Our reading for today is a selection from John Stuart Mill’s classic text, Utilitarianism. Although Mill did not invent the philosophical school of thought with which he is associated (and from which his book takes its title), he is certainly its most famous, influential, and talented proponent. “Utilitarianism” is a word derived from another philosophical word, “utility,” which has its root in the Latin word, “utilitas,” meaning “usefulness.” Utilitarianism is thus an ethical philosophy that is concerned chiefly with what is useful—but only in a very specific sense. The utilitarian seeks to perform always that action which is most useful to the achievement of happiness for the most people concerned. Utilitarians believe that happiness is, ultimately, just the maximization of pleasure—and thus, the founder of utilitarianism (and John Stuart Mill’s godfather and mentor), Jeremy Bentham, called it “the greatest happiness principle.” The simplest version of the greatest happiness principle is: “the greatest good for the greatest number.” This is as good a simple understanding of utilitarianism as you’re likely to get. The point here is to do whatever you can to increase pleasure and decrease suffering for as many people (and animals—utilitarians think that any being capable of feeling pain matters in ethical decision making) as you can.
As Marino notes in his introduction to Mill, the only significant difference between the greatest happiness principle of Bentham and what Mill calls “the principle of utility” is in their understandings of pleasure, and thus happiness. Bentham devises his ethics as a way of quantifying morality—his basic motivation was to make ethics more scientific—and he proposes what he sometimes calls a “util” and other times calls a “hedon” as the basic unit of measurement for pleasure. He then suggests that we could determine how many utils/hedons are gained or lost by any given action as a means of determining net gains and/or losses in pleasure, and thus the moral rightness or wrongness of possible courses of action. Ethical decision-making on this model is something almost mathematical, resulting in what Bentham called “the utilitarian calculus.” It runs something like this: suppose that you’re figuring out what to eat for lunch, and you have two different options: a hamburger or a veggie sandwich. (Of course, you could always skip lunch, so you really have three options.) Thus, your choices are as follows:
Hamburger = 5 utils
Veggie sandwich = 2 utils
Skipping lunch = -3 utils
This makes it seem pretty obvious that, if you wish to maximize happiness for yourself, you need to eat the hamburger. But let’s also note that skipping lunch and eating vegetables cause no other being any pain, but eating meat does require that an animal be slaughtered. While a cow probably cannot anticipate its own death, it can experience pain, and is likely to experience at least some pain as a result of the slaughtering process. As such, we’ve got to subtract whatever pain the cow might feel from whatever pleasure we might feel in eating the cow. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the cow suffers a loss of at least four utils by being confined and slaughtered. Thus, we have to recalculate: the hamburger may gain us five utils of pleasure, but as it costs the cow four utils, the net happiness gained by choosing the hamburger is just one util. Taking account of all parties, then, we get this:
Veggie sandwich = 2 utils
Hamburger = 1 util
Skipping lunch = -3 utils
Thus, once we think about it more thoroughly, we see that, even though we would experience more than twice the pleasure eating a hamburger than we would eating a veggie sandwich, we cause a great deal more pain by choosing the hamburger than we do either of our other two options. The veggie sandwich is, then, the most ethical choice.
Mill retains something like this calculus, but the calculations become much more complicated by the fact that he adds a qualitative distinction to Bentham’s quantification. In addition to sheer quantity of pleasure, Mill insists that some pleasures are of a higher order than others—that is to say, that some pleasures are just better, even if you have them in smaller amounts. (This leads to the famous saying, “Better a sad Socrates than a happy pig.”) To take another example, let’s imagine you’ve got two hours free this afternoon, to do whatever you like. You think about your options, and you come up with these choices: nap, read some poetry, or watch reality television. Following Bentham’s purely quantitative calculus, we might come up with something like this:
Reality TV: 5 utils
Nap: 2 utils
Poetry: 1 util
For Bentham, then, the obvious choice is to watch television. But Mill argues that only a lower sort of person is truly satisfied by something as base as reality TV; if nothing else, reality television appeals to the most base parts of yourself, not the more sophisticated or thoughtful aspects of your humanity. Thus, Mill would re-organize the list something like this:
Poetry: 1 higher util
Reality TV: 5 lower utils
Nap: 2 lower utils
Note that Mill doesn’t disagree with Bentham, that watching TV gives people more pleasure than reading poetry does. His disagreement is with the kind of pleasure. People who choose to try to enjoy reading poetry instead of watching reality television are, from Mill’s perspective, just better people, on the whole. You would not be wrong to see a kind of elitism here, or to note that British society in the nineteenth century was split into two classes—nobility and commoners—and Mill draws the line dividing “high pleasures” from “low pleasures” in such a way that most of the things common people enjoyed were low, and most of the things noble people enjoyed were high. But that’s beside the point, and even if Mill is a bit of a classist, it remains the case that each of us probably sees some truth in that distinction. Compare, for example, the pleasure one might take in spending time with their cantankerous, smelly old grandfather to the pleasure they might take in playing video games. Chances are very good that the video games give us more pleasure, purely quantitatively, but spending time with our grandfather is more humane, gives more people pleasure than playing the video games would, and is longer-lasting. All of my grandparents are dead, and I can remember very clearly—with pleasure—the times I spent with them. I also played a lot of video games. Besides Pac-Man, I can’t remember a single one of them. Yet I think of each of my grandparents every day. All of those things matter in making a decision, for Mill.
