Two Objections To Utilitarianism Essay


Mill continues to refine some of the issues that arise as a result of the stratification of types of pleasure, then addresses more general objections to the fundamentals of utilitarianism. The issues that Mill address here take two major forms: first, there is the issue that the establishment of a higher form of pleasure invokes the image of a paragon of humanity, prompting the issue of what it means for the moral theory that not everyone lives up to that paragon. Second, there is the matter of whether or not happiness is a plausible moral metric in the first place.

The first objection that Mill anticipates to his definition of higher pleasures is that men oftentimes choose a lesser, baser pleasure over a higher, intellectual pleasure. Mill sees this as a non-issue on the grounds that choosing a lesser pleasure does not necessarily mean it is valued more than the higher pleasure; rather, men will simply sometimes choose a more immediate, less valuable pleasure, all the while aware that they are choosing the less valuable pleasure. Mill explains the psychology of this as a weakness of character on the agent's part.

The second issue Mill fields is just how necessary the differentiation of this kind of pleasure is to the theory of utilitarianism. Interestingly, Mill posits that his exact account of different kinds of pleasures could actually be dispensed with, while still maintaining the theory of utilitarianism. His reason for this is that application of the greatest happiness principle alone would naturally tend towards a noble character by considering the happiness of others as much as one's own; in effect, this would yield the same result as explicit differentiation of kinds of pleasure.

Mill next considers arguments concerned with how much happiness humans can have, if any. The first such concern is whether humans can be happy at all. Mill first points out that this is not a real threat to the theory, because a sufficient component of the greatest happiness principle is the mitigation of unhappiness and pain, and so happiness need not actually be received for utilitarianism to function. He also points out that as happiness is not framed as a constant, implausible state of excitement, but rather as various transient pleasures, it is very hard to say that it can never occur.

The following concern is whether happiness could be the ultimate ends of humanity and the source of morality if so many have a moderate or otherwise small share of it. Mill's response is that two goal states of being, tranquility and excitement, reconcile people to happiness with less pleasure or more pain, respectively. He sees the only causes of a truly unsatisfactory life as a lack of intellectual cultivation, and selfishness.

With these fundamentals laid out, Mill is in a position to comment on the implications utilitarianism has for truly doing without happiness, vis-à-vis sacrifice of one's own happiness. The greatest happiness principle is crucial to this in one major way: it allows that one can morally sacrifice one's own happiness or interests insofar as the happiness or pain of others is concerned. Thus, one who jumps on a landmine to save others could be morally justified, but one who practices asceticism for reasons other than the happiness of others could not.

Of note in Chapter II is that Mill points out that some simply see that standards of utilitarianism as too high for humanity, even after seeing the principles clearly. Mill makes the point, but contends that this is no matter particular to utilitarianism, but rather a general feature of ethical theory: these are ethical tenets towards which people must strive, and the difficulty people have in following the ethical norms have no bearing on their validity.


A question here is where weakness of character fits into Mill's ethical model. According to Mill, people's pleasures and preferences form the basis from which morality is derived; to then make the move that people preferring pleasures that are morally lesser constitutes only weakness of character seems like suspiciously circular reasoning. If someone prefers a lesser pleasure, what ground is there for it being lesser?

A possible response is that the preference of the individual does not reflect the preference of the majority, an issue that also tracks in regards to democracy. A question to pose in this case is how people in the minority would be able to function morally, because their preferences would seem to necessarily put them in the moral wrong by nature of majority rule. It is difficult to say that such a moral denouncement would be anything but arbitrary.

In regards to Mill's response to the matter of whether or not feeling pleasure is possible, it is interesting to consider someone who can feel neither pleasure nor pain - say, someone who has for whatever tragic reason been left numb to all matters of pleasure and pain. How would such a person be treated in Mill's world? It seems as though they would not matter because the greatest happiness principle would not endow them with any moral status. One could see this as a problem for the moral framework set forth by Mill.

What of sacrifice? It is interesting to consider the degree to which a utilitarian could reasonably sacrifice one's own happiness. Competing concerns leave the answer anything but obvious, and probably outside the scope of Mill's treatise.

