- Utilitarianism and the division of ethics.
- Two parts of utilitarianism: The Theory of the Right,
and the Theory of the Good. Right = “Whatever maximizes the good.”
Good = “Total happiness.”
- Will talk specifically about act
utilitarianism for most of this class, as that is the most popular theory.
- Other ethical theories besides utilitarianism share
the same theory of the right, but differ in what the good is. For
instance, can have a Nietzschean theory:
Maximize the excellence (artistic, etc.) of the most excellent persons!
(The good, according to this theory, being the excellence of the elite.)
Or else can have an egoist theory on which the only thing that is
good is my happiness.
- The idea of consequentialism certainly sounds pretty
plausible: There is something good. What should we do?
Well, surely, the more good, the better. So what we should do is
maximize the good. Surely it would not be good to minimize the good,
or to go for something mid-way. The right thing to aim for is the
- What makes all these theories consequentialistic
is that to figure out whether some action is right or wrong, they simply
look at what results from the action and figure out if this action is the
one that best contributes to the good.
- Observe how this differs from Aristotelian or Natural
Law ethics. For instance, we saw that Thomas thought you could not
kill yourself even if society’s lot would improve by this. You
couldn’t do it, because by doing it you would be setting yourself directly
against the basic good of life. Moreover, to the consequentialist it
does not matter which of the consequences are intended and which are not,
but all that matters is just what results from the action.
- Obviously, every ethical theory worth its salt has to
take consequences into account in some way.
- Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory whose
theory of the good identifies the good with total happiness of all (in
Mill, “all”=”all humans”; in Singer, “all”=”all conscious beings”),
or, more precisely, total happiness minus total unhappiness (we can count
unhappiness as negative happiness). So what is the one and only one
first principle of the utilitarian? The one commandment?
“Maximize everybody’s happiness!”
- Technical term: utility = happiness minus
unhappiness. So, the utilitarian tries to maximize utility.
We sometimes use the word utility as just meaning usefulness.
That’s not what’s meant here. Mill also notes that we sometimes use utilitarian
just to mean useful, with no frills, Spartan. Again, that’s not what
is meant. According to Mill, anything that gives lots of pleasure and
no pain is utilitarian.
- Note the similarity in utilitarian calculations of
what maximizes happiness to a businessman’s calculations of what brings
profit. Take the benefits and subtract the costs! One
crucial difference (another is that money is not happiness!) is that
the businessman may just calculate profit for herself while the
utilitarian calculates what brings happiness to all.
- Finally, there is a question of what happiness is.
We’ve seen that the question was one that mattered a lot to Aristotle.
The utilitarian can’t just agree with Aristotle that happiness = the
exercise of virtue. The reason she can’t say this is that it would
become circular. For according to the utilitarian:
- The exercise of virtue is doing what is right (in
the right way).
- What is right is maximizing happiness.
And so if we add that happiness is the exercise of virtue,
then we get the idea that the exercise of virtue is maximizing virtue.
But this is plainly circular and leaves completely unclear what the point of
the maximization of virtue is.
- So the utilitarian can’t be an Aristotelian at the
same time. Instead, she needs to give another definition of
happiness. According to Mill, happiness = pleasure + absence of
pain. This is hedonistic utilitarianism. There are also
non-hedonistic utilitarianisms on which happiness might be living a life
that is objectively fulfilling or satisfying as many of one’s desires as
possible or having and satisfying as many desires as possible.
- The act utilitarian is the beast we're interested in
most. The act utilitarian's theory of the right is that an action is
right provided that under the circumstances this is the action that produces
the best outcome. (Rule utilitarians say that we should choose rules
based on which rules produce the best outcome. Problem: What if the
rules are custom-made to each situation?)
- Examples: From earlier classes: Stealing in general is
wrong because it produces bad consequences, but when it produces good
consequences overall, it acceptable.
