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PH128 Mill’s Utilitarianism

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1 PH128 Mill’s Utilitarianism
Module Tutor: Elena Irrera Office hour: Mondays from to 12 Office number: S2.46 You will find my lecture notes in Dr Angela Hobbs’ webpage


3 READINGS Core reading:
J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, edited by R. Crisp, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002. Seminar reading – Week 1: John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter I: “General Remarks”.

4 Some useful background readings
◘ The Blackwell Guide to Mill’s Utilitarianism, edited by H. West, Oxford, Blackwell, 2006. ◘ The Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism, edited by R. Crisp, London, Routledge, 1997. ◘ The Cambridge Companion to John Stuart Mill, edited by J. Skorupski, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997. ◘ Mill’s Utilitarianism, Critical Essays, edited by D. Lyons, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Maryland,1997. ◘ J.J.Smart and B. Williams, Utilitarianism For and Against, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998 (first pub. 1973). ◘ R. Crisp. Mill on Utilitarianism, London, Routledge, 1997.

5 Assessment 1500 word essay Submission Deadline: Friday 4th December 2009, 1pm (office S2.46) Some essay questions on Utilitarianism: 1. Explain and assess J. S. Mill’s claim that “All action is for the sake of some end, and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and colour from the ends to which they are subservient.” (Utilitarianism, ch. 1, para. 2)

6 2. What role does J. S. Mill’s “Greatest Happiness Principle” (Utilitarianism, 2.2) play within his version of utilitarianism, and what are the theory’s strengths and weaknesses? 3. How successful is J. S. Mill’s attempt to refute the charge that utilitarianism is “doctrine worthy only of swine” (Utilitarianism, 2.3). 4. Can J. S. Mill’s conception of happiness accommodate Robert Nozick’s convictions about the “experience machine”? If so, how? If not, what follows? 5. What does J. S. Mill mean in claiming that for any agent “between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the Golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility.” (Utilitarianism, 2.18) Does the claim make his view too demanding to be plausible?

7 6. “It is a strange notion that the acknowledgement of first principles is inconsistent with the admission of secondary ones.” (Utilitarianism, 2.24) What role does the distinction between first and secondary principles play within J. S. Mill’s utilitarianism, and does it make his view more or less plausible than it would otherwise be? 7. Explain and critically assess Mill’s account of the “Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility”. 8. “…happiness is the sole end of human action, and the promotion of it the test by which to judge of all human conduct; from whence it necessarily follows that it must be the criterion of morality…” (Utilitarianism, 4.9) How does Mill attempt to defend these propositions, and to what extent does his defense succeed?

8 9. “We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience. This seems the real turning point of the distinction between morality and simple expediency.” (Utilitarianism, 5.4) Explain and critically assess J. S. Mill’s assumption about the nature of wrongdoing, and the role it plays within his utilitarianism. 10. How does J. S. Mill understand “the idea of justice” (Utilitarianism, 5.23), and how plausible is his account of the relationship between justice and utility? 11. “To have a right, then, is, I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of. If the objector goes on to ask why it ought, I can give him no other reason that general utility.” (Utilitarianism, 5.25) Does J. S. Mill provide a plausible defense of individual rights?

9 For advice on how to write essays in philosophy, I recommend Professor James Pryor’s “Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper”, which is available at: “Guidelines on Reading Philosophy” is also worth reading, and available at:

10 ◘ G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, preface, p
◘ G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica, preface, p. 35: “It appears to me that in Ethics, as in all philosophical studies, the difficulties and disagreements, of which its history is full, are mainly due to a very simple cause: namely to the attempt to answer questions, without first discovering precisely what questions it is which you desire to answer. I do not know how far this source of error would be done away, if philosophers would try to discover what question they were asking, before they set about to answer it; for the work of analysis and distinction is often very difficult: we may often fail to make the necessary discovery, even though we make a definite attempt to do so. But I am inclined to think that in many cases a resolute attempt would be suffieicnt to ensure success; so that, if only this attempt were made, many of the most glaring difficulties and disagreements in philosophy would disappear”. ◘ What is a moral theory? ▲ A moral theory is a systematic account of what makes actions right or wrong. ▲ A moral theory aims to answer the following questions: (1) ‘What makes actions morally wrong (or prohibited) rather than morally right (permitted or required)?’ (2) Why is it morally right to act in a particular way? (3) Why should a given principle be assumed as a suitable criterion of morality?