For example: someone who sacrifices a passionate career in the circus for a dispassionate career as a doctor could be said to surrender some of one's personal happiness for the happiness of others in an admirable way. But what about a doctor who jumped in front of a trolley to save five workers tied to the track? The five workers might have more capacity for happiness than the one doctor, but the doctor might also have been able to save more than five people throughout his professional career, had he not sacrificed himself. Despite these blind spots, Mill makes it clear that the capacity for pleasure, or the mitigation of pain, is at the heart of human morality.





The Basic Idea of Utilitarianism




The Greatest Happiness Principle:


“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as

they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” –John Stuart Mill


Happiness = pleasure, and the absence of pain

Unhappiness= pain, and the absence of pleasure



Happiness is the only thing that has intrinsic value


“pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends...all

desirable things are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or

as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.”






















Background on Utilitarianism


English philosophers John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Jeremy Bentham

(1748-1832) were the leading proponents of what is now called

“classic utilitarianism”.


The Utilitarians were social reformers


They supported suffrage for women and those without property,

and the abolition of slavery.Utilitarians argued that criminals ought to be

reformed and not merely punished (although Mill did support capital

punishment as a deterrent).Bentham spoke out against cruelty to animals.

Mill was a strong supporter of meritocracy.

Proponents emphasized that utilitarianism was an egalitarian doctrine.
Everyone’s happiness counts equally.
























Utilitarianism and the Enlightenment



The science of the Enlightenment featured theories with a very small number

of general laws and vast explanatory power.Newton’s laws, for example,

seemed able to account for all of the motion in the universe.Utilitarianism fit

right in:it was an ethical theory compatible with science and featuring a

single law of morality with great explanatory power.It was a sort of science

of morality.




















Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism


Consequentialism:Whether an action is morally right or wrong depends

entirely on its consequences.An action is right if it brings about the best

outcome of the choices available.Otherwise it is wrong.


The Good:Things (goals, states of affairs) that are worth pursuing

and promoting.


The Right:the moral rightness (or wrongness) of actions and policies.


Consequentialists say that actions are Right when they maximize the Good.


Rhetorical argument:How could it be wrong to do what produces the most good?Wouldn’t it be irrational to insist that we ought to choose the lesser good in any situation?


Utilitarianism defines the Good as pleasure without pain.


So, according to Utilitarianism, our one moral duty

is to Maximize pleasure and minimize pain.































Utilitarianism =Hedonism?



Objection: There is more to life than pleasure; knowledge, virtue and other

things are important too.Utilitarianism is a doctrine worthy only of swine.


Reply: Utilitarianism requires that we consider everyone’s pleasure, not just

our own.Also, says Mill, there is more to life than physical pleasure.

Pleasures of the “higher faculties” (including intellectual pleasures

inaccessible to lower animals) are of higher quality than physical pleasures

(and thus count for more).


Mill:"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better

to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are

of adifferent opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the























Is Utilitarianism too Demanding?


Objection: Utilitarianism implies that we should always act in order to

maximize happiness; this is too strict a requirement.It is asking too much of

people to be always motivated to promote the general happiness.


Mill’s Reply:“ system of ethics requires that the sole motive of all we do

shall be a feeling of duty; on the contrary, ninety-nine hundredths of all our

actions are done from other motives, and rightly so...the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action...the great majority of good actions are

intended not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of which

the good of the world is made up.”


Many people have questioned whether this reply is adequate.Regardless of

motivation, Utilitarianism does require that people always act to maximize

overall happiness.





















Not enough time?



Objection: In the real world, we don’t have the time to calculate the effects of

our actions on the general happiness.Therefore, utilitarianism is useless.


Mill’s Reply:“There has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of

the human species.during all that time, mankind have been learning by

experience ...the effects of some actions on their happiness; and the beliefs

which have thus come down are the rules of morality...”


In other words, we don’t need to do direct utility calculations in most cases;

we can apply subordinate rules, which are rules of thumb for maximizing
























Subordinate Rules



Keep your promises

Don’t cheat

Don’t steal

Obey the law


Subordinate rules are what we would normally call “commonsense morality”.

According to Mill, these are rules that tend to promote happiness, so we

should internalize them as good rules to follow.

They have been learned through the experience of many generations.


But subordinate rules are just that: subordinate.If it is clear that breaking a

subordinate rule would result in much more happiness than following it, then

you should break it.
























Breaking Subordinate Rules


In some cases it may be necessary to do a direct utility calculation:


When you are in an unusual situation that the rules don’t cover.

