Sunday, September 2, 2012

Mill's Utilitarianism Part 2: Mill's Argument for the Ultimate Sanction (What Can Compel Us to Consider General Happiness when We Act? )

Yo check it.  Weez about to learn about why (Mill thinks) we should be compelled to adopt and adhere to utilitarianism as the ultimate moral standard.  That is, why does a utilitarian ethic have binding force?

Overview and RecapOk,'member utilitarianism?  It's the idear that the moral goodness of an action is proportional to the total amount of happiness (or pleasure) it produces (for the agent as well as--and especially--other people).  So, an action that produces more pleasure/happiness for 5 people is more gooder than an action that produces pleasure/happiness for only 1.  Simple enough so far, right?  (We'll table some of the problems to get to the point of this post.)

Next step--Definition:  Happiness and pleasure are one and the same for utilitarians so I'll just say happiness to mean both; happiness also includes avoidance of pain.  But Mill makes a distinction between types of pleasure: higher (intellectual) and lower (sensual).  We know some pleasures to have more worth than others because the majority of peeps who experience and have the capacity for both will choose the higher over the lower.

Ok, supposing we accept everything so far, there's still a prollem--why should I be motivated to obey this standard of morality?  What's stopping me from being a selfish egotistical misanthrope and stepping on others to feed my own ravenous appetite for pleasure?  That's the problem Mill tackles in this section...

Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility
People Will Act on Utilitarian Principles Because They Already Are UtilitariansThe general gist of Mill's argument for why we should be motivated to obey the utilitarian maxim and whence it derives its motivating force is that we are already utilitarians and this is the natural moral position!  Of course he has some more specific arguments to support this assertion which we will look at...

Mill sets things up for his we're-utilitarian-even-if-we-don't-know-it view like this:  Many people recognize a moral duty not to murder, steal, and deceive yet might question the utilitarian maxim to act according to what will promote the general happiness.  How do we explain the feeling of moral duty toward abstaining from these specific acts while there is no corresponding feeling to act on the utilitarian maxim?

Mill suggests that we have accepted the specific consequences of utilitarianism but not the general maxim.  But this failure is simply a consequence of poor education and lack of influences which form moral character.  If people got their learn on, the 1st principle of utilitarianism "shall be as deeply rooted in our character, and to our own consciousness as completely a part of our nature, as the horror of crime is in an ordinarily well-bought up young person."

Basically, people who accept the consequences of the utilitarian ethic but not its principle do so because it falls outside of their particular custom and education--and so they question it.  But this is nothin' a little learnin' can't fix.

The obvious problem with this argument is that it can be made by any ethical system.  Hey, if you raise everyone as Kantians and teach them to see the moral truth in Kantianism, chances are, the majority will think the categorical imperative (one should only act according to principles that you'd want everyone to act on) is the one true moral principle.

Actually, if you ax most 'mericans (Republicans, anyway) they'll probably advocate an egoist morality; that is, since people are rational and self-interested, actions that are in line with the principle of rational self-interest are 'right'--provided another's rights aren't infringed upon.   If only they knew they are really just misguided utilitarians...

Anyhow, what really jumps out at me is how Aristotelian Mill sounds wilt all this moral education stuff.  Aristotle basically said (super condensed version), an action is good if it is by a virtuous person and a virtuous person is one who has had a correct moral education.  In a way, Mills just adding on that someone with the correct moral education would act according to the utilitarian principle.

Recall that the whole point of this section of the utilitarian argument is to defend utilitarianism from critics who charge that utilitarianism can't work because there's no reason for people to go along with it.  In this context, Mill discusses external and internal sanctions that may or may not compel someone to act according to the utilitarian ethic.  Regarding external sanctions he says they are the same for any possible moral system: desire to be praised and avoid punishment (earthly or cosmic).  Lets move on to internal sanctions...

Internal SanctionsSo, what is it that might compel us to consider our action's effect on the general good above all other considerations?   What is it that makes us feel as though we have a duty to consider the general good? It is "a feeling in the mind; a pain, more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty, which in properly cultivated moral natures rises, in the more serious cases, into shrinking from its impossibility."  In other words, our conscience.

Lets call it a special feeling; lets call the feeling of moral duty "the essence of conscience".  There we have it--the thing that compels us to act according to utilitarian ethic is our conscience.  Admittedly, we rarely feel pure duty because we often have competing feelings, interests, and social conditioning running around in our heads that distort this sense of moral duty.

But how does pure conscience bind us to a particular course of action (i.e., the 1st principle of utilitarianism)?  It binds us because it is "a mass of feeling which must be broken through in order to do what violates our standard of right, and which if we do nevertheless violate that standard, will probably have to be encountered afterwards in the form of remorse."  In other words, our conscience binds us because we cannot escape it.

