Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, April 26, 2014

MILL: Utilitarianism (Was Job Utilitarian?)

Put yourself in Job’s place. You’ve lost your wealth, your children, even your health. Now you’re sitting in the city dump scratching at the boils and scabs covering your body. Your friends tell you it’s your own fault. Now ask yourself: am I happy? Of course not. Who would trade places with Job? I wouldn’t. I bet you wouldn’t either. Or the guy down the street, or the guy in the next state or the one clear across the world. Why is that? Why do all of us want to be happy? Why do all of us try to be happy? And if that’s what we all want and that’s where we put all of our efforts, then why aren’t we all happy? J. S. Mill thinks he can answer that.
Mill says “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.” That’s another way of saying that we don’t always do the things that make us happy. In fact, a lot of times we do the exact opposite. We do things that make us unhappy. Why? That’s a question for psychologists to answer. Great Books readers are more interested in what Mill means when he talks about happiness. He takes a very simple approach and defines his terms: “By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure…” This isn’t rocket science. Pleasure is good, pain is bad. Pleasure = good = happiness. Pain = bad = unhappiness. This is the basic Utilitarian view of the world.
So far so good. Now we can apply Mill’s principle to Job’s situation. Clearly Job’s pain increased more than his pleasure so unhappiness was the result. The problem comes when we try to compare degrees of pleasure and pain. Which is more pleasant, being rich or being a father? Which is more painful, losing your health or losing a child? Those questions weren’t just hypothetical questions for Job. They were real problems. Mill says “…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.” Good. Mill has given us a solid foundation to work with.
But would Mill’s philosophy satisfy Job? Mill goes on to say, “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.” Job was not a fool and he wasn’t a pig. According to the story Job was “a perfect and an upright man.” So. Mill’s Utilitarianism is a philosophy for human beings. But the question remains: is Mill’s philosophy one that could help Job in this particular case? Does it explain pleasure and pain in a way that could help Job?
Job was a human being and like all human beings he wanted to be happy. He knew both sides of Mill’s comparison of being an unsatisfied Socrates vs. a satisfied pig. More than most people, Job knew what it was like to be happy and what it was like to be unhappy. He had seen the best and the worst the world has to offer. What Job did not know was why God had allowed him to suffer. He did not know why bad things happen to good people. For Job the primary question isn’t how to be happy, but rather: what kind of god is God? Job didn’t want Utilitarian philosophy, nor Stoicism or Epicureanism or Transcendentalism. He didn’t want philosophy at all. Job wanted to hear it straight from the mouth of God Himself. John Stuart Mill was a remarkable man and a talented philosopher. He developed a fine philosophy. But he wasn’t God. Utilitarianism, with all its good qualities, was not a philosophy for a man like Job.


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