Mill’s Utilitarianism, Essay Example
The main principles of Utilitarianism derive from how the word itself is understood, and through the concept as expressed by Mill and adapted from Bentham. “Utility” is the core, but not in any strict sense going to pragmatic usefulness or efficiency. Rather, and in Mill, utility is the standard of morality, and the creed holds that actions which produce the most happiness have a high degree of utility. Conversely, those actions are ethically wrong which create the opposite of happiness. Mill further defines happiness as the presence of pleasure, and unhappiness as that of pain or the denial of pleasure (Mill, 2002, p. 7). These are the elements actually determining the reality of the moral, in Utilitarianism.
This in turn leads to the necessity of comprehending what is meant by pleasure, and Mill is particularly emphatic on this point. More exactly, the word is too typically attached to sensual gratifications, and Mill’s idea of pleasure, or his Greatest Happiness Principle (GHP), relies on the nature of humanity as drawn to its higher functions. Human beings, he asserts, are virtually incapable of seeking a lower level of existence, even if that existence promised greater opportunity to enjoy base pleasures. No human being, he asserts, would ever willingly sacrifice their ability to experience higher-level forms of pleasure. People are inevitably drawn to virtue, in fact, because virtue creates the more perfect state of happiness (Mill, 2002, p. 10). As will be discussed, there is room in Utilitarianism for non-lofty pleasures, or those distanced from higher levels of feeling and perception. Nonetheless, his philosophy insists on pleasure, which is the basis for happiness, as being a chiefly moral quality.
Regarding other principles of the philosophy, it is necessary to note that Mill differs from Jeremy Bentham, whose theory Mill finds too aligned with Hedonism. The guiding principle thus is generally held to be Mill’s, supporting pleasure as non-egoistic and non-hedonistic. That the thinking also goes to the ambition for the greatest good for the greatest number of people equates to altruism as another principle; Utilitarianism is, simply, unconcerned with satisfaction of the self, and on a fundamental level. Morality itself demands that the betterment of the many is the primary consideration. Moreover, the principles of Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism are in place as potentially addressing weaknesses in the generality of the theory. With Act, individuals are guided by the GHP as to how to proceed as individuals; with Rule: “Behavior is evaluated by rules that, if universally followed would lead to the greatest good for the greatest number” (Kay, 1997). As will be seen, however, even this distinctions or enhancements do not completely support Utilitarianism as a viable philosophy. The ideology requiring such modifications is, in a word, suspect.
As noted, Utilitarianism, as put forth by Mill, is removed from Hedonism by virtue of how pleasure itself is perceived. The distinction, however, requires some investigation. In basic terms, Hedonism holds that pleasure is the sole determination of what is good, and that pain defines what is bad or wrong. In Simple Hedonism, this goes to both pleasure and pain as qualitative mental states varying in intensity and duration. Preference Hedonism extends this meaning to include human will; the mental state of pleasure is such that human beings will act in ways to prolong, and conversely act to end pain (Lyons, 1997, p. 151). Both variations of Hedonism, however, do not deviate from the core principle of pleasure and pain as understood to be the standards of what is good or bad, or right or wrong.
This being the reality, it would seem that Hedonism and Utilitarianism are more linked than they differ. The difference lies, however, in the emphasis in Mill on the exact natures of pleasure and pain. Mill is not content to allow pleasure and pain to be so loosely defined. While he agrees that they are mental states, and the quality of Preference Hedonism notwithstanding, Mill stresses human action as more relevant, and in terms of how individuals seek higher states of pleasure through employing their intellectual capacities. Put another way, Hedonism is centered on subjective experiences of pleasure and pain, while Mills holds more to objective forms. Music, virtue, and health, for example, are pleasures which exist objectively, as they create good for all (Lyons, 1997, p. 153). Mill’s Utilitarianism seems to perceive Hedonism as more sensually based, or encouraging of more base satisfactions. This then separates Hedonism from Utilitarianism, and even in terms of Preference hedonism.
From the 19th century on and in the West, Utilitarianism was gradually and increasingly embraced as a means of reconciling conflicts of interest within a society. It was seen as a way of applying Hedonism principles within a social context, and with the strong agenda of reducing injustice and inequality. Given that Utilitarianism, as noted, goes to objective forms of happiness, and happiness also defined by how it exists for the greatest number of people, the philosophy was held to be a means of addressing individual, or egocentric, concerns with those of the larger population (Souryal, 2014, p. 167). As Hedonism does not go beyond the individual’s interests in morality, the Utilitarian expanding of happiness and pain as being social concerns, in terms of the individual’s desire to create the greater good for the most, was perceived as an excellent model for behavior in general. As the Utilitarian philosophy is so centered on that good for the many, it is then hardly surprising that the thinking would be endorsed in political and social arenas.
