Maarten Maartensz

Text Philosophy - Mill - Utilitarianism - Chapter II


Notes to Chapter II:
What Utilitarianism Is.

Note on these notes

These notes date from december 2006 - january 2007, based on notes in my paper copy of "Utilitarianism" that date from 1977.

The format is that I quote the text of Mill that I comment in blue, and write my own notes in black, with a "Back" at the end of every note that moves the reader back - provided he or she is on line, or has downloaded the relevant files in similar directories, or uses a CD of my site - to the beginning of the quotation the note is concerned with. (See also the TOC.)

The result is that my quotations + my notes take more space than Mill's original text, but one advantage of the procedure I use is that the reader can read my quotations + my notes independently from the text, yet be moved thence - provisos as above - with a single click.

[1] A PASSING remark is all that needs be given to the ignorant blunder of supposing that those who stand up for utility as the test of right and wrong, use the term in that restricted and merely colloquial sense in which utility is opposed to pleasure.

Well, it may have irritated Mill that opponents of Utilitarianism equated "utility" with or "opposed" it to "pleasure", and they may very well not have been fair when doing so, but they did have a point or two.

First, Bentham, who may be taken as the originator of utilitarianism, had insisted that he did mean "pleasure" when speaking of "happiness", and while that is fairly realistic and empirical, it is not precisely obvious to many that the two terms are synonymous. And precisely the same holds for the term "utility", that apparently was first used in philosophical moral contexts by Hume, though not quite in the sense of Bentham.

Second, accordingly we now have three terms, namely "utility", "happiness" and "pleasure" that are used by utilitarians in somewhat confusing ways, to say the least, where they sometimes seem to suggest, or indeed say, that the terms are synonyms, and sometimes that they are not, while any of the three may be used by them to refer to the summum bonum of the utilitarians.

Here is a little logical diagram of the 8 logically possible extensions of these terms:

This surely makes for problems, and indeed we shall run into them below.

And then I should here make another remark relating especially - at least, as I use these words - to the terms "pleasure" and "good", since they can be used to chart a fundamental moral problem, or at least a fundamental problem in morality, in the following way.

The table lists the possible logical relations between, on the one hand, "good" and "not good", and on the other hand "pleasurable" and "not pleasurable" - or any of the other terms in the above drawing:

  Good Not Good Sum
Pleasurable        α        γ α+γ
Not Pleasurable        β        δ β+δ
Sum      α+β      γ+δ   

It is - or should be - obvious that very many of the most ordinary moral problems arise from the fact that many things that are deemed good are not deemed pleasurable, and that many things that are supposed to be pleasurable are not supposed to be good.

Indeed, it may be assumed that for most people in most circumstances in most societies, as the terms are used there, that γ > α (there are more pleasurable bad acts than pleasurable good acts) and β > δ (there are more unpleasurable good acts than unpleasurable bad acts).

Note that it does not matter at all what precisely is meant by "good" and "pleasurable". The point is that in everyday morality the two often do not coincide, and are regularly opposed, whatever meanings are given to the terms we are concerned with here.

And a similar table with similar comments can be drawn with Conformism instead of Good and Non-Conformism instead of Not Good, and indeed conformism - "If in Rome, do as the Romans do;" if among cannibals do as the cannibals do - is the core and kernel of ordinary morality:

To be good in any human society or group - usually and mostly, for most of its members -  amounts to upholding the dominant values and declared ends, practices and beliefs of that society or group; to be bad, in that society or group, is to go against the dominant values or against declared ends, practices or beliefs of that society or group. 

Again, much of ordinary moral feeling amounts to: "He who is a friend of my friends is my friend; he who is an enemy of my friends is my enemy." Solidarity, party-feeling, and shared interests decide most ordinary moral issues.  Back.

[2] (..) the contrary accusation, of referring everything to pleasure, and that too in its grossest form, is another of the common charges against utilitarianism: and, as has been pointedly remarked by an able writer, the same sort of persons, and often the very same persons, denounce the theory "as impracticably dry when the word utility precedes the word pleasure, and as too practicably voluptuous when the word pleasure precedes the word utility."

Here Mill continues the previous point. Some of the obvious reasons for this accusation of the utilitarians - one may suppose especially from religious persons - can be gleaned from the table in my previous note.

Again, the religious opponents of utilitarianism may not have been fair, but they have a point, regardless from religion.    Back.

[3] (..) every writer, from Epicurus to Bentham, who maintained the theory of utility, meant by it, not something to be contradistinguished from pleasure, but pleasure itself, together with exemption from pain; and instead of opposing the useful to the agreeable or the ornamental, have always declared that the useful means these, among other things.

This is true so far as Epicurus and Bentham are concerned, but it does not solve the problem raised under [1], that what is considered pleasurable is often not what is supposed to be good, and that the two, according to moral teachings from many different systems of moral belief, are often opposed.

If, as the utilitarians hold, or seem to say, the summum bonum, the standard by which moral issues are to be decided and measured, the supreme end, is somehow equal to or measured in terms of pleasure, this surely is a problem.    Back.

[4] Yet the common herd, including the herd of writers, not only in newspapers and periodicals, but in books of weight and pretension, are perpetually falling into this shallow mistake.

My reason to extract this phrase is that I like it, since it seems so often to apply to so much that ordinary folks think, say or are moved by.   Back.

[5n]  The author of this essay has reason for believing himself to be the first person who brought the word utilitarian into use. He did not invent it, but adopted it from a passing expression in Mr. Galt's Annals of the Parish.

This is from Mill's footnote to this Chapter.

A.     As I said before, I do not much like the terms "utilitarian" and "utilitarianism" (too long, too latinate, rather misleading), but that is a mere matter of taste.

B.     However, among the reasons for Bentham to use the related term "utility", as Mill also does, were probably the following two.

First, Bentham wanted to have a term for a fundamental moral concept that avoided the ordinary mostly religious connotations that, certainly in his day and age, were associated with ordinary moral terms like "good", "bad", "right" and "wrong".

And second, Hume had used, it seems for a similar reason, the term "utility" in his arguments about morals (see: Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals), and Bentham felt quite close to Hume in moral and philosophical outlook.

C.     These seem good reasons to introduce a new fundamental term in a subject one wants to radically renew, though it should here also be remarked that, apart from whether one likes the term or thinks it apt, Hume was not a utilitarian in either Bentham's or Mill's sense, and he used the term "utility" mostly in the sense of what is supposed to be useful, and distinguished quite clearly between what is useful to others and what is useful to oneself.

"David Hume is often classified as a utilitarian, but he used utility not as normative or even as a descriptive principle, but as an explanatory one: when asked why we approve of certain traits of character, he would point out that they are traits which either are useful or are immediately agreeable. (...) it is not advisable to regard Hume as a utilitarian." (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ed. P. Edwards, article Utilitarianism)

D.     Indeed, with regards to the term "utility" and moral considerations in general at least four kinds of interests (or: desires, concerns, needs) are involved for any person:

  • Personal interests: What is good for oneself, and perhaps for those close to oneself, like one's family and friends.
  • Public interests: What is good for other members of the society one belongs to.
  • Social interests: What is good for the society one belongs to, in terms of the interests of all of its members that the society is supposed or desired to further and protect.
  • Human interests: What is good for human beings in general, whether or not members of one's own society, in terms of a theory of human nature.

It seems these are four kinds of moral good because the standards, terms and reasons in which they are appraised differ, and indeed also because what is a moral good in one sense (e.g. it is good for me) may not be good at all in another sense.

To prevent confusions: In each of the four cases what is deemed good is judged to be so by some person for some reasons that the person believes or some desires that the person has. But since the interests that are appealed to differ (oneself, others in society one knows or may meet, the society, or humankind) the kinds of good and the kinds of appropriate considerations differ.

E.     In order to have some terminological clarity, it makes sense to distinguish morals and ethics as follows.

Morals are systems of ideas, rules, instructions and practices that concern how the members of a certain group should behave. A convenient pair of terms for what should and should not be done according to a moral system are right and wrong.

It should be noted, to start with, that it makes a lot of sense to distinguish between morals, as defined, that concerns behavior, and ethics, that is more abstract, and concerns ends and addresses the topics of good and bad. And indeed, most of the ethics most men profess, are not so much ethical theories, but moral rules and practices current in their own group or section of society.

Thus, morals, as defined, is concerned with more practical matters and behavior than ethics is, and those who want to reason about it should be aware that there are a number of real and practical features of moral norms that collectively imply that in moral matters things are usually not quite as they are claimed to be, for sound if 'human-all-too-human' reasons.

Ethics are theories of what one should and should not do, of what are good and bad, and what ends are desirable.

As defined, it should be noted to start with, ethics differs from morals, that tends to concern standards for behavior and practices in a social group rather than the intellectual foundations of such standards, or abstract questions about good and bad.

F.     Using the distinctions into four kinds of the last remark, we can state a number of preliminary points as follows:

  • If we restrict ourselves to a given society and its set of moral norms and practices, what is good usually is fairly simple to answer: Good - in that society - is, broadly speaking, what the members of the society believe serves their interests; what keeps the social peace; what preserves the ruling traditions; and what protects and strengthens the society.
  • If we do not restrict ourselves to a given society and its set of moral norms and practices, what is good is far more difficult to answer, because there are so many human societies and groups with opposing interests, different practices, and incompatible philosophies or religions.
  • To attempt to answer the question of what is good in general terms, for human beings, accordingly seems to involve some identification of human nature, and a selection of human needs and human rights that any human society that is viable somehow must preserve, defend or further.
  • And to attempt to answer the question of what is good in general terms, for human beings, it makes sense not only to try to articulate what human nature is, and how this relates to human needs and human rights, but also to try to articulate the properties that make a human society both viable and pleasant to live for the majority of its members.

