Friday, February 07, 2020

Ethics and Reasoning II (Mill)

As noted before, there are many different kinds of utilitarianism that we could have. All forms of utilitarianism are based on some version of the principle of utility, which holds that things are good insofar as they contribute to happiness and bad insofar as they detract from happiness. The principle of utility is often called the Greatest Happiness Principle, because of its slogan form: Greatest happiness for the greatest number. This is a handy formula, because it helps us think more clearly about the different kinds of utilitarianism you can have, by asking questions about the parts of this slogan:

Greatest happiness for the greatest number
(1) What is happiness?

Greatest happiness for the greatest number
(2) Greatest number of what?

Greatest happiness for the greatest number
(3) What has to be considered in determining greatness of happiness?

To which we can add a fourth question about the whole thing:

(4) To what do we apply this principle?

We are discussing classical utilitarianism, and all classical utilitarianisms, of whatever form, accept the same theory of happiness: Happiness is pleasure without pain (to the extent that is possible), and that's it. If you propose a different theory of happiness (say, that happiness is pleasure without pain in a sociable life with close friends), you get a different version of utilitarianism. We could also change utilitarianism by changing whose happiness we count. In practice, though, most of the reasons why people are attracted to utilitarianism are also reasons not to restrict whose happiness counts. After all, if happiness is what matters for ethics, why would some happiness not be counted? It's still happiness. So, overwhelmingly, the most common answer to (2) is that we are counting anything and everything that can feel happiness. So we can build a table to give our results so far.

(1) happiness(2) for the greatest number of(3) by looking at(4) applying this to
All classical utilitarians, by definitionpleasure without pain
Virtually all classical utilitarians, in practicepleasure without painanything that can experience happiness

If we think about Bentham, when Bentham is determining greatness of happiness, he considers only quantitative measures; and he applies these to decisions or actions, whether as an individual or as a matter of law, although in fact he never lumps these together but always treats calculations about decisions for oneself as different things from calculations about decisions for society. So we can put him on the table:

(1) happiness(2) for the greatest number of(3) by looking at(4) applying this to
All classical utilitarians, by definitionpleasure without pain
Virtually all classical utilitarians, in practicepleasure without painanything that can experience happiness
Benthampleasure without painanything that can experience happinessquantity (intensity, duration, etc.)(1) decisions or actions for oneself;
(2) laws

Not all classical utilitarians give the same answers as Bentham for (3) and (4), however. This brings us to John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who gives different answers for both. And to understand how Mill diverges from Bentham, and more importantly, why, we need to know something about Mill's life as a utilitarian. Unlike most classical utilitarians, Mill was raised as a classical utilitarian, indeed as Benthamite, and what he learned both made him appreciate Bentham (who remains throughout his life as one of his major influences) and think that Bentham's approach was inadequate.

JohnStuartMill.JPG
Public Domain, Link


James Mill, John Stuart Mill's father, while not commonly read today, was an important utilitarian and contemporary of Bentham. Like other utilitarians of a Benthamite stripe, he was actively interested in reform, and that included reform of education; he attempted to work out a course of education for the young John. John Stuart Mill began studying Ancient Greek and arithmetic at the age of three, and as he grew older, he began, on his own, to read a large amount of history. At the age of eight, he began Latin, and shortly afterward geometry and algebra and then a bit later differential calculus, although his education in the last was at the time inadequate for any serious understanding. He developed a taste for reading about the sciences (although he would later regret that his interest in the sciences at this age only went so far as reading about experiments and not actually doing them). At the age of twelve, his father started him on logic. His father also paid a great deal of attention to elocution -- important for oratory, which James Mill seems to have thought particularly important due to its political relevance -- but John Stuart Mill makes a comment on this in his Autobiography I think can be taken to sum up much of how James Mill approached teaching (Chapter 1): "A defect running through his otherwise admirable modes of instruction, as it did through all his modes of thought, was that of trusting too much to the intelligibleness of the abstract, when not embodied in the concrete." At the age of thirteen, John Stuart Mill began studying economics. This would serve him well when he was sent to France at the age of fourteen, at which time he interacted with a number of important economists of the day. After he returned from France, he would study Roman law under John Austin, the noted jurist. And at the same time, Mill, who had grown up in a Benthamite household, actually read Bentham. And it was a landmark in his life. As he would put it (Autobiography, Chapter 3):