When the subordinate rules conflict.

When you are deciding which rules to adopt or teach.


Euthanasia or “mercy killing” (the killing of an innocent in order to end

pointless suffering) is a good example of something that violates a

subordinate rule (Don’t kill innocents) but can be justified on utilitarian

grounds in unusual circumstances.




















Predicting the Future



Objection:Utilitarianism requires that we know what the consequences of our

actions will be, but this is impossible.We can’t predict the future.


Reply:It’s true that we can’t predict the future with certainty.So, we should

perform the action that we have most reason to believe will bring about the

best consequences of the alternatives available.


Example:You need $2000 to pay some medical bills.To get the extra $, you

can either (a) borrow some money now, and pay it back later by working extra

hours, or (b) spend all of your money on lottery tickets and hope that you win

big.It’s possible that you will win the lottery, but this isn’t likely.Given the

probabilities, it is more reasonable to believe that borrowing money will bring

more happiness.



























Individual Rights



Objection:Just because something makes people happy doesn’t make it

right.Specifically, it is wrong to harm certain individuals in order to make

other people happy.


A Thought experiment:The Case of the Inhospitable Hospital


Suppose that Jack is in the hospital for routine tests, and there are people

there who need vital organs right away.A doctor has the opportunity to kill

Jack and make his death look natural.It would maximize happiness to cut

Jack up and give his heart to one patient, his liver to another, his kidneys to

still others, and so on.(We are supposing that the organs are good matches,

and the other patients will die if they don’t get them).Utilitarianism seems to

imply thatthe doctor should kill Jack for his organs.But that would be

morally wrong.

























Thought Experiments



Scientific Experimentation.Scientists create situations in laboratories in order to

test their theories.They want to find out what would happen when certain

conditions hold—if what actually happens under those conditions agrees with

what their theory predicts will happen, then the theory is confirmed.Otherwise,

the theory is falsified.


A thought experiment is a hypothetical situation that we create in our minds in

order to test a philosophical theory.The hypothetical situation should be

something that could actually happen (and in many cases, it is something that

has actually happened, or will happen in the future).So that we can test the

theory, the theory must have an implication about what would be true if the

hypothetical situation were real.We can then compare this implication to our

own beliefs about the thought experiment.If the implication of the theory agrees

with our own beliefs, then the theory is confirmed (to some extent).If it does

not, then we must ask ourselves, “Which is wrong:the theory or my beliefs?”

It is reasonable to stick with our beliefs until the evidence is against them.


Important Note:It doesn’t matter whether the hypothetical situation is likely to

happen.If a theory has a false implication about something that could happen,

then the theory is wrong (on that point, at least).
































More examples involving Individual Rights


Exploitation:The ancient Romans used slaves as gladiators, forcing them to

fight to the death for entertainment.Is it right to force a small number of

people to be gladiators if it gives millions of people pleasure?Would it be

morally acceptable to pay people to fight to the death?


Ruthlessness:President Truman ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, knowing that many thousands of non-combatants

would be killed, in order to save more lives by ending the war.

Assume that the decision did result in fewer lives lost.Was it morally right?


Paternalism:Suppose that banning certain kinds of fast food and snack

foods would result in millions of people living longer, healthier lives.

Would such a ban be morally justified?

























Utilitarian Responses


Denial:Examples like The Inhospitable Hospital often involve some error of

calculation, or some failure to take all the consequences into account.

For example, what would happen to the ability of that hospital to deliver

adequate health care should word get out that a healthy person has

been cut up for his or her organs?


But:The examples don’t always involve mistakes.


“Biting the Bullet”:If there is no error in calculation and all of the

consequences have been taken into account, but there is still a discrepancy

between what utilitarianism implies and what commonsense morality tells us,

then so much the worse for commonsense morality.

Commonsense morality gives us good rules of thumb, but they are

subordinate to the Greatest Happiness Principle.



























The Doctrine of Negative Responsibility



1.We are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of the choices we



2.Sometimes we choose to act, and sometimes we choose not to.Either

way, we are making a choice that has consequences.


3.Therefore, we are just as responsible for the foreseeable consequences that we fail to prevent as for those that we bring about directly.



This means that “I didn’t do it” is not necessarily a good defense.

The best defense is “I couldn’t have prevented it.”























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