These are broad and general questions, but if there is such a thing as ethics, that can rationally answer questions of good and bad concerning human nature and human society in general, regardless of the specific interests of some specific society, and the individual interests of specific men, they somehow must be answered.

Finally, it should be noted here that the last two points exclude one position, that may be called Nietzschean or feudal: That a human society exists to further the interests of a small group of superior - blue-blooded, aristocratic, possibly Arian - persons whose norms and practices are the right ones because of their racial or ethnic superiority.

Many human societies have been based on such a caste-like view of human beings, where one's human excellence depends on the group one is born in, supposedly because of the blood or racial or ethnic characteristics of this group, and regardless of one's personal capacities or merits. 

I have two reasons to reject it here:

First, it is factually false: Human excellence, in terms of intellectual or artistic ability, does not depend on race, and in fact is rare in any race and any group.

Second, the reason to desire a human society that is both viable and pleasant to live for the majority of its members, is that only such a society can hope to remain relatively free from civil wars started on the basis of the unhappiness of many, and that has been widely and often considered to be the worst thing that can befall any human society.

G.     And here is Hume's outline of some of the qualities for a 'delineation or definition of Personal Merit' reduced to tabular form, quoted from my note 16 to Section IX of Hume's Enquiry into the Principles of Morals:

          Useful qualities       Agreeable qualities
for others justice, fidelity, honour, veracity, allegiance, chastity, humanity, benevolence, lenity, generosity, gratitude, moderation, tenderness, friendship wit, affability, modesty

for self industry, discretion, frugality, secrecy, order, perseverance, forethought, judgement serenity, cheerfulness, dignity, undaunted spirit, a tender affection, good-will

Note that none of the four lists in the table exhausts that kind of quality. But the table at least has the merit of drawing some fairly clear moral distinctions and supplying the terms that are used to make these distinctions.

Note also that, at least prima facie, it seems quite difficult and indeed perhaps impossible to derive these qualities from Mill's "Greatest Happiness principle" a.k.a. "utility".    Back.

[6] The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in particular, what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure; and to what extent this is left an open question.  

Here we have arrived at Mill's own initial formulation of - his version of - Utilitarianism, and it is important to note that he stresses the centrality of happiness, indeed unlike some other utilitarians.

I should make a number of remarks.

1.   In fact, we can distinguish two strands in Mill's Utilitarianism, that will be later discussed by Mill and in my notes:

  • There is the notion that the rightness or wrongness of actions is determined by the goodness or badness of their consequences, and

  • there is the notion the goodness or badness of these consequences of actions is to be measured in terms the amount of happiness they produce.

Note that the first point differs from other systems of morals in evaluating what is done and produced, rather than the motives or intentions with which these results were produced.

And the second point differs from other systems of morals in evaluating actions in terms of the happiness they produce, rather than in other terms.

This too will be discussed by Mill later (and also in my notes), but it is well to reproduce here part of note 28 to Section V of Hume's Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, since it stresses an important practical and political side of human happiness:

2.   Statistically speaking people tend to wish other people well if they have no motive to dislike or abuse them. But then there is also a lot of hate and abuse in the world, and there is a supplementary principle here that is at least as important as the one Hume articulates:

  • The great majority of the evil or harm that men do to men is caused by unhappiness: Truly happy men have no motive to harm or hurt others.

Again, there are some exceptions, but it is an important fact that very much of the harm that men do to other men is a kind of passing on of harm done to them, as if they feel less miserable if they succeed in making others feel miserable.   

3.   This "Greatest Happiness Principle" then is the summum bonum according to Mill's version of utilitarianism: "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. "

It should be clear that rather a lot can be said in favour of this conception, but also that it suffers from moral and semantical problems related to the terms "happiness" and "pleasure" that were outlined under [1].

4.   Mill was aware that a lot needed saying to supplement this utilitarian notion of the summum bonum, especially as regards "the ideas of pain and pleasure".    Back.

[7] But these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded - namely, that 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.

This seems to me false or confused, even if it is "the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded". Here are my reasons.

First, let us consider what Bentham and Mill seemed to have supposed: That what is desirable feels pleasurable, and what is undesirable feels painful. This may conceded in many cases, and also in the sense that, conversely, often what feels pleasurable therefore is considered desirable, and what feels painful therefore is considered undesirable. All of this may be considered to belong to the basic facts of life.

But as I explained under [1], it is precisely here one important reason for distinguishing moral norms from norms made dependent on pleasure and pain: That often what is considered good is not what is considered pleasurable, and that, instead, to do good often involves some trouble, pain, risk, effort, cost or discrimination, all of which, being unpleasurable, may help prevent that the good that involves them, is actually done.

Second, "that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends" seems to confuse what normally motivates human beings (and other animals), which may be taken to be feelings, that indeed may be considered to be such that what one considers desirable comes with some sort of positive feelings, that very possibly have been learned ("I feel proud and good that I don't masturbate and don't have pre-marital sex, for while those things feel very good, my religious instructors have told me it is very bad and dangerous"), with the reasons one selects certain possible goals as ends.

The reason one selects certain possible goals as ends is, when this is done deliberately, usually that one believes that the selected end probably does most good - in one's own sense of "good", whatever it may be - to oneself, to others one likes or feels one has duties to, to one's society, or to mankind.

Third, even if the good one does select a certain end for is the pleasure of someone, or the pleasure of the members of some group, one may very well select the end one chooses precisely because one believes that end provides the best chances for obtaining the desired good - but that end (say: a peaceful society, in which everybody can do as much as possible as he or she likes) need not itself be of the kind the good it is supposed to further (such as: pleasure, well-being, happiness, health, virtue) belongs to.

That is: It seems to me that Mill has a somewhat strange notion of what are "ends", and he seems to confuse them with motives, desires or feelings. My point is that, instead, what human beings select as ends, if they do this deliberately, is what seems to them to have the best chance of enabling them to have what they desire, whatever that is.

The difference that I here presume between what I call ends on the one hand, and motives, desires or feelings on the other, is that the latter seem mostly, especially if about particular things or events, to be reckoned with in terms of feelings, whereas ends (or those desires I call ends) are reckoned in terms of the chances they further. Furthermore, ends in this sense tend to be rather complex enduring states, like a profession, a marriage or a type of society.

Fourth, in the quoted phrase "that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends" Mill does not at all make clear whose "pleasure" and whose "freedom from pain" are to be considered. Surely, for most people it makes a difference whether it are their pleasures and pains, or those of people they like, or of people they hate, or are indifferent to.

It will emerge later that Mill means the "pleasure, and freedom from pain" of all of mankind, or even of all sentient beings, but he does not say so here, and anyway that Millian end seems to me also misconceived or irrealistic, but I will come later to this point, when Mill also treats it explicitly.

Fifth, there are, even if one accepts what Mill says, obvious problems with the kinds of "pleasure" and "pain" that may be involved, apart from the kinds of people that enjoy or suffer them: Surely, some pleasurable things or acts are more important than others, that may be just as pleasurable, and the same goes for what is considered painful.

Sixth, there is the problem that different people have different constitutions, and thus that the same thing may be far more pleasurable to one person than to another, or even that what one considers pleasurable another considers päinful, just as one person loves some food, and another person much dislikes it.

I could list more problems, but it should be obvious that "the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded" is doubtful at best, and certainly at this point both confused and unclear.

And my own main objections here concern Mill's notion of "ends", that seems to confuse them with feelings or motives; that Mill effectively - as we shall see later in more detail - is concerned with the feelings of pleasure and pain of all of mankind, or even of all sentient beings; and the problem of the distinct kinds of pleasure of equal strength, intensity, or subjective attraction.    Back.

[8] Now, such a theory of life excites in many minds, and among them in some of the most estimable in feeling and purpose, inveterate dislike. To suppose that life has (as they express it) no higher end than pleasure - no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit - they designate as utterly mean and grovelling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine, to whom the followers of Epicurus were, at a very early period, contemptuously likened (..)

Indeed, and the reasons that Mill's utilitarian "theory of life excites in many minds (..) inveterate dislike" were not the ones I gave under [7], for the greatest part, and were usually of a religious kind, or related to the point about the pleasurable and the good that I made under [1].

Let me say here something in defense of both Mill and Epicurus, against their religious detractors, and also in defense of making human happiness, in some sense, a central aim, end or concern of morality.

--> Notes Hume


[9] When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light; since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable.

This may be rhetorically effective, but it is not logically valid: If the only thing that matters to decide whether something is good is the amount of pleasure associated with its consequences (as at least some utilitarians claimed), then the possibility that yonder swine will be made 7500 times happier by these bananas, and perhaps come as close to a saint's feelings of beatitude as only a god can keep apart, than yonder starving human baby, surely is relevant information for what to do, morally speaking, on utilitarian principles.

And on strict utilitarian principles of the Benthamistic kind, it seems the pig ought to be made happy, and the baby starve, ceteris paribus, at least.