In supporting Utilitarianism, it may first be argued that the philosophy’s basic simplicity is of great value. While this simplicity generates debate, it is nonetheless a model of real worth. If there is any common idea of good, as there is, the theory supports that this good is desirable to human beings, and apart from serving the self. Moreover, that it insists on individuals as deriving pleasure from efforts going to a collective good is both admirable and by no means removed from human behavior in general. Then, and also supporting the philosophy, it is important to note that Mill’s emphasis on intellectual capacity as generating good is not of itself invalid. More exactly, Utilitarianism’s stress on the human inclination to pursue higher level forms of pleasure enhances the idea of humanity itself. That people in fact often will derive pleasure from exercising their mental abilities and in creating happiness for others affirms the thinking as strong, just as the thinking itself provides a “moral compass” for human action.
Equally strong, however, and if not more so, are issues with Utilitarianism. To begin with, there is a vagueness to the thinking that weakens the principles. The individual acts in order to achieve the greatest happiness, for instance, and the theory fully supports this as proper conduct. All too often, however, consequences of actions may not be known. The individual even acting on high probability may be disappointed, and achieve no happiness. This factor then greatly weakens the theory; for example, an individual may devote years and great effort to using their intellect to create a common good, only to discover that their processes are mistaken and harm, in fact, is caused. In plain terms, the good or happiness, even when identified, is not so assuredly attained.
Then, Rule Utilitarianism is equally suspect. When the collective good is considered and, as the principle supports, all are obligated to act for the greatest happiness of all, there is simply far too much opportunity for good to be corrupted, or “lost” in the processes of creation. A society may decide, for example, that its children should be educated at more intense levels, and for longer periods of time than have previously been in place. The good identified here is the encouragement of more learning, which in turn will promote the happiness of the children. It is all too likely, however, that the education will be resented and/or neglected by the children because it interferes with their freedom. Consequently, the good is invalid because it ignores other realities, which is entirely probable with any such social effort to enhance happiness.
On a personal level, I admire Utilitarianism’s emphasis on expanding ideas of pleasure and happiness. If Hedonism is not inherently centered on “base” pleasures, Utilitarianism nonetheless broadens the definition, and in ways elevating the idea of humanity itself. This is important; issues with Mill and his theory notwithstanding, there is no reason to discount that human beings typically derive pleasure from both using their intellects and promoting good for others. A philosophy that is based on virtue as intrinsic to human actions is attractive and has some integrity, particularly as philosophy itself exists to guide and clarify. We turn to the science for understanding, and it is gratifying that “utility” is given humane and broad dimensions.
At the same time, the thinking is seriously marred by ambiguity, and in more than one way. As put forth by Mill, Utilitarianism actually contradicts itself. It is based on an action as being right and good because it will create good, but it refuses to directly attach consequence to this. The omission is literally unaccountable, because consequence must follow action and be inextricably tied to that action’s ultimate meaning. Mill holds to ideas of happiness and virtue as simultaneously ineffable and constant; they must direct human effort because they lead the human beings to themselves. These are values, however, that are simply too subjective to be truly identified as constant. Put another way, there is no room in Utilitarianism for gradation, and this alone creates enormous problems. If, it must be said, we seek the greatest happiness, the being of that form of happiness is then critical. This being the case, the question arises as to the value of the happiness in each instance because subjectivity is inevitable. A vast number of people may determine that happiness is created for members of another culture by instructing them in the ways of their own culture, when those undergoing the instruction perceive pain. In plain terms, Utilitarianism relies on “blanket” ideas of pleasure and pain, and this is in sharp contrast to human existence historically.
Then, there is the matter of how Mill’s Utilitarianism creates degree of value. As noted, the thinking depends upon an insistence on higher level thinking and virtuous efforts as being sources of happiness. This is, again, not untrue. At the same time, it is by no means universally true for all people, and Mill is actually “snobbish” in this need to emphasize more noble behaviors. His Utilitarianism attaches undue values to pleasures and pains, and no valid philosophy may ignore basic human reality. What, it may be asked, does Mill make of the people who choose to set aside the efforts of intellectual activity in favor of more sensual pleasures? They are clearly defying, in his view, the greater happiness, but the stark reality is that it is not for Mill or any philosopher to make this judgment. Consequently, his Utilitarianism becomes more an idealized model than any pragmatic assessment of actual human existence. It remains attractive, but it may not be seen as a truly applicable ideology.
Essentially, Kant’s moral philosophy is rooted in the principle of human reason, and each individual’s capacity to exercise rational thought. Moral philosophy itself for Kant centers on one crucial question: how should people behave? The answer derives from each person’s employing of rational agency, and how their autonomy enables them to determine good through processes of reason. This in turn goes to the Kantian Categorical Imperative (CI), which is his most fundamental principle. The elements are inextricable in Kant; the individual is autonomous because they know themselves to be able to act out of free will, autonomy then allows for rationality, and both combine to create the CI (Stanford, 2008). It is an all-encompassing standard, as the name suggests, by which moral behavior is dictated. Reason, above all, is the keynote to comprehending what is moral.
