This Week’s Special: John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism.”

by Daniel A. Kaufman

http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/mill/utilitarianism.pdf

One of the two most well-known, most influential works in moral philosophy – the other is Kant’s Groundwork  for the Metaphysics of MoralsUtilitarianism 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.

Categories: This Week's Special

45 Comments »

  1. I very much enjoyed reading this piece. You succinctly cover a great deal of ground in what strikes me as an even-handed and clear manner. I have to admit to some personal reservations regarding the last paragraph, but have to admit your characterization of Singer’s calculus as more akin to Bentham than Mill strikes me as insightful, keeping in mind my rather superficial understanding of the topic. I look forward to the comments of those more knowledgeable to add to my understanding. A bonus for me was having to look up Axiology. 🙂 Thanks again. I’ve been confined inside my home all day because of inclement weather.

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  2. In the last quotation mentioned, Mill up until stating, “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,” I find to have a view that this parsed sentence is incongrous with in his own Utilitarianism. Earlier in the work and as Dan had mentioned the one who is capable of enjoying the higher pleasures can discern between the two. Had it not been the case that they could, would it not then be the case would “opt” for the lower. This strikes me as having, a great differnece in infering this work as those around me have endorsed it and, a great disrespect that people could not by some conscious account choose the lower pleasure without fear of falling into its adictive seduction as Mill may have it.

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  3. It’s more of a personal conflict in dealing with animal rights issues. I wouldn’t describe it as necessarily related to your topic, though it’s my understanding that Singer attempts to address it. I’m not sure one necessarily has to subscribe to a utilitarian based moral philosophy to have concerns in this area. And I don’t want to create a sidebar issue about it.

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  4. Oh, no, of course you don’t. Tom Reagan is a Kantian and very strong animal rights activist. And my own colleague, Elizabeth Foreman, has taken yet a different approach to arguing for animal welfare, one grounded in a notion of appropriate and inappropriate attitudes towards something or someone.

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  5. “higher pleasures”

    Setiya points to Mill’s Autobiography. Mills describes an episode of (“existential”) depression during which he thinks that the realisation of all his objects in life would not bring happiness. Mills finds Wordsworth’s poetry to be the answer: “a source of inward joy…which could be shared by all human beings, which has no connexion with struggle or imperfection…perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life have been removed.” The latter refers to the idea that our happiness comes more from striving than satiation, which he also endorses to some extent, making his quantity to be maximized trickier and trickier, but probably psychologically more realistic.

    Setiya, K (2014). The Midlife Crisis

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  6. “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.”

    I am always surprised that this simple proposition is accepted at face value. If we were contented cows he might just be right but the reality suggests something else.

    Carlin Barton identified instead ‘the glowing spirit’ as the ideal. This is what she said in her book ‘Roman Honour’:

    “Virtus and the honores won in the contest were shining and volatile; competition produced a heightened sense of vividness, a brilliant, gleaming, resplendent existence. The man of honor was speciosus, illustris, clarus, nobilis, splendidus; the woman of honor was, in addition, casta, pura, candida. At the same time, to produce this exalted state, the good competition obeyed restrictions; it needed to be: a) circumscribed in time and space; b) governed by rules known and accepted by the rival parties; c) strenuous (requiring an equal or greater­ than­ equal opponent); d) witnessed.

    To have a glowing spirit one needed to expend one’s energy in a continuous series of ordeals. Labor, industria and disciplina were, for the Romans, the strenuous exertions that one made in undergoing the trial and in shouldering the heavy burden. In labores and pericula one demonstrated effective energy, virtus. There was no virtus, in the republic, without the demonstration of will. The absence of energy (inertia, desidia, ignavia, socordia) was non­being. In inactivity the spirit froze.”

    That was in Roman times but when we examine life today it is hardly different. In my experience it is a succession of battlefields, in the military, on the sports field, in corporate and business life, in intellectual life, in social life and also in the mind as we struggle to balance desire with honour. We, just like the Romans, are engaged in continual competition. Why do we compete? “…competition produced a heightened sense of vividness, a brilliant, gleaming, resplendent existence” To attain this ‘glowing spirit’ “one needed to expend one’s energy in a continuous series of ordeals.“.