11 ◘ Mill states his 'creed', or his moral theory, succinctly in U,2
◘ Mill states his 'creed', or his moral theory, succinctly in U,2.2: 'Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.‘ Assumptions of Mill’s ethical theory: ▲ The moral assumption: Morality and concern for others are clearly something to be taken seriously. ▲ The teleological assumption:. Morality itself will be grounded solely on the promotion of some good. All action is for the sake of some end, and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and colour from the end to which they are subservient.

12 The three main ‘ingredients’ of Mill’s Ethics:
▲ Morality is not simply a system of rules to live by, it is not simply the discipline that formulates, systematizes, and justifies such rules. Any respectable ethical reflection should not be confined to the exploration of what is right or wrong, but it should also contain an analysis of the ultimate goals and of the inspiring principles of human action, even their most instinctual propensities. The three main ‘ingredients’ of Mill’s Ethics: The ultimate end of human action (criterion of morality) What leads to the end (test of morality) Inspiring motives of human action (sanctions)

13 The first branch of Ethics:
1) MORAL PSYCHOLOGY: Moral psychology is a field of study in both philosophy and psychology, which investigates human functioning in moral contexts, and asks how these results may impact debate in ethical theory. Moral psychology describes how people behave and/or what sorts of motives they follow . Be aware that moral motives do not always coincide with standards of morality !!

14 Psychological egoism is the claim that people are naturally inclined to act selfishly, to foster their own self-interest or happiness. Psychological hedonism is the claim that people always act to attain their own pleasure and avoid pain. Psychological hedonism is also called the “pleasure principle”. Ethical egoism demands that we pursue self-interest. So egoism can be a motive for action, but it can also be adopted as normative standard of behaviour. Hobbes for instance argued that psychological egoism implies ethical egoism. In other words, Hobbes claimed that the following argument is sound: P1: (Psychological egoism or hedonism): People always and invariably act as to foster their own self-interest, in accordance with self-love, or the “pleasure principle,” etc. C: (Ethical egoism): People should always act so as to foster their own interests. Cf. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness: ‘Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values’.

Mill's ethics is clearly closely bound up with his views of human psychology. Two particular psychological views are sometimes ascribed to him: psychological hedonism and psychological egoism. Psychological hedonism is usually taken to be the view that human beings act only for the sake of pleasure. Mill certainly did not hold this view: he allows in 4.11 that the will may prompt action independently of any perceived pleasure. But he does seem to be committed to a rather technical, revised version of psychological hedonism, according to which human beings ultimately desire only pleasure. So any action prompted by desire will aim at pleasure. Psychological egoism is usually understood as the purely descriptive view that human beings act only to further what they take to be their own good. Again, Mill is clearly not a psychological egoist in this sense. He allows that a person can genuinely sacrifice their happiness for the sake of others (U ). But he does accept a version of psychological egoism limited to the scope of desire in the same way as his psychological hedonism. Humans desire not what is pleasurable, but only what is pleasurable to them (4.10).

16 The second branch of Ethics:
2) NORMATIVE ETHICS (or PRESCRIPTIVE ETHICS) Normative ethics poses fundamental questions: How ought I to live? What constitutes right conduct? (ii) Why be moral? What is morally right? What is morally wrong? (iii) Are there actions which are morally required, as opposed to merely permissible? (iv) What makes an action morally right? (e.g. Right reasons, good consequences, moral rules or norms, or good motives?). The goal of morality is to create happy and virtuous people, the kind that create flourishing communities. We need moral rules to guide our actions in ways that light up our paths and prevent and reduce suffering, enhance human well-being (and animal well-being, for that matter), resolve our conflicts of interests according to recognizably fair rules, and assign responsibility for actions so that we can praise, blame, reward, and punish people according to how their actions reflect moral priciples....

