Saturday, April 13, 2013

Summary of John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism moral philosophy

JS Mill's Utilitarianism is a system of ethics based upon utility. The action of most utility is that action which his most useful. The most useful action is that action which most encourages happiness or discourages the opposite of happiness.1 What is meant by happiness? Mill explicates, “By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.”2 So an action, under Utilitarianism, is right in accordance with the principle of utility, being that it is the action in a given situation which will maximize pleasure or minimize pain. Mill is careful to point out that the happiness which is maximized must be impartial, and there is no difference between the happiness of any one person and any other, even if one of those people is oneself.3

Care is taken to establish an informal hierarchy of pleasure, based upon quality. Not all pleasures are equal. Mill gives two criteria for determining if a quality is superior. The first is that if given the choice between two pleasures, and all or almost all people would chose a particular pleasure over the other, choosing freely of any moral obligation, the chosen pleasure ought to be considered qualitatively superior.4 The second criteria is that a pleasure may be considered higher quality if, in the case of two pleasures, it is chosen over the other by those having thorough experience with both, and are willing to undergo discontentment by avoiding even large amounts of the other pleasure in pursuit of their end.5

In chapters one, two and four, Mill makes only one mention regarding the role of rights in utilitarianism. This mention is a short definition, saying that rights are, “the legitimate and authorised expectations”6 So rights must be justified or otherwise authorized by something, with the expectation this something will preserve the rights. Mill, here, does not provide an analysis or explanation of how rights work with the principle of utility.

The question naturally born through examination of a right in utilitarian context is of is power to uphold in a situation of conflict with the principle of utility. Rights are assumed to be guarantees provided to a person. In fact, I think it is the philosophical norm to assume a right inalienable, under any context, and this essentially is what Mill's definition brings forth. Like the notion of a right, the principle of utility is also absolute, that is, followed independently of contextual particulars. Hence, a potential clash results because a utilitarian may be required to conditionally infringe upon an individual's rights for the purpose of maximizing overall happiness.

It is reasonable, after our class discussion, to assume John Stuart Mill believed in rights. After all, he was an advocate for women's suffrage in England; he wrote On the Subjection of Women. Mill even introduced a bill to parliament, proposing furthered equality for women. Even more relevant to the topic, Mill wrote On Liberty, a utilitarian defense of liberty. In this work, he explained how he thought people should be allowed the liberty to do as they wished, even to make what may be obvious mistakes, so we can all see which way of living maximizes overall happiness. Liberty is widely accepted as a right. So how might Mill have reconciled this dilemma?

It is not apparently possible for rights to be absolute for the utilitarian, unless their being absolute always resulted in maximized happiness. However, situations inevitably arise which require individual liberty, and other rights, to be trampled. Liberty, here, is a conditional assurance of immunity from arbitrary exercise of authority. Perhaps Mill derived the necessity for liberty from the principle of utility. Perhaps Mill saw it to be most useful, in that it begets the maximum happiness, for liberty to be ensured under all but the most dire of circumstances. Should such circumstances occur, in which the maximum quality happiness for the greater whole would require an infringing of liberty, or any other established right, the utilitarian would be obligated to act contrary to the right. If right can be understood as conditional, it will conform to utilitarian ethics.

Utilitarianism's allowance of absolute right violations is not sufficient reason to denounce it as a moral theory. Mill makes a convincing argument in showing that really all (perhaps so-called) moral action aims at happiness, whether for self or the greater good. A particularly compelling argument about martyrdom, as a virtuous but obviously painful act, points out that even self sacrifice aims to maximize happiness.7 A martyr must completely abandon their personal pleasure, but it is with the purpose that a particular end will occur which improves the lives of those affected.

Justifying the violation of formerly unalienable rights for the purpose of utility is not too foreign a concept to accept. Liberty is taken away from criminals, property is seized by the government and life is ended as punishment in thirty-eight of the fifty United States. History shows an abundance of right infringements, and governing bodies continue to make them all over the world, even in this country. But the fact that rights are violated does not make it moral. It does, however, point to the accurate description utilitarianism makes of society, and what has been accepted by the vast majority in society already. The question remains whether these acts are justified; whether the end justifies the means when the end is increased overall happiness. But that choice is more a personal opinion, a choice based in subjective want, than one of philosophical argument.

1 p. 5 “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.”

2 from p. 5

3 p. 12 “the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.”

4 p. 6 “Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.”

5 p. 6 “If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.

6 from p. 13

7 p. 11 “Would it be made if he thought that his renunciation of happiness for himself would produce no fruit for any of his fellow creatures, but to make their lot like his, and place them also in the condition of persons who have renounced happiness?


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