    I suggest it is this ‘glowing spirit’ which is responsible for our greatest achievements, not the placid contentment of happiness which strips us of energy, determination and will, nor the neutered, patient endurance of the Stoic. The glowing spirit is alive, receptive, animated, compelling and delights in challenges. It leads, it motivates and it inspires.

    This glowing spirit is the real goal and not happiness. This can be seen when we ask the question, who excites our imagination and admiration? It is, almost without exception, those whose lives are illuminated by a glowing spirit. They inspire us and motivate us and, with good fortune, will ignite the glowing spirit in our own lives.

    Happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment are not the goal, they are the afterglow of attainment when we pause to reflect on our experiences. But when we make it the goal we become neutered hedonists. Moreover this afterglow soon fades if we do not renew the struggle, the ordeal and the competition. Every endurance runner knows this, which is why he will don his running shoes again so soon after the last marathon.

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  7. Hi Dan, there is a lot of interesting material in Mill’s Utilitarianism, even if I don’t think he makes his case successfully. Many of his defenses fall back to “same applies for the other theories” which doesn’t help if one is critical of normative moral theories in general. Most important to me is his admission of the limits of the theory, including how (to what extent) it can be applied in daily life, and what sanctions back moral obligations. But I won’t get into those.

    I thought your review was useful, though I am uncertain if Mill would agree his theory cannot be used to back people like Singer. Bear with me…

    One problem with his theory (as it is related in this paper) is that he starts with some definitions, and then seems to change them (or how they would be applied) over the course of the paper. For example, initially he is discounting prior moral beliefs (when assessing if one pleasure is superior to another) and by the end seems to be saying of course prior moral beliefs should be taken into account since they have come from a history of trying to figure what is good.

    Along these same lines his reduction of animal pleasure, or concerns for animal pleasure, is of course elitist but in broadening the demands on the moral actor (it is not just about their pleasure) he goes on to state…

    …that standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world in general is immensely a gainer by it.

    which leads to…

    This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.

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  8. Hi Labnut, I think Mill would not have a large problem integrating this “glowing spirit” concept into his theory. First, he doesn’t seem to be arguing for some simple, lethargic happiness. Second, he would likely ask if people would care much about this glow, or our experiences of attaining something if it did not in fact lead to something that made us happy.

    There are many Pyrrhic victories to which much energy has been spent in them, perhaps more so than for some of the greatest victories in competition, and the people that suffer them are hardly considered enviable for their efforts.

    Every endurance runner knows this, which is why he will don his running shoes again so soon after the last marathon.

    I thought it was the endorphins 🙂

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  9. dbholmes,

    [return to endurance running] I thought it was the endorphins

    That is a popular misconception. The feeling of euphoria is rather weak and hardly enough to motivate such complex activity requiring so much persistence and determination. The explanation must be found somewhere else.

    Endorphins are now thought to inhibit the transmission of pain signals. It is likely this developed to enable persistence hunting.

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  10. dbholmes,

    There are many Pyrrhic victories to which much energy has been spent in them, perhaps more so than for some of the greatest victories in competition, and the people that suffer them are hardly considered enviable for their efforts.

    Your statement ignores the reality of sport, where there will be only one winner among thousands of contestants. To compete with thousands, as in the case of marathon running, is to know that you will almost certainly lose and yet thousands do this willingly, indeed gladly. They do not consider this loss a Pyrrhic victory despite the huge energy invested in the competition. They consider it a hugely worthwhile process for all sorts of reasons. The simple reality is that by far the greater majority who play sport will lose. They still do it and consider it highly rewarding so there must be other considerations at play.

    … the people that suffer them are hardly considered enviable for their efforts.

    The great number of onlookers and helpers at marathon events disagree with you.

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  11. dbholmes,

    Second, he would likely ask if people would care much about this glow, or our experiences of attaining something if it did not in fact lead to something that made us happy.

    I question that vague assumption. Some activities do lead to immediate gratification. Injecting with heroin is a good example. And yet what is absolutely unique about our species is our ability to delay gratification for long periods of time. What keeps us going is not some vague hope of happiness that may just possibly be realised at an indeterminate time in the future. What keeps us going, makes us hardy and persistent, is a deep down belief in the value of the process itself. We find the process deeply rewarding.

    I find the assumption that we are mostly motivated by a desire for happiness as hopelessly vague and simplistic. Three great motivations have been articulated:
    Freud – the will to pleasure;
    Jung – the will to power;
    Frankl – the will to purpose and meaning.

