Utilitarianism (Part 2)

(continued from yesterday’s post.) (This article was reprinted in the online magazine of Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 10, 2015. )

4. Mill and Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill, a protegé of Bentham and Mill’s father James Mill, became the most eloquent spokesman for utilitarianism. Mill was one of the most fascinating individuals in the history of Western philosophy. A child prodigy, he studied Greek and mathematics from the age of three and read all of Plato’s dialogues in Greek by his early teens. Mill’s classic work, Utilitarianism, sets forth the major tenets of the doctrine and reformulates many of Bentham’s ideas.

In Chapter 2 of Utilitarianism, Mill noted that utilitarianism had concentrated upon the quantity of pleasure but it did not address any qualitative differences in pleasure. Mill feared the emphasis on pleasure would reduce utilitarianism to hedonism, a doctrine he considered “worthy of swine.” He argued that some pleasures are qualitatively better than others, that the “higher” mental pleasures are superior in quality to the “lower” physical pleasures. How do we know this? Those who have experienced both kinds of pleasure show a decided preference for the higher ones, Mill stated, and this demonstrates that the higher pleasures are preferable.  But are they really?

Mill admitted that nonhuman animals sometimes appear happier than human beings, but this is misleading. To paraphrase his famous quote: better an unhappy human than a happy pig; better a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied fool. If the fool or pig disagree, Mill continued, it is only because they have not experienced higher pleasures. The major difficulty with Mill’s view was its appeal to a standard other than happiness in order to make a distinction between kinds of happiness. But if there is another value besides happiness, then we have abandoned the idea that happiness is the only good.

In Chapter 4, Mill began by defining the desirable end of all human endeavors. The only thing desirable is happiness, and all other valuable things are only means to the end of happiness. Bentham had wavered as to whether happiness or pleasure was the only good. In this more lucid version, happiness replaced pleasure as the moral standard. In this way, Mill avoided the charge that utilitarianism is hedonism in disguise.

Mill then proceeded to offer his famous “proof” of utilitarianism. We prove that something is visible by the fact that people see it and we prove that something is audible by the fact that people hear it. In the same way “the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it.” For Mill, the simple fact that people desire happiness establishes it as desirable.

Of course merely because people desire happiness, the opponents of Mill replied, does not show that it is the only desirable thing. Mill answered that other goods like virtue or wealth are really means to happiness. But his opponents pointed to another difficulty with Mill’s proof. It rests upon a confusion between what people do desire and what they ought to desire. There mere fact that people actually desire happiness does not show, so critics of utilitarianism maintained, that happiness really should be desired. But Mill maintained that no other proof of the desirability of happiness was possible than to point out the fact that humans naturally desire it.

Mill also makes it clear that only the consequences matter. You do the right thingmaximize utilityby saving your friends from drowning whether you do it for love or money. After all, the net utility is merely the sum of individual utilities, and if you are happy, all the better. Why, Mill wonders, should we do our duty if it makes us unhappy? Amarillo Slim, a famous professional poker player, expressed Mill’s position succinctly when he replied to someone who criticized his occupation: “Would the world really be better off if I was miserable pumping gas?”

  1. Act and Rule Utilitarianism

Let us now turn to the question of whether utilitarians consider individual actions or classes of actions when deciding to maximize utility. Neither Bentham or Mill addressed this question, but contemporary philosophers have made a distinction between two types of utilitarians. Act utilitarians ask “which individual action, from the available alternatives, maximizes utility?” Rule utilitarians ask “which rule, when generally adopted, maximizes utility?” Oftentimes there is no difference between the prescriptions of the two types of utilitarians; at other times, there is a great difference. We will illustrate this basic difference with a number of examples.

Imagine that we are stopped at a red traffic light at three in the morning. Looking both ways as far as possible down the road we are about to cross, we see no cars in sight. It suddenly occurs to us that we should not remain stopped. Why? Because by running the red light we will save our mother a minutes worry, the country a little gas and pollution, and ourselves a little annoyance.  Furthermore, we will get home sooner rather than later, decreasing the possibility that we or others will be injured in an accident. The net utility will be increased by our action and so, according to an act utilitarian, we should do it.

Contemplate another example. The President has requested that we turn down our thermostats to save  heating oil. Unfortunately, our grandmother’s arthritis is aggravated by a cold apartment. We reason as follows: if grandother keeps her heat high, she will not contribute significantly to the country’s oil problem. Moreover, she will feel much better and so will we. She will be more comfortable physically, and we will not have to listen to her complain about arthritis, government corruption, or greedy oil companies. Her physical state positively affects her mood. Her good mood makes us and our family happier. An act utilitarian advises grandmother to keep her heat on high.

Finally, ponder this simple case. The sign on the college lawn says “keep off the grass.” Officials at the college have determined that the college looks better, and attracts more students, with nice lawns. Now suppose you are in a hurry to complete some task that will make you and others happier, assuming that you complete it sooner rather than later. Assume also that cutting across the lawn saves a significant amount of time. Again, act utilitarians reason that their little footprints do not make a significant difference in the appearance of the college lawn, and since we can make so many other people happy by cutting across the lawn and completing our task sooner rather than later, we should do so.