Lying is fine according to the utilitarian if it produces the best
consequences. The right statement to make is not necessarily the true one, but the one that makes
for the best consequences.
- Note that for the most part, utilitarianism produces
the right kinds of moral results. Murder is wrong, since it decreases
total happiness by cutting somebody off from it.
2. Mill starts off by
surveying the state of ethics in the first chapter. There have been
disagreements among philosophers about the foundations of ethics for more than
two thousand years, and we are no closer to agreement.
- There is similar disagreement in other fields, for
instance in mathematics, but this doesn’t prevent one from knowing
- This might seem a little puzzling. After all,
doesn’t “everyone” agree that 2+2=4, that the sum of the angles in a
euclidean triangle is 180 degrees, etc.? Yes, but likewise in
ethics “everyone” agrees that murder and theft are generally wrong.
- The problem in mathematics and in ethics is with
foundations: With the basic principles.
- To do arithmetic, we need concepts such as number
or addition. How do we define these concepts? What are
numbers? We might be used to thinking of mathematics as all full of
certainty and without controversy, but there is a lot of controversy
here. What is the number three? Is it a collection of
three physical objects? If so, which ones? And what about
numbers so large that there just aren’t that many physical objects in the
universe? Are they just things we create ourselves? But if we
create them ourselves, don’t we get to decide the rules for operating on
them? But surely we don’t get to decide that 2+2=4! Or are
numbers some curious kinds of non-physical objects, something abstract
but real, so that reality includes not just the concrete but also the
abstract? Or maybe numbers are ideas in the mind of God?
- Mill, however, thinks ethics is different from
mathematics. Because our actions are for a purpose, we ought to know
what the ultimate purpose of our actions is before we do them.
(Aquinas thinks we do know this purpose, namely the pursuit of the good,
though we do not always know it clearly.)
3. Mill, Chapter 2.
“By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by
unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.” (p. 7)
- One common objection to this view is that it is
supposedly swinish. It’s a philosophy fit for pigs.
Animals, not humans, are supposed to be driven towards pleasure alone.
Humans have higher things to achieve. A fulfilling human life
is not merely a life of pleasure, but a life of knowledge, friendship,
virtue and activity. People like Epicurus, Bentham
and Mill who equate happiness with pleasures equate humans with pigs.
- Mill replies that it is his opponents that
equate humans with pigs, because they seem to think that the only
pleasures available to humans are piggish pleasures, the lower
pleasures, like those of food, drink and sex. But we have higher
pleasures. Knowledge, friendship, virtue and activity are pleasant
to us. The reason the charge of pig-philosophy is made, according to
Mill, is that the animal pleasures do not satisfy us. But if
I acknowledge that they don’t satisfy us, then I am acknowledging that
other things are needed for a pleasant human life.
- In the past, utilitarian writers like Bentham have argued for the superiority of
higher pleasures by saying that these pleasures have greater:
- nearness (why does this matter??);
- fecundity (i.e., the pleasure gives birth to more
- purity (i.e., the pleasure does not give birth to
- It is important to note that fecundity and purity
also refer to whether the pleasure gives birth to pleasures/pains in other
- Why? Well, the pleasure of food may be somewhat
intense, but it does not last that long (think of eating a chocolate!),
nor does it have that much certainty—circumstances could take it away.
More importantly, though, eating good food does not give birth to more
pleasure. Well, maybe it makes you a gourmet and helps you
appreciate food more intensely, but that’s all. Anyway, after you
eat, you get sated, and aren’t able to experience the pleasure of food
again for a while. As for purity, the pleasure of food can lead to
being overweight, which can lead to health problems that are painful.
Moreover, the pleasures of food even if fecund at all, only give birth to
more pleasure for you, while the hedonistic utilitarian is trying
to maximize pleasure for everyone.
- On the other hand, the pleasure of reading a good
book may be very intense; it lasts long; it is fairly reliable
(if you can’t read it, at least you can remember the plot in your mind).
