to eliminate unhappiness, to as great a degree as is possible. As Mill puts it, in Chapter 2:
The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.
At this level of abstraction, Mill’s version of Utilitarianism is indistinguishable from Bentham’s, and it is only in responding to a particular criticism of the pleasure principle that he further develops his basic account to the point that it differs, substantially, from Bentham’s – even to the point that some, like Martha Nussbaum, have suggested that the resulting theory is no longer really Utilitarianism at all, but rather, a form of Eudemonism. This strikes me as being substantially wrong, but containing a kernel of truth. Despite its points of departure from Benthamism, to which we will get in a moment, Mill’s Utilitarianism remains a consequentialist moral theory – one in which, the moral obligatoriness of an action is a function of the goodness or badness of its consequences – which immediately distinguishes it from Eudemonism, which is not a theory of obligation at all, but rather a virtue theory, and which thus belongs to Axiology, rather than Moral Philosophy. That said, eudemonist considerations are at the heart of Mill’s departure from Bentham, so while it would be inaccurate to describe Utilitarianism as belonging to the same genre as, say, The Nicomachean Ethics, it is fair to say that it is a moral philosophy that embraces a number of crucial Eudemonist premises.
The criticism I am speaking of is the charge that hedonism is a degrading value theory; that the notion that the supreme good consists of pleasure and the absence of pain depicts human beings in a way that fails to distinguish us from animals, insofar as it treats our respective supreme goods as being essentially the same.
On first glance, one might be puzzled as to why Mill would reply to such an apparently fallacious criticism. That a proposition is unflattering is hardly a reason for thinking it false. But Mill recognizes that beyond truth and falsity, there is also an aspirational dimension to Moral Philosophy (and to Ethics, more broadly construed). It’s job after all, is not just to describe what we, in fact, do, but to tell us what we ought to do, and the idea is that what we ought to do typically represents an improvement on what we actually do. If we already behaved in an ideal fashion, after all, we would hardly need Moral Philosophy.
So, Mill takes the criticism seriously, and it is in his reply that the eudemonist elements of his brand of Utilitarianism emerge. The reply is delivered in three parts.
First — Mill introduces a distinction between what he calls “lower pleasures,” which are pleasures of mere bodily sensation, and “higher pleasures,” which are pleasures involving intelligence and the “nobler sentiments.” The pleasure from a one-night stand, with some anonymous stranger, then, would be a lower pleasure, while the pleasure of romantic love, would be a higher one. The enjoyment that comes from sating one’s hunger by indiscriminately shoving stuff down one’s throat would be a lower pleasure, while the gastronomic joys involved in fine dining would be higher ones. You get the drift.
Second – Mill maintains that the higher pleasures are not simply descriptively higher than their lower counterparts, but that they are, in fact, better. He supports this claim by appeal to what a competent judge would say, the competent judge being one who has experienced both kinds of pleasures. Mill puts both these points rather forcefully, in Chapter 2:
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, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
Third — Mill suggests that human happiness consists of the higher pleasures, rather than the lower ones; that one would not deem a person happy in the relevant sense, whose pleasures had been entirely or mostly of the lower variety. “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites,” he writes, “and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.” In reply to the observation that if this is true, it’s strange that so many people pursue so many lower pleasures, as opposed to higher ones, Mill appeals to a kind of false consciousness that is engendered either by a failure to support peoples’ desire for better things or by active opposition to it.
Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access, or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.
Mill’s Utilitarianism is thus rather elitist when compared to its Benthamite counterpart, which is why the latter is more suitable for those Utilitarians like Peter Singer, who want to use the theory to make the case for the better treatment of non-human animals. Indeed, I think that people often forget that Mill’s version of the Greatest Happiness Principle commands us to increase happiness of the rational, elevated, human variety and not happiness, construed generically. For this reason – and for others, as well – I actually take Bentham’s to be the better theory, at least if one takes into account the social and political mission of most of those who find Utilitarianism appealing as a moral philosophy.
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