Morality and the Human Condition, #13–Millian Utilitarianism, & Ten Big Problems For It.

By Robert Hanna

“The Human Condition,” by Thomas Whitaker

***

Table of Contents

II. The Standard Conception of Morality

II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question

II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality

II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality

II.4 Six Famously Hard Cases

III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality

III.1 Moral Relativism

III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality

III.3 Moral Skepticism

III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism

IV. Morality and Religion

IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory

IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?

IV.3 Religion and Morality

V. Three Classical Moral Theories

V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition

V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics

V.2 Millian Utilitarianism

V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism

V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles

V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas

V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics

V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section

VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About the Meaning of Life

VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About the Meaning of Life

VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?

VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation

VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism

VII.2 Nagel and the Absurd

VII.3 Camus and Affirmation

VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity

VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity

VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?

VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom

VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers

VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics

VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity

IX. The Nature of Death

IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”

IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death

IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death

X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality

X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality

X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing

X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality

X.4 Human Life Without Immortality

***

But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.

***

V.2 Millian Utilitarianism[i]

J.S. Mill is the most famous and influential proponent of utilitarianism, although both James Mill (J.S. Mill’s tyrannical father) and Jeremy Bentham (whose body still exists in a wooden closet in University College London in stuffed form, although nowadays with his original head replaced by a nicer one, although the fairly grotesque original head is still in the closet, and brought out every year to preside over the UCL Board of Governors Meeting — seriously!, I’m not making this up) had already developed versions of utilitarianism prior to that.

We’ve already implicitly encountered utilitarianism in the guise of benefits-based moral reasoning, and more specifically, in the guise of Peter Singer’s (and Peter Unger’s) argument for famine relief.

So utilitarianism is the moral theory that expresses and attempts to justify the basic moral principles lying behind benefits-based moral reasoning.

According to utilitarianism, the highest human good is happiness.

Happiness, according to utilitarianism, consists in

either (i) pleasurable states of mind or an increase in their intensity,

or (ii) the promotion or multiplication of pleasurable states of mind,

or (iii) the prevention or the reduction of painful states of mind,

or (iv) the satisfaction of individual preferences and/or desires,

or (v) the individual consumption of preferred and/or desired goods.

Correspondingly, unhappiness according to utilitarianism consists in

either (i) painful states of mind or an increase in their intensity,

or (ii) the promotion or the multiplication of painful states of mind,

or (iii) the frustration of individual preferences and/or desires,

or (iv) the lack of preferred and/or desired goods.

The overall positive balance of happiness over unhappiness is utility, and the overall negative balance of unhappiness over happiness is disutility.

But there are two significantly different types of utility:

(i) private aka egoistic utility, that is, my or your individual happiness, and

(ii) public aka non-egoistic utility, that is, the happiness of many people, as a sum of private utilities.

Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism.

In turn, consequentialism says that what is right or wrong consists exclusively (or at least essentially) in the bringing about of good or bad effects of our actions, and does not consist in

either (i) virtuous or vicious characters of persons (because it’s really possible to be virtuous but accidentally bring about bad consequences, and also really possible to be vicious but accidentally bring about good consequences)

or (ii) the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of our choices or intentions to act, or of our actions (because it’s really possible to make the right choices or have the right intentions but accidentally bring about bad consequences, and also really possible to make the wrong choices or have the wrong intentions but accidentally bring about good consequences).

Given utilitarianism’s conception of the highest good, together with consequentialism, the general moral doctrine of act utilitarianism says:

What I (or anyone) ought to do is always to act in such a way as to bring about as much happiness as possible for as many people (or: animals capable of being vessels of happiness) as possible.

But there are two significantly different forms of act utilitarianism, namely

(i) private, aka egoistic act utilitarianism:

What I (or anyone) ought to do is always to act in such a way as to bring about as much happiness as possible for me (or for himself/herself/themselves) individually, aka maximizing private utility.

(ii) public, aka non-egoistic act utilitarianism:

What I (or anyone) ought to do is always to act in such a way as to bring about as much happiness as possible for as many people (or: sentient animals) as possible, aka maximizing public utility.