Incidentally, we have here also, implicitly at least, another difficulty for the utilitarians, namely uncalculable consequences. Thus, in the example just discussed, it may be the case that the pig would certainly be made far more happy than the baby, so far as one knows the facts, and except for the possibility that the baby, if it survives, may be capable of feeling pleasures that dwarf those of the pig - except that this is a remote and uncalculable possibility.     Back.

[10] (..) if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same to human beings and to swine, the rule of life which is good enough for the one would be good enough for the other. The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast's pleasures do not satisfy a human being's conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.

Indeed - but that is not the point. The point is that, while one may grant that "Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites"  the utilitarians insist on "pleasure" as THE ultimate end, standard and summum bonum of morals and ethics  - and then it is quite conceivable that swine, or rabbits, or cows, are capable of pleasures that feel as strong or stronger than any of the pleasures mere men may feel, since their pleasures are often at least in part spoiled by all manner of fears and uncertainties less clever beasts do not feel, since they lack the concepts and language to make them conscious and felt.

What if Schopenhauer's adoring poodle had 75.000 times as much pleasure in contemplating a real German Bratwurscht for an hour, than Schopenhauer, who was rather pessimistic and misanthropic, had felt in all his life? Would it have been e.g. 75.000 times better, say on the utilitarian grounds of The Greatest Happiness Of The Greatest Number, to kill Schopenhauer rather than his poodle, in a case there was just sufficient food to keep one of them alife?  Back.

[11] (..) there is no known Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation. It must be admitted, however, that utilitarian writers in general have placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures chiefly in the greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, etc., of the former (..)

Indeed, but then we have two problems.

First, supposing that "the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments" to be of "a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation" (which makes one a bit doubtful about the happiness of Mill's sex-life or about his honesty, but let that be as it may be, remembering also that his relations with his beloved Mrs. Taylor were purely Platonic for 20 years), then what is this "much higher value" of these supposedly higher concerns due to?

If the answer is - as it seems it should be, on strict utilitarian principles, at least - that this "much higher value" is due to their actually feeling much more pleasurable, then, one is argueing in a circle and is maintaining a thesis few ordinary people and most non-utilitarians consider quite implausible.

Second, the other problem relates to the fact that ordinary people and most non-utilitarians will quite strongly feel that the pleasures of sex or the table are stronger, in terms of consciously felt sensation and pleasure, and are also more motivating, than the pleasures philosophical Epicureans may claim to result from - say - reading Homer in the spring, or solving an algebraical equation.

Now the philosophical Epicureans and utilitarians may have tried to defend the pleasures that a refined utilitarian may derive from reading Homer from the pleasures he may derive from passionate sexual concourse with his pretty maid, by pointing to the lesser risks, the greater constancy, the longer duration, the greater "safety", and the lesser costs involved in reading Homer ... but I take it few but very committed or very dimwitted utilitarians have believed them.

And being a philosopher and a psychologist myself, I can be quite dogmatical and certain on this subject: Reckoned merely in terms of quantities of felt pleasure (!!) - in the tradition of Bentham's "felicific calculus", indeed - I can assure the reader that - from my male perspective - a good lay with a pretty and willing woman feels a lot better than reading a good book of philosophy.   Back.

[12] It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.

Well, OK - but let me quote Mill again, namely the beginning of note [6], where he tells us what is the foundation of utilitarianism:

"The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. "

There Mill did not say what he seems to be implying here, namely: "By happiness is intended pleasure", according to its kind and value (as established in utilitarian institutes for applied morals?), and such that the total sum of pleasure is composed of the products of the values of the kinds of pleasures involved multiplied by their intensities.

In a little more detail, what simple utilitarianism without regard for kinds of pleasures proposed may be taken as along the lines of

    value of X = (quantity of pleasure 1 of X) +
                                      ....                  +
                     (quantity of pleasure n of X)                 

where we sum over all possible pleasures, whereas the more sophisticated utilitarianism with regard for kinds of pleasures proposed may be taken as being mathematically along the lines of

    value of X = (quantity of pleasure 1 of X)*(value of pleasure 1) +
                                       ....                                               +
                     (quantity of pleasure n of X)*(value of pleasure n)  

where we sum over all possible pleasures multiplied by their values.

Obviously, apart from other problems, the question is: Who is to arbitrate the values of the pleasures? We get Mill's answer in the next three quotations, but here I wish to point out one rather important point of principle:

There is no known way to get reliable subjective or intersubjective measurements of pleasures nor of values of pleasures.

"The pleasures" can very probably not be ranked at all on a numerical scale in a rational manner, nor be rationally compared as to value, except subjectively, momentarily, and by impression and feeling, but not by a reliable standard, that allows one to rationally make claims like "so much pleasure of kind k, with intensity k1 and value k2 is equal to so much pleasure of kind l, with intensity l1 and value l2". 

And there are no human beings who seriously make judgements like "one leisurely reading of Shakespeare's Historical Plays equals three average orgasms or six and half bottles of fine champage", even if the choices we do make involve something like these comparisons.

I am aware of economical and philosophical literature in which preferences are measured and used, but this supports my contention, in that it has been shown that even simple qualitative preferences of most people tend to be intransitive: Many people prefer some A over B, and B over C, while regularly also preferring C over A. (As has been noted by McCulloch, and later by Tversky and Kahnemann.)

However useful established preferences may be to predict the average consumption of kinds of soap as bought by housewives, they are not realistically computable numerically or at all for most things.     Back.

[13] If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.

But why should we here follow the multitude? And why should we believe them? And why should we listen to those who "who have experience of both" pleasures to rank them?

To spell out the point of these questions in a little detail:

In other contexts - see e.g. his "On Liberty" - Mill was very clearly aware, and quite concerned, and rightly so, with the possibility that the multitude (the majority, most ordinary folks, the democratic silent majority, or whatever) may be quite mistaken in their notions, and that, as the Bible has it, one should not "follow the multitude into evil".

Here Mill shifts that very realistic concern aside with the phrase "there is but one possible answer" - but that is mere rhetorics. Why should anyone feel that the majority is right in preferring beer over wine, say, or in preferring reading the Bible over a good orgasm, supposing the majority claims that is what feels better and makes them more happy? Apart from moral issues, aren't one's own feelings the only felt standard one has for what feels good?

And why should anyone believe the majority? Not only may they be mistaken, deluded, brainwashed, propagandized, stupid, or badly educated, but they may also lie, for whatever reasons, varying from credible threats or dangers from political or religious authorities to hypocritical "Holier Than Thou" poses.

Furthermore, while there is a lot to say for trying to "have experience of both" claimed pleasures if one is to rank them as regards to value, this may be sometimes immoral.

Should the majority try out Gilles de Rais' or the Marquis de Sade's contention that no pleasure compares to that of slowly torturing a young virgin to death while raping her? What if crack - a mixture of heroine and cocaine - or some other dangerous drug gives a human being ecstacies nothing else compares to?

More generally: What if nearly everyone could and would have more pleasure when plentifully supplied with crack, cocaine, ecstasy, and cialis than without these means for improving the felt qualities of life? Those who think they know the answer should realize that in some cases "an artificial paradise" induced by pharmacology is considered preferable to its absence, as when in great pain or depression.

I am not clear what would have been Mill's position on these possibilities - and indeed it may be possible, eventually, to guarantee an artificial drug-induced enduring paradise, an artificially guaranteed enduring Greatest Happiness, for everyone, with no danger, and at little cost. Would this be the Utilitarian Good? Free Prozac + free cialis + free ecstasy for everyone, say?   Back.

[14] Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties.

I don't believe it at all, and I also think that I can find quite a lot of evidence of the contrary. See the end of my note under [11] and also the end of the last note.

Apart from that, and apart from hypocrisy and pretense, the point remains that most philosophers and intelligent men and women have a "marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties" not because this gave them more pleasure, since it probably did not, but because they believed this to be morally better - which at least suggests that what is morally better is not so merely because of the amount of pleasure it produces.    Back.

[15] Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.

Again, I don't believe it at all, and I also think that I can find quite a lot of evidence of the contrary.

After all, if there is one tendency in mankind that has struck moralists, it is how easy it is to corrupt most of them, and how morally corrupt the great majority has been in terms of their own publicly verbalized moral standards.

And though I am not a Christian at all, there is considerable psychological plausibility and verity in the the Christian story of the Fall, the moral of which is this: All men and women are easily corrupted if not corrupt already; quite willing to harm most others if this is in their own interest; and more inclined to or capable of doing evil than of doing good.    Back.

[16] (..) it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme, that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other (..)

I have extracted this passage because it seems to me to state a truth that is somewhat interesting: Very few persons, regardles of their lack of gifts or lack of beauty, and regardless of their present miseries, would want to be another person.

Why this is so is an interesting question, and it seems to have a lot to do with the fact that the sense of personal identity is strongly related to one's own memories and one's own body-image, which are two items one has more experiences of than of anything else, since they are nearly constantly appealed to and used.    Back.

[17] A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.

But why could a "being of higher faculties" "never really wish" to be "of an inferior type"? Isn't that the usual road human moral corruption takes? And is that not a very normal human event in history?

In brief: Mill seems here to be indulging in wishful thinking, and to have momentarily quite forgotten his Machiavelli, Rochefoucauld and Chamfort.    Back.

