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MILL

The principle of utility determines the rightness


of acts (or of rules of action) by how they affect
the total happiness in the world.
Mill’s principle of utility
“ [A]ctions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness,” with
happiness understood roughly as “pleasure and the absence of pain” (p. 55).

 = a single principle combining theories of the right and the good (utilitarianism
and hedonism) that are distinguished in 20th century philosophy

 Its simplest interpretation takes “tend” as referring to actual consequences of


specific acts, but it will be modified later to apply to general rules or types of act.

 The principle is identified with Mill’s predecessor Bentham’s “Greatest


Happiness Principle,” understood as referring to total happiness (vs. the number
of people made happy) and extending to all sentient beings.

 But for Mill, unlike Bentham, happiness isn’t just a mathematical sum of
pleasures minus pains, differing only on quantitative measures like intensity and
duration.

 Pleasures of distinctively human faculties are also said to be superior in quality to


pleasures of the sort we share with animals – as determined by those who’ve
experienced (and are still capable of experiencing) both sorts of pleasure.
Live issues
 Mill addresses objections stemming from what he sees as
misunderstandings of the principle of utility in ch. 2. Those that are
most problematic for utilitarianism – in non-hedonistic versions still
popular in philosophy and economics -- concern

 whether breaking common moral rules is right in cases where it would


seem to promote the total good, and (relatedly)

 why we condemn injustice, sometimes even where a particular unjust


act seems to promote the total good.

 Mill deals explicitly with the first set of objections toward the end of
ch. 2, treating rules as summaries of human experience in applying
the principle of utility over time.

 He addresses questions of justice in ch. 5, but there he seems to be


applying the principle of utility to rules themselves rather than to
specific acts.
Responses to misunderstandings
 of hedonism:

 pleasure an aim worthy of swine (pp. 55ff.). Higher, distinctively human,


pleasures outweigh mere bodily pleasures shared with swine.

 happiness an inappropriate aim (pp. 59ff.). The aim isn’t ecstasy but just to
minimize pain and achieve a comfortable mix of pleasures. Total happiness, not
just one’s own, is the standard of right action (vs. motive of the virtuous agent).

 of utilitarianism:

 leaves no room for beauty, ornament, amusement (p. 54). popular misconception

 a “godless” doctrine (p. 68). Spells out what a good and wise God would want.

 undercuts “principled” adherence to rules (pp. 68ff.): Rule-breaking is almost


always forbidden because of harmful side-effects. Established rules sum up the
general tendencies of acts to promote utility, so they serve as a better guide to
decision-making at the time of action. We should limit direct appeal to the
principle of utility to cases where the rules conflict.
Twentieth-century objections
 to hedonism

 from objective good: We also care about whether our pleasurable


experiences correspond to reality, as indicated by our unwillingness to
plug into a hypothetical “experience machine” (Nozick).

 to utilitarianism

 from justice: Utilitarianism allows for “interpersonal trade-offs,” or the


sacrifice of some to the good of all, as indicated by both economic
examples and punishment of one innocent person to prevent a riot that
would kill many (“telishment”; cf. Rawls). Cf. also “the trolley case” of
killing one person to save others.

 from moral emotion: Utilitarian calculations would alienate an agent


from his moral sentiments e.g. in cases where it would recommend
killing one innocent person to prevent the murder of several others
(Williams).
Motivating utilitarian morality
 In ch. 3 Mill considers a further objection: that people won’t be
motivated by the principle of utility unless they happen to care about
promoting the total happiness (as very few people do).

 Mill replies that this is true of any moral system, not just
utilitarianism. Motivation depends on two kinds of “sanctions” (=
punishments for wrong action), set up or modifiable by society, but
ultimately a matter of subjective feeling:

 external: legal punishment, social disapproval, etc.

 internal: feelings of self-reproach, i.e. conscience

 Human social feelings provide a natural basis for concern with the
total happiness in the desire for unity with others. But this needs to
be widened out beyond one’s family and friends by education.
Mill’s “proof”
 In ch. 4 Mill grants that a principle about ultimate ends is really no more
capable of proof than are claims about the bases of empirical knowledge, i.e.
immediate sense experience. But we have an analogue to sensation in desire,
which we can use as the basis for three-stage argument:

1. Happiness is desirable: established by the fact that we all desire it

2. The general happiness is desirable: inference from parts to whole [?]

3. Nothing other than happiness is desirable: anything else is originally desired


only as means to it, though certain aims such as virtue can come to be desired for
their own sake, as parts of happiness for a particular individual (cf. Mill’s
analogy to money). In the end, Mill says that “desirable” and “pleasant” are
just different names for the same thought;

 The move from hedonism to utilitarianism also depends on Mill’s


assumption (see, e.g., pp. 84f.) that the criterion of right action must be
supplied by the end for which we act, which amounts to something we view
at the time as desirable [=good].
Utility and justice (1)
 In ch. 5 Mill addresses the objection that our sense of justice doesn’t
seem to be explained by the principle of utility.

 First he notes that an act is morally wrong (= a violation of moral


obligation) only if it deserves punishment – at least by social
disapproval or conscience, where there are reasons against legal
punishment.

 [In light of what Mill goes on to say about justice, we might think this
amounts to a claim that the type of act that counts as wrong is
expedient to punish. So the principle of utility favors adopting a rule
to punish that type of act, rather than just telling people that it’s not
the right thing to do. ]

 So some acts that fail to maximize the good may not really be wrong
but just “inexpedient,” i.e. non-optimal.
Utility and justice (2)
 Not all wrong acts are unjust, though. Whether a wrong act, a
violation of moral obligation, counts as unjust depends on something
further that justice adds to moral obligation:

 Certain general rules that are needed to protect individuals’ basic


security give us duties (= obligations) toward specific persons. These
more fully specified duties are known as “perfect” duties; the persons
toward whom we have such duties are said to have rights.

 The particularly strong sense of obligation associated with justice results


from our natural retaliatory sentiments, but becomes a moral sentiment,
the sentiment of justice, only when our urge toward self-defense is
extended by sympathy, to reflect concern for general utility.

 The upshot is that justice is explained by the principle of utility, but


as applied to general rules rather than acts. However, Mill adds that
the rules can be overridden in extreme circumstances (pp. 106f.).
Rule-utilitarianism?
 In “Two Concepts of Rules” Rawls briefly defends a version of
utilitarianism that he thinks is in line with Mill’s ch. 5 (in contrast to
ch. 2) and could handle cases like “telishment.” (Cf. also the trolley
case.)

 Acts should be judged, not by their own consequences, but by whether


they’re in accordance with rules that, if generally followed, would have
the best consequences.

 Rather than merely summing up past experience with applying the


principle of utility directly to acts, rules describe general practices to
which the principle applies (cf. rules of a game).

 However, rule-utilitarianism. as this approach is called, is subject to


the objection that it “collapses into” act-utilarianism: if we really
care about the general happiness, then in a case where it’s clear that
adhering to the rules would undermine it, we should violate the rules
(as Mill says when he allows for exceptions).
Anticipating Kant