THE UTILITARIANS' ATTEMPTS TO GIVE PURELY DESCRIPTIVE NECESSARY AND SUFFICIENT CONDITIONS FOR MORAL CONCEPTS

 

 

J.S. Mill

 

1.  What is utility?

 

"Pleasure itself, together with the exemption from pain"(186).

 

2.  What are the only intrinsically desirable things?

 

"Pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain"(200).

 

Mill thinks he can identify the ultimate ends by answering the question:  "What things are desirable?"(214)  But his answer is a bad pun on “desirable” (on analogy with “visible”).

 

 

 

3.  What is utilitarianism?

 

Mill's First Statement of the Greatest Happiness Principle:  "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness."(200)

 

This sounds like a version of act utilitarianism, but Mill was not an act utilitiarian, for reasons that I explain shortly.

      

Is Utilitarianism a "Doctrine Worthy of Swine"?

 

Mill's Solution:  Higher and Lower Pleasures.  Sum of pleasures adjusted for quality (not merely quantitity).

 

What is Mill's test for higher pleasures?

 

Are the pleasures of a dissatisfied Socrates better than the pleasures of a satisfied pig?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Act, Rule, and Social Practice Utilitarianism

 

 

A.  Direct (Act) Utilitarianism: 

X's act A is right « X's doing A maximizes overall utility (there is no other alternative available to A that would produce more overall utility).

 

B.  Mill's Indirect Utilitarianism.

 

       (1) Mill's account of the status of moral rules.  "It is a strange notion that the acknowledgment of a first principle is inconsistent with the admission of secondary ones"(209).  See, also, p. 206.

 

       (2) Mill's account of the role of feelings (206-207).

 

       (3) Mill's account of why virtue is to be regarded as "a thing desirable in itself, even although, in the individual instance, it should not produce those other desirable consequences which it tends to produce, and on account of which it is held to be virtue"(215). 

        Compare what Mill says about a noble character (202) and about those who “desire virtue for its own sake” (216).

 

 

       (4) Mill's account of the content of justice in terms of moral rights:  "Justice implies something which it is not only right to do, and wrong not to do but which some individual person can claim from us as his moral right"(222).

 

       According to Mill, what is a right?

       "To have a right, then, is, I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of"(224).

 

       Why ought society to defend me in this?  "No other reason than general utility"(224).

 

       (5) Mill’s account of the sentiment of justice.  The idea of Note that Mill uses his theory to explain both the content of norms of justice and the sentiment of justice, the desire to punish (“the natural feeling of retaliation or vengeance, rendered by intellect and sympathy applicable to those injuries, that it, to those hurts, which wound us through, or in common with, society at large”(223).  This is an extension of his indirect utilitarianism from acts to sentiments.

 

 

 

 

 

       Social Practice Utilitarianism: 

       (1) A social practice P is right in society S «

P is a social practice that when generally adopted in society S would maximize overall utility.

       (2) An act A is right « Doing A is to act in conformity with a right social practice for one’s society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mill's Analysis of Justice

 

 

X's act A wronged [was an injustice to] Y ó

Y should have a legal right against X's act A ó The legal system that would maximize overall utility would punish X for doing A to Y (and, we might add, would compensate Y for the wrong).

 

The application of the utilitarian test to dispositions (e.g., feelings and virtues) makes Mill not strictly a rule utilitarian, but rather a social practice utilitarian.

 

During his lifetime, he was thought to be an act utilitarian.  We now know that he was not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONSEQUENTIALISM, NONCONSEQUENTIALSM,

AND ANTI-CONSEQUENTIALISM

 

A (PURELY) CONSEQUENTIALIST ethical theory is one that bases the moral evaluation of acts, rules, institutions, etc. solely on the goodness of their consequences (or intended consequences), where the standard of goodness employed is a standard of non-moral goodness.

 

       A NON-CONSEQUENTIALIST ethical theory is one that is not (purely) consequentialist.

 

       An ANTI-CONSEQUENTIALIST ethical theory is one according to which the goodness of consequences (or intended consequences) has no role in the moral evaluation of acts, rules, institutions, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Williams and the Doctrine of Negative Responsibility

 

Negative responsibility:  "That if I am ever responsible for anything, then I must be just as much responsible for things that I allow or fail to prevent as I am for things that I myself, in the more everyday restricted sense, bring about"(246).

 

Act utilitarianism implies a strong doctrine of negative responsibility.  Williams’s criticisms are directed toward act utilitarianism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two examples:

 

(1)The example of George the chemist.

 

(2)The example of Peter (Williams says "Pedro", but we won't) and Jim.

 

According to Williams, what are the two problems with act consequentialist analyses of these two examples?

 

(1) Alienation from one’s moral feelings.  What is this problem?  Why does Williams think that the charge of “self-indulgent squeamishness” shows a failure of act utilitarianism?

 

(2) Alienation from one’s own commitments, projects, and actions (and thus to dissolve one’s integrity as an individual, and ultimately one’s identity).  Why does an act utilitarian have to evaluate everyone's projects as equally important as one's own?  Why does William think that this requirement alienates a person from him/herself?

 

 

 

 

 

Hospers' Rule Utilitarianism

 

(1)        Judge each act not by its consequences, but by the consequences of the adoption of the rule under which the act falls.

 

A rule R is right in circumstances C « R is a rule which, if universalized in relevantly similar circumstances, would maximize overall utility.

 

Act A is right in circumstances C ó It is an instance of a right rule for circumstances C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A. The Sub-Class Problem:  Why can't I keep adding qualifications to the rule until it becomes equivalent to act utilitarianism?

 

       Hospers' Reply:  How to determine which rule to evaluate:  "We should consider the consequences of the general performance of certain classes of actions only if that class contains within itself no subclasses, the consequences of the general practice of which would be either better or worse than the consequences of the class itself."(261)

 

       “The trick is to arrive at the rule which, if adopted, would have the very best possible consequences (which includes, of course, the absolute minimum of bad consequences).  Usually no simple or easily statable rule will do this, the world being as complex as it is.”

 

       The exceptions are “built into” the rule (262).

 

       Is there any finite length rule for lying or stealing that satisfies this condition?  Is it possible that there are exceptions to any finite length rule?

 

 

 

THE AU EXCEPTION

 

       Why not just add one exception, the AU exception?  For example: 

       “Always keep your promises except when breaking them will produce the most good”(263).

       “Don't kill except where killing will do the most good”(264).

 

       The Paradox of Act Utilitarianism:  For human beings, everyone's attempting to maximize overall happiness (utility) may not maximize overall happiness (utility).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B.  The Non-Compliance Problem:  Let R be the rule that would maximize overall utility if it were universalized.  Is it always right for me to comply with R even if most other people are not?

 

 

 

C.  The AU Challenge:  Suppose rule R is current in my society and I know it.  Suppose that there is exception E such that if everyone added E to R (i.e., if everyone acted on R&E) the consequences would be worse than if no one did.  But suppose that if I am the only one who acts on exception E and I do so in just this one case, the consequences will be better than if I act on R alone.  Why shouldn't I act on R&E and bring about better consequences in just this one case?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Problem for all Forms of Utilitarianism

 

       Using some for the benefit of others:  The Distribution Problem.