Similar connections exist in another principle, in that Kant believes that e only good which may not be qualified is the good will of the individual. This goes beyond will as intent; rather, Kant perceives the good will as the innate character of the good human being, and this is then not a thing that may be lost or modified. It is a fundamental comprehension of morality based on that character as recognizing what is good through reason (Stanford, 2008). What Kant actually does is fuse less definable ideas of the moral with the identified processes of rationality within individuals, and each component enables the existence of the other. The moral is known, that is, because the person’s good character understands what is moral.
This then links to the Moral Law, or principle creating Kant’s thinking as deontological. As the good person comprehends what is moral, they are then bound to act in ways promoting this. Nothing, in plain terms, supersedes this duty in Kant. He acknowledges that people will often act for good in ways not directly going to duty to morality, as in acts of affection and friendship that are spontaneous. Nonetheless, duty is always foremost when there is any consideration of what must be done (Stanford, 2008). Technically, Kantian philosophy does not attach moral worth to actions motivated by forces other than duty, and this has been the cause of intense debate with his thinking. Nonetheless, it does not directly refute acts or motives otherwise prompted. It is more that Kant emphasizes duty as the only true determinant of what is good, as exercised by rationality from the good human character.
The most glaring difference between Kant and Utilitarianism lies in fundamental belief systems. The latter, as noted, is centered on pleasure and pain as being definitive of moral value; happiness or the lack of happiness essentially determines what is good and bad. With Kant, there are moral absolutes utterly removed from this, and in a “categorical” way. To begin with, he insists on morality as known through intellect or reason, and Utilitarianism has it known through the mental states or feelings it produces. This is, again, as divisive a difference as may be conceived. Ironically, the “utility” philosophy relies more on less definable processes than the deontological. Put another way, duty only exists in Utilitarianism in terms of the general obligation people perceive to create happiness, which is then not truly duty at all. Kant holds to duty as a kind of philosophical and moral beacon, which renders irrelevant any concerns as to mental states achieved.
Another major difference between the two philosophies lies in the regard of each to the individual. It must be remembered that a primary tenet of Utilitarianism is the achieving of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is a powerful social imperative, translating morality into collective experience and obligating the individual to think beyond the self. It is wholly absent in Kant. His deontology is very much centered on the individual alone, whose innate autonomy and facility of reason, in accord with the good character affirmed by reason, act to fulfill their duty to morality in all things. More to the point, Kant is unconcerned with “population”; the need to adhere to duty transcends any concerns of benefiting the majority. This also clearly underscores how the philosophies differ in identifying morality itself; the deontological approach may not reflect the more altruistic ambitions of the Utilitarian, because the force of reason is not inherently concerned with altruistic efforts.
In support of Kant, I would argue that his lack of interest in the happiness of the most alone validates his thinking. More exactly, it seems right that any adherence to true morality should not be influenced by any external concerns. The greater happiness of the many, for example, may be achieved through bringing pain to a few. Utilitarianism has no real response to this, but Kant does, and because reason and morality are mutually inclusive in him. That is to say, the pain of the few is of equal importance in the deontological view because it cannot be sanctioned by virtue of whatever good it generates for others. Kant’s philosophy, as more reliant on the individual, is then strong because there is less opportunity for morality to become diffused. Then, Kant’s emphasis on autonomy provides a needed obligation for human beings. As human action is so impactful, it is necessary that this foundation of innate responsibility, and on the individual level, be in place.
Going against Kant, at the same time, are powerful issues. Most importantly, Kant links morality and rationality in too convenient a way. He makes the radical assumption that knowledge of what is right will motivate human beings to fulfill their duty and do right, but this is a remarkably fragile supposition. What is moral, first of all, is usually more felt than reasoned; good is known to us in more visceral ways. Then, recognizing good through reason does not of itself compel duty. On the contrary, reason all too easily permits an individual to depart from morality. I may fully understand, for example, that the moral right is for me to visit an elderly relative often. This is my moral duty and I accept it as such. However, my reasoning may lead me to consider the reality that this relative never appears to be happy to see me, and I then rely more on this thinking because it releases me from the duty.
This concern also reflects another, in that Kant’s formula of the good character as creating, and created by, the good will, is equally convenient. I will visit that relative if my good character, as Kant dictates, compels me to so do my duty. At the same time, however, he has good here as too loosely defined or as an absolute in itself, and this is certainly questionable. As everything in his canon relies on every other component, one weakness goes to others. My character may be essentially good but, as with humanity in general, not consistently so. This being the reality, my autonomy and reason are not likely strong enough to motivate me to do good at all times, so the entire construction is seen as flawed.
Kay, C. D. (1997). Notes on Utilitarianism. Wofford College. Retrieved from http://sites.wofford.edu/kaycd/utilitarianism/
Lyons, D. (1997). Mill’s Utilitarianism: Critical Essays. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Mill, J. S. (2002). Utilitarianism, 2nd Ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co.
Souryal, S. (2014). Ethics in Criminal Justice: In Search of the Truth. New York, NY: Routledge.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2008). Kant’s Moral Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/
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