Contemporary ethics is split between two camps: consequentialists and non-consequentialists. The difference between the two camps lies in where they think the morality of an action comes from: consequentialists think that it’s the consequences of an action that make it good or evil; non-consequentialists think that it’s the intention that makes an action good or evil. In the two readings from Kant, we saw a non-consequentialist: he thinks that an action is made good or evil by whatever it is the person taking the action intends to do (if you intend to lie, it’s wrong, even if the person you’re lying to already knows the truth—and thus can’t really be deceived). Mill (and utilitarianism, generally), on the other hand, present the classic consequentialist philosophy. That is simply to say that, for Mill, the thing that makes a good action good is that it brings about the most good in the world—the consequences of the action are paramount, regardless of the intentions or the action itself.
Another way of putting this is that non-consequentialists think that some actions are good or evil in themselves, regardless of what benefits they might bring about. Thus, lying is always wrong for Kant, even if telling the truth will cause more pain in the end. Murder is also always wrong for Kant, even if, say, by assassinating Hitler we could have prevented millions of innocent people from being killed in the concentration camps.
A consequentialist like Mill, however, believes that there are no actions that are good or evil in themselves: all actions get their goodness or their evilness from the pain or pleasure that they bring about. If you could bring about more happiness and reduce more suffering by an act of murder, that act of murder would be morally good. (Think, again, of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler—had it succeeded, would we think that his murderer had done something morally wrong?) This is opposed precisely to something like Kant’s view. The great advantage of Kantian non-consequentialism is that it seems to reflect the belief in the sanctity of human life and the absolute impermissibility of certain actions that many people share. Only a non-consequentialist could believe, for example, that all human beings ought to have their rights respected, or that rape is inherently wrong. The great advantage of Millian consequentialism—and of utilitarianism in particular—is that it reflects another belief that many of us share, that it’s not enough to want the world to be a better place; we have a responsibility to do things that make actual people’s lives better.
Take a simple example: volunteering to serve food to the homeless in a soup kitchen. Many people believe that this is a good thing to do. But why is it good? On the one hand, our instinct might be a non-consequentialist one: giving charity is a good thing to do, and so serving food to the poor is always good. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see the same action in a consequentialist light: serving food to the homeless is a good thing because, without the help of volunteers at soup kitchens, many of the homeless will starve. This is great utilitarianism: for a relatively minor sacrifice of the volunteers’ leisure time, the homeless people who eat at the soup kitchen have a basic need met (and avoid the immense suffering of starvation). On serving food in a soup kitchen, Kant and Mill seem to agree that the action is morally good, even if they disagree as to why.
However, what do we think of a politician who shows up at the soup kitchen and serves the homeless—but only with the news media and their cameras nearby? Is serving at a soup kitchen still morally good, if you’re only doing it to get positive news coverage for your political campaign? What about people who volunteer because it makes them feel good to help other people? Are they doing something for other people (which we usually think is good), or something selfish (which we usually think is not so good)? A Kantian would have to say that these acts are not actually acts of charity; both the politician and the person who only helps because helping makes her feel good are serving themselves, not others. Kant would argue that such actions are either morally wrong, or at the very least have no moral worth (which is simply Kant’s way of saying that they don’t count as good or evil). If, like Mill, however, we are only morally concerned with the consequences, then so long as the politician actually feeds the homeless, why they’re doing so doesn’t matter at all. What matters is that the homeless get fed.
