Mill’s Utilitarianism, Chapter IV: Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible
Note: For criticisms of Mill’s Proof see my later posts “Sidgwick’s Criticisms of Mill’s Proof” and “Moore’s Criticisms of Mill’s Proof”
Favorite Quote: “…[Virtue] may be felt a good in itself, and desired as such with as great intensity as any other good; and with these differences between it and the love of money, of power, or of fame–that all of these may, and often do, render the individual noxious to the other members of society to which he belongs, whereas there is nothing which makes him so much a blessing to them as the cultivation of the disinterested love of virtue.”
A familiar theme in many branches of philosophy (mostly epistemology) is how to prove a primitive. By “primitive”, I mean a foundational fact. A fact that to the question “why?” you can’t reply anymore than “it just is“. Think of it this way: Imagine you’re taking to a really annoying kid who keeps asking “why” to every successive answer you give. At some point, you’re going to run out of answers. Or punch him right in the face!!
Here’s an example of a conversation reaching a primitive (from a criminally underrated comedy):
Example of an Epistemic Primitive(video)
So, what’s all the hoopla about primitives? Well, Mill has a problem with proving utilitarianism because it is claimed that its first principle (ie. an action is good to the degree that it maximizes happiness for the greatest number of peeps) is a primitive. But so are the first principles of any moral system. If proponents of each moral system each tell me I should accept their particular first principle because “it just is the right one”, why should I choose one system over another? And on what grounds?
Mill recognizes this problem and tries to give us a proof…
Proof of Happiness as the Only Good
We begin with what Mill sets out to prove: that in human affairs, happiness is the only desirable end. Not that we don’t want other things, but that we want other things like money, honor, success, friends, and family because they are often only means to our ultimate end, which is happiness. But why should we agree with this?
First argument: How do we know if something is visible? People see it. How do we know if something is audible? People hear it. So…how do we know if something is desirable? You got it…people desire it!
Ok, so people desire their own happiness perhaps, but it doesn’t necessary follow that people desire the happiness of others…
Baaaat! That’s not what we’re trying to prove. We’re not primarily concerned with what people actually do, we are concerned with defining what moral goodness is. The fact that a person values and desires their own happiness tells us that happiness is a good to that person. So, the general happiness must be a good to the aggregate of all persons.
So far we’ve (more or less) established that happiness is a good because it is the desired end of most people’s actions, but we have yet to establish that it is the only good. To do this we have to demonstrate that happiness is the only thing that people desire. It seems clear that there are other things people desire such as virtue (some people), absence of pain, and absence of vice, makin’ paypur, range rovers, etc…
So, how does Mill argue for his postion? He could say that all the other things people desire are instrumental ends; that is, they are merely a means to happiness. But no, that’d be a cheap move and open him to some easy challenges. Instead, he pursues a slightly different (but similar) strategy.
He acknowledges that for some people, they actually do pursue virtue, money, fame, etc… not as means to happiness but as ends in themselves. So, how is that consistent with happiness being the only ultimate end?
The answer is that although people might not pursue virtue and such as a means to happiness, but as a component of happiness. Huh? Wut? How does this work?
Lets drawr an analogy with money. Most people pursue money as a means to some end. People pursue money cuz it will get them the things they really want. In the standard case, money is an instrumental end. It is simply an intermediary step on the way to getting what we really want. But, sometimes, in the course of some people’s lives, they start to want money just to have it. They don’t use it to get other things. They want money for money’s sake. They like to love it and feed it and pet it…This is usually a progression. It doesn’t happen over night. Not that it would matter if it did. The point is, that somewhere along the line some people pursue money just to have money. Having the money–by itself–makes them feel happy.
Ok, lets go back to virtue. Most people typically act virtuously because helping other people makes them feel good. If they didn’t get a good feeling from acting virtuously, they might not so act. But, hopefully, some people over time will start to value acting virtuously just for the sake of it. Why? Because this has become an element in the set of things that make them happy. Being virtuous makes them happy. Just like simply having money makes some people happy.
The difference is subtle. In the first instance we are virtuous, not because we have a desire to be virtuous, but because acting so will afford us some pleasure; that is, we seek the consequence of ‘pleasure’ from the consequence of our virtuous act. Over time, acting virtuously itself becomes a source of pleasure. We get a warm fuzzy feeling from helping people. What kind of people? People that need help! And so, virtue becomes a component of what is considered to be pleasure/happiness. It gets included in the umbrella of things we equate with happiness, and thus, “good”.
I have to admit, I find this a little sophistic. Here’s another quick example that might make strengthen Mill’s case. Few people listen to music because they figure the end result of doing so will bring them happiness. Instead, for many people music is an element in set of things that are happiness, thus becoming a good in itself. Music is happiness–or at least listening to it is. And being virtuous (for some) is a direct source of happiness. Acting virtuously is simply included in that person’s definition of what it means to be happy.
So, because things like music and virtue, in themselves, come to cause us happiness, they become goods in themselves. But why are these things goods? Because they produce happiness…Ah ha! So, you see…we’ve come full circle: that which brings about happiness is good–be it virtue or music, and whether we seek it as a means or an end! And what’s more, this proves what we’ve been trying to prove all along, that “there is in reality nothing desired except happiness.”
It’s an interesting thought experiment to come up with a counter example. Is it possible that someone would listen to music if they thought it would make them unhappy? That’s probably a bad attempt at a counterexample. Lets ax instead if it’s possible that someone would act virtuously if they expected it to make them unhappy.
Possibly. But the utilitarian would reply that the arbiter of goodness isn’t a particular individual’s happiness but the total happiness produced. So, we need to re-ax the quextion: (Hai! Ya!) Would someone self-sacrifice if they knew that it wouldn’t increase the happiness of others or at least prevent their suffering? On what grounds would they be acting? I suppose it’s possible but it certainly would appear strange. Not that humans don’t already engage in a crap load of strange behaviours. But I digress…
So where we at? Oh right. Proving that happiness is the only thing that human’s desire. Why is happiness the only thing humans desire? Because the ends of our actions are all either directed at something that we consider to be part of happiness or a means to happiness.
Now here’s the part that’s a little sketchy. The first premise we’ve established is that (1) The only thing that humans want is things that are a part of happiness or are a means to happiness. From this it follows that (2) these are the only desirable things. The next premise I’m not sure where it came from, he just kind of sneaks it in: (3) “the promotion of happiness is the test by which to judge all human conduct.” Then Mill concludes (C) “it necessarily follows that it must be the criterion of morality, since a part is included in the whole.”
What I don’t see is where (3) comes from. It looks like it’s supposed to follow from (1) and (2), but there is no logical connection as far as I can tell. What er’body wants and the benchmark for evaluating the moral worth of actions are not necessarily connected. As a “gentle” Christian once told me, “children in hell want ice water.” Doesn’t mean the standard of conduct should be measured by how much ice water is produced… The obvious response is to ax why they wanted ice water: to bring them relief from suffering (same as pleasure/happiness for a utilitarian). So, check mate! Utilitarians win again.
Mill would probably futher respond that, “you dumbass, we’ve just spend a crap load of ink and paper proving what ‘good’ is. ‘Good’ is whatever produces happiness. More happiness= more better. So, a good (i.e., morally right) action is one that produces the most happiness for the greatest amount of peeps. Eazy peezy japonese-y!
Happiness is goodness! That’s what good is! And there is only one good–happiness. Were you asleep or something?”
Or something like that. He could be quite short with people that questioned him.
That’s all for tonight. I hope this made you happy…meaning it was good!