17 The guiding principle of utilitarian normative
ethics is the “Utility Principle”; Bentham called it the “Greatest Happiness Principle”: “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever. according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government”. Bentham The Principles of Morals and Legislation I, ii.

18 Mill’s revision of Bentham’s utilitarianism is
one of his lasting contributions to philosophy “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” Mill, Utilitarianism, II, 2,1-5.

19 John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism
“Utility Principle” rests on the following claims: (i) Welfarism: The ultimate good is individual welfare The value of outcomes depends upon, and only upon, the levels of welfare (i.e. well-being, or quality of life, or flourishing) of the individual subjects involved. Welfarism is based on the premise that actions, policies, and/or rules should be evaluated on the basis of their consequences. Welfarism is the view that the morally significant consequences are impacts on human welfare. There are many different understandings of human welfare, but the term "welfarism" is usually associated with the economic conception of welfare (ii) Hedonism: The ultimate good is individual happiness “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.” (Utilitarianism II, ).

20 (iii) Consequentialism: when determining the moral
(iii) Consequentialism: when determining the moral rightness of actions, only the consequences for the ultimate good matter. ● Consequentialism, welfarism is based on the premise that actions, policies, and/or rules should be evaluated on the basis of their consequences ● Whether an action is wrong depends on what promotes the best outcome understood in a way that displays impartial concern for the interests of all relevant parties. (Impartial Consequentialism) ● A is impartial in respect R with regard to group G if and only if A’s actions in respect R are not influenced at all by which members of G benefit or are harmed by these actions.

21 ◘ “All action is for the sake of some end, and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and colour from the end to which they are subservient.” (Utilitarianism I,ii.20-23) ◘ “…society between human beings, except in the relation of master and slave, is manifestly impossible on any other footing than that the interests of all are to be consulted. Society between equals can only exist on the understanding that the interests of all are to be regarded equally.” (Utilitarianism X,iii.15-19) ◘ “That first of judicial virtues, impartiality, is an obligation of justice […] as being a necessary condition of the fulfilment of the other obligations of justice.” (Utilitarianism V.xxxvi, 1.3) ◘ “Equal amounts of happiness are equally desirable, whether felt by the same or different people” (Utilitarianism V.xxxvi, footnote) ◘ “All persons are deemed to have a right to equality of treatment, except when some recognised social expediency requires the reverse” (Utilitarianism V.xxxvi)

22 (iv) Sum‐ranking: best consequences are determined
as the sum of individual happiness. Aggregation The value of outcomes depends upon summing the levels of welfare of the individual subjects involved, and depends upon how well-being is distributed only to the extent that it affects that sum. (Pure Aggregation).

23 Third branch of Ethics: Metaethics:
“What is metaethics? Suppose I am debating with a friend the question whether or not we ought to give to famine relief, whether or not we are morally obliged to give to famine relief. The sorts of questions philosophers raise about ths kind of debate fall roughly into two groups. First, there are first order questions about which party in the debate, if any, is right, and why. Then, there are second order questions about what parties in the debate are doing when they engage in it. Roughly, the first order questions are the province of normative ethics, and the second order questions are the province of metaethics.” (A. Miller, An introduction to Contemporary Metaethics, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2003)

24 Metaethics tries to answer the following questions:
What do we express when we say that an action is morally right? What does a moral judgment express? “Metaethics is not about what people ought to do. It is about what they are doing when they talk about what they ought to do” (W. Hudson, Modern Moral Philosophy: London; McMillan, 1970: 1) If normative ethics is a reflection on what is right and what is wrong, or a reflection on how we should live, metaethics is a philosophical reflection having morality itself as its main object. Metaethics is the discipline which investigates the status of ethics, its aims and the nature of ethics itself.