    To that list I add a fourth motivation,
    the will to love:
    1. Virtue, we love virtuous behaviour.
    2. Aesthetics, we love beauty, laughter and song.
    3. Spirituality, we love the mystery and depth of existence.
    4. People, we deeply need to love people and be loved by them.
    5. Intellect, we love curiosity and intellectual endeavour.
    6. Order. we love to find order and symmetry.

    Instead of this amorphous and simplistic concept of happiness I maintain we are motivated by the complex combination of four things, 1) the will to pleasure, 2) the will to power, 3) the will to purpose/meaning and 4) the will to love. These motivations will manifest in different proportions in different people. Mature, well developed people have arrived at a healthy balance of these four motivations.

    Which motivation you make preeminent in your life says something about the kind of person you are. To these motivations we can bring a special characteristic, which I described in my earlier comment as the glowing spirit. This makes the ordinary extraordinary.

    This does not do away with happiness. It is present in the pleasure of immediate gratification. It is present as the afterglow of attainment when we pause to reflect on our experiences. But is a transient experience that quickly fades. We have learned instead to find reward and fulfillment in delayed gratification.

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  12. Labnut:

    “Some activities do lead to immediate gratification. Injecting with heroin is a good example.”

    Well…yes, that would certainly be an unassailable example of immediate gratification. Not much waiting required if you’re mainlining. Lol.

    More seriously, I think the invocation of sports is very interesting, especially given the dramatic decrease, for example, in childrens’ physical activity in the last two decades. In our sedentary societies, a bit more Roman vigor might not be a bad thing. I’ve no doubt someone has a study somewhere indicating that exercise tends to contribute to happiness, broadly speaking.

    Also, in terms of those will to… motivations. I would note that all of those are modern, hence in part the focus on the will.

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  13. TJ: If you would like, drop me an email, and I’ll send you a copy of a recent paper, by my colleague Elizabeth Foreman. She is in the process of developing a non-Utilitarian, non-Kantian account of our moral obligations to animals.

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  14. Quite simply, life is the journey, not the destination. Even plants, while they don’t move, expand.

    Though it is ultimately a zero sum game and so the price we must pay to feel is that a lot of it is pain and falling back down.

    The problem with happiness as a goal is that our minds are reductionistic and so we keep paring away all those incidentals that might impede our progress and then find the destination a hollow fantasy. For example, people individually experience money as quantified hope(though it functions as a social contract) and now we have an entire society rigged to manufacture this notational wealth to the detriment of virtually everything else. Then, given the importance and gravitas we assign it, it naturally coalesces into ever more concentrated structures, boiling away the incidentals of everything else.

    Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.

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  15. Hi Labnut, I should start by saying that I wasn’t trying to support Mill’s theory in general. I agree with you completely that…

    I find the assumption that we are mostly motivated by a desire for happiness as hopelessly vague and simplistic.

    Remember my skewering over at Scientia Salon of the moral theory by that guy (what’s his name… rhymes with Em-Barrass) who clearly took much of his work from Mill? But the thing is both Mill (and so this other guy) make arguments of how all these different ways of valuing reduce to “happiness”. It’s a process of redefinition and reconceptualization which I have to admit works… in a way.

    Yes, all these obviously different things can be lumped under one generic term “Happiness” or “Pleasure” or “Utility” or “Good” if you twist everything a certain way and squint your eyes. My argument then, as now, would be ok but then you would end up having to reinvent terms for all these different ways of valuing, but only now as subtypes of happiness. Because they are distinct in what they mean for human action and evaluation.

    The concept of different motivations you sketched out is still somewhat simplistic for me, but much more accurate and attractive to me than what Mill advances. I wouldn’t argue against it as much as for refinements to it. We can definitely agree that (edited to create a paraphrase)…

    Instead of this amorphous and simplistic concept of happiness I maintain we are motivated by the complex combination of [several] things… These motivations will manifest in different proportions in different people. Mature, well developed people have arrived at a healthy balance of these [varied] motivations. Which motivation you make preeminent in your life says something about the kind of person you are.

    In fact, that could make a close synopsis of what my ethical beliefs are.

    The other defense I was making of Mill was that his version of happiness does not seem as simplistic, and lazy as you seem to have painted him with (though they are still agreeably simplistic). He includes concepts of delayed gratification for sure.

