Saving Mill’s Utilitarianism

Some ideas have the force of a runaway trolley. When they are first proposed, they are vigorously endorsed and maligned by diverse, forceful personalities. Then they enter the crucible of development, are battered with intense scrutiny. Even if the ideas are eventually abandoned, they will have left an imprint upon the centuries, like the corpse of an elder god washed up upon the beach. We gain more from poking and prodding at its corpse than we do from shaking hands with its successors.

Utilitarianism, for example. The principle of utility is just an ethical theory that conforms to the slogan: “Do whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. Utilitarianism has been attacked from all sides, but it retains a close following. It is a beloved treasure among compassionate naturalists and bean-counting social engineers, and critiqued by both lazy romantics and sensitive sophisticates. It is used as an intuition-pump for the sympathies of secularists, just as much as it is used to sanction torture in ticking time-bomb scenarios.

The doctrine has roots in the welfarism of David Hume and Aristotle, and owes a healthy dose of accolades to Epicurus. Its modern advocates come easily to mind: Peter Singer, David Brink, Peter Railton, Sam Harris. But it was not until 18th century reformer Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill published their works that utilitarianism could find articulation in its contemporary form.

Bentham defined the principle of utility in this way: “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever. according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness.” For Bentham, the primary focus of moral inquiry was the rightness or wrongness of actions, measured in terms of their perceived consequences. Bentham’s utilitarianism is, hence, a form of consequentialism: rightness and wrongness of acts is a function of the good or bad consequences, and nothing else.

The history of philosophy has not been kind to the Benthamites. A regimend of critics (including 20th century notables like John Rawls, JJ Thomson, Philippa Foot, Samuel Scheffler, Bernard Williams, to name just a few) have rejected utilitarianism as a moral doctrine on a variety of grounds. And, on the whole, I think these critics have successfully shown that Bentham’s utilitarianism is riddled with absurdity. To the extent that utilitarianism belongs to Bentham, we must abandon utility.

Unfortunately, despite all the headway they have made against the Benthamites, critics have not shown much sensitivity to John Stuart Mill’s formulation of utilitarianism. It turns out that the John Stuart Mill that we meet in freshman lectures may not, bear much kinship with the John Stuart Mill who lived and breathed. So it’s worth noticing, and advertising far and wide, just how the standard picture of Mill is undergoing a rapid change.

For one thing, there is some confusion in the literature whether or not Mill counts as an act- or rule-utilitarian. It is not uncommon to hear his name paired up with one or the other, but rarely both (textual evidence be damned) — if there are any internal contradictions, then it is easy to think that that is a product of Mill’s incoherence, and not a failure on our part to be charitable. And I think Fred Wilson put it nicely:

Mill is … not an “act utilitarian” who holds that the principle of utility is used to judge the rightness or wrongness of each and every act. But neither is he a “rule utilitarian” who holds that individual acts are judged by various moral rules which are themselves judged by the principle of utility acting as a second order principle to determine which set of rules secures the greatest amount of happiness. For the principle of utility judges not simply rules, according to Mill, but rules with sanctions attached.

For another thing, it isn’t even clear whether or not Mill is a consequentialist. In the essay linked, Daniel Jacobsen argues that Mill’s idea of utilitarianism was non-consequentialist — which is roughly to say that it is unclear whether or not Mill believed that we judge the good or bad consequences of acts by being indifferent towards the identity of persons who are affected. Instead, in the essay linked, Jacobsen argues that Mill is best understood as an advocate of a commonsense doctrine that he calls “sentimentalism” (where an act is wrong so long as an agent’s feelings of guilt are suitable).

And it’s certainly not the case that Mill was a consequentialist bean-counter, given his strong emphasis upon the importance of developing good character. As Mill remarks in On Liberty, while it is possible for a man to achieve a good life without ever exercising autonomy, this can only to his detriment as a human being. To take just one of Mill’s quotes, which Kwame Anthony Appiah mentioned favorably (in The Ethics of Identity): “It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it.”

What can account for such a massive neglect for one of utilitarianism’s fiercest defenders? It could be that utilitarianism has been assessed — and rejected — because it has been associated with its weakest proponents. If charity in interpretation has been lacking in our study of Mill, then it may be that we are now seeing a sea shift in the study of utilitarianism. I doubt that all of Mill can be salvaged — parts of his doctrine are a bit dotty. But still it may be that the old god, Utility, still has some life in him.

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