25 The questions posed by Metaethics:
(a)              Meaning: what is the semantic function of moral discourse? Is the function of moral discourse to state facts, or does it have some other non fact-stating role? (b)             Metaphysics: do moral facts (or properties) exist? If so, what are they like? Are they identical or reducible to some other type of fact (or property or are they irreducible and sui generis ? (c)              Epistemology and justification: is there such a thing as moral knowledge? How can we know whether our moral judgements are true or false? How can we ever justify our claims to moral knowledge? (d)              Phenomenology: how are moral qualities represented in the experience of an agent making a moral judgment? Do they appear to be ‘out there’ in the world? (e)              Moral psychology: what can we say about the motivational state of someone making a moral judgment? What sort of connection is there between making a moral judgment and being motivated to act as that judgement prescribes? (f)              Objectivity: can moral judgements really be correct or incorrect? Can we work towards finding out the moral truth? Obviously, this list is not intended to be exhaustive, and the various questions are not all independent.

26 Kinds of Metaethics: Consider a particular moral judgement, such as the judgement that murder is wrong. What sort of psychological state does this express? (i) COGNITIVISM  Some philosophers, called cognitivists, think that a moral judgement such as this exprsses a belief. Beliefs can be true or false: they are truth-apt, or apt to be assessed in terms of truth and falsity. Cognitivists think that moral judgements are capable of being true or false, that is, that they are apt for evaluation in terms of truth and falsity. (ii) EMOTIVISM  Non-cognitivists think that moral judgements express non-cognitive states such as emotions or desires. Desires and emotions are not truth-apt. So moral judgements are not capable of being true or false.

27 Cognitivist theories can be either (A) REALIST OR (B) NON-REALIST
●A Moral realism holds that there is a moral reality outside the human mind, and that ethical statements are objectively and consistently true or false. ●B Non-realism holds that there are no moral facts or properties in the world of the sort required to render our moral judgements true: we have no plausible epistemological account of how we could access such facts and properties. Moral realism can be either (a) naturalist or (b) non-naturalist. (a) NATURALISM  According to a naturalist, a moral judgement is rendered true or false by a natural state of affairs, and it is this natural state of affairs to which a true moral judgement affords us access (see for instance John Mc Dowell and David Wiggins, who believe that there are moral facts and moral properties and that the existence of these moral facts and instantiation of these moral properties is constitutively independent of human opinion). (b) NON-NATURALISM  Non-naturalists think that moral properties are not identical to or reducible to natural properties. They are irreducible and sui generis (See for instance G.E. Moore, who claims that the property of moral goodness is non-natural, simple, and unanalysable).

28 An example of NON-REALISM: John Mackie, Ethics: Inventing right and wrong, 1977.
John Mackie has argued that although moral judgements are apt to be true or false, and that moral judgements if true, would afford us cognitive access to oral facts, moral judgements are in fact always false (Mackie 1977). This is because there simply are no moral facts or properties in the world of the sort required to render our moral judgements true: we have no plausible epistemological account of how we could access such facts and properties. There are no moral properties or moral facts, so that moral judgments are unoiformly false. Our moral thinking involves us in a radical error. NON-COGNITIVISM: EMOTIVISM (SEE A.J. AYER, LANGUAGE, TRUTH AND LOGIC, 1936) Moral judgements express emotions, or sentiments of approval or disapproval. Ethical statements assert propositions about the speaker's own attitudes. They are expressions of emotional response, desire and aversion, approval and disapproval: under this view, the statement "Killing is wrong," for example, can be paraphrased as "I disapprove killing.", "I am against killing" or even "Boo on killing!“.

29 but believes that there is moral responsibility; individual agents
MILL’S METAETHICS ● He rejects cognitivism: there are no brute moral facts ● He believes that moral statements may express attitudes and feelings (like the emotivists), but morality is not an expression of subjective values). ● He believes human agency is governed by general laws but believes that there is moral responsibility; individual agents have some influence over the motives that cause their actions ● He endorses compatibilism (Compatibilism is the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism. Because free will is typically taken to be a necessary condition of moral responsibility, compatibilism is sometimes expressed in terms of a compatibility between moral responsibility and determinism). ● He endorses “constructive empiricism”. Moral philosophy cannot proceed a priori (against Kant). It must attempt to establish, starting from observing “agents at work”, what the ultimate ends are. 