    So I think he could “defend” himself from your charges, even if I agree with you that his ideas are overly vague and simplistic… and your own ideas more useful.

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  16. Hi Labnut, on the whole glowing spirit thing and Pyrrhic victories. I do not think competitive games or sports of any kind can result in Pyrrhic victories, as (unless one dies or is maimed in the effort) there is no potential for real loss to speak of. The kinds of losses found in these things are definitional (confined to the limits of the game) and not “real”.

    The activities themselves are meant to prepare us for actual challenges we face in real life where the training wheels come off and we face real dangers and real loss. This is why I do not (but you are right many do) view great athletes as heroic or their conduct inherently laudable (which is not to say not laudable).

    More important to why I responded is that you were emphasizing competition to which I thought you were including (especially given the reference to Romans) actual, violent competition. Kind of the war against all, where it is the enhancing and broadening of one’s will (power) which is the sole goal, and interest. While I agree people can have that motivation I cannot agree that everyone or most people in Western societies hold that concept. If such behavior more often led to real loss, such willing would not be valued.

    You did mention honour which can of course hold its own despite real loss for the fact that its elevation is considered a win. A good example being the 47 ronin. Arguably they achieved their revenge and so “won”, but they then killed themselves to preserve honour and so incurred the ultimate loss (for those individuals). This shows such values are possible, it is just hard to argue common, much less inherent.

    This does not reduce the value of the glowing spirit for those that feel it, it just reduces how widely you can ascribe the feeling.

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  17. Dan-K,

    She[Elizabeth Foreman] is in the process of developing a non-Utilitarian, non-Kantian account of our moral obligations to animals.

    I had a quick look at her thesis, “Focussing Respect on Creatures”, where she said

    To resolve these difficulties, I offer a formal analysis of respect according to which the objects of respect are the creatures themselves, and not their features. I argue that possession of a certain feature confers value on those creatures that possess it, and that this gives them an irrevocable status as objects of respect. Further, creatures that lack the feature can also be objects of respect in virtue of being of a kind that normally has it. I then argue more substantively that this value-conferring feature is not the sort of rationality Kantians identify, but is instead “being a subject of a life”. I argue that our attitude of respect is fundamentally a response to this morally considerable quality, and that accounts that identify rationality alone as morally considerable are unsatisfactory. This substantive claim brings non-human animals more robustly inside the moral sphere,

    She seems to be rejecting the Singer consequentialist argument that we have an obligation to not cause pain and suffering to creatures, replacing it with the argument that we have an obligation to extend respect to creatures that are “a subject of a life“, that being a subject of life is a morally considerable quality. She goes on to say that respect is due to all members of a kind, regardless of their status in the kind. So, for example, a dead person is still owed respect, despite their terminal status. Therefore we treat their body with respect. This also has consequences for how we treat brain dead victims. Her argument also raises interesting questions about abortion, though she stays away from the subject(wisely).

    She argues that

    … the feature that is important for respect is “being the subject of a life” (Tom Regan’s phrase) – that is, having a point of view from which one directs one’s life, (taking the idea of “directing” one’s life very loosely as acting on desires, preferences, etc.) and according to which life can be going better or worse. I argue that anything with this point of view has a basic sort of autonomy, and that this basic sort of autonomy is precisely the thing that our attitude of respect is recognizing as limiting our actions regarding the creatures that have it

    This is fascinating stuff. It raises some painful moral questions that leave me feeling conflicted. Does this represent her current thinking? Where do you stand on this?

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  18. Thanks Dan,

    I agree with Brodix & Labnut that happiness reduced to a static goal ignores the way it actually functions in human minds. Even setting aside the important issue of whether we should value the happiness of those close to us more than those far away, how are we to guage the consequences of actions on others without incorporating a more process orientated relationship between discomfort and comfort, suffering and pleasure.

    I see the lure of endurance running somewhat differently than Labnut. While I enjoy the occasional race (Boston Marathon in 2 weeks) as a goal and fitness measure, it is the day to day process of balancing the stress and the adaptation, the activity and the recovery, and more than occasional joy that accompanies the most ordinary of runs that I most value. At least that is how I conceptualize the very real intrinsic drive that tugs on me to hit the road every morning.