Millian utilitarianism is a version of public, aka non-egoistic act utilitarianism, based on what Mill calls The Greatest Happiness Principle:

What I (or anyone) ought to do is always to act in such a way as to produce the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness (= the greatest utility) for as many people (or: sentient animals) as possible, where, for the purposes of summing private utilities, each person (or: sentient animal) counts as one and no person counts as more than one

It’s important to note that The Greatest Happiness Principle is supposed to apply only to actions relativized to particular act-contexts and also to particular populations of people who can be affected by my actions.

Obviously, The Greatest Happiness Principle expresses a morality of public, aka non-egoistic, act utilitarianism, and not a morality of private, aka egoistic, act utilitarianism.

So Millian utilitiarianism is generally opposed to moral egoism.

Nevertheless, according to Mill, it’s also perfectly morally permissible for me to maximize private, aka egoistic, utility, as long as I don’t, in that particular historical context, actually have a genuine opportunity to maximize public utility.

It’s only when public utility can, in that particular historical context,be maximized by my choices and actions, that I’m morally obligated to maximize public utility.

In this sense, for the Millian utilitarian, moral egoism, like prosperity during The Great Depression, is always just around the corner, by which I mean that according to the Millian utilitarian, there’s nothing intrinsically morally wrong with egoism.

Still, whenever you can maximize public utility, then you morally must maximize public utility.

Mill distinguishes explicitly between higher pleasures and lower pleasures:

(i) higher pleasures are

either (ia) intellectual pleasures (e.g., doing or appreciating mathematics, logic, philosophy, science, etc.),

or (ib) aesthetic pleasures (e.g., doing or appreciating art, literature, music, dance, etc.),

or (ic) emotional pleasures that aren’t merely bodily (e.g., romantic love as opposed to mere sexual satisfaction, parental love, friendship, sympathy, empathy, etc.).

But by sharp contrast,

(ii) lower pleasures are merely bodily or carnal pleasures of any sort.

In turn, Millian utilitarianism morally favors or ranks higher pleasures ahead of lower pleasures, and also morally requires the maximization of higher pleasures, first and foremost, although not at the expense of a sufficient quantity of those lower pleasures necessary for reproduction, survival, good health, or the production of higher pleasures.

Nevertheless, as Mill puts it:

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

This directly implies that there are higher pains and lower pains corresponding to higher pleasures and lower pleasures, and also that higher pains morally outrank lower pleasures, not to mention lower pains.

Mill also distinguishes, at least implicitly, between act-utility and what’s nowadays called rule-utility.

Act-utility is the public or private utility of individual acts.

By contrast, rule-utility is the public or private utility of general rules or policies as implemented over time.

The primary rationale for making this distinction is that sometimes, even though a given act of mine might be morally required from the standpoint of public act-utility (e.g., if I’m a politician, telling a big fat lie that makes lots of people happy), if considered from the standpoint of public rule-utility, then it might not be permitted (e.g., because a well-functioning liberal democratic State requires, as a rule, the probity of politicians — ha, ha).

A prima facie advantage of utilitarianism over other moral theories, from the standpoint of actually implementing its moral principles, is the calculability of utility.

In other words, utility can be objectively measured — that is, scientifically studied and quantified — to some non-trivial extent, e.g., in the empirical psychology of pain and pleasure, or in the economics of preference and/or desire satisfaction and goods-consumption.

Therefore, to the extent that utility can be objectively measured, then correct moral deliberation according to The Greatest Happiness Principle can be reduced

either (i) to calculating the probable utility-consequences of one’s action in a given historical context for a given population of people vs. the probable utility-consequences of failing to act,

or (ii) to calculating the probable utility-consequences of various possible courses of action,

and then choosing to do whatever calculates out as maximizing public utility.

So act utilitarian morality bottoms out in the mathematical models of rational decision-theory, on either public utility assumptions (public or non-egoistic policy) or private utility assumptions (private or egoistic policy).

It does not follow, however, that I am required by Mill’s act utilitarianism to be a utility computer in humanoid form, in order to be morally good.

For this will be far too time-consuming and far too complex to calculate for individuals or social groups in most hands-on, real-world, seat-of-your-pants situations.

Millian utilitarianism therefore explicitly allows for an appeal to learned habits, collective experience, and imitative models of utility-calculation.

So in this respect, Millian utilitarianism is quite like Aristotelian virtue ethics.

V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism

But here are ten important problems for this view.