My previous education had been, in a certain sense, already a course of Benthamism. The Benthamic standard of "the greatest happiness" was that which I had always been taught to apply; I was even familiar with an abstract discussion of it, forming an episode in an unpublished dialogue on Government, written by my father on the Platonic model. Yet in the first pages of Bentham it burst upon me with all the force of novelty. What thus impressed me was the chapter in which Bentham passed judgment on the common modes of reasoning in morals and legislation, deduced from phrases like "law of nature," "right reason," "the moral sense," "natural rectitude," and the like, and characterized them as dogmatism in disguise, imposing its sentiments upon others under cover of sounding expressions which convey no reason for the sentiment, but set up the sentiment as its own reason. It had not struck me before, that Bentham's principle put an end to all this. The feeling rushed upon me, that all previous moralists were superseded, and that here indeed was the commencement of a new era in thought. This impression was strengthened by the manner in which Bentham put into scientific form the application of the happiness principle to the morality of actions, by analysing the various classes and orders of their consequences....The "principle of utility," understood as Bentham understood it, and applied in the manner in which he applied it through these three volumes, fell exactly into its place as the keystone which held together the detached and fragmentary component parts of my knowledge and beliefs. It gave unity to my conceptions of things. I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion; the inculcation and diffusion of which could be made the principal outward purpose of a life. And I had a grand conception laid before me of changes to be effected in the condition of mankind through that doctrine.

Mill would himself become very active in utilitarianism understood not merely as a philosophy but as a movement of practical reform. In this work of active reform, he thought, he could find true happiness. But in 1826, all of this shifted. He was feeling a bit down, and while feeling this way, asked himself whether he would actually be happy if all of his reforming activities succeeded, and realized that he would not be. This was devastating. He had been so enthusiastic for reform because the ends had seemed so worthwhile, as contributing something to enduring happiness, and coming to the realization that he could no longer think of the ends of his activism as sources of happiness, his motivation to pursue them collapsed. It's not that he had a crisis of faith in the principle of utility; he still recognized the things for which he was working as good, in the abstract. What he could not do is feel that there was any point in working toward them. The depression seemed to grow worse with time, probably in part because Mill was so isolated in his melancholy, since he did not think he could make his father or any of his friends understand his problem. The problem seemed clear to Mill himself, however: his education, thorough as it seemed, had failed him because nothing in it had cultivated in him feelings that were likely to endure in the face of all the logic and analysis with which his education had been abundantly supplied. Utilitarianism was right -- but his utilitarian education had eaten away at what made it practically possible to be a utilitarian.

Mill managed to force himself to keep up his utilitarian activities, partly by deliberately trying not to think about happiness at all. But he also began to consider this problem of how one cultivates feelings. He tried a number of things, and in 1828 began reading the poetry of William Wordsworth. It would be another landmark in his life, as well as one in the history of utilitarianism, because in reading Wordsworth he found a glimmer of something that would provide a solution.

William Wordsworth was a Romantic poet; feelings and passions were important in Romanticism, and Romantics like Wordsworth gave an extraordinary amount of thought to the influence of feelings on science, religion, politics, and, in short, all the aspects of human life. And for Wordsworth, poetry did not exist simply to express the poet's feelings, but to communicate to others those feelings that go with what might be called the 'fit' between the mind and world, which plays a significant role in our motivations. If Mill's reaction is any test, Wordsworth was successful in this. As Mill says in his Autobiography (Chapter 5):

What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence....I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in, the common feelings and common destiny of human beings. And the delight which these poems gave me, proved that with culture of this sort, there was nothing to dread from the most confirmed habit of analysis.

To use one of his examples, it became clear to him that the feeling of the beauty of the clouds at sunset is something that can go with knowing that clouds are masses of water vapor acting according to physical laws. This would lead to a reconsideration of much of his view of the world, and we find the impact of this in his 1838 essay, "Bentham", which has high praise for aspects of Bentham's utilitarianism, but also some rather severe criticism. Mill's criticism covers a number of features of Bentham's philosophy, but the part that is of particular value for our purposes is a criticism that he thinks applies not merely to Bentham but also to many others:

This error, or rather one-sidedness, belongs to him not as a utilitarian, but as a moralist by profession, and in common with almost all professed moralists, whether religious or philosophical: it is that of treating the moral view of actions and characters, which is unquestionably the first and most important mode of looking at them, as if it were the sole one: whereas it is only one of three, by all of which our sentiments towards the human being may be, ought to be, and without entirely crushing our own nature cannot but be, materially influenced. Every human action has three aspects: its moral aspect, or that of its right and wrong; its ├Žsthetic aspect, or that of its beauty; its sympathetic aspect, or that of its loveableness. The first addresses itself to our reason and conscience; the second to our imagination; the third to our human fellow-feeling. According to the first, we approve or disapprove; according to the second, we admire or despise; according to the third, we love, pity, or dislike.

