Victor Nuovo: Mill’s work is ‘clear and persuasive’
Editor’s note: This is the 17th in a series of essays about political liberalism and conservatism and the two-party system.
What is Utilitarianism? If you’re curious, there is no better way to find out than by reading Mill’s work so titled.
But there is an even better reason to read it. This little book offers a clear and persuasive account of how to live a purposeful and rewarding life, and it is worth reading even if, after much reflection, one rejects its main conclusions. For Mill’s aim in writing is not to convert or make disciples who must obey their master, but to persuade by rational discourse; the effect is to open the mind to other possibilities and other reasons about how to live.
Mill is certain that the decision on how to conduct oneself in life must be one’s own, and he does not trespass on that personal privilege. Yet he is also certain that morality is not merely a private matter, for how we choose to conduct ourselves affects not only ourselves but others, as well.
It is commonly accepted that the moral worth of our actions is determined not only by how they benefit us individually, but also the many others with whom we interact directly or indirectly. Thus, our moral responsibility has no boundaries—it extends from ourselves to our neighbors, to all humanity, to all animals, to plants, the environment, and, perhaps, to the cosmos.
Moral values are social values. Thus, it would seem, ethics is a practical social science that, like all other sciences, relies solely on experience and reason.
Yet elsewhere Mill prefers to call ethics an art and not a science. Why? Because the principles of morality are not descriptions of how things are, but how they ought to be: they are rules to be followed, not statements of fact. The principles are to be obeyed by individuals who are free to ignore them, in some instances with little harm to themselves except their self-respect. The art of morality makes no predictions. Nevertheless, Mill insisted that the methods of ethics must be no less rigorous and rational than those of any science.
He begins by asserting that since morality has to do with purposeful actions, there must be some goal in life that can be made the standard of them all, a highest good; and it must be singular, otherwise our moral principles would have us heading every which way. This supreme good is human happiness, one’s own as well as the happiness of others.
He is aware that there are competing standards. Other moralists insist that the goal is always to cultivate in oneself a virtuous character that disposes one always to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. For them, morality consists of duties not of pleasant consequences.
Mill notes that the proponents of this alternate standard look contemptuously on Utilitarianism because it reduces good and evil to pleasure and pain, which are the best indicators of whether one is happy or not. They argue that this deprives morality of any nobility. Utilitarianism is, they say, a doctrine only fit for swine. Mill’s account is largely a response to this charge.
In his response, Mill observes that there is a vast range of pleasures that bring satisfaction. And this is a good place to begin. There is the pleasure of breathing clear air, or of not so clear air if you are pleased by the smell of it; of eating a good breakfast—bacon and eggs, of course, only if your health allows it; of sharing a private joke with friends, of observing the movements of a dancer or an athlete, of settling in bed at night after a long hard day, of reading, reflecting, painting a picture, riding a bike, walking in the woods, of working—if you love your job, or relaxing at home at the end of the day, or winning at sports, or at chess, or solving a puzzle. There are pleasures of family love and friendships, and for some contemplating absolute being or beauty, listening to music according to one’s taste, or whistling a happy tune, or biting into a donut filled with jelly or a donut dipped in hot coffee.
These are all innocent. But there are other pleasures that may bring delight to the doer at someone else’s expense. Some general rule is needed. If the good of all is one’s goal, then any pleasures that cause harm to others must be excluded.
Mill is insistent also that we must consider our higher nature. We are animals, to be sure, but Mill supposed civilization has raised us to a higher level, and a primary motive must be to develop this nature; to cultivate good taste so that we may enjoy the more ethereal forms of beauty; and also to develop our intellect, not in a private way, but by filling our minds with ideas of universal good and a love of truth.
Furthermore, Mill said, we must be willing to sacrifice our own individual desires and satisfactions for the good of others, if this will increase the amount of happiness in the world, and if others benefit as much or more than ourselves. In this respect, Utilitarianism is not bestial, crude, nor selfish, but noble. It is a discipline that fits so-called higher beings like ourselves—although I confess an uneasiness with this notion. And there is a danger here in the opposite direction, towards elitism.
Elitism can be avoided, but only if a proper system of universal education is designed to guard against it. It must be a system premised on full equality and an effective social and cultural leveling as well. I am not well versed in the history of education to know whether this has ever been successfully tried, and whether it is possible to achieve. I am sure that we, here and now, are far from having achieved it, although we repeatedly pay lip service to it.
In this respect, Mill assures his readers that Utilitarianism does not prize selfishness above altruism. Its goal is the good of all, not of the few, and least of all one’s self.
Just here there is a critical distinction that sets Utilitarianism apart from other systems of ethics, philosophical and religious. For these others, whether they emphasize virtue, or duty, especially our duty to God, are selfish in this respect, that they are perfectionist, the perfection of the individual is their goal. Although I do not consider myself a utilitarian, I find that Mill’s version of it has great merit, perhaps just because it avoids this sort of self-interest.
Utilitarianism as a theory of human behavior has the virtues of clarity and simplicity. But critics of it have argued that it is simplistic rather than conceptually vague. Perhaps the most telling criticism is that it fosters individualism to the point where it becomes socially counterproductive, that for all its talk of social responsibility, it fails to harmonize individual and universal happiness.
Perhaps solutions to these problems are to be found in his work On Liberty. Please stay tuned in next week’s essay.
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