[18] We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness (..) pride (..) the love of liberty and personal independence (..) the love of power (..) the love of excitement(..) a sense of dignity (..)

This concerns Mill's explanation for what he said under [17]. I have merely extracted the beginning and the possible reasons Mill gives why people would not become morally corrupted.

And surely Mill's explanation holds, in some cases - but still, my own impression is that the majority of men and women, even if they start out as intellectually gifted moral idealists, end up as more or less corrupted conformists and opportunists, and that they mostly do so because the chances for pleasures of "an inferior type" are usually much greater for those who conform and serve the powers that be, than for those who do not conform, and try to live according to their own lights, whether or not society or the authorities agree.

For thus it has been ever since history was written: Most religious and most political idealists have ended up, and usually already in early middle age, as careerists in the service of the powerful, moved by little else than their own interests, or fear of the powerful.    Back.

[19] Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness - that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior - confounds the two very different ideas, of happiness, and content.

Maybe I do confound these two different ideas, but to begin with I don't understand the distinction; Mill does not explain it; and in fact it seems to be his previous distinction of pleasure vs. kind of pleasure, for which see [12]Back.

[20] It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied (..)

Actually, that is quite disputable, and seems a fallacy: The "capacities of enjoyment" do not depend for their satisfaction on their size, whether high or low, but on the state of the world: Whether there is much to be had of the things that gives rise to that kind of "enjoyment", and whether it is easy to obtain.

In brief, Mill at least forgot here to insert a "ceteris paribus".    Back.

[21] It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

It should be noted that since no human being is a pig, and since Socrates was no fool at all, at least in these cases the parties involved do not know "both sides" from their own experiences.

Apart from that, and apart from considering "both sides", I agree here with Mill - but not because of his utilitarian kinds of reasons.

My reasons, if stated without moral prejudices, are these two:

First, I am a human being, and I like human beings better than pigs, mostly at least, for there are exceptions. (See note [15] to the previous chapter.)

Second, being human I can understand humans much better than other animals; I find it much easier to sympathize with them, and by and large, and with exceptions - Caligula, Hitler, Himmler etc. - human beings seem to me more interesting and more capable of helping, pleasing, understanding and communicating with human beings than pigs (except perhaps when the latter are served warm, nicely fried and with a good sauce).

Those who disagree - such as animal rightists, (other) misanthropes, or  dogmatic utilitarians - should at least realize that most other kinds of animals seem to feel quite the same: Their own kind is best, easiest to understand, and most likely to help them, and for those and similar reasons better, more preferable, and more interesting than individuals of other kinds.



[22] Men often, from infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be the less valuable; and this no less when the choice is between two bodily pleasures, than when it is between bodily and mental.

This is true, and important, and what I call "the Ovidian predicament", since it was quite well formulated by Ovid (though not in the context of moral philosophy): "Video meliorum proboque; deteriorum sequor" = "I see the better and approve it is better, but I do the worse".

This should be an important datum about and fact for moral and ethical theories: In terms of the moral and ethical standards most men have professed, they themselves have often misbehaved, and have done what they considered the worse, in preference to what they consider the better, usually because doing the worse paid better, felt better, or was less dangerous than doing the better.

On the other hand, it is also an importand datum  for moral and ethical theories that once a code of behavior and a set of ends or values have been accepted in a society, whatever their ultimate merits, these may persist through many generations, even if the previous point remains also true.



[23] It may be further objected, that many who begin with youthful enthusiasm for everything noble, as they advance in years sink into indolence and selfishness. But I do not believe that those who undergo this very common change, voluntarily choose the lower description of pleasures in preference to the higher. I believe that before they devote themselves exclusively to the one, they have already become incapable of the other.

Apart from the opposition between age and youth, it seems to me - who may be more of a pessimist, or realist, or cynic than Mill was - that lots of human beings did "voluntarily choose the lower description of pleasures in preference to the higher", not only because this was safer, or they were corrupted, or it paid better, but also more simply because those "lower" "pleasures" felt a lot better than the "higher" "pleasures" moralists recommend.

Mill did not want to accept that possibility, at least not in this text, but he seems to me simply mistaken in this respect: If it were not for "what the people might say about it", nor for expected social consequences, it may be safely assumed almost everybody would prefer to have good sex with an attractive person over a brilliant lecture on fundamental science, philosophy or art. (And you can read the lecture later, if it is so good, can't you? Whereas now your beloved is hot, horny and willing?)

And it seems to me much better, both rationally, empirically, and morally, to allow for this fact and this possibility, than to deny it.



[24] Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them (..)

Here Mill is much more realistic, except that he does not mention the quite realistic possibility that many men do not "lose their high aspirations" because "they lose their intellectual tastes", but that many men (and women) never had much or any of the one simply because they never had any or much of the other.    Back.

[25] It may be questioned whether any one who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures, ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower (..)

Well, Mill may raise that question, and suggest his own answer. I gave my own answer at the end of my note [11], and it is my belief most men (and women), including the most gifted, have agreed or would agree with me. And indeed, if - say - mathematics really felt much better than sex, there probably would be no mathematicians, for lack of children.

But I do not wish to suggest, what is also false, namely that I have done little else in my life than trying to have sex (even though Freudians falsely claim this is so for all humans, or at least all males).

My point is, rather, that there are lots of kinds of pleasures, however classified and ranked; that humans have a lot of different kinds of needs, whose satisfaction comes with pleasure, whether or not one calls the satisfied need low or ignoble or animalistic or whatever; and that every human being has to make his or her choice from many different pleasures, and of satisfying many needs in various ways, and that it is - except perhaps for meditating monks living apart from society - quite impossible to only satisfy (so-called) higher needs and pleasures.     Back.

[26] From this verdict of the only competent judges, I apprehend there can be no appeal. On a question which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or which of two modes of existence is the most grateful to the feelings, apart from its moral attributes and from its consequences, the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they differ, that of the majority among them, must be admitted as final.

"I apprehend" Mill is quite mistaken: I am myself the only one to know what I feel, how pleasurable it is, and how much I want it, when duly considered and deliberated, or when I feel passionate. Others may agree, disagree, or don't know, and even if they know and understand my feelings then still they don't have my feelings, and they may not share my values or priorities, and the same holds vice versa.

And indeed the same holds for everyone, and another problem Mill is here blind to are the dangers involved in "the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they differ, that of the majority among them, must be admitted as final": What if the majority, as in Rome, prefers bread and circus to high civilization? Or cannibalism to eating only cauliflowers or corn? Or to burn their religious opponents alive instead of tolerating them and agreeing to leave each other live in peace while disagreeing in opinions?     Back.

[27] What means are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains, or the intensest of two pleasurable sensations, except the general suffrage of those who are familiar with both?

As I said: One's own feelings and values, whatever they may be, however warped, perverse, enlightened, sick or saintly they may be. For there are no other feelings whatsoever in the whole universe that one really can feel other than one's own feelings.

Again, as I hinted at in the previous note, on Mill's words (though probably not on his real opinions) in Mill's time homosexuals should have abstained from indulging their sexual preferences, simply because the majority felt otherwise, or at least said they did.

And the same for any other minority taste, persuasion, inclination, or preference, especially if the majority much disagrees with it, very possibly for no rationally tenable reasons.    Back.

[28] What is there to decide whether a particular pleasure is worth purchasing at the cost of a particular pain, except the feelings and judgment of the experienced?

Well, again one's own feelings, and regardless of whether or not one has experienced the "particular pleasure" at issue, whether it is skiing, the joys of crack and cocaine, or the pleasures consequent on raping young virgins.

Apart from one's own feelings, there is also the possibility of considering history, medicine, common sense, the interests of others etc. as to the question whether one should decide to try or to prefer this or that "particular pleasure".    Back.

[29] I have dwelt on this point, as being a necessary part of a perfectly just conception of Utility or Happiness, considered as the directive rule of human conduct. But it is by no means an indispensable condition to the acceptance of the utilitarian standard; for that standard is not the agent's own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world in general is immensely a gainer by it.

Note first that Mill here, as on other places, seems to equalize - what he means by - "Utility" and "Happiness", and that I would have preferred if he had done wholly without the terms "Utility" and "utilitarianism", since I hold these to be misleading, confusing and ugly terms.

Next, if "the utilitarian standard" "is not the agent's own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether" I am not a utilitarian, and it is doubtful whether any human being ever was, except in a deluded or confused sense.

Part of my reasons can be taken from note [5n], where I distinguished between four kinds of human ends.    Back.

[30] Utilitarianism, therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character (..)

If that is so, one can appeal e.g. to Gibbon and Chamfort (incidentally, both known authors for Mill):

"History is little else but the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind."

"Presque toute l'Histoire n'est qu'une suite d'horreurs."

to argue that, since "nobleness of character" has been manifestly quite rare in human history, utilitarianism must be mostly utopian, or only fit for a very small minority.   Back.

[31] According to the Greatest Happiness Principle, as above explained, the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, being the preference felt by those who in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with the means of comparison.

This is Mill's sum-up of his main points about the moral doctrine of "the Greatest Happiness Principle" a.k.a. Utilitarianism, and it is fair enough as a sum-up.

However, I myself have meanwhile found much to disagree with in Mill's Utilitarianism, and what I like about it are mostly these two points:

  • The positing of human happiness or well-being as an ultimate end, when considering morality and ethics, i.e. when "considering our own good or that of other people", and when trying to answer the question what humans should do and not do, and for which reasons, and

  • The consideration that one important goal of human society is "an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality" - which is well summarized by the term well-being.