Take our other, more extreme, example: Kant thinks that it’s always wrong to murder people, regardless of who the people are and what the consequences might be. A Kantian who met Hitler’s assassin in the road would alert the police to the assassin’s plot—all while thinking that Hitler, too, was evil. I know that we all like to believe that murder is inherently evil, but does Kant’s response here make any moral sense to us? Or does Mill make more sense: murder can be morally justified, when it brings about more good than bad. I know we feel uncomfortable admitting that we think that murder is sometimes morally right—but murdering Hitler?
At this point, in my experience teaching this class, I find that many of you really want to have it both ways: you want to suggest that, at least in some cases, we can be both consequentialists and non-consequentialists; agree both with Kant and Mill. Or you are tempted to become casuists, and say that in some cases, you agree with Kant, but in other cases, you agree with Mill. This isn’t logically possible, however: Kant and Mill contradict each other. The question they’re trying to resolve is not: “Is this-or-that action morally right (and why)?” They’re trying to answer the far more basic question: “What is it that distinguishes between good and evil?” And they both agree that we need an answer to this question. Why? Because, without one, we are left with the same problem I noted in the first blog post, regarding casuistry: whether we say that we must try to resolve every moral problem in a case-by-case basis without any further guidance (which is, basically, just doing what you want to do), or we say that, in each case, it is up to you to decide whether you should resolve the question in a consequentialist or non-consequentialist fashion, we are left with a far more basic question still to resolve: how do we choose? How would we choose between Kant and Mill, if we were left to choose for ourselves with regard to each action?
There is (of course) a whole field of philosophy devoted to trying to figure out how we choose between different moral philosophies (it’s called “metaethics”), but we’re not delving into that in this class. Instead, we can think of it this way: it must be true that either there is some fundamental principle underlying the distinction between good and evil (whether that principle is the categorical imperative, à la Kant, or it’s the principle of utility, à la Mill), or there is no such fundamental principle. If we think that there is no fundamental principle distinguishing between good and evil, then we are admitting in essence that there is no such thing as ethics (since ethics is, by definition, the inquiry into the fundamental principle distinguishing between good and evil), and we are, in our heart of hearts, moral relativists. If we reject moral relativism, however, then we are tacitly conceding that there is in fact a fundamental principle of morality, even if we don’t know what it is or how to determine it for ourselves. Once we’ve made this concession, however, then we’re on the hook for thinking seriously about the philosophical questions here, and doing our very best to come to a resolution: Kant, or Mill? (Or Aristotle? Or Hume? Or Aquinas? Or … ?)
I can’t answer the question for you, although I do believe wholeheartedly and with complete sincerity that it is an important question (maybe the most important question), and one that we do need to contemplate and try to resolve. Hopefully, you’re now thinking about this question, too. Specifically in the case of Kant vs. Mill, it’s sometimes helpful to try to sort out how a utilitarian would address a given moral problem, as opposed to how Kant would address it, and seeing where our moral intuitions take us. Utilitarianism was designed to address widespread suffering in the world, suffering that most people—politicians and philosophers alike—were leaving unaddressed. And it’s probably the case that utilitarians, or people very much in agreement with utilitarians, have done more good in the world than just about any other sort of people, since most of the good that’s been done has been done by people who wish to alleviate the suffering of others, a utilitarian concern. Mill himself was a member of the British Parliament, and while serving in that office, advocated for women’s rights, social protections for the poor, and better treatment of the Irish. Bentham was the first serious moral thinker to even consider the possibility that we have moral responsibilities to nonhuman animals. And the contemporary Australian utilitarian philosopher, Peter Singer, is at the forefront of efforts to eradicate world poverty and end the abuse of animals in factory farms.
Is Mill’s belief that the consequences of our actions matter, and are what makes those actions good or bad, reasonable? Or does shifting the focus from intentions to consequences empower us to commit acts of atrocious evil in the world, all while contenting ourselves with our own goodness on utilitarian grounds? Take this example, recently made more timely by President Obama’s visit last week to Japan: President Harry Truman ordered the dropping of nuclear bombs on the Japanese civilian cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the belief that doing so would bring a rapid end to World War II, and thus save the lives of many American soldiers who would otherwise be killed in combat if the war dragged on. At the same time, as Truman well knew, the bombs would kill many people—almost all civilians. His decision was a transparently utilitarian one: he weighed the lives of the Japanese civilians against the lives of the American soldiers, counted them up, and dropped the bombs. Did he make the right decision, morally speaking? Is it ever morally right to kill civilians as a means of bringing an end to military hostilities?Feel free, if you think it helps, to compare Truman’s decision to the suggestion made last December by presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, that the way to succeed in the fight against ISIS is to “take out their families.”