    I think this relates to previous post on the elevation of the rational as we are always trying to reduce order out of nature which is a union of order and disorder:

    http://undark.org/article/on-the-ache-for-order-and-the-beauty-of-chaos/

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  19. Labnut: Yes, this is her current view. It is part of her ongoing research program.

    I am not very moved by it, I have to say. For one thing, I am not at all satisfied with her account of what being a “subject of a life” is. It surely is a strange quality, given that human corpses have it, but living plants do not. And for another, she has a notion that one can simply “read off” certain normative facts from the surfaces of natural facts, such that it is possible to determine, in principle, what is “appropriate” and “inappropriate,” with respect to the thing in question, which I entirely reject.

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  20. Dan-K,
    One could rescue her ideas by having graduated respect where the degree and nature of respect depends on status within the kind and on the nature of the kind. Thus we would accord the highest levels of respect to rational beings that possess all their faculties.

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  21. A “subject of a life” is indeed in need of greater clarification. Christine M. Korsgaard, a Kantian, I think, in a piece entitled “Personhood, Animals, and the Law” writes:

    “In other words, when animals evolved, a kind of entity came into existence which actually experiences the goodness or badness of its own condition, or at least of some aspects of its own condition, in a positive or negative way – as something desirable or aversive. An animal experiences its own good or ill.

    “So the way in which things are good or bad for animals is distinctive in that it is both non-derivative and capable of being experienced. We can describe these things by saying that animals have interests, or that there are facts about their welfare.
    Although our own welfare is more complex than that of the other animals, it is because we are animals, not because we are human beings or persons, that we ourselves have interests or a welfare.”

    But, to be fair to Mill, this is not likely a matter that was uppermost in his mind in the 19th Century.

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  22. I beg the editors’ indulgence, but to make my point clear will require two posts, the first leading into the second.

    (1)

    There were a number of issues I was going to raise concerning the text just itself. After all, I had read most of the major Mill texts that are taught in survey courses of one sort another, as well as the Logic and his response to Whewell. Plus with additional readings in ethics, I felt informed enough to give a casual (given the nature of a commentary thread) but critical response to the text.

    Then, on Wikipedia, I bumped into this quote from Mill’s Dissertations and Discussions: “To suppose that the same international customs, and the same rules of international morality, can obtain between one civilized nation and another, and between civilized nations and barbarians, is a grave error….To characterize any conduct whatever towards a barbarous people as a violation of the law of nations, only shows that he who so speaks has never considered the subject.”

    Even though I knew Mill’s background (which included long employment with the East India Company), I hadn’t added 2+2 before. The reason for this is because the mainstream tradition of Millsian exegeses (such as can be found at the SEP or IEP) has reduced the historical contexts of his writing to footnotes and side comments.

    In fact, Mill’s trenchant advocacy for colonialism changes the reading of several of his major texts – esp. Utilitarianism and On Liberty – since consideration of it changes the way we interpret his intent in writing these texts.

    Further reading on the matter has led me to rethink how to read the text. Once we admit that certain demographics are excluded from Mill’s consideration, we arrive at an odd realization (although one that is gaining traction among certain critical readers): “Utilitarianism” is an ethic intended for a particular class of a particular ethnic group. It is not intended to determine relations between that class and lower classes, except insofar as the lower classes can be manipulated as a source of labor, their own happiness being something of a side-effect of the success of that manipulation. Further, as an ethnically centered ethic, it need not apply to any other ethnic group, except insofar as the other ethnic groups can be raised to a similar level of “civilization” through the process of colonization by the former ethnic group (and permitting a lengthy period when the happiness of the dominated ethnic groups is simply not an issue).

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  23. (2)

    I’m painting broad strokes here; filling in details will require further thought. But consider the problems involved.

    What can it mean to say of a text like “Utilitarianism” that it is ethnocentric, despite the level of abstraction of its language? For instance, that certain generalized claims become suspect. The claims concerning physical pleasure can apply to us all; but generalized claims concerning the pleasures of intellection are thrown into doubt, since Mill believes that certain people are (as yet) incapable of such pleasure. This includes BTW the Indians and the Chinese. Although Mill’s main text on colonialism is concerned with how to bribe the overpopulated working class to move to Australia, his strongest commitment seems to have been an inheritance from his father, author of The History of British India, which judged the Indians as being a degenerate people incapable of self-government.

