In the second half of the twentieth century, there was a complicated scholarly discussion of whether Mill's version of utilitarianism was an act utilitarianism
or a rule utilitarianism
. This is a dispute over the application of the greatest happiness principle. Act utilitarianism is the view that to assess right and wrong in an action, you should apply the greatest happiness principle to each action. Rule utilitarianism is the view that to assess right and wrong in an action, you should apply ordinary moral rules (like 'don't murder') to each action, and instead use the greatest happiness principle to decide what should be a moral rule. Mill says things that can be interpreted both ways. However, I will suggest that looking at the overall structure of Mill's ethics, as we find it displayed in his comments on the Art of Life, shows that the dispute is somewhat misguided. Mill doesn't think there is only one way to apply the greatest happiness principle.
Mill discusses the Art of Life in his A System of Logic
. 'Art' here means something like a form of know-how; in art (in this sense) we propose an end to be attained based on general practical principles; we then drawn on science or theoretical study to determine what will attain that end; and finally we use this to make a rule that we will follow. The Art of Life is the most general kind of art, the know-how for living itself. It is not a unitary thing but has a structure. As he puts it (Book IV, Chapter XII
These general premises, together with the principal conclusions which may be deduced from them, form (or rather might form) a body of doctrine, which is properly the Art of Life, in its three departments, Morality, Prudence or Policy, and Æsthetics; the Right, the Expedient, and the Beautiful or Noble, in human conduct and works. To this art (which, in the main, is unfortunately still to be created), all other arts are subordinate; since its principles are those which must determine whether the special aim of any particular art is worthy and desirable, and what is its place in the scale of desirable things. Every art is thus a joint result of laws of nature disclosed by science, and of the general principles of what has been called Teleology, or the Doctrine of Ends; which, borrowing the language of the German metaphysicians, may also be termed, not improperly, the principles of Practical Reason.
Needless to say, as a utilitarian Mill takes the primary general principle governing the Art of Life to be the principle of utility: "the general principle to which all rules of practice ought to conform, and the test by which they should be tried, is that of conduciveness to the happiness of mankind, or rather, of all sentient beings".
The claim that the greatest happiness principle will be the most general principle of practical reason
is significant, and involves a conception of how the principle applies that is different from that of many other utilitarians. Let's look at this by considering each department of the Art of Life in turn, to the extent that Mill's scattered and limited comments enable us to understand what he means. Each department covers a kind of goodness and badness.
, which Mill also calls Taste
. Mill says it is concerned with "the Beautiful or Noble". That Mill would think this way is not surprising, of course, given what we have already seen
of the importance of poetry to Mill's intellectual life. In A System of Logic
, Mill recognizes the possibility that people use the term 'beautiful' so broadly that, while 'beautiful' indicates something agreeable, they may mean several different things by it; but he doesn't think that this makes it impossible to use in a unified way, as long as you focus on the principal kinds of things that we can call beautiful. He himself uses the term explicitly to describe buildings and the colors of a kaleidoscope. 'Noble' he elsewhere takes to apply to " sentiment, expression, or demeanor" and he most often applies it to feelings, to character, or to "will and conduct". When we say that something is beautiful or noble, this is a way of saying that it is good or bad; as a utilitarian, the goodness or badness is a way of contributing to the general happiness. The more beautiful building is the one that contributes more to the overall happiness through admiration or contemplation; the more beautiful action is likewise the one that contributes more to overall happiness when people reflect on it. When someone's judgments about beauty or nobility approximate what actually contributes to overall happiness, we say that person has good taste; when they don't, we say that person has bad taste.
But this is very important: while bad taste involves a kind of badness, it is not morally bad to have bad taste. Merely violating the principle of utility is not itself morally wrong
. In some sense bad, yes. Morally wrong, no. Someone who likes decorating in ways that are gaudy, tacky, and kitsch to the point of grotesqueness has very bad taste; they are, when they decorate, reducing overall happiness. But their decorating is not immoral.
