But though in science the particular truths precede the general theory, the contrary might be expected to be the case with a practical art, such as morals or legislation. All action is for the sake of some end, and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and colour from the end to which they are subservient. When we engage in a pursuit, a clear and precise conception of what we are pursuing would seem to be the first thing we need, instead of the last we are to look forward to. A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it.
Here, Mill discusses the epistemological problem of whether a discipline's theory should proceed from its first principles, or vice-versa. Mill argues that there is a distinction between empirical disciplines (e.g. science) and morality; though the first principles of science are derived, according to Mill, from metaphysical analysis, the principles of morality must be derived from moral theory because the first step in conceiving morality (which is a quality of actions) must be understanding the intended ends of that action. This argumentative structure forms the consequentialist basis of Mill's moral theory.
I might go much further, and say that to all those à priori moralists who deem it necessary to argue at all, utilitarian arguments are indispensable. It is not my present purpose to criticise these thinkers; but I cannot help referring, for illustration, to a systematic treatise by one of the most illustrious of them, the Metaphysics of Ethics, by Kant. This remarkable man, whose system of thought will long remain one of the landmarks in the history of philosophical speculation, does, in the treatise in question, lay down an universal first principle as the origin and ground of moral obligation; it is this:—'So act, that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings.' But when he begins to deduce from this precept any of the actual duties of morality, he fails, almost grotesquely, to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical) impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur.
Here, Mill argues that utilitarian considerations are necessary even for those moral theoreticians who argue for a priori moral principles. To illustrate this point, he uses the first formulation of Kant's categorical imperative: "So act, that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings" (ibid.). Without delving deeply into argumentation, Mill submits that such a principle would logically allow for immoral actions, and that only utility rectifies this state of affairs. This is a main mode of Mill's justification for the utilitarian theory implicitly underpinning many other forms of moral thought.
If, then, it is asserted that there is a comprehensive formula, including all things which are in themselves good, and that whatever else is good, is not so as an end, but as a mean, the formula may be accepted or rejected, but is not a subject of what is commonly understood by proof. We are not, however, to infer that its acceptance or rejection must depend on blind impulse, or arbitrary choice. There is a larger meaning of the word proof, in which this question is as amenable to it as any other of the disputed questions of philosophy. The subject is within the cognizance of the rational faculty; and neither does that faculty deal with it solely in the way of intuition. Considerations may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to the doctrine; and this is equivalent to proof.
Here, Mill presents us with the metric for proof to which he believes moral discourse is susceptible. He firstly acknowledges that moral theory cannot be proven or disproven in the scientific way that usually denotes "proof" in our vernacular; he then goes on to argue that the proof needed for moral theory is not simplistic and vague moral intuition, but rather rational systemic moral accounts which beget the approval of our intellectual faculties.
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. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.
Perhaps the most quoted passage from Mill's treatise, these sentences outline the general principle that serves as the foundation for utilitarianism. Mill refers to this as the Greatest Happiness Principle. An easy way to intuitively grasp the principle is to view it as the proposition that the moral valence of actions is determined by the net happiness they yield.
Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he, for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme, that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and is certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.
This is probably Mill's most significant break with utilitarian moral theorist Jeremy Bentham, for it is Mill who here asserts that pleasures of our higher intellectual faculties are qualitatively different and superior to baser, animal pleasures. Mill notes that these higher faculties also leave humans susceptible to worse types of pain, but that this would not preclude them from preferring their intellect to the pleasures of animals.
The objectors perhaps may doubt whether human beings, if taught to consider happiness as the end of life, would be satisfied with such a moderate share of it. But great numbers of mankind have been satisfied with much less. The main constituents of a satisfied life appear to be two, either of which by itself is often found sufficient for the purpose: tranquillity [sic], and excitement. With much tranquillity, many find that they can be content with very little pleasure: with much excitement, many can reconcile themselves to a considerable quantity of pain. There is assuredly no inherent impossibility in enabling even the mass of mankind to unite both; since the two are so far from being incompatible that they are in natural alliance, the prolongation of either being a preparation for, and exciting a wish for, the other.
Here Mill is responding to those who object to utilitarianism on the ground that happiness cannot be the ultimate end of human life (note the Mill means "goal" by "end"). This leads Smith to tease out how the satisfaction with one's life is based on considerations of happiness; there exist two desired states, tranquility and excitement. The former state allows one to be satisfied with only moderate pleasure, and the latter allows one to endure more pain. The marriage of both states describes the harmonic balance of pleasure and pain - which is humanity's ultimate end.