Mill uses the example of the Roman hero Brutus. Brutus's sons were implicated in a conspiracy to overthrow the Roman Republic and, as it happens, Brutus was the judge when their case came up. He heard it, and as the evidence of their guilt was quite clear, he sentenced them to death. The action was right, if we consider just how much happiness depended on the freedom of the Roman citizens; it was even admirable, in that it showed a patriotism and devotion to the public good on a heroic scale. But nobody can look at such an action and find it sympathetic or loveable. It seems inhuman for a father to condemn his sons to death. It was in some way the right thing to do, but also in some way a bad thing to do. Suppose, Mill goes on, the younger brother had been involved in the conspiracy solely out of affection for the older brother. What he did was neither right nor admirable, but nonetheless loveable; it is something with which one could sympathize. It was wrong, but it was not wholly bad.

One of the major points made in the essay on Bentham is that human beings are not indivisible agents with singular motivations. We have a rich, complex, multifaceted moral psychology. And human happiness depends on fulfilling this complex human nature. Internal consequences are at least as important as external consequences. While there are differing views on the subject, I think this is the major concern which will drive Mill's deviations from Bentham. Suppose you could get immense pleasure from eating a special kind of chocolate cake. Obviously, this can contribute a great deal to your happiness, understood as pleasure without pain. But if you had this cake, would it actually suffice to make you happy? Here's a reason to think it couldn't: you aren't a cake-eating machine. Eating cake is nice, but you have a much wider range of needs than eating cake can actually satisfy. Make the pleasure of eating the cake ever so great, it will not satisfy your sense of honor, it will not satisfy your need for friends, it will not satisfy your love of action and your desire to overcome challenges, it will not satisfy your love of beauty. It's just cake. Very good cake, to be sure, but just cake. Conversation with friends, on the other hand, may not give you pleasures as vast as our hypothetical chocolate cake, but it will no doubt give you pleasure that contributes to more of who you are as a human being.

Something like this line of thought, at least, gets us to where we find Mill in his most famous and influential discussion, Utilitarianism, first published in Fraser's Magazine in 1861 and then published as a book in 1863. Quantity of pleasure is not enough. One must also consider quality of pleasure. As he says in what is perhaps his most famous comment (Chapter 2):

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, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

When we are comparing two pleasures in equal quantity, it can nonetheless happen that all or almost all who can appreciate both pleasures will nonetheless still treat one of them as more desirable or valuable and, indeed, as so much more valuable that, however much you increased the quantity of the other pleasure, they still would not give up this pleasure. In that case, the preferred pleasure is superior in quality; it is the higher pleasure. It might be lower than some other pleasure, but it is the more valuable in this comparison. However much pleasure a pig may have, it is a pig's pleasure; a human being has a richer set of needs and desires than a pig could ever have, and the pleasures of a pig will not do a good job satisfying them. Socrates has cultivated himself so that he is capable of a richer experience of life than any fool; no matter how happy the fool is, a fool's happiness will not be rich enough to satisfy a Socrates.

Benthamites at the time, and more than a few people since, thought this a weird hybridization of Bentham's pure theory with Romanticism. And many thought that it simply gives away the store -- many people think it takes away the attraction of being a utilitarian. But from what we have seen, of course, Mill likely thinks his own experience proves that you need something like this if you take seriously the idea that the moral life is not just an abstract scheme but something to be lived by actual human beings.

There are some obscurities in how we are supposed to unite our measurements of quantity with our judgments of quality. But there is no question that it is a significant change. Once we add quality to the mix, neither the felicific calculus nor the repudiation of asceticism can work the way Bentham thinks they should. Simply calculating with quantities of pleasures and pains will now only get you the right answer if the pleasures and pains do not differ much in terms of quality. In addition, the introduction of quality means that it might now be reasonable for us deliberately to take less pleasure in order to get better pleasure. It shifts the entire approach and gives us a new kind of utilitarianism:

(1) happiness(2) for the greatest number of(3) by looking at(4) applying this to
All classical utilitarians, by definitionpleasure without pain
Virtually all classical utilitarians, in practicepleasure without painanything that can experience happiness
Benthampleasure without painanything that can experience happinessquantity(1) decisions or actions for oneself;
(2) laws
Millpleasure without painanything that can experience happinessquantity and quality

Mill will also end up differing with Bentham on the application of the principle of utility, largely, I think, because introducing quality into the assessment requires us to use the principle more flexibly than Bentham would have countenanced. But this is a complicated enough matter that it will need its own future post.

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