    In passing we should note that India and China have a long history of very sophisticated ethical thinking to be found in hundreds of texts; indeed, Chinese philosophy primarily concerns itself with ethics and politics. So it’s not like the Asians need a 63 page disquisition on feeling good from some company clerk from a nation still comparatively in its infancy.

    This is *not* a ‘presentist’ charge of racism against Mill. Such might be true; but there are indications that he thought that European colonization of the world would at last raise all peoples to similar strata that the English enjoyed, at which point utilitarianism would trigger into a universal ethics. But how much suffering would the non-European colonized peoples have to undergo to get to that point? Well, how much suffering did the Irish have to go through, since apparently Mill didn’t include them in his ethnic schema either. (He did the Scots; but of course but they invented banking.)

    All right, I have been painting with a broad brush – too broad; yet I am trying to raise the issue in as pointed a manner as possible. The less contentious claim, and my real claim, is this: that the critical study of “Utilitarianism” cannot be complete without a proper accounting of its implicit class and ethnic orientation within its historical context, and of the presuppositions we can find in Mill’s other texts.

    Utilitarianism as a living tradition of ethical philosophy has developed through other texts. “Utilitarianism,” like the “Communist Manifesto,” may simply be an historical document. That is, the artifact of a certain history, and no longer a foundation to it.

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  24. ejwinner

    I don’t know enough about Mill to engage with the substance of your more specific claims but your final point – that his writings should be seen as having an historical but not foundational (or close logical?) continuity with our own reflections – can I think be generalized to all the classic texts. I think they are best seen and understood as *historical* documents, because otherwise you miss the background assumptions and the broader context which actually constitute a great part of any literary or philosophical work.

    This reminds me of a big controversy in literary studies. I was taught at high school by followers of F.R. Leavis and I.A. Richards who focussed on a direct response to the text but encountered historically-oriented teachers at university who saw no value in this approach. There is a strong parallel here with possible ways of dealing with philosophical texts.

    If you opt to see authors in historical terms, you cut yourself off from them in a sense. You recognize that they are not your contemporaries, and that they were operating within the context of a very different culture. You can never take what they say at face value. But, paradoxically, it’s only after you recognize them as ‘alien’ that you can really understand them.

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  25. EJ,

    In fact, Mill’s trenchant advocacy for colonialism changes the reading of several of his major texts


    I invariably admire what you say as insightful and sound common sense but this is one time I will vigorously disagree with you. Of course every writer, starting with Aristotle, is embedded in their milieu, and their writings reflect this fact. How else could it be? That does not prevent their writings from containing important truths and Aristotle is a wonderful example of this.

    Must all that I say be condemned because I am a practising Catholic, or for that matter, an Apartheid South African? I oppose abortion and you will say, of course, you, a Catholic, are bound to say that, enough said. And then, having closed your mind, you will never discover the powerful arguments that I might produce to support my position.

    This is argument by label which is not argument at all but a retreat into prejudice.

    There is an iniquitous trend, when confronted with arguments we do not like, to impute what we think are unsavoury motives to the other person. The motives “may” explain something of “how” that person came to that position but the position itself must always be confronted on its own merits by carefully examining the arguments. In any case, no one can really know what motivates the other person so basing an argument on motivation is like basing an argument on quicksands. Historians need to do this but philosophers should not.

    In any case, I have lived in both colonial and post colonial worlds for a long time and have intimate experience of them. From that experience I can say that the simple, crude characterisation of colonialism as an evil wrong is simplistic beyond belief. I have a world of examples available to back up my statement.

    Mark,

    If you opt to see authors in historical terms, you cut yourself off from them in a sense.

    Precisely. You say it better than I could.

    I love history and read as much as I can but history and logical argument are two different things.

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  26. Hi Dan, am I wrong in seeing Foreman as basically asserting the existence of some normative framework? I didn’t see an argument that her ideas exist among humans (particularly when so many counterexamples come to mind) or why they should.

    This substantive claim brings non-human animals more robustly inside the moral sphere,

    That sounds more like a mission statement, which waves red flags for me.

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  27. Dan-K, why not invite your colleague, Elizabeth Foreman, to submit an essay defending her viewpoint? I think that would be quite valuable.

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  28. Labunut: I have tried, but alas, to no avail. I invited her to do a dialogue on the subject with me on BHTV and she agreed but then pulled out in the last minute. She has been quite relectant to discuss the subject with me in any sort of public forum.