(2) Policy or Prudence
. (Mill doesn't give any precise definition of either, but 'policy' suggests decisions for a group or society, and Mill's uses of 'prudence' suggest decisions for oneself, so I assume that he has something like this in mind when picking these two terms for the second department of the Art of Life: it's one department, but we call it 'policy' when we are making decisions for society and 'prudence' when making decisions for ourselves.) Mill says that this department concerns "the Expedient", that is, roughly what we would ordinarily call the 'useful'. Understanding Mill's view of this department of the Art of Life is complicated by the fact that usually when Mill talks about expediency he is trying to head off the confusion between 'utility' in the utilitarian sense from popular notions that identify it with some degenerate or defective notion of usefulness for one's own purposes. But when we consider Mill's recognition of the Art of Life as being coextensive with practical reason, it becomes clear enough what he means. We often recognize plans and decisions as bad plans or bad decisions; some plans just don't 'make practical sense'. Since he is a utilitarian, this kind of badness has to be understood as a violation of the principle of utility. Indeed, Mill, like Bentham, thinks we clearly do apply the principle of utility naturally, by recognizing that, for instance, a plan for a vacation is a bad plan if it increases people's misery, or that a decision is a bad decision if it obviously reduces overall happiness. Someone who regularly makes decisions that make people less happy is someone who has bad judgment, who lacks good sense.
But it is very important to grasp that bad plans and decisions are not necessarily morally
bad plans and decisions. It may be a bad idea to go into a situation poorly prepared, but not all such bad ideas lead us to make moral criticisms. It's not automatically wicked to plan or decide badly. Here, too, it's not necessarily morally wrong to violate the principle of utility.
This raises a puzzle. Policy or prudence concerns things like decisions and actions. But morality is also concerned with decisions and actions. So if applying the principle of utility to decisions or actions only gets us badness and goodness of policy, we need to do something else to get moral badness and goodness. What is more, moral judgments are generally recognized as more important judgments than policy judgments; moral considerations override other practical considerations. Thus whatever we add to get morality has to give moral judgments more weight than prudential or policy judgments. What could it be?
. Morality is concerned with "the Right"; elsewhere he frames it in terms of the closely related words, "Justice" and "Duty". Mill is quite clear that everything that is morally right is also expedient, and this is part of the key to understanding what is meant by these terms. When we are making moral judgments about a decision or an action, we judge whether it contributes to the greatest happiness for the greatest number, whether it is good policy; but we also make a further judgment: is this a kind of decision or action that is so important that either doing it or not doing it requires some kind of sanction
. ('Sanction' can be either reward or punishment, but in this context usually means punishment.)
Punishment is an interesting issue for a utilitarian. The whole point of punishment is to make somebody unhappy. If I tell you, "I am punishing John by throwing him a big party," the only way you can make sense of this as a 'punishment' is if John really doesn't like big parties. To punish is to immiserate. But a utilitarian is supposed to work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number; how can they justify punishment? The only way is to argue that making this person less happy will actually lead to greater overall happiness. We punish murderers because a society in which murder is punished is happier than a society in which people can murder with impunity.
Mill's theory of sanctions is fairly sophisticated, and not easily summarized, but put crudely, he recognizes three major kinds of sanction, arising in one way or another from the combination of our inclinations to defend ourselves and to sympathize with others: sanctions of law, sanctions of public opinion, and sanctions of conscience. Sanctions of law generally involve physical coercion: being forced to give up something (fines), or being jailed, or being put to death. Sanctions of public opinion involve what Mill sometimes calls 'moral coercion': being shamed, shunned, boycotted, protested. Sanctions of conscience are guilt, shame, and the like, when you punish yourself for doing something; as Mill puts it (Utilitarianism
, Chapter III
), it is "a pain, more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty, which in properly cultivated moral natures rises, in the more serious cases, into shrinking from it as an impossibility."
Morality arises through a double application of the greatest happiness principle to the action and to the possibility of sanction. For instance, if we apply the greatest happiness principle to murder, we discover that it is 'inexpedient', i.e., it is a bad idea, given the overall needs, interests, and desires of human beings -- it detracts greatly from any attempt to work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But this only gets as far as Policy. To get Morality, we need to consider a further question. We are inclined to retaliate against murders by punishing them, often severely. If we do this, can this be justified by appeal to the greatest happiness of the greatest number? If so, then when we punish murder by law, we are establishing, entirely reasonable, a moral duty not to murder. The double application of the principle of utility and the stamp of the sanction both contribute to making moral judgments more serious than ordinary policy judgments.
