I've been having an interesting conversation
with Richard Chappell about Millian utilitarianism; interesting and difficult, and I think a little frustrating for both of us. It has led me to consider something I had not thought of before. I had known beforehand that there was some gap between contemporary utilitarianism and Mill's utilitarianism; this is noticeable, I think, in the common charge that Mill wavers between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. There are tricky issues of interpretation here, but I think this wavering theory is demonstrably based on the false assumption that the only two options are act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. Mill is obviously neither; there's obviously no word for it, but we could call it society-utilitarianism. Mill seems to see matters in terms of a structured flow from the principle of utility:
1. Principle of Utility
2. Liberalism (=the ideal utilitarian society, more or less)
3. Moral Maxims (=approximate judgments of utility suitable for particular areas of human life; also that which fits you for living in a liberal society; includes fundamental rights)
4. Social and Political Policies (principles of human administration, as he calls them; always overruled by moral maxims); at which level it's possible we should include extended individual practices, i.e., personal policies
5. Particular Acts
[There are tricky points of interpretation, as I said, but reading Utilitarianism
in this light makes a huge amount of sense of the argument, so I think these largely affect only details. You can read Utilitarianism
yourself to judge for yourself. And while you're at it, read the classic text on Mill's liberalism, On Liberty
, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.] So Mill at times justifies acts, at times rules, on utilitarian principles; often they are not justified directly by utility at all but by their contribution to a liberal society, i.e., a society of free and happy people; and there is (if this interpretation is right) no inconsistency. For Mill the principle of utility is the principle of universal progress: it governs everything, and does so directly, but as we descend the list, the justifications get more and more complex and have to either enter more and more into details or make more and more background assumptions. Thus in descending from the principle of utility we get immediately into approximation for practical purposes.
Further, it is noteworthy that if Mill's utilitarianism is consistent it is completely invulnerable to self-effacement arguments that contemporary utilitarianisms often face; Mill's utilitarianism is not self-effacing, because any moral judgments just are
utility judgments (to a degree of approximation, at least), and no one can argue that morality in general
is self-effacing. Further, Mill can explain why it can be counterproductive to focus too much on the principle of utility itself in particular evaluations: namely, that it is very easy to misapply, because its application with precision
can get very complicated very quickly. But experience has shown us lots and lots of moral maxims and good policies that provide sufficient utilitarian approximation to the strict principle of utility for most practical purposes; and, as Mill says, we can draw on not only our own experience, but the experience of those who have come before us, in traditional values and conventional morality. These are all improvable, but it means we start out with a powerful toolkit of practical guidelines for living in accordance with the principle of utility, and we can evaluate the tools in our toolkit more precisely as we find the need and occasion.
I had assumed, though, that the gap was still bridgeable. Certainly it looks like it might be bridged if you consider, for example, Hurka's perfectionism
, which shares an immense amount with Mill's utilitarianism, and in at least some ways mediates between more typical contemporary forms of utilitarianism and Mill's own. But the discussion has led me to wonder whether the gap might be more like a sharp break. One might say that in general approach Mill is much, much more like Rawls than Singer, for all that Rawls is a critic, and Singer is an advocate, of contemporary utilitarianism, because Mill's utilitarianism opens out immediately into his liberalism, and Rawls and Mill share an immense amount on the side of liberalism. Since Mill's utilitarian is liberal, Mill has little patience for views, which he considers caricatures, in which utilitarianism doesn't care about distribution -- Mill reiterates, over and over, the importance of what he calls impartiality, and one soon realizes that this is in fact a principle governing distribution of benefits, one that he thinks is built into the principle of utility itself. Mill has a notion of public good that Rawls might possibly object to, but Mill is so concerned with the happiness of individuals that he comes very near Rawls in emphasizing the importance of individuals. Like Rawls, Mill thinks utilitarianisms that ignore quality of desire (or to be more accurate, quality of satisfaction of desire) are doomed to fail. Rawls is a deontologist, but Mill gives such an emphasis to moral rules that the major difference here is that Mill thinks that moral rules are merely extremely good approximations that converge on the principle of utility. And so forth and so on.
So could we say that (in the modern sense of the term) Mill's utilitarianism is no utilitarianism at all -- it's a liberalism? That seems drastic; but it does seem difficult to pin down similarities between Mill and contemporary utilitarians, beyond the fact that they use the word 'utility'. Is there another common ground, one that would put Mill more on the side of (to continue with the examples used above) Singer than on that of Rawls? An interesting question. I don't have the answer for it.
Or am I just going wrong somewhere in the interpretation?