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  29. Dan-K, tell her that if we are interested enough to read her thesis we are interested enough to give her an attentive and respectful hearing.

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  30. labnut,

    Certain notable values were disseminated through colonization; and colonization has to be taken as a historic fact, there’s no way we can undo it, continuing on with the history with which it has left us (which is not in a happy state of affairs, far as I can tell).

    However, my position is that colonization is by nature unjust, since it enforces distinctions between dominating and dominated people, and does so to benefit the dominators at the expense of the dominated. This violates recognition that all humans are due exactly the same respect, regardless of ethnicity, religion, class, or cultural differences.

    I came on strong, esp. in the second posting, to make the point clear. However I am by no means saying we should discard Mill, a philosopher I hold in high regard. Rather I am arguing that we need to give certain texts a different reading than they’ve been given in traditional discussions of them. For instance, take what I just remarked as an alternative understanding of colonialism as by nature unjust, accept that Mill was an apologist for colonialism, and then read the final discussion on justice of “Utilitarianism,” and suddenly we see those paragraphs as much more nuanced (and nuanced in a different way) than hitherto, and with distinct assumptions concerning history underlying them. What Mill now seems to be saying is that ‘justice’ is a heightened sentimentality that changes over time, frequently open to contingent “expediency.” That’s actually a meta-ethics in ethical drag.

    I’ll need to read the text again, and go deeper into the back-ground material. But right now,”Utilitarianism,” seems to be a meta-ethical argument for a certain political and educational program for those of his own class.

    You agree with the first sentence of Mark’s concluding paragraph. I agree with the whole paragraph. Philosophers are just people and they are bound to their time and place. That doesn’t make them less interesting, but may make them interesting in a different way.

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  31. EJ:

    Analytic philosophers do not only engage texts in order to understand what the original author meant by them. They also engage them to advance the cause of contemporary theorizing. From that standpoint — and for analytic philosophers, this is the primary standpoint — Mill’s colononialist attitudes are entirely irrelevant to the use to which they wish to put Utilitarianism — namely, to try and discover the best theory of obligation.

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  32. Labnut: I appreciate your desire to reach out to Dr. Foreman, but I am not going to beg her. She’s already turned me down twice — once for a BHTV dialogue and a second time for a discussion for our philosophy club, here at MSU. I won’t ask her again.

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  33. labnut

    I love history and read as much as I can but history and logical argument are two different things.

    I was not talking about ‘history’ so much as understanding old texts which is usually no easy task and involves understanding the cultural (including linguistic) and intellectual context of the time. Even when the language is English, the meanings of key concepts may have shifted significantly.

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  34. EJ,

    What Mill now seems to be saying is that ‘justice’ is a heightened sentimentality that changes over time, frequently open to contingent “expediency.”

    I am interested in this statement. Can you expand on this, showing how you derive this conclusion? Does he really say this or is this an interpretation you have attached to his work?

    I was not talking about ‘history’ so much as understanding old texts which is usually no easy task and involves understanding the cultural (including linguistic) and intellectual context of the time.

    That was what I understood you to mean and I agree with you. In fact it is fascinating to understand the cultural and political context of the time. Any good historian will strive for this. I have no time for presentism.

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  35. Labnut: “I have no time for presentism.”

    That’s funny.

    Still, I’m not convinced that what ej is describing is presentism, but I’ll leave it to him to clarify if he deems it necessary.

    Dan K’s comment above, addressed to ej, seems more even handed in that he openly admits to the approach he favors in evaluating Mill’s arguments for Utililitarianism, which in part, it seems to me, he describes as elitist. What ej might be suggesting is what-British colonialism–might in part underlie Mill’s elitism in 19th century England.

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  36. Thomas,

    Labnut: “I have no time for presentism.”

    That’s funny.

    What’s funny?
    1. Is something amusing? What is it? Please explain.
    2. Are you implying something? If so, what are you implying? Please elaborate.
    3. Is this merely a rhetorical ejaculation? Why?
    4. None of the above. Please enlarge on this.
    Some clarity would be helpful.

    I’ll leave it to him to clarify if he deems it necessary.

    That would be advisable, unless you have privileged insight into his thinking.