Now consider these three cases from a rule utilitarian perspective. In every case the rule utilitarian asks, “what if we made a general rule of these actions?” In other words, “what if everybody did these?” (This is the Kantian question, but Kant wants to know about the consistency, not the consequences, of rules.) Rule utilitarians want to know if rules maximize utility or bring about good consequences. Take the first case. It should be clear that if everyone disobeys traffic lights the consequences are disastrous. Given the choice between a rule that states “always obey traffic lights” or one that says “sometimes obey traffic lights,” the first rule, not the second one, maximizes utility. Rule utilitarians argue that the net utility will decrease if persons are more selective about their obedience to rules. They might begin to disobey traffic lights at 11 p.m., whenever there are no cars in sight, or whenever they think they can beat the oncoming cars!

A comparable analysis applies in the other two case. The rule, “do not turn up your thermostat to save heat for the country” maximizes utility compared with the rule, “turn up your thermostat if you’re cold despite what the President requests.” Similarly, the rule “do not walk on the grass” maximizes utility compared with the rule, “do not walk on the grass except when you are in a hurry.” Therefore, in all of these cases act and rule utilitarians prescribe different actions. Act utilitarians perform the action  that maximizes the utility, rule utilitarians act in accordance with the rule that, when generally adopted, maximizes utility. They both believe in maximizing utility but are divided as to whether the principle of utility applies to individual acts or general rules.

The issue between act and rule utilitarians revolves around the question, “is the moral life improved by practicing selective obedience to moral rules?” The act utilitarians answer in the affirmative, the rule utilitarians in the reverse. Rule utilitarians believe the moral life depends upon moral rules without which the net utility decreases. Act utilitarians believe that whether moral rules are binding or not depends upon the situation. Thus, act utilitarians treat moral rules as mere “rules of thumb,” general guidelines open to exceptions, while rule utilitarians regard moral rules as more definitive. We will look at problems for both formulations of utilitarians in a moment. Let us now look at the most general problems for utilitarianism.

6. The Problems with Happiness

A first difficulty with using happiness as the moral standard is that the concept of the net utility implies that happiness and unhappiness are measurable quantities. Otherwise, we cannot determine which actions produce the greatest net utility. Bentham elaborated a “hedonistic calculus” which measured different kinds of happiness and unhappiness according to their intensity, duration, purity, and so on. Some say that it is impossible to attach precise numerical values to different kinds of happiness and unhappiness. For example, it may be impossible to assign a numerical value to the happiness of eating ice cream compared to the happiness of reading Aristotle. Still, we can prefer one to the other, say ice cream to Aristotle, and, therefore, we do not need precise numerical calculations to reason as a utilitarian.

A second difficulty is that it may be impossible to have “interpersonal” comparisons of utility. Should we give Sue our Aristotle book or Sam our ice cream? Does Sue’s reading pleasure exceed Sam’s eating pleasure? There is no doubt that different things make different people happy. For some, reading and learning is an immense joy, for others, it is an exceptional ordeal. But we can still maximize utility. We should give Sue the book and Sam the ice cream, or if we can only do one or the other, we make our best judgment as to which action maximizes utility. Besides, we agree about many of the things that makes us happy and unhappy. Everyone is happy with some wealth, health, friends, and knowledge. Everyone becomes unhappy when they are in pain, hungry, tired, thirsty, and the like. We do not need precise interpersonal comparisons of utility to reason as a utilitarian.

Despite Mill’s proof of utilitarianism, a third difficulty concerns doubts about the overriding value of happiness. Is it more valuable than, for example, freedom or friendship? Would we sacrifice these for the net utility? We would maximize utility by dropping “happiness pills” into everyone’s drinks, but this doesn’t mean we should do it. Shouldn’t individuals be free to be unhappy? And if we believe this, isn’t that because we think freedom is a value independent of happiness? We might even refuse to take happiness pills even if given the choice, because they limit the freedom to be unhappy.

Or suppose we promise to meet a friend but, in the meantime, some little children ask us to play with them. It may be that playing with the children maximizes utility. After all, our friend is  popular and will probably make other arrangements after waiting a while. But maybe we should keep our promise. Maybe promisekeeping or the friendship it engenders are valuable independent of the total happiness. These examples suggest that happiness is not the only value.

Most contemporary utilitarians have abandoned the idea that happiness is the only value. They have retreated from claims about absolute values to claims about individual preferences. (This was Gauthier’s argument in Chapter 4.) The type of utilitarianism which argues that we should maximize an individual’s subjective preferences is called preference utilitarianism. The problem with this type of utilitarianism is that some subjective preferences might be evil.

A fourth difficulty is that  utilitarianism considers only the quantity of utility not its distribution. Should you give $100 to one needy person or $10 each to ten needy persons? The second alternative might be better even if the first one creates the most utility. Concerns with the total happiness have troubled many commentators and some have suggested that we consider the “average utility.” But this version has problems too. Do we want a society where the average income is very highsay $1,000,000but many people live in destitute poverty, or one where the average income is much lowersay $30,000but no poverty exists? In fact, the idea of the welfare state assumes that money has a diminishing utilityit doesn’t benefit the rich as much as the poorand thus the enforced government transfer of money from the rich to the poor is justified. But isn’t it possible that individuals who work hard for their money deserve it, whether or not forcefully taking it maximizes utility? This analysis reveals another fundamental difficulty with utilitarianism. Everything is sacrificed to the net utility. But should all moral acts be judged by the consequences they produce?

We’ll conclude our discussion of Mill tomorrow.

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