Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

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Utilitarianism Part IIa

August 16th, 2010, Promulgated by Vox Clara

Continued from Part 1.

Sorry for the long delay between chapters; if you’d rather read it all at once, then use the links I’m working into these articles to go between them with ease. The structure of this chapter is simple. Mill defines utilitarianism as he sees it, he raises and then refutes several objections to this notion, and then he  concludes that utilitarianism is implicit in every other mode of moral reasoning. My approach to it is also simple. I will begin by outlining Mill’s definition of utilitarianism, move to tenets that can be drawn from his objections to his opponents, and then raise several new objections to his theory. This will fill three  posts due to the length of the chapter and my responses.

Mill defines his theory of utilitarianism by citing what he calls the “greatest happiness principle.” This principle states that what one ought to do in every  given situation, is that which allows for the greatest happiness (pleasure) to the greatest number of individuals while causing the least pain to the smallest possible number of individuals. This, of course, rules out the notion that utility is opposed to pleasure, rather it is pleasure. At its core, a morality based in  the maximization of pleasure is the whole of utilitarianism.

For Mill, this has several implications which come up in his rebuttals to those who object to his theory. The first, and most important, is that utilitarianism values the intellect and higher pleasures in life. Second, utilitarianism is not centered on the individual; the good utilitarian thinker will place the good (pleasure) of all before his own. Third, since the optimization of pleasure and minimization of pain are the only desirable outcomes in life, the ends justify the means. Finally, Mill claims that utilitarianism is not contrary to religion and that the deity wants good for mankind.

Mill’s first big point is that not all pleasures are equal and that man is better than the beasts because he is capable of higher pleasures. It is Mill’s belief that man, who is capable of appreciating beauty and is in possession of higher intellectual and spiritual faculties, is therefore capable of experiencing better quality pleasures than the beasts. No man in his right mind, therefore, would ever sacrifice these higher pleasures to gain contentment if that contentment meant that he was capable only of enjoying what an animal might. This leads to the conclusion that we can determine what is most pleasurable by the consensus of those who  have experienced it and prefer it to other things thus creating a sort of democratic hierarchy of goods.

The second tenet of utilitarianism is that utilitarianism is meant not as a type of self-centered quest for pleasure, but as a means to increase the pleasure  experienced by all of humanity. In other words, if by my death I am able to increase the total happiness of society and minimize its pain, then I am obligated to  die. However, this only works in an imperfect world in which science has not yet eliminated suffering and in which great evil (pain) remains possible. By this view, a martyr only does good if by his death he either increases the pleasure of the world and reduces its pain more than he could by his life.

Third, the ends justify the means. According to Mill, the only absolute standard of morality is that of utility. If today you can increase happiness by sleeping  around, then you ought to do so, but if tomorrow the risk of disease renders this a more painful experience then pleasurable, you ought not to. If an individual is a greater burden on society than he is a joy, he ought to kill himself or be killed. If a woman produces sickly children who are judged to reduce the pleasure of society, then she ought to be sterilized. A further implication of this greatest good principle is that motives don’t matter to morality. If the action leads to greater pleasure, then it was good and if it lead to pain, then it was bad. Utility comes first.

Fourth, and finally, Mill objects to the idea that utilitarianism is a godless doctrine. Mill addresses this briefly and I can conceive of no better way to summarize his assertions than to quote them. “If it be necessary to say anything at all about so mere an assumption, we may say that the question depends on the moral character of the Deity. If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other.” He then goes on to assert that whatever God has seen fit to reveal to man concerning morals must fulfill the requirements of utility to the supreme degree. Mill also claims that a utilitarian is free to make use of the Christian religion and revelation to form an idea of morality.

So there, in a nutshell, is Mill’s definition of utilitarianism with a few examples of how it might be implemented. In my next post on the subject, I aim to explore the difficulties in implementing utilitarianism and why they don’t discredit it as Mill sees them and in my third post on what utilitarianism is I will raise my own objections to Mill’s utilitarianism. Enjoy the reading and God bless!

(P.S. Apparently, Utilitarianism was never on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, so we’re all completely free to read it!)

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