1. Can Mill adequately justify his distinction between higher and lower pleasures?

The worry here is that in order to justify the moral ranking of higher pleasures over lower pleasures, Mill must appeal to a non-utilitarian, non-consequentialist thesis about the intrinsic value of higher pleasures and higher pains.

This appeal, in turn, directly entails that significantly smaller amounts of higher pleasure or higher pain will morally override significantly larger amounts of lower pleasure or lower pain, even though producing these lower pleasures or preventing these lower pains are strictly required by The Greatest Happiness Principle.

2. Does the Millian distinction between higher pleasures and lower pleasures justify the mistreatment of non-human animals?

In sharp contrast to Mill, Bentham formulated a version of utilitarianism that doesn’t distinguish between higher and lower pleasures.

Bentham’s basic reason for not drawing this distinction is the following important worry about the treatment of non-human animals:

The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old. But suppose it were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?[iii]

In a contemporary context, famously, Singer has reformulated this thought as a full-blown ethics of animal liberation.[iv]

Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures would clearly justify the differential moral treatment of humans and non-human animals: but is this morally acceptable?

Bentham and Singer would equally clearly say that it’s not morally acceptable and reject the distinction.

3. The Problem of Utility-Maximizing Covert Immorality

If utilitarianism were correct, then breaking a promise to a dying friend would be justified if it maximized utility, and indeed cheating, lying, and trust-breaking of various kinds would all be morally justified, provided that they maximized utility and no one ever found out.

But that’s rationally unjustified and morally unacceptable — not only from the standpoint of intrinsic-value based moral reasoning, but also from the standpoint of common sense moral intuition — because utility-maximizing consequences self-evidently don’t morally justify intrinsically morally wrong choices or acts.

4. The Problem of Utility-Maximizing Serious Human Rights Violations

As per the third problem, if utilitarianism were correct, then also serious human rights violations would be morally justified, provided that they maximized utility.[v]

But again that’s rationally unjustified and morally unacceptable — again, not only from the standpoint of intrinsic-value based moral reasoning but also from the standpoint of common sense moral intuition — again because utility-maximizing consequences self-evidently don’t morally justify human-rights-violating choices and acts any more than they morally justify intrinsically morally wrong choices or acts.

5. The Problem of Utility-Maximizing Tyrannies of the Majority

If utilitarianism is correct, then if a majority of the people were made happy by persecuting and violently coercing a minority of the people, then that would be morally justified because it maximizes public utility.

Consider, e.g., the sorts of reasons that were used to (purportedly) justify Southern slavery in the USA prior to The Emancipation Proclamation, and then restrict the term “the people” to the populations of the Southern slave states.

But that’s rationally unjustified and morally unacceptable, because utility-maximizing consequences don’t morally justify the tyranny of the majority.

6. The Problem of Utility Monsters (aka The Problem of Utility-Maximizing Inequality)

If utilitarianism is correct, then if some people were — as seems really possible — able to derive extremely high levels of utility from certain goods or opportunities (let’s call them “utility monsters”), as compared to others who derive relatively less utility from the same goods or opportunities (let’s call them “utility wimps”), then it follows that it would be morally justified to divert more and more of those goods or opportunities away from the utility wimps to the utility monsters, even if that entails a sharply inequitable overall distribution of goods or opportunities.

But that’s rationally unjustified and morally unacceptable, because utility-maximizing consequences don’t morally justify the sharply inequitable distribution of goods or opportunities.

7. The Problem of the Super-Clever Unscrupulous Egoistic Utilitarian (aka Hume’s “Sensible Knave”)

If Millian utilitarianism (or indeed any version of act or rule public aka non-egoistic utilitarianism) were correct, then private aka egoistic utilitarianism would be incorrect.

But how can a Millian utilitarian rationally convince a super-clever and unscrupulous egoistic utilitarian, aka David Hume’s notorious “sensible knave,”[vi] to choose and act in a publicly beneficial way and, more, generally, to be socially cooperative?

If the Millian utilitarian’s argument is that everyone including the sensible knave himself will be better off if he doesn’t cheat, lie, manipulate, or violently coerce other people, then the knave can retort that as long as he doesn’t get caught, then he’s always better off, that he who dies with the most stuff, wins, and that didn’t the Millian utilitarian say that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with moral egoism?

In other words, it’s practically impossible for the Millian utilitarian to convince the sensible knave to be socially cooperative on utilitarian grounds alone.