It is fecund, in two ways: it helps you appreciate more good
literature, plays and movies in the future, and it makes you give more
pleasure to other people by being a more interesting conversation partner.
And it doesn’t lead to pain. (What of reading a sad book? Somehow,
maybe, the tears in reading it are pleasant? But at least we think
they’re worth it!)
- Mill agrees with all that, but thinks one can take a
higher moral ground. The higher moral ground is of saying that the
higher pleasures are in fact better in kind. Bentham’s
considerations are all quantitative. But Mill thinks that in
addition to the quantitative considerations, there is a qualitative
consideration. Reading a good book is not better only because
of the quantitative considerations, but it is qualitatively better.
- How do we know this? We know it because people
who have tasted both the higher and the lower pleasures prefer the higher.
- So the idea seems to be this. Let’s even
suppose that by eating a very good dinner we can get 25 units
of pleasure, even after we count up all the pleasures and pains that the
dinner leads to, but from having an interesting conversation with a friend
we can get only 16 units, even after we count up all the pleasures and
pains that the conversation can lead to. Still, the conversation is qualitatively
better and it wins out. We know it’s a better kind of pleasure
precisely because people who have tried both almost always prefer it.
- “[N]o intelligent being would consent to be a fool,
no instructed person would be an ignoramus…”
- Reading Mill literally, it may sound that any
amount of a higher pleasure is to be preferred to any amount of a
- But at the top of p. 9, Mill only says that
the higher pleasure makes the quantity be of small account, and
not of no account. Imagine that you could have one extra
minute of interesting conversation with a friend, but at the cost of
never having the least bit of the lower pleasures in life. For all
of the rest of your life, you would never enjoy any of the lower
pleasures. The food you would eat would have to be bland, etc.
You might not think this is worth it! But if the difference in
quantity is less radical, then Mill thinks that you do in fact prefer the
- Mill considers the objection that the kind of person
who is attuned to the higher pleasures is less likely to be fully
satisfied with life. She will always see something as lacking.
This is true, he says, but it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than
a fool satisfied.” It’s worth having these dissatisfactions
if they are the price of higher pleasures. (pp. 9-10.) Discussion.
- Mill also considers the objection that sometimes
people do go for lower pleasures instead of higher ones (p. 10).
He says that this is due to “infirmity of character”. People often
look at the nearer pleasure. (And the higher pleasures may be more
long-term.) They even do this when looking at lower pleasures.
Take the person who smokes even though she knows that this will cause her
greater pain in the future. The nearer pleasure looms greater to her
than the distant pain. Discussion?
- This leads to two questions:
- What about the person who herself prefers the lower
pleasures, who in fact finds them more pleasant? Should she go
for the higher ones because they are better? Or should she
go for the lower ones? What does Mill think? Discussion.
- He doesn’t tell us straight out here, but it
sounds like he thinks she should go for the higher ones. After
all, the judgment of the majority of the right kinds of judges has
figured out that the higher ones are better. This person is just
wrong about what is a better pleasure than what. But, on the other
hand, maybe Mill would have to allow that in her present state, the
right thing to do would be to go for the lower pleasures.
- Actually, I think what Mill would say is that what
she should do is to educate herself to enjoy the higher pleasures,
because they are pleasures that can be enjoyed more, and so she
would be better off then. But what if she couldn’t get to
enjoy these pleasures more? What if her brain was hooked up in
such a funny way that eating chocolate cake gave her a long-lasting and
terribly intense pleasure?
- Is Mill a hedonistic utilitarian? A
hedonistic utilitarian thinks pleasure is the only value there is.
But isn’t Mill implicitly acknowledging other values like knowledge and
using them to judge between pleasures? If Mill truly values only
pleasure, is he entitled to a distinction between higher and lower pleasures
other than the one in Bentham? Discussion.
Because of this, some people have called Mill a semi-hedonistic and