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Saturday, May 29, 2010

MILL: Utilitarianism (selections)

In his book on Ethics Aristotle points out that people have different ideas about what they want out of life, but there’s one thing that everyone wants: happiness. Anyone who’s ever been both happy and unhappy would choose to be happy if they had a choice. Aristotle thinks happiness is a kind of good life and well-being, not just a passing feeling we have. John Stuart Mill agrees that happiness is important: The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end. But happiness for Mill has to be a human happiness, based on the higher pleasures of life. One of Mill’s famous quotes is that 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 of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides. This sounds good and is a good sound bite. But is it true?

First of all, what is Mill talking about when he uses the term Utilitarianism? Like any good philosopher, Mill defines his terms: 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… Happiness in the Utilitarian view is pleasure, or the absence of pain. This sounds reasonable. Most people would say they’re happy when they’re having fun. But how would Mill’s theory account for the activities of the early Christian martyrs in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? They went out of their way to seek martyrdom. Were they unhappy? The Roman governors thought so: “Unhappy men!” exclaimed the proconsul Antoninus to the Christians of Asia, “unhappy men! If you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?” But these people went to painful deaths singing joyful hymns. Clearly there’s a difference of opinion here about the meaning of happiness. Mill tries to explain in more detail what Utilitarianism means: …utilitarian writers in general have placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures chiefly in the greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, etc., of the former; that is, in their circumstantial advantages rather than in their intrinsic nature. For Mill, mental pleasures are better than bodily pleasures because they last longer, they’re safer, and they don’t cost as much. This may convince philosophers but would it convince ordinary people? Mill thinks the case is closed: on all these points utilitarians have fully proved their case… Really? If the case is “fully proved” then why isn’t everyone a Utilitarian?

Mill thinks part of the reason is that people don’t fully understand what Utilitarianism is all about: We not uncommonly hear the doctrine of utility inveighed against as a godless doctrine…If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other. This sounds good. God desires all his creatures to be happy. But our reading in the book of Job gives a very different impression about what God wants. There may be things even more important than happiness. Does Mill think that living a life of virtue, such as Job did, will necessarily lead to happiness (i.e. if I be good to God, God will be good to me)? Experience doesn’t show this to be true. Job suffers even though he hasn’t done anything wrong. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and we don’t know why. But we do know that living well is more likely to bring us happiness. That’s what Mill is driving at: the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Whether you’re a person or a pig, be happy.


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