Moore’s Criticism of Mill’s Proof of Utilitarianism
Ok, in the previous post we looked at Sidgwick’s criticisms of Mill’s proof of utilitarianism. As the title might suggest, we will now turn to Moore’s criticisms. For a more detailed explanation of Mill’s proof, check out the previous post. For this post I’ll just present Mill’s proof in its skeleton form so we are easily able to refer back to specific premises.
(I will write a post within a week about how Mill might reply to Sidgwick and Moore)
“Happiness, as we saw, has been defined by Mill, as ‘pleasure and the absence of pain’. Does Mill mean to say that ‘money,’ these actual coins, which he admites to be desired in and for themselves, are a part either of pleasure or of the absence of pain? Will he maintain that those coins themselves are in my mind, and actually a part of my pleasant feelings? If this is to be said, all words are useless: nothing can possibly be distinguished from anything else; if those two things are not distinct, what on earth is? We shall hear next that this table is really and truly the same thing as this room; that a cab-horse is in fact indistinguishable from St Paul’s Cathedral…” (Moore, p.71)
Quick Sketch of Mill’s Proof
Proof of Part 1: Happiness is a Good
(P1) The only evidence that something is desirable (i.e. good) is that people desire it.
(P2) People desire their own happiness.
(P3) Thus, a particular person’s happiness is desirable to them (and therefore an end),
(P4) Thus, happiness (as conceived by each person) is an end and (therefore) a good to that person.
(C1) So, the general happiness is a good to the aggregate of all people.
Proof of Part 2: Happiness is the only good.
All desires are either a means to happiness or a component of a compound notion of happiness. Since we identify ends by whether they are desirable, (C2) happiness is the only thing desired as an end in itself.
Because happiness is the sole end of human action “and the promotion of it the test by which to judge of all human contact,” it must be the standard of morality (Mill, p. 125). In other words, utilitarianism is true.
Moore’s Criticisms of Mill’s Proof
Moore identifies most of the same problems that Sidgwick does, however, his account of why Mill went wrong differs.
Argument 1: Naturalistic Fallacy Via Fallacy of Equivocation
Recall that Sidgwick also accuses Mill of the fallacy of equivocation (failing to hold constant the meaning of a term through out the premises to the conclusion). Moore makes the same claim against Mill but explains the equivocation as causing Mill to commit the naturalistic fallacy.
The naturalistic fallacy is committed anytime the property of moral good is equated with a natural property, and Mill commits this fallacy when he tells us that ‘good’ means ‘desirable’. To make his argument, Moore relies on the same disanalogy Sidgwick recognized in Mill’s analogy between ‘visible’ and ‘desirable’. Mill tells us that to know what is is visible we observe what is able to be seen and so, to know what is desirable we observe what people desire. The problem is that ‘visible’ means ‘able to be seen’ but ‘desirable’ doesn’t mean ‘able to be desired’: it means something ought to be desired or is worthy of being desired.
However, if we simply follow Mill’s analogy and interpret ‘desirable’ as the descriptive ‘able to be desired’ then it follows that just about anything can be good. Because, it seems just about anything can, in a descriptive sense, be desired–including ‘bad’ things. Well, that’s not going to help Mill’s case….
But that’s not the main problem. The main problem that arises from attributing the descriptive interpretation to ‘desirable’ is that what we ought to do (the normative rule of action) collapses into the descriptive claim about what we do do.
In other words, he established his normative (i.e. , what we ought to do) conclusion that “the general happiness is good because it is desirable” through the descriptive claim that people do desire their own happiness. But if we hold the descriptive meaning constant throughout the premises and apply it to the conclusion, then the conclusion itself becomes descriptive–i.e., the general happiness is good because we are able to desire it.
But that doesn’t tell us that we ought to desire it or that it ought to be desired, which is what Mill wants to say. Furthermore, as we have seen, being able to desire something doesn’t imply it is what we ought to desire, nor does it make it the standard by which to judge all human conduct.
By equating ‘desirable’ with ‘the good’ and holding Mill to the descriptive meaning of desirable (established in the premises), he cannot derive the normativity he wants in his conclusion. His alternative is to equivocate on the meaning of ‘desirable’, which invalidates his argument because it commits the fallacy of equivocation.
Argument 2: Means-Ends vs Psychological Hedonism
Like Sidgwick, Moore also rejects Mill’s psychological hedonism–i.e., that the only thing we desire (i.e., the sole end of action) is pleasure/happiness because everything is either a means to or a component of happiness. Moore’s two general arguments are that (a) Mill psychological model of the relationship between desires and pleasure is wrong and that (b) Mill conflates what it is to be a means and what it means to be an end.
The first part of Mill’s objection is to counter Mill’s psychological model. For Moore pleasure is what motivates action toward some particular object; and that particular object is included in the ultimate end of my desire. For Mill when I desire some object, it’s actually not that object that I desire but only the anticipated pleasure I will get from it. But for Moore the way it works is that the idea of that object causes in me a thought of pleasure which in turn causes me to desire the object. So, as well as the pleasure I hope to attain, I also desire the object. Therefore, pleasure isn’t the only thing we desire because we also desire the object.
The second argument concerns a confusion of means and ends. Recall that Mill acknowledges that some might counter his psychological hedonism by pointing out that people pursue things like virtue, power, fame, money etc as ends in themselves. His reply is that in such cases those ‘ends’, through habit or education, have become components of a compound notion of happiness, thereby supporting his hypothesis that the only thing people desire is happiness.
To illustrate Moore’s objections, lets take money as an example. Recall that for Mill happiness is ‘pleasure and the absence of pain’. Some people view money as an intermediate means to some pleasure. But as Mill suggests, for some people, money can be an end it itself. That is, they just want money for money’s sake. Not to buy anything…but just to have it: think Scrooge McDuck or Mr. Burns.
In the latter case money has become part of that person’s compound notion of happiness. And, if money is part of someone’s compound notion of happiness then money is pleasure because happiness is pleasure. But in what sense can money be pleasure? This doesn’t seem to make sense at all. Mill is just defining words to suit his purpose.
Mill told us that everything except pleasure is but a means, which seems to imply that everything except pleasure is precluded from being an end. But now he tells us that some other things that were previously means–that by any reasonable use of language are distinct from pleasure–can also be ends.
So, either Mill must maintain the ridiculous position that money is pleasure or that there are things besides pleasure that people desire as ends. If he doesn’t want to appear kressy he’s going to have to take the latter, but then he has to give up psychological hedonism.
3 thoughts on “Moore’s Criticism of Mill’s Proof of Utilitarianism”
This page as well as the overview on Sidgwick's criticism of Moore are life savers, thank you so much for posting this
where did you find moore's objections? (book/article)
It's in Principia Ethica.