The reader should note that both points are not quite the same for me as for Mill and that, as I will argue later, well-being and freedom from suffering, pain and hunger seem to me both more practical and more realistic and attainable than happiness.     Back.

[32] This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.

In this extract I doubt or deny the beginning and the end, and both seem to be rather fundamental disagreements.

First, then, Mill's argument that "This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action," viz. happiness, in some sense, about which Mill has been none too clear "is necessarily also the standard of morality" sounds plausible but seems to me mistaken.

Even if I would agree with Mill that human happiness, in some sense, is the end or an important end, of all human action, it would not follow that, for that reason, human happiness is "the standard of morality", because this ultimate end may be best furthered by another standard.

Second, although I also hold that cruelty against animals is immoral, I do not believe that "the whole sentient creation" is the sort of entity that comes within the terms of a human moral cooperation, compact, or contract, because other sentient beings are not human, cannot talk, have no conceptions of rights and duties, and cannot communicate their wishes to humans, even if some of their basic needs - food, warmth, ease - are quite obviously the same as some of the basic needs of human animals.     Back.

[33] Against this doctrine, however, arises another class of objectors, who say that happiness, in any form, cannot be the rational purpose of human life and action; because, in the first place, it is unattainable: (..) what right hast thou to be happy? (..) What right, a short time ago, hadst thou even to be? (..) men can do without happiness (..) by learning the lesson of Entsagen, or renunciation; which lesson, thoroughly learnt and submitted to, they affirm to be the beginning and necessary condition of all virtue.

In part these are objections by Carlyle, Mill's contemporary and one-time friend, who was a Christian and a Puritan, and in part, especially as regards the "renunciation", this was common Christian teaching at the time, that in part went back to Malthus, who taught this lesson to the poor: Patiently bear your assigned lot, while hoping and praying for paradise when you have died, and meanwhile abstain from sex in order to avoid putting more poor in the world.

Most of these points do not merit my serious consideration, though I should note that this "lesson of Entsagen, or renunciation" was preached by the rich to the poor, and seems to have been solidly based on the interest of the rich to remain rich, and not to have to share part of their riches with the poor.

The point that does merit serious consideration is the first, not because human happiness "is unattainable", for sometimes it is, by some, for some time, but because real human happiness is rather rare, infrequent, and not lasting a long time. Consequently, it is somewhat odd to pose it as THE ultimate end for all humans to try to attain, and use it as THE standard to make decisions about what to do and avoid.

Mill takes up the point in the next four quotations.     Back.

[34] (..) if no happiness is to be had at all by human beings, the attainment of it cannot be the end of morality, or of any rational conduct. Though, even in that case, something might still be said for the utilitarian theory; since utility includes not solely the pursuit of happiness, but the prevention or mitigation of unhappiness; and if the former aim be chimerical, there will be all the greater scope and more imperative need for the latter (..)

The initial claim - "if no happiness is to be had at all by human beings, the attainment of it cannot be the end of morality, or of any rational conduct" - is logically valid, but a bit of a red herring.

The question Mill should have considered at this point is this: If "happiness" is a fairly rare event in human life, and if attained is usually of a mild kind, bought at the price of many compromises and concessions in other things, then why posit such a good as THE ultimate end, standard and norm in morality and ethics? Isn't this at least a bit like aiming at a Mercedes for everyone, if the best that can be conceivably had by most is a second hand Volkswagen? Or like desiring everybody to become a genius, if the best that most are capable of is merely not to become an idiot?

However, Mill immediately provides an answer, that I, for one, hold to be more reasonable, because more realistic, practicable and also objective, since what harms a person is usually clearer than what pleases a person,  namely not "the pursuit of happiness, but the prevention or mitigation of unhappiness".

Furthermore, well-being and freedom from pain, suffering and hunger seem far more attainable ends than happiness - and indeed it may well be argued that human beings can be relied upon to try to attain that themselves, if only they are healthy, free from pain, suffering and hunger, and mostly at liberty to follow their own interests.

And it should also be noted that the term "happiness" seems not well chosen if what is mostly meant by it is well-being, in as much as what is often called "happiness" is the extreme of well-being, that may be defined as a state of being that one values positively. After all, it is a lot easier to feel well about many things than to feel happy about the same things.   Back.

[35] If by happiness be meant a continuity of highly pleasurable excitement, it is evident enough that this is impossible. A state of exalted pleasure lasts only moments, or in some cases, and with some intermissions, hours or days, and is the occasional brilliant flash of enjoyment, not its permanent and steady flame.

This is true, and an important reason to hold that human happiness as THE ultimate end or standard of morality and ethics is a bit of chimera, that promises far more than it can deliver, and suggests courses of action that may be noble or well-intentioned, but that are probably not realizable, or if realizable are not realizable for most.

In brief, happiness is both too much of a utopian end, and what may be left to the people's own efforts, provided they are healthy, free from want and pain, and at liberty to pursue their own ends, mostly.      Back.

[36] The happiness which they meant was not a life of rapture; but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive, and having as the foundation of the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing.

I agree this is all desirable, agreeable, and indeed something that seems to have been mostly the real end - apart from what they publicly claimed, e.g. to keep priests or clergy happy - that many men and women have tried to achieve in their lifes.   Back.

[37] A life thus composed, to those who have been fortunate enough to obtain it, has always appeared worthy of the name of happiness. And such an existence is even now the lot of many, during some considerable portion of their lives. The present wretched education, and wretched social arrangements, are the only real hindrance to its being attainable by almost all.

This seems also true, and it seems that - e.g. when comparing final examinations of schools and universities - that at present the "education" is far more "wretched", in England and elsewhere in Europe and the US, than it was in Mill's own time, since modern education teaches far less in the same or more time than education did in Mill's time. (See e.g. Brian J. Fox, "The Cult of the Expert", Corgi Books, 1983.)

As to the "wretched social arrangements": It seems Mill was more inclined towards socialism than I am, and it certainly is true that at present, in England and elsewhere in Europe and the US, most people are better of in terms of incomes and chances than most of Mill's contemporaries. However, this relative improvement seems mostly due to the progress of science and the possibilities of scientific technology, and has little to do with moral or intellectual enlightenment of most, or of "the masses", so beloved by socialists.    Back.

[38] (..) great numbers of mankind have been satisfied with much less. The main constituents of a satisfied life appear to be two, either of which by itself is often found sufficient for the purpose: tranquillity, and excitement. With much tranquillity, many find that they can be content with very little pleasure: with much excitement, many can reconcile themselves to a considerable quantity of pain.

One may take this as a small dose of the sort of psychology that was popular in Mill's time. I don't consider it convincing, and it is obvious that far better grounds for finding human happiness in life have been a combination of stupidity and conformism, combined with patience and a sunny disposition, for these seem the best guarantees for believing what most believe, doing as most do, not growing desperate and feeling contented most of the time.   Back.

[39] When people who are tolerably fortunate in their outward lot do not find in life sufficient enjoyment to make it valuable to them, the cause generally is, caring for nobody but themselves.

Undoubtedly, this opinion of Mill squares with that of most moralists, of whatever denomination, and it is true that egoism does not seem to tend to make one happy.

On the other hand, the reasons why the "tolerably fortunate in their outward lot" still may be quite unhappy seems to be more complicated, and to be usually tied up with their system of beliefs, especially if many of these are false, and with their education as children, if the adults who took care of them did not love them, or gave them a fanatic religious education.    Back.

[40] Next to selfishness, the principal cause which makes life unsatisfactory is want of mental cultivation. A cultivated mind - I do not mean that of a philosopher, but any mind to which the fountains of knowledge have been opened, and which has been taught, in any tolerable degree, to exercise its faculties - finds sources of inexhaustible interest in all that surrounds it; in the objects of nature, the achievements of art, the imaginations of poetry, the incidents of history, the ways of mankind, past and present, and their prospects in the future. It is possible, indeed, to become indifferent to all this, and that too without having exhausted a thousandth part of it; but only when one has had from the beginning no moral or human interest in these things, and has sought in them only the gratification of curiosity.

As to Mill's first statement in this quotation, here is Buddha, with a similar opinion:

"Stupidity and egoism are the roots of all vice."

As to the rest: I mostly agree - although I should ask then, seeing that so many human beings seem to have been so unhappy so much of the time, even if living in tolerable external conditions, what is the proportion of cultivated minds : all minds? Is it perhaps of the same order of magnitude as Shakespeare's Falstaff proposed about morals: "As men go, one in tenthousand is honest"?

Mill gives his own answer to my last question in the next point.    Back.

[41] Now there is absolutely no reason in the nature of things why an amount of mental culture sufficient to give an intelligent interest in these objects of contemplation, should not be the inheritance of every one born in a civilised country. As little is there an inherent necessity that any human being should be a selfish egotist, devoid of every feeling or care but those which centre in his own miserable individuality.

That is what Mill thought, but I, who was born nearly 150 years later, and was able to see what the 35-hour week and television did for the mass of mankind, think otherwise.