30 Mill’s meta‐ethics: “A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it.” Utilitarianism, I, ii.25-27 “The question is often asked, and properly so, in regard to any supposed moral standard – what is its sanction? What are the motives to obey it? Or more specifically, what is the source of its obligation? Whence does it derive its binding force? It is a necessary part of moral philosophy to provide the answer to this question”. Utilitarianism III, i.1-5

“I shall think of intuitionism in a more general way than is customary; namely, as the doctrine that there is an irreducible family of first principles which have to be weighed against one another by asking ourselves which balance, in our considered judgement, is the most just. Once we reach a certain level of generality, the intuitionist maintains that there exist no higher-order constructive criteria for determining the proper emphasis for the competing principles of justice. While the complexity of the moral facts requires a number of distinct principles, there is no single standard that accounts for them or assigns them their weights. Intuitionist theories, then, have two features: first, they consist of a plurality of first principles which may conflict to give contrary directives in particular types of cases and second, they include no explicit method, no priority rules, for weighing these principles against one another: we are simply to strik a balance by intuition, by what sems to us most nearly right. Or if there are priority rules, these are thought to be more or less trivial and of no substantial assistance in reaching a judgment”. (J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, ch. 7).

His criticism of a priori views of morality. By taking the methods of the natural sciences as the only route to knowledge about the world, Mill sees himself as rejecting the “German, or a priori view of human knowledge”, or, as he also calls it, “intuitionism,” which was espoused in different ways by Kant, Reid, and their followers in Britain (e.g. Whewell and Hamilton). Though there are many differences among intuitionist thinkers, one “grand doctrine” that Mill suggests they all affirm is the view that “the constitution of the mind is the key to the constitution of external nature—that the laws of the human intellect have a necessary correspondence with the objective laws of the universe, such that these may be inferred from those.”. The intuitionist doctrine conceives of nature as being largely or wholly constituted by the mind rather than more or less imperfectly observed by it. disturbing.

One of the great dangers presented by this doctrine, from the perspective of Mill’s a posteriori school, is that it supports the belief that one can know universal truths about the world through evidence (including intuitions or Kantian categories of the understanding) provided by the mind alone rather than by nature. If the mind constitutes the world that we experience, then we can understand the world by understanding the mind. It was this freedom from appeal to nature and the lack of independent (i.e. empirical) checks to the knowledge claims associated with it that Mill found so disturbing.Mill allies himself with the inductive school, according to which questions of right and wrong are matters of 'observation and experience' (1.3). Mill was an empiricist, who believed that our understanding of the world must be based ultimately entirely on the evidence of our senses. That is why he is so contemptuous of the moral sense view.

The moral sense would have to be quite unlike any of the other senses, which have physical correlates, and anyway the evidence of our senses themselves counts against the moral sense view, since there is widespread and deep disagreement in ethics. Mill's empiricism sat alongside his naturalism, that is, the view that the world is ultimately entirely explicable in terms of the principles of the natural sciences, among which he would probably have included psychology. Like all our knowledge, he believed, natural science is based ultimately on observation of the contents of our experiences, and so it comes as no surprise to find Mill suggesting that choices between moral theories, if they are to be respectable, are to be similarly grounded.

35 What is a moral theory? Illustrate the main difference between the three kinds of ethics. What is a moral motive? Do moral motives always coincide with moral standards? What is psychological egoism? What is psychological hedonism? How can they change into normative theories? What is the problem about human knowledge lamented by Mill at the very beginning of his Utilitarianism? What is the main difference between the mathematical/scientific method and the ethical one? What is moral intuitionism? Does Mill accept it? What are the main grounds of any rationalist theory of morality? Are questions of ultimate ends amenable to direct proof?

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