The obvious objection is that there are people who don't have strong feelings of conscience or are able to ignore their conscience, so how can we say that utilitarianism binds people to action?  Mill's (reoccurring) reply is that this is a problem for any ethical system--it is not particular to utilitarianism.  Such people can only be compelled to act through external sanctions regardless of what moral system you support.   So, I guess this is meant to diffuse the argument that utilitarian ethics should be rejected because it can't bind people to follow it, but neither is it a point in favour of utilitarianism.

On the Origins of the Feeling of Duty
Mill begins that the origins of the feelings of duty, be they innate or acquired, are unimportant because the net result is the same.  Supposing they are innate (here he's implying Kantian ethics), then the feeling of duty would attach to moral principles.  But there is no argument to suggest that the innate feeling of duty wouldn't attach to the utilitarian principle rather then, lets say, the categorical imperative.  Furthermore, if morality itself is intuitive, it seems that accounting for the effect of our actions on the happiness of others is "intuitively obligatory".  So, even if our sense of moral duty is innate (which Mill denies) this is no objection to utilitarianism.

Suppose instead, as Mill does, that moral feelings are learned rather than innate.  They are something we (hopefully) develop over time with experience and education just as we do with things like the ability to reason, to use language, to play an instrument... Just like any capacity we have, our moral feelings can develop to varying degrees, both positively and negatively.  So, even if our moral conscience is acquired rather than innate, there is no reason to suppose it couldn't develop to follow utilitarian principles (amongst all the other possibilities).

Then Why Utilitarianism? Finally we learn why our conscience will be receptive to utilitarian principles rather than others.  Given that, regardless of the origins of our sense of duty and moral conscience, what arguments are there to suppose the utilitarian ethics is the one true standard?  So far we've said that human can be conditioned to attach a sense of moral duty to just about moral principle.

Ah! Ha!  But you see, the utilitarian principle is special! The is a "powerful natural basis of sentiment for utilitarian morality".  You see, once the general happiness is recognized as the ethical standard it will be the basis of this powerful natural sentiment.  And that natural oh-so-good feeling is the social feeling of mankind--"the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures..."; that is, our natural tendency to live as social creatures.  It is unnatural for us to live outside of a social context.

It's hard to dispute that we are social creatures but some people might reply that our natural tendency toward social living doesn't necessarily entail utilitarianism.  An egoist or social contract theorist might say, for example, that social living just means that I have to abide by certain conventions if I want to get out of life what I want but still avoid (external) sanctions.

Mill further argues that social living is impossible unless the members regard everyone's interests to be equal.  People grow up with the understanding that they have to include the interests of others when/before they act.  They learn not to injure others.  In instances of cooperation they learn that interests can be mutual and that our own well being is often bound up in that of others.  He goes on to paint a very pretty picture:

Not only does all strengthening of social ties, and all healthy growth of society, give to each individual a stronger personal interest in practically consulting the welfare of others, it also leads him to identify his feelings more and more with their good, or at least with an even greater degree of practical consideration for it.

Under these conditions he will, as a matter of habit, consider the good of others in his actions.  Once he has this feeling he will want to demonstrate it, and encourage it in others.  And even if he doesn't have utilitarian sentiments, for his own self-interest he will want others to be utilitarians because he will benefit.  Before long and by this process the utilitarian meme takes over the society, removing sources of opposition and "leveling those inequalities of legal privilege between individuals or classes".

Here's the really interesting thing.  In a way Mill was right.  Empirical evidence suggests that most people think like utilitarians (however, it varies between cultures and contexts).  Also, that in groups where there are strong social ties members do tend to consider the happiness of the other members in their moral calculus.  As the intellectual underpinnings and the utilitarian feelings of the individual grow, he will oppose socio-economic and socio-political structures that prevent others from having the benefits he has.  Through this mechanism the moral community grows in number.

Basically, once you go utilitarian you never go back cuz it just feels sooooo natural.  When you accept utilitarianism into your heart it is not as "a law despotically imposed by the power of society, but as an attribute which is would not be well for them to be without".  Utilitarianism, once embraced, works in harmony with external or internal motives to care for others.  When external sanctions fail to motivate, the utilitarian ethic will provide internal motivation (sense of duty) to consider the happiness of others (in proportion to the extent to which to agent is utilitarian).

Sounds nice, doesn't it?


  1. i honestly understood your analysis better than any online journal that explained the same concept. You were even better than Sparksnotes!!! Thank you for that

  2. Thank you so much for your compliment. It means a lot to me that I was able to help someone better understand philosophy. I wish you the best of luck in your papers!