Adjectives on the Typewriter

she moves her words like a prizefighter

27 February 2006

On Utilitarianism

In explaining his theory of Utilitarianism, Mill addresses many of the criticisms leveled against that ethical system. He argues that utility—the achievement of happiness by maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain—is the fundamental principle of all morality. And in doing so, Mill finds it necessary to refute the accusations both of those who misunderstand the Utility Principle and those who understand and yet reject it.

As a primary concern, Mill sets out to (better) define his terms so as to eliminate some of the misunderstanding surrounding Utilitarianism. All moral systems, he says, are based on general principles, regardless of whether those general principles are inherent or “learned” through experience. He further argues that happiness always governs our actions, and thus is the fundamental (if unacknowledged) ethical standard. This refutes Kant’s idea that ethics is governed by the potential consequences from the universal adoption of an individual’s action. According to Mill, Kant’s principle fails because it only deals with the theoretical situation in which consequences are universally applied—something that almost never happens in reality. In contrast, Utility is by definition “the ultimate ethical principle for human conduct” since all humans inherently value pleasure and “the good.”

After discussing the impracticality of Kant’s transcendentalism, Mill moves on to address the accusation that Utilitarianism neglects pleasure by promoting usefulness or practicality. To refute this misconception, Mill reiterates that the central tenet of Utilitarianism is the promotion of pleasure and the absence of pain. And while the Utility principle is not preoccupied with instant physical gratification, it does revolve around pleasure both inherently and as a means to the promotion of future pleasure. Conversely, the Utility principle does not reduce humans to pleasure-seeking animals, but rather elevates humans by acknowledging the superiority of their faculties to those of animals. Mill also emphasizes that Utility balances the quality of pleasure with quantity; thus some pleasures are inherently more valuable than others. As humans, we can appreciate this difference in quality by virtue of our “moral experience,” something lacking in animals. Whereas sensory/animalistic pleasures do at times direct the human psyche, pursuing higher pleasures most often leads us to sacrifice those fleeting passions. Finally, Mill makes the distinction between happiness and contentment, saying that even if our higher sensibilities cause us to be dissatisfied, we still have a greater capacity for happiness than a satisfied but “ignorant” being.

The most compelling argument against Mill’s Utilitarianism, however, is that it places the individual’s interests over those of the human community as a whole. Mill even goes so far as to admit that Utility “requires us to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.” He further claims that in order to achieve this, we must educate people to associate individual good with the good of the whole. But in reality, most individuals are not impartial spectators, and neither can they simply be taught to act as such. Each individual by nature places his own interests over those of others, thereby creating the need for ethics. Mill’s only response is that so long as we make the distinction between motives and actions (a distinction he presupposes to be crystal-clear), morality needs only to restrain acts and not seek to constrain the propelling interests behind those acts. And while Mill attempts to show that morality can never really address motives, his argument becomes incredibly circular as he seeks to redefine morality. Mill’s morality, then, is incomplete because it deals only with consequences of human action—in a way similar to law. Thus while Utilitarianism offers a “tangible and intelligible mode” for regulating human behavior, it neglects the deeper problem of motives and their direct correlation to human nature and behavior.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, who is right -- Kant or Mill?

(Obviously, a trick question!)


March 1, 2006 at 11:38 AM  
Blogger em²ile² said...

Oh, you and your impossible philosophical quibblings!

March 1, 2006 at 12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Impossible? I think not. This is actually a rather easy question if you get the right spin on it.


March 2, 2006 at 12:28 PM  
Blogger em²ile² said...

Yeah, because both are a certain extent.

March 3, 2006 at 10:17 PM  
Blogger em²ile² said...

PS: Clint, it is now your responsibility to write a formal refutation of what I have written thus far (which received a big, fat, nasty B, incidentally).

Oh, and this challenge is open to anyone who bothers to read it.

March 6, 2006 at 9:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I posted, but apparently it didn't go through. The original post read,
"Actually, I would have said that both are partially RIGHT..."
Explanation: Kant's morality deals with universals, and thus contradicts itself in certain cases. The infinite intrinsic value of each human being is occasionally at odds with the infinite value of a conglomerate (government, family, church, etc.) Bentham and Mill, on the other hand, discuss law by its effects rather than its core and also rely on a basically good model of human nature.

Can I have my A back?


P.S. One million imaginary dollars will be transfered from my Swiss-ish bank account for each person that can define the word verification term "zyzha".

March 7, 2006 at 12:23 PM  
Blogger em²ile² said...

Your A?!? It was I who received thay nasty B. Mmm, good explanation. I think I might use that when we discuss Kant after spring break.

PS: I like my word verification word better: omueuo. I'm going to define it as an emu who has lost one of its legs in a terrible blimp accident.

March 7, 2006 at 12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"zyzha": n. a breeze that carries an acrid scent, usu. by flatulation.

-Clintster's Collegiate Dictionary

I have a better one:

March 8, 2006 at 2:20 PM  
Blogger em²ile² said...

Wow, this has seriously digressed. Ack, my lone academic post for the year, and look where it's gone...

Where might I procure a copy of the acclaimed Clinster's? You know what, I think we should co-author a new Devil's Dictiomary. Yeah, that would be fun.

March 8, 2006 at 3:12 PM  
Blogger Theo C said...

Those advocating embryonic stem-cell research are essentially utilitarians. The possibility that human beings, either real or in potency, are being destroyed is brushed aside as insignificent in favour of projected benefits. Whenever we make human beings disposable, it is argued for someone else's good or "choice".

They may also contend that they are pragmatists, as if they have a better grasp of reality than those espousing the importance of more abstract principles.

Turning human beings into lampshades and soap showed great ingenuity on the part of the Nazis during the Holocaust. They discovered a way to recycle a valuable resource, the bodies of dead Jews; however, such utility while benefiting and giving pleasure to a priviledged few, brought terrible suffering and an end to all choices for many.

Closing an American factory for a more modern and productive one in a foreign nation with cheap labor, would fit in with utilitarian principles; but that would still not put food on the table for the families of 40,000 laid off American workers.

Mill was no ogre, but I think he was overly optimistic about human nature. We have to examine core values and not just judge situations upon our intended results or effects. And what if my plans or that of one nation conflict with another's?

Mill's stress on happiness and the effects of choices would rank his theory as a hedonistic system. As such, it would be at odds with altruism, placing too much gravity upon self-interest as if only things that make you feel good are ethically right.

Why is it that this system has predominately been promulgated by the English?

March 9, 2006 at 11:02 AM  
Blogger Jas said...

I remember my philosophy professor saying that altruism fit in because one would gain "warm fuzzies", the proud feeling for doing good, as the pleasurable reward.
The problem is that what's good for the majority leaves the minority uneasily vulnerable and impinges on their right to happiness.

If only the minority could be satisfied with warm fuzzies knowing they made everyone else happier...

tgijbfxp: the sound a horse makes when it has a cough.

March 9, 2006 at 8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ngamrdx (nuh-GAM-ra-dex): n. A compilation of terms and their meanings on the subject of dark purple objects and/or ideas.


March 10, 2006 at 11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try this one: "qabyds"


March 10, 2006 at 11:35 AM  
Blogger em²ile² said...

The sound made by a duck upon being decapitated.

March 26, 2006 at 5:01 PM  

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