It seems to me that Mill was too optimistic: Even with so much leisure, good pay, good health, and much freedom, all to the effect that in Western Europe, where almost everybody was far better of in the last quarter of the 20th Century than almost everybody at any earlier time anywhere on earth, only a small percentage had much of "an intelligent interest" in science, art, or philosophy, and the vast majority spend their leisure hours watching TV or sports.    Back.

[42] Genuine private affections and a sincere interest in the public good, are possible, though in unequal degrees, to every rightly brought up human being. In a world in which there is so much to interest, so much to enjoy, and so much also to correct and improve, every one who has this moderate amount of moral and intellectual requisites is capable of an existence which may be called enviable; and unless such a person, through bad laws, or subjection to the will of others, is denied the liberty to use the sources of happiness within his reach, he will not fail to find this enviable existence, if he escape the positive evils of life, the great sources of physical and mental suffering - such as indigence, disease, and the unkindness, worthlessness, or premature loss of objects of affection.

This is no doubt mostly true, but I have two problems with it, that mostly concern the beginning and end of the quoted passage.

First, that "Genuine private affections and a sincere interest in the public good, are possible, though in unequal degrees, to every rightly brought up human being" is certainly true, but wholly leaves aside the rather fundamental point that "the public good" of one community or group of individuals is often opposed in various ways to "the public good" of another community or group of individuals.

And second, it is good to have some indication of what are, in Mill's opinion, "the positive evils of life, the great sources of physical and mental suffering", but it should be added that an important part of these "evils of life", at least for many, are economical exploitation or slavery, religious or political persecution, dictatorships of various kinds, and war or civil war.    Back.

[43] The main stress of the problem lies, therefore, in the contest with these calamities, from which it is a rare good fortune entirely to escape; which, as things now are, cannot be obviated, and often cannot be in any material degree mitigated. Yet no one whose opinion deserves a moment's consideration can doubt that most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced within narrow limits. Poverty, in any sense implying suffering, may be completely extinguished by the wisdom of society, combined with the good sense and providence of individuals.

This is mostly so, and it is important to abstract two points and consider these a little:

  • most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves removable

  • Poverty, in any sense implying suffering, may be completely extinguished

Both seem quite true to me - now, in Mill's time, and long before. Yet there have been many "great positive evils" for many throughout history, and there always has been poverty for most, and riches and power for few, with the result that

"History is little else but the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind"

"Presque toute l'Histoire n'est qu'une suite d'horreurs."

To me, these facts strongly suggest that the continued existence of many "great positive evils" that could have been fairly easily removed, totally or for the greatest part, shows that it very rarely happens that more than a small number of the ruling elites want remove these positive evils, very probably for three main reasons:

(1) Most members of the ruling elites don't care or profit from the continued existence of these evils
(2) Normally these evils are profitable to many related to the members of the ruling elites and
(3) The continued existence of these evils helps the ruling elites to remain in power.    Back.

[44] Even that most intractable of enemies, disease, may be indefinitely reduced in dimensions by good physical and moral education (..)

No. The reason that "disease" is far less of a scourge than in Mill's own time, which is also the main reason that there are now, 6 generations after he lived, 6 times as many human beings as when he lived, is the progress in medical science and the associated medical and pharmacological technology. This has very little to do with "good physical and moral education", at least of the population at large.

Incidentally, this is the same reason as for many other kinds of human progress since Mill's time: Not so much any improvement in "education" as in scientific knowledge and technology, which produced more productive power and better means to combat disease and its causes.    Back.

[45] As for vicissitudes of fortune, and other disappointments connected with worldly circumstances, these are principally the effect either of gross imprudence, of ill-regulated desires, or of bad or imperfect social institutions. All the grand sources, in short, of human suffering are in a great degree, many of them almost entirely, conquerable by human care and effort; and though their removal is grievously slow - though a long succession of generations will perish in the breach before the conquest is completed, and this world becomes all that, if will and knowledge were not wanting, it might easily be made - yet every mind sufficiently intelligent and generous to bear a part, however small and unconspicuous, in the endeavour, will draw a noble enjoyment from the contest itself (..)

I agree with this - but see also under [43]. And in any case, it seems that the best chance and surest way to try to alleviate "human suffering" is by more science and better technology that allow more production per person, thus enabling that there simply is more available of the things all need or many desire, while also improving distribution and laws, so that those in the greatest need are helped most.    Back.

[46] Unquestionably it is possible to do without happiness; it is done involuntarily by nineteen-twentieths of mankind, even in those parts of our present world which are least deep in barbarism; and it often has to be done voluntarily by the hero or the martyr, for the sake of something which he prizes more than his individual happiness. But this something, what is it, unless the happiness of others or some of the requisites of happiness?

I do not believe that "nineteen-twentieths of mankind", now or in Mill's time, live entirely "without happiness". Here are three reasons why:

First, and most importantly, it seems true that for almost everyone who is not deeply depressed, and who does not suffer from pain, malnutrition, disease or psychological troubles, simply to be alive and to be healthy feels good. Very possibly and quite reasonably this feeling good simply by being alive, healthy and mostly untroubled, is not precisely what is called "happiness" by most, but it seems to me - who has been ill, and often in pain for 28 years now - one important ground why people do want to live.

Second, and related to the first point, almost everybody has in principle the possibility of suicide. The fact that so few commit suicide - normally, and in many circumstances and countries, a few per 10.000 - shows that for most their ordinary lifes, however bleak and disappointing these may be, are normally not very painful for a long time, for else many more people would jump from high buildings etc. than happens in fact. 

Third and least important, when asked by psychological researchers or collectors of statistics, most adults in Western countries claim to be "quite happy" most of the time. (The reason not to attribute very much value to these claims is that the statement that one is happy is one that most will give in polls whatever they really feel, for to say otherwise is to describe oneself as a failure, and also that the sense and the degree in which people are "happy", even if they sincerely say they are, will vary a lot.)

Another point is that Mill, when discussing "the hero or the martyr", omits at least two relevant considerations: The great majority does not have the requisite gifts of intellect or character to be a hero or martyr (or indeed: saint, genius etc.), and also I would guess that many, possibly most, of the famous heroes and martyrs (whatever one thinks of them, judging just by the criterion of fame) have not been considered heroic because they served  "the happiness of others or some of the requisites of happiness", though that also must have happened sometimes, but for other reasons, such as nationalism, religious beliefs, political convictions, or moral ideas different from happiness.     Back.

[47] He may be an inspiriting proof of what men can do, but assuredly not an example of what they should.

I have extracted this because I like it. And indeed, the quotation seems fairly attributable to almost anyone. There are very few exemplary human beings, except in the bad sense.    Back.

[48] Though it is only in a very imperfect state of the world's arrangements that any one can best serve the happiness of others by the absolute sacrifice of his own, yet so long as the world is in that imperfect state, I fully acknowledge that the readiness to make such a sacrifice is the highest virtue which can be found in man. I will add, that in this condition of the world, paradoxical as the assertion may be, the conscious ability to do without happiness gives the best prospect of realising, such happiness as is attainable.

I have three remarks.

First, I agree that we live "in a very imperfect state of the world", that causes many problems and ills for many, that would not exist, or not exist to the same extent, if the world were in a better state.

But then also I hold this "very imperfect state of the world" says something about the capacities of most human beings who have lived in in it, and suggests a few rather melancholic lessons about what is humanly feasible with regards of improving the world or helping others.

Second, I doubt in many cases that "the absolute sacrifice" of one's own, for the benefit of another, is "the highest virtue which can be found in man". For such an absolute sacrifice may be based on an illusion, and also the person who makes it might have been more useful, done more good, or contributed more, had he done otherwise.

Third, that "the conscious ability to do without happiness gives the best prospect of realising, such happiness as is attainable" may be so, but it is indeed "paradoxical", and hard to combine consistently with Mill's utilitarian opinions.    Back.

[49] For nothing except that consciousness can raise a person above the chances of life, by making him feel that, let fate and fortune do their worst, they have not power to subdue him: which (..) enables him, like many a Stoic in the worst times of the Roman Empire, to cultivate in tranquillity the sources of satisfaction accessible to him (..)

Indeed, and I grant this holds for a person like me (who has been ill the last 28 years, and who has been discriminated a lot for his opinions), but it seems to ask far too much for more ordinary people, such as ordinarily gifted mothers in the dole with four small children and a drunk and violent husband.

And this makes implicitly another point that should be written out: What makes life miserable for many, such as the parents of small children they can't give the proper care, through no faults of their own, is not so much their own fate, pain or misery, but that they can't do for their dependents as they would like to.    Back.

[50] The utilitarian morality does recognise in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others. It only refuses to admit that the sacrifice is itself a good. A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted. The only self-renunciation which it applauds, is devotion to the happiness, or to some of the means of happiness, of others (..)

No, this is not so for at least two reasons.

First, much of the ordinary course and continuance of society is based on the making and keeping of promises and contracts. If you have promised your grandmother that her money should go to the RSPCA, you should not give it to Amnesty or yourself, even if those aims seem much better to you.

In brief: The making and keeping of promises and contracts is so important that one cannot subject it to utilitarian standards, i.e. not keep promises or not fulfill contracts one has agreed to on the ground that the promise or contract now seems to be or clearly is against utilitarian moral principles.

Second, one very important kind of human altruism is that of parents to their children.



[51] I must again repeat, what the assailants of utilitarianism seldom have the justice to acknowledge, that the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.