The sanction-based feature of the department of Morality has bearing on a puzzle people occasionally have when reading another of Mill's works, On Liberty
. In this work, which is devoted to arguing for the importance of freedom of speech, Mill elaborates a political philosophy that is usually called classical liberalism
. The heart of Mill's classical liberalism is what is usually called the harm principle
, which he elaborates in explaining the argument of the essay (Chapter I
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
Given Mill's influence on later generations, it's sometimes overlooked how much this baffled both utilitarians and liberals; Mill's version of liberalism, and his combination of it with his utilitarianism, seemed to many to be an incoherent mess. One notable liberal utilitarian, James Fitzjames Stephen, wrote an entire book on the subject, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity
, and Stephen's versions of both liberalism and utilitarianism were much more popular at the time than Mill's (and, indeed, despite Mill's influence, probably more typical of both ever since). The core problem is this. The principle of utility says that you should work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But the harm principle explicitly says that we cannot compel individuals to do anything by law or public opinion simply because it will increase happiness; the only justification it allows is prevention of harm to other people. How can you fit the two together? There seem to be cases in which the principle of utility would require you to compel people to do something to increase overall happiness but the harm principle would deny that you can.
Once we recognize how the Art of Life is structured, however, we can easily see that Mill has at least some answer to this. There are several points that could be made, but two are especially notable:
(1) In Mill's version of utilitarianism, following the principle of utility is not always required. It is always better
, of course. Violating the principle of utility is always bad. But, as we have seen, Mill is quite clear that not every kind of badness is moral badness. Thus the principle of utility does not require us to do anything specific until we consider the matter of sanction. Nothing becomes obligatory before we add in the notion of justifiably punishing those who deviate from it. Which brings us to the next point.
(2) The harm principle given above is quite carefully formulated. You can't compel someone to do something against their will by law or public opinion, if they are not hurting anyone. But Mill recognizes at least one other kind of sanction: the sanction of conscience. Mill's point in the harm principle is that you can't use physical coercion (law) or moral coercion (public opinion) except to prevent harm to other people. But if someone is just harming himself, you can still recognize that as bad, even as morally bad, and you can still work to stop it -- just noncoercively. You can, as he says, remonstrate with him, or reason with him, or entreat him. You just can't use law and public opinion to force him, because their basis lies in defending ourselves from people who hurt others. The right way to handle someone who is hurting himself is to get him to see reason.
In any case, we can now see that asking whether Mill is an act utilitarian or a rule utilitarian misses the point; the question assumes that utilitarianism is much flatter and more monotonous than Mill's version of utilitarianism is. And we can now complete our utilitarianism table for Mill:
|(1) happiness||(2) for the greatest number of||(3) by looking at||(4) applying this to|
|All classical utilitarians, by definition||pleasure without pain|
|Virtually all classical utilitarians, in practice||pleasure without pain||anything that can experience happiness|
|Bentham||pleasure without pain||anything that can experience happiness||quantity||(1) decisions or actions for oneself; |
|Mill||pleasure without pain||anything that can experience happiness||quantity and quality||(1) objects of experience (like art or good character);|
(2) actions, decisions, and plans, whether individual or collective;
(3) rules with sanctions, whether from conscience, from public opinion, or from law
There are many other kinds of utilitarianism; not all utilitarians are classical utilitarians, and even among classical utilitarians it is not difficult to find those who will have different views from Bentham and Mill, especially with regard to columns (3) and (4). But Bentham and Mill give us enough to see how utilitarianism works; one can easily extrapolate to other kinds of utilitarianism. And knowing how utilitarianism works, one knows enough to have an idea about how non-utilitarian consequentialisms will work, which do not base the distinction between good and bad consequences on happiness (or, at least, not happiness alone), since the reasoning will often be similar in structure, even if the content is different.
Consequentialism is not the only approach to moral reasoning, however. This brings us to deontology, which we will begin to examine in a future post.