If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.
This passage is important for two main reasons. Firstly, it dovetails nicely with Mill's democratic political theory, as he asserts here that the relative value of pleasures is determined by a general consensus of those who have experienced the pleasures in question. Secondly, this argument forms the foundation for Mill's claim that intellectual pleasures are qualitatively different from baser pleasures, for in asserting that claim he appeals to the preference of intellectual pleasures in those people who have experienced both intellectual and base pleasures.
But moral associations which are wholly of artificial creation, when intellectual culture goes on, yield by degrees to the dissolving force of analysis: and if the feeling of duty, when associated with utility, would appear equally arbitrary; if there were no leading department of our nature, no powerful class of sentiments, with which that association would harmonize, which would make us feel it congenial, and incline us not only to foster it in others (for which we have abundant interested motives), but also to cherish it in ourselves; if there were not, in short, a natural basis of sentiment for utilitarian morality, it might well happen that this association also, even after it had been implanted by education, might be analyzed away.
But there is this basis of powerful natural sentiment; and this it is which, when once the general happiness is recognized as the ethical standard, will constitute the strength of the utilitarian morality. This firm foundation is that of the social feelings of mankind; the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures, which is already a powerful principle in human nature, and happily one of those which tend to become stronger, even without express inculcation, from the influences of advancing civilization. The social state is at once so natural, so necessary, and so habitual to man, that, except in some unusual circumstances or by an effort of voluntary abstraction, he never conceives himself otherwise than as a member of a body; and this association is riveted more and more, as mankind are further removed from the state of savage independence. Any condition, therefore, which is essential to a state of society, becomes more and more an inseparable part of every person's conception of the state of things which he is born into, and which is the destiny of a human being.
Mill argues in this section that the ultimate sanction of morality must lie in powerful sentiments that harmonize with the intuitions of our consciousness, for no other moral concepts would hold up under close scrutiny. Mill believes utilitarianism passes this test because it harmonizes with humanity's strong sentiments for socializing and living harmoniously with our own kind.
The ingredients of happiness are very various, and each of them is desirable in itself, and not merely when considered as swelling an aggregate. The principle of utility does not mean that any given pleasure, as music, for instance, or any given exemption from pain, as for example health, are to be looked upon as means to a collective something termed happiness, and to be desired on that account. They are desired and desirable in and for themselves; besides being means, they are a part of the end. Virtue, according to the utilitarian doctrine, is not naturally and originally part of the end, but it is capable of becoming so; and in those who love it disinterestedly it has become so, and is desired and cherished, not as a means to happiness, but as a part of their happiness.
Mill here is accounting for the false portrayal of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy which cannot accommodate the value of virtue. Mill characterizes virtue as a component of happiness, which is initially a means to facilitating happiness; yet the love of virtue can make it an end component of one's happiness, just as music and health can be specific instances of happiness.
If it is a duty to do to each according to his deserts, returning good for good as well as repressing evil by evil, it necessarily follows that we should treat all equally well (when no higher duty forbids) who have deserved equally well of us, and that society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is, who have deserved equally well absolutely. This is the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice; towards which all institutions, and the efforts of all virtuous citizens, should be made in the utmost possible degree to converge. But this great moral duty rests upon a still deeper foundation, being a direct emanation from the first principle of morals, and not a mere logical corollary from secondary or derivative doctrines. It is involved in the very meaning of Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle. That principle is a mere form of words without rational signification, unless one person's happiness, supposed equal in degree (with the proper allowance made for kind), is counted for exactly as much as another's. Those conditions being supplied, Bentham's dictum, 'everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one,' might be written under the principle of utility as an explanatory commentary. The equal claim of everybody to happiness in the estimation of the moralist and the legislator, involves an equal claim to all the means of happiness, except in so far as the inevitable conditions of human life, and the general interest, in which that of every individual is included, set limits to the maxim; and those limits ought to be strictly construed.
This passage is the general upshot of Mill's fifth and final chapter of Utilitarianism, in which he defends utility as the greater part of the foundation for justice. According to him, the moral duties that underpin justice are derivative of utilitarian moral principles of society seeking the general good.
Utilitarianism Questions and Answers
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