This is honest and no doubt what Mill thought, but it seems to me so thoroughly irrealistic that it makes Mill's version of utiliarianism totally useless as a system of morals, except perhaps for saints and persons much more like Mill and Mrs. Taylor than I am, and than almost all humans seem to be.

For consider: "the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator".

But nobody feels anything but his own feelings; all men are, albeit in varying degrees, egoistic and partial to some, indifferent to some, and negative to some; to ask, indeed to require, a strict impartiality between one's own interests, concerns and feelings and those of any and all others is simply not given to most men, if given at all to any man; and in any case, a great many of the problems related to morals and ethics consist precisely in the fact that nearly all men are partial to themselves, their family, their friends, and the members of their society, their faith, and their politicial creed, and consider it often good if the interests of people who do not belong to these groups are sacrificed in the interest of those who do.    Back.

[52] In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality. As the means of making the nearest approach to this ideal, utility would enjoin, first, that laws and social arrangements should place the happiness, or (as speaking practically it may be called) the interest, of every individual, as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole; and secondly, that education and opinion, which have so vast a power over human character, should so use that power as to establish in the mind of every individual an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole (..)

I will make three remarks about this.

First, I find it rather disappointing to be served "the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth" as "the complete spirit of the ethics of utility". My reasons are, first, that I am non-religious myself and, more importantly, that I think it highly desirable to have some moral code that is both realistic and reasonable and wholly independent of all religious considerations (see: [1] to Chapter I.).

Furthermore, I hold that "To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself" are demands that hardly any human being, including saints, can satisfy or live by, and that one should not propose a moral system that demands things of people that they can't reasonably, usually or normally practice, and that very few, if any, have been capable of living up to. (Besides, there is the fundamental difficulty voiced by Shaw: "Do not do unto others as you would that they should do to you; their tastes may be different." Not everyone agrees on ends or has the same needs.)

Second, "that laws and social arrangements should place the happiness, or (as speaking practically it may be called) the interest, of every individual, as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole" seems to me to be an important and sensible qualification of utilitarianism, since - as I use and understand these words - "the interest" and "the happiness" are quite different things.

Third, the problem is precisely, also with regards to Mill's desire to teach "every individual an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole" that the vast majority of conflicts between people, whether or not they share fundamental convictions about morals, is due to the fact that their interests clash, at least as they then and there perceive these interests, in the one world they live in with others, in which only one of two opposing desires can be satisfied.

And so far Mill has said very little about the question how to proceed in these most normal of moral conflicts, namely those due to opposing interests in a single limited and imperfect world, except that they should be resolved by reference to "the Greatest Happiness Principle".     Back.

[53] (..) so that not only he may be unable to conceive the possibility of happiness to himself, consistently with conduct opposed to the general good, but also that a direct impulse to promote the general good may be in every individual one of the habitual motives of action, and the sentiments connected therewith may fill a large and prominent place in every human being's sentient existence.

The problem here is that nearly every human being has been moved often by "a direct impulse to promote the general good", provided that one understands "the general good" as restricted to their family, their friends, and the members of their society, their faith, and their politicial creed.


[54] They say it is exacting too much to require that people shall always act from the inducement of promoting the general interests of society. But this is to mistake the very meaning of a standard of morals, and confound the rule of action with the motive of it. It is the business of ethics to tell us what are our duties, or by what test we may know them; but no system of ethics requires that the sole motive of all we do shall be a feeling of duty; on the contrary, ninety-nine hundredths of all our actions are done from other motives, and rightly so done, if the rule of duty does not condemn them.

This seems true and sensible, and also problematic for Mill's own position.

In general terms, speaking of systems of morals people have lived by, it seems Mill is right that "ninety-nine hundredths of all our actions are done from other motives" than moral motives, rightly or wrongly, and irrespective of the kind of moral motives.

But for Mill, who has argued that human happiness is the supreme end and standard of morality this seems a bit odd: What, then, would not be subject to that standard of morality? If everything that humans may consciously do is guided by the consideration that it improves the happiness (or the chances thereon) of someone, whether oneself or others, and if happiness is the standard of morality, how could any conscious human act fail to be a moral act?     Back.

[55] (..) utilitarian moralists have gone beyond almost all others in affirming that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent.

Many have objected against this, and in the next point, which comes from a fairly long footnote of Mill, this objection is formulated and discussed.    Back.

[55n] Had Mr Davies said, "The rightness or wrongness of saving a man from drowning does depend very much" - not upon the motive but - "upon the intention." no utilitarian would have differed from him. Mr Davies, by a oversight too common not to be quite venial, has in this case confounded the very different ideas of Motive and Intention. There is no point which utilitarian thinkers (and Bentham pre-eminently) have taken more pains to illustrate than this. The morality of the action depends entirely upon the intention - that is, upon what the agent wills to do. But the motive - that is, the feeling which makes him will so to do - when it makes no difference in the act, makes none in the morality; though it makes a great difference in our moral estimation of the agent, especially if it indicates a good or bad habitual disposition (..)

This is from a longer footnote of Mill. My own view is that Mill here is a bit disingenuous, sophistical and verbal. One may agree with his distinction between "the very different ideas of Motive and Intention", and agree that the central point concerns "what the agent wills to do", but the problem remains that ordinarily, and in so far as what is done is done deliberately, "what the agent wills to do", whether it is called "Intention" or "Motive", and "the feeling which makes him will so to do" are similar and related, and usually supplementary rather than in opposition. 

If this is not so, Mill should have said far more about this distinction between "Intention" and "Motive". And indeed, as I use terms, and as Mr Davies seems to have used terms, what Mill calls "Intention", Davies and I rather call  "Motive", as seems in accordance with most other speakers of English. If there is a difference, then it would rather seem as if what Mill calls "Motive" would, nowadays, in a court of law, be called "unconscious motive".     Back.

[56] But to speak only of actions done from the motive of duty, and in direct obedience to principle: it is a misapprehension of the utilitarian mode of thought, to conceive it as implying that people should fix their minds upon so wide a generality as the world, or society at large. The great majority of good actions are intended not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up (..)

This is true and important, possibly more so than Mill thought. Indeed, the "great majority of (..) actions are intended not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals" - and this undeniable fact becomes rather important as soon as one realizes that most human beings do not know more than a very small percentage of humankind, and also interact consciously with no more than a very small percentage of humankind, their society, and their kind of persons.

There are, in fact, at present more than three times as many human beings alife as there are seconds in the life of a human being of 70 years - for which reason "mankind", "humanity", and "the good of all" are, for most people who are not capable of killing hundreds of thousands of millions by pushing a button or giving a command, are rather remote abstractions.   Back.

[57] The multiplication of happiness is, according to the utilitarian ethics, the object of virtue: the occasions on which any person (except one in a thousand) has it in his power to do this on an extended scale, in other words to be a public benefactor, are but exceptional; and on these occasions alone is he called on to consider public utility; in every other case, private utility, the interest or happiness of some few persons, is all he has to attend to. Those alone the influence of whose actions extends to society in general, need concern themselves habitually about large an object.

I have said before that it seems to me more reasonable not to make the "multiplication of happiness" the or an important (!!) end and standard of morality, but the prevention of misery.


For this there are at least four reasons.

First, it is considerably more realistic and practical, and also seems to give a better priority of ends: Surely it is easier, normally, to alleviate the suffering of someone, than to make him happy, and also, if there is a choice of making someone happy or helping someone being less miserable, it seems often morally better to help the suffering to suffer less than to help those who do not suffer to be more happy.

Second, it may be argued, with considerable plausibility, at least, that while one has a moral duty to help people who are suffering to suffer less, generally it may be left to people who are not suffering to try to become happy by their own efforts, and not to depend for this on others, except perhaps their own family or friends.

Third, it seems that there is an asymmetry between classes of motives: People are always motivated away from pain, but not always motivated towards more happiness, or more pleasure, for it seems that most people are satisfied by some amount of happiness, or more pleasure, and then cease to seek for more.

Fourth, there is the point that feeling alife seems to feel well to most people, on condition that they are not in pain, not threatened, not afraid, and have their ordinary needs satisfied. 

All these points seem to me quite fundamental and important, but Mill is right about something else, namely that in general, for most ordinary people without special social, religious or political power or influence, "the interest or happiness of some few persons, is all he has to attend to".

Also, it should be mentioned in the present context that there is such a thing as "negative utilitarianism", which is sometimes attributed to Popper, who wrote in his Open Society: “It adds to clarity in the fields of ethics, if we formulate our demands negatively, i.e. if we demand the elimination of suffering rather than the promotion of happiness.” (Karl R.Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, London 1945).

Negative utilitarianism also has logical problems if it were to be adopted as THE summum bonum i.e. by way of an "if and only if" formula on the pattern of "An act is good if and only if it does prevent the most misery of all one's possible feasible acts", since then it might quite conceivably turn out to be best, in this sense, to poison everyone in a painless way as soon as possible, but then Popper did not propose that, nor do I, and therefore I only need mention the concept and the difficulty here without considering these more thoroughly.    Back.

[58] It is often affirmed that utilitarianism renders men cold and unsympathising; that it chills their moral feelings towards individuals; that it makes them regard only the dry and hard consideration of the consequences of actions, not taking into their moral estimate the qualities from which those actions emanate.

Quite possibly Mill thought here, among other things, of himself when young, and of his father. He may also have thought of what religious opponents of utilitarianism claimed.