8. The Problem of Too-Highly-Demanding Morality

If utilitarianism is correct, then the Singer-Unger argument for saving others who are in mortal danger, e.g., the victims of famine, is a sound argument.

Therefore, we morally must always give $100 (or whatever) to famine relief (or whatever), whenever by doing so we would not be losing anything of comparable moral value (say, one’s own life).

But, morally speaking, that’s much too highly demanding.

As I argued in section II.4, it’s clearly and distinctly morally permissible at least sometimes not to help others who are in mortal danger, provided that you’re neither the closest one to the mortally threatened ones, nor uniquely capable of providing life-saving aid for them.

9. The Experience Machine and the Problem of Shallow Happiness

If utilitarianism is correct, then happiness would be entirely experiential, however one cashes that out, whether in terms of pleasant experiences, experiences of preference-satisfaction, or whatever.

But then, as per a famous thought-experiment due to Robert Nozick,[vii] living in an Experience Machine for your entire life, together with guaranteed life-long blissful ignorance that it’s nothing but an Experience Machine that you’re living in, would be every bit as good as or even much better than a real life, since a real life, no matter how wonderful, is extremely unlikely to produce the consistent happiness-results that The Experience Machine plus guaranteed ignorance would produce.

That result, in turn, seems wrong for two reasons.

First, ignorant happiness is intrinsically worse than knowledge-based happiness.

Second, since the Experience Machine produces the experiences, then you’re being causally determined, like an unfree puppet or robot, to be happy, but lacking freedom of the will and also being experientially happy is intrinsically worse than having freedom of the will and also being experientially happy.

Moreover, both of those reasons can be deployed in the following argument.

Let’s call any kind of experiential happiness that’s both ignorant and causally determined, shallow happiness.

And let’s call any kind of experiential happiness that’s combined with both knowledge and free will, deep happiness.

Then if utilitarianism is correct, shallow happiness would be just as good as or better than deep happiness, but that’s self-evidently false.

10. Utility vs. Integrity

If utilitarianism is correct, then non-consequentialist moral reasons can never rationally justify our choices or actions.

But let’s now consider two fictional cases famously described by Bernard Williams.[viii]

First, there’s the case of George the Chemist who must decide whether or not to take a job in the biological-and-chemical warfare industry, and, even though his family will be much worse off if he refuses the job, he refuses the job.

And second, there’s the case of Jim the South American Traveller who’s forced to decide whether or not he should shoot one Indian in order to save nineteen other Indians from being murdered by a cruel police officer, and, even though it means letting twenty Indians be murdered, he refuses to shoot the one.

If utilitarianism is correct, then it follows that George morally must take the job and also that Jim morally must shoot the Indian (and it’s helpful in this connection to compare and contrast this case with the Bystander at the Switch sub-case of The Trolley Problem).

But there are good moral reasons, based on at least some people’s sense of a life-defining personal integrity that’s expressed in choosing and acting regardless of consequences, not to take the job and not to shoot the Indian.

If so, then utilitarianism overlooks the moral fact of personal integrity, and it’s false that non-consequentialist moral reasons can never rationally justify our choices or actions.

It’s also crucially important to note here that Williams is explicitly not appealing to a Kantian version of non-consequentialism — indeed, as we saw in section II.2, Williams explicitly rejects rationality-based morality, especially including Kant’s ethics.

So now we’ll get back into our TARDIS, reverse-jump from the 19th century to the 18th century, and turn to the critical examination of that classical moral theory.

NOTES

[ii] Mill, “Utilitarianism,” p. 74.

[iii] J. Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation (New York: Hafner, 1948), p. 311.

[iv] See, e.g., P. Singer, “All Animals are Equal,” in P. Singer, Unsanctifying Human Life (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 80–94; and P. Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), ch. 5.

[v] Consider,e.g., the famous fictional “rape-&-race-riots” case described by H.J. McCloskey and quoted by Rachels and Rachels,The Elements of Moral Philosophy, pp. 112–113, and also the real-world Peeping Tom case cited by them at pp. 113–114.

[vi] D. Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1983), p. 81.

[vii] See R. Nozick, “The Experience Machine,” in Rachels and Rachels, The Right Thing to Do, pp. 262–264.

[viii] See Williams, “Utilitarianism and Integrity,” in Rachels and Rachels, The Right Thing to Do, pp. 145–150.

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