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  37. Hi Dan, normally advocates for a moral theory use some argument that they are getting at what people actually value (Mill for example), or why it produces what people should value based on some (often rational) criteria (Kant would serve).

    Granted I have only seen a little bit of Foreman’s work, but what little I have seen appears to simply posit a set of criteria which (if accepted) would work to grant animals moral cover. It is not showing how/that we do have such interests or that we should have such interests. This line in particular caught my eye…

    I argue that anything with this point of view has a basic sort of autonomy, and that this basic sort of autonomy is precisely the thing that our attitude of respect is recognizing as limiting our actions regarding the creatures that have it

    This sounds like the first kind of argument (getting at what people value) and yet if this were true then why are animals not already “robustly inside the moral sphere”? What’s more it makes the exceptions for dead bodies seem shoe-horned in, while missing the obvious counter examples (lack of respect for slaves, foreigners, etc). So the impression is that she may feel such respect and is arguing “here is what would work to get you there” as if we are just supposed to accept her assertion that we feel this way (or should).

    But I could be wrong, which is why I asked.

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  38. Sorry, Labnut, I thought you were trying to make your point while making a pun of sorts. 🙂 My fault, I should have known better.

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  39. Oops, Thomas, I owe you an apology. That was an entirely unintended pun. That was a good catch on your part. Once again, my apologies. Now that you point it out to me it kind of hits me in the face. Good catch.

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  40. Dan,

    I’m aware that the Analytic tradition is interested in extracting the structures of the argument of older texts. But my own training was in rhetorical criticism, so anomalies in the appearance of a text’s context or possible intent always hook me. If Mill intends his text *only* for the culture of his intended audience, that for me raises questions.

    I’m no longer so impressed with the possibility that Mill thought the argument only applied to ethnic Europeans. Mill’s later writings on Ireland indicate that he is not so concerned with ethnicity as he is with economically-determined class. And it seems clearer that he believed that colonialist economics could be structured to ‘raise all boats,’ if properly planned – which would certainly be a utilitarian project.

    Nonetheless, even such a project carries with it a theory of class, and is derived from class-assumptions (concerning who is best to plan such an economy), addressed to readers of a given class. Is that also the case with the present text? Does one need to be of a given class to grasp and practice utilitarianism? Doesn’t Mill’s division between lower and higher pleasures suggest that to be the case? And what might this practice of utilitarianism actually look like if not manifested as a political or economic project? After all, in common practice – what individuals do daily when socially interacting – utilitarianism doesn’t look much different from other ethical practices. Indeed, Mill pretty much assures us that we are all really already utilitarians (since pleasure is our primary telos), no matter what we claim. Which is why the text reads as something of a meta-ethic.

    Or perhaps it is part of a larger political project. How else to read those passages where Mill tries to enlist god in his cause? Since we know Mill was an agnostic, these passages are there for purely rhetorical purposes, basically attempting to persuade the religious that they have nothing to fear. But the religious should have nothing to fear from a speculative theory of ethics; but some of them might from a government adopting utilitarianism as a guiding principle. (At any rate it’s a weak argument, since no Christian believes happiness, other than that found in grace, to be a moral telos; and grace is not earned but given.)

    So, while my thinking has changed somewhat the past few couple days, some questions remain. If “Utilitarianism” is a political text, what does it mean to take it as an ethical theory? Or is it the case that any ethics inevitably involves a politics?

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  41. Labnut,
    If I read aright, justice originates in such sentiments as resentment against perceived harm, insecurity, and the feeling that one ought to ‘get what one deserves’ (both positively and negatively), expanded sympathetically to the good of a society as a whole. However every society has a history, and as interests (such as perceived harm or perceived good) vary over time, the nature of justice will change over time. Further any policy of justice can either conflict with or be brought into line with, policies that are expedient. The decision in such a conflict should be on the side of perceived justice – but apparently not always: The difficulty with Mill’s imperialism arises here – colonialism is an expedient policy for the British, and may only become unjust as the colonized can be substantially raised in class and education by a benign colonial economics and politics. This strikes me as being a bit too expedient.

    Also, I suggest that Mill’s understanding of justice is bound to a particular understanding of property, economics, and social class. Although Mill explicitly discusses criminal justice (such as, in terms of punishment), I suggest the models to use in order to understand this theory of obligation would better include labor relations, contracts and torts, and the like.

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