In either case, it seems mostly false.    Back.

[59] Utilitarians are quite aware that there are other desirable possessions and qualities besides virtue, and are perfectly willing to allow to all of them their full worth. They are also aware that a right action does not necessarily indicate a virtuous character, and that actions which are blamable, often proceed from qualities entitled to praise. When this is apparent in any particular case, it modifies their estimation, not certainly of the act, but of the agent. I grant that they are, notwithstanding, of opinion, that in the long run the best proof of a good character is good actions; and resolutely refuse to consider any mental disposition as good, of which the predominant tendency is to produce bad conduct.

First, see [57]. Next, what Mill is right about is to "the interest or happiness of some few persons, is all he has to attend to": Someone may mean well and do bad, but if he usually does bad while claiming to mean well, he very probably lies.   Back.

[60] Utilitarians who have cultivated their moral feelings, but not their sympathies nor their artistic perceptions, do fall into this mistake; and so do all other moralists under the same conditions.

As under [58], here Mill probably was also thinking of himself when younger. For more see his "Autobiography", especially concerning the year 1826.    Back.

[61] As a matter of fact, we may affirm that among utilitarians as among adherents of other systems, there is every imaginable degree of rigidity and of laxity in the application of their standard: some are even puritanically rigorous, while others are as indulgent as can possibly be desired by sinner or by sentimentalist.

This is very probably true, and interesting in itself: That different persons who share some moral, religious or political standard may do so in quite different ways, with quite different degrees of "laxity", "rigidity" and enthusiasm.   Back.

[62] (..) persons, even of considerable mental endowments, often give themselves so little trouble to understand the bearings of any opinion against which they entertain a prejudice, and men are in general so little conscious of this voluntary ignorance as a defect, that the vulgarest misunderstandings of ethical doctrines are continually met with in the deliberate writings of persons of the greatest pretensions both to high principle and to philosophy.

Yes, this is quite true, and one may formulate the point in a more general manner: Very little is said, and often very little can be said, that is not based on many prejudices, whether these are or would be rational defensible or not. As Hazlitt said:

"Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way out of the room."


[63] 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.

Or so Mill thought, who probably thought it important to get some well-intentioned Christians on his side.

I merely remark here that neither Mill nor I were or are religious, and indeed for both holds that we never were, and also we were not raised religiously, as is still the case for the great majority of mankind, in my opinion usually to their detriment, because it means that they have been raised in a false faith, that has been imposed on them at an age they could not rationally judge its worth.

And also, if "God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures" and He exists, then it is quite miraculous how much evil, pain, misery, and undeserved suffering there is and has been in the world.     Back.

[64] If it be meant that utilitarianism does not recognise the revealed will of God as the supreme law of morals, I answer, that a utilitarian who believes in the perfect goodness and wisdom of God, necessarily believes that whatever God has thought fit to reveal on the subject of morals, must fulfil the requirements of utility in a supreme degree.

This is a bit of a sophistical point of Mill, and it should be remarked that, so far as I have read in God's various Holy Books, and in the theologians of various kinds, it seems that "whatever God has thought fit to reveal on the subject of morals" it does not "fulfil the requirements of utility in a supreme degree" at all.



[65] (..) the Christian revelation was intended, and is fitted, to inform the hearts and minds of mankind with a spirit which should enable them to find for themselves what is right, and incline them to do it when found, rather than to tell them, except in a very general way, what it is; and that we need a doctrine of ethics, carefully followed out, to interpret to us the will God.

For my evaluation of "the Christian revelation" in this moral context, see [52].

What I agree with is that "the Christian revelation" is far from complete or perfect, also when we restrict ourselves completely to its moral teachings, and hence that some "doctrine of ethics" indeed is necessary to supplement it, even though this seems not consistent with what Mill said in [52].    Back.

[66] Again, Utility is often summarily stigmatised as an immoral doctrine by giving it the name of Expediency, and taking advantage of the popular use of that term to contrast it with Principle.

I have selected this merely to record one common argumentative ploy of Mill's opponents, which indeed was not fair to Mill and most utilitarians.   Back.

[67] (..) we feel that the violation, for a present advantage, of a rule of such transcendant expediency, is not expedient, and that he who, for the sake of a convenience to himself or to some other individual, does what depends on him to deprive mankind of the good, and inflict upon them the evil, involved in the greater or less reliance which they can place in each other's word, acts the part of one of their worst enemies. Yet that even this rule, sacred as it is, admits of possible exceptions, is acknowledged by all moralists (..)

I have selected this passage because it is in fact about telling a lie.



[68] Again, defenders of utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this - that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments.

No, that is not so, even though Mill's point, which is continued in the next selection, has some justice and some rhetorical effectiveness.

For the trouble is that Mill has not at all proved, or indeed considered, what seems to have seemed obviously true to him, namely that one can, in any rational sense, calculate "the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness".

I have considered this problem under [12] and it may be summed up as follows: There are no real - plausible, rational, consistent - ways to make sums of happinesses, not of oneself alone, except perhaps in a few simple and restricted cases, as when one considers buying wine or champagne, and certainly not of several, many or all humans.

This is an objection of principle, and it is fundamental: Mill's (and Bentham's) utilitarianism is based on the false premiss that there is something like - in  Bentham's terms - a "felicific calculus", in which one can make rational sums of kinds and quantities of happiness of all kinds and of all people, as if one can come to know and sum these as one can come to know their ages or lengths or yearly income in dollars and sum these.     Back.

[69] The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions; on which experience all the prudence, as well as all the morality of life, are dependent.

Yes, but that is not an answer to the problem raised in my previous note. The problem is not that one does not know reasonable personal estimates of the values of the outcomes of many acts one may do, and indeed this one may often know, but the problem is that there is no known rational way to sum these various values, even if all one considers is only one's own interests.

And please note what is the problem. The problem is not that one cannot ever plausibly sum this bit of happines to that, but that, in order to come to agree or disagree, one has to be able to make most or all sums of the form

    value of X = (quantity of pleasure 1 of X)*(value of pleasure 1) +
                                       ....                                               +
                     (quantity of pleasure n of X)*(value of pleasure n)  

in an intersubjectively valid way. See [12]Back.

[70] There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it; but on any hypothesis short of that, mankind must by this time have acquired positive beliefs as to the effects of some actions on their happiness; and the beliefs which have thus come down are the rules of morality for the multitude, and for the philosopher until he has succeeded in finding better.

First, see under [68] and [69].

Second, though Mill's "There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it" is a good point, what would have been more relevant is the consideration of the difficulty for "any ethical standard" that for it not "to work ill"....



[71] (..) that mankind have still much to learn as to the effects of actions on the general happiness, I admit, or rather, earnestly maintain. The corollaries from the principle of utility, like the precepts of every practical art, admit of indefinite improvement, and, in a progressive state of the human mind, their improvement is perpetually going on.

Here Mill simply seem to have meant that as human beings learn more about reality - "Savoir pour prévoir, prévoir pour pouvoir" - they will know better how to satisfy their desires.    Back.

[72] It is a strange notion that the acknowledgment of a first principle is inconsistent with the admission of secondary ones.

This is true, of course - but the problem for Mill's utilitarianism is that it proposes a single supreme moral standard that was argued to be applicable to every conscious act.

For more see ...


[73] (..) all rational creatures go out upon the sea of life with their minds made up on the common questions of right and wrong, as well as on many of the far more difficult questions of wise and foolish. And this, as long as foresight is a human quality, it is to be presumed they will continue to do. Whatever we adopt as the fundamental principle of morality, we require subordinate principles to apply it by (..)

All of this is true, and indeed it is quite important to see that both the moral and the intellectual outlooks of adults, their fundamental beliefs and values, are mostly acquired by their education as children.



[74] The remainder of the stock arguments against utilitarianism mostly consist in laying to its charge the common infirmities of human nature, and the general difficulties which embarrass conscientious persons in shaping their course through life.

Indeed, the main difficulty for any system of morals - except "anything goes and after us the deluge" - is that "the common infirmities of human nature, and the general difficulties which embarrass conscientious persons" are so  great that there probably is no well-known system of morals with the property that most of its adherents practice the rules they hold to be good always, or most of the times this would be difficult or painful or risky.    Back.

[75] It is not the fault of any creed, but of the complicated nature of human affairs, that rules of conduct cannot be so framed as to require no exceptions, and that hardly any kind of action can safely be laid down as either always obligatory or always condemnable. There is no ethical creed which does not temper the rigidity of its laws, by giving a certain latitude, under the moral responsibility of the agent, for accommodation to peculiarities of circumstances; and under every creed, at the opening thus made, self-deception and dishonest casuistry get in. There exists no moral system under which there do not arise unequivocal cases of conflicting obligation.


In terms of the morals most men have professed, most men have been immoral most of the time.


[76] If utility is the ultimate source of moral obligations, utility may be invoked to decide between them when their demands are incompatible. Though the application of the standard may be difficult, it is better than none at all (..)

Mill may be right in the second statement (it depends on the standard presumed, I'd say: no standard may be better than a bad one), but the first statement runs again into diffulties related to the meaning of the term "utility".

Is it happiness? Pleasure? Usefulness? Mill has affirmed all, but as I use terms the first statement in the selection differs with whatever term is selected from what it would be if another of the threesome were selected.




- wordly aim
- non-religious
- ends of human society
- human nature