Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ethics: Lecture on Mill and Utilitarianism

The last class focused on ethical concepts that focus on the beginning or cause of an action rather than the end or consequence (with the possible exception of balance, which suggests a medium of the two). Today, we focus on consequentialism and its foremost school, Utilitarianism. Thus, I had you read the first two chapters of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism. In this work, Mill argues that we should always look at our actions and ask if the consequences are ethical (do good/make people happy and reduce harm/pain). He specifically mentions Kant as wrong about principle and mentions virtue ethics as well, claiming that these two conceptions ignore how we use principle and virtue for happiness and reduction of harm by taking each as a good in itself out of context.

Mill notes: if you call it Utilitarianism, people think it is dry and boring.
If you call it Principle of Happiness or Pleasure first, people think its decadent.
This is why people called Epicurus decadent.


Brief Tradition of Consequentialism
(included in Mill’s own text)

Epicurus (340-270 BCE)
Greek philosopher who believed that happiness was the most important thing, and all virtues, purposes and ends are subordinate to it. From him we get the word ‘Epicurean’ as in ‘Gourmet’, one who appreciates the finer more pleasant tastes of things. As Mill notes, Epicurus was attacked as a glutton in his time, but he actually had a taste for thought, civilization, and what Mill calls the ‘higher virtues’, mental pleasures in giving to others rather than physical selfish pleasures of drinking every night. Mill argues that Epicurus took the long view just as he did, so his opponents are wrong to call happy principle people “swine”.

Jeremy Bentham (1750-1830 CE)
The first to come up with Utilitarianism, but Mill gave it the name.
Bentham believed in max happiness, while Mill complimented this with min pain.
Bentham also believed that simple and common pleasures are just as good as sophisticated, saying the common plays are just as good as fine opera.
Mill rejected this, believing that fine society was of a higher happiness than common culture, as mental pleasure is superior to physical, as selfless pleasures (giving to others) makes one happier than selfish pleasures (receiving from others).

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 CE)
Born in London, Mill was influenced by Ancient Greek, French, and liberal thought.
His father wrote a history of India, and Mill was for a time involved with his father in the British East India company, the corporation that helped Britain maintain their hold over India. Mill’s family was friends with the Bentham family, from whom Mill took up his consequentialist, ‘happy principle’ thought. However, it was Mill who found the name ‘utilitarian’ in a Christian text talking about how evil it was to fall into it rather than believe in the principle as good, and he added the name and developed the thinking, becoming its famous spokesman.

Mill is a central thinker in Logic, Economics and Ethics.
His liberal social thought is his most famous. He argued for equal rights for all, the end to the subjugation of women and slavery.


Mill’s text: Utilitarianism

Mill’s harm principle as the principle to end principles, putting all focus on harmful consequences. This is not simply ease or expediency in limited personal vision, but the long view over time of what makes people happy and saves them from pain.

Notice: Mill completely agrees with Kant, we need a test for principles and an overall principle to serve as this text. For Kant, this test is ‘can it always be followed?’, while for Mill the test is ‘does following the principle make people happy as a consequence?’.
Both come up with a supreme principle.
Thus, for Kant, one should never lie because the principle is most important as beginning or all good action, while for Mill, one should never lie as long as this has good consequences because this is the most important as end of all good action.

Kant says: Always follow principle, and you will likely be happy.
Mill says: Always follow happiness (self and others), and you will likely be principled.

Both also come up with a pure ‘good in itself’: Kant’s is intention (the good-in-itself beginning of an act) and Mill’s is happiness (the good-in-itself end of an act). Both say that it is impossible to argue for this good-in-itself, but it simply shows itself in us.

We can see two sides to the Utilitarian Principle, maximizing positive and minimizing negative. Bentham says: Always act to maximize happiness. Mill agrees, but says the MOST important thing is to minimize the negative (at least, this is what scholars concur in reading his writings and comparing them to Bentham’s today). Thus, we see the whole principle is ‘max happy and min pain’, but one can lean either way on it. There are times when maximum happiness can cause much pain (majority over the minority, which Mill speaks about vs. Bentham), and there are times when minimum pain hurts maximum happiness (overprotective parenting, insurance issues, have to break some eggs etc).

Mill admits that there will be continuous problems whichever way we use the principle, but we are evolving in a positive direction slowly and we should stick to the Utilitarian view even when there are problems if we truly (and he thinks we do) desire good consequences basically as human beings.

Attacks on Utilitarianism:
Mill addresses many of these directly in the text.

Interesting Paradox/Problem for Utilitarianism: the Good of the Bad as Example
Mill notes this, as do other modern writers on Utilitarianism noting as Mill does that this is a common attack against the Utilitarian principle as ethical conception/system.

COMPARE: PBS documentaries all the time on slavery and the US overcoming slavery as freedom and our view as Americans of the type of place South Africa is.
COMPARE: Prosecuting Attorney arguing that someone is a habitual criminal so latest normal behavior is prime for relapse vs. Defense Attorney pointing at the same evidence as reform and pulling one’s life together as normal from bad upbringing and environment.

Dennett uses three mile island as ex: this caused good nuclear standards to follow, so we could say as a utilitarian that the catastrophe was just as good as people simply coming up with the standards without the disaster.
Consider that we love villains who go from good to bad and heroes who go from bad to good. We can very easily see bad as good and good as bad.

The attack on Utilitarianism says that it is prone to confusing bad with good especially compared to systems of principles or rights that are given, not based on their consequences

Marx attacks Utilitarianism with a common argument today: guess who are the ones to tell you what is useful or makes us happy? Yes: the upper class, who use the lower class as labor. Obviously, it is the task master or overseer and not the worker who gets to say who is useful in their place and how happy the system is overall.
Mill in fact approves of war to advance civilization, and he approves of colonialism as improving the uncivilized. Marx and us could criticize him for this short sightedness.

HOWEVER, Mill was a champion against the enslavement of Black people and the second class status of women. He was an early champion of both, so this is mixed.
He writes, in 1850 on ‘The Negro Question’ words I love:

“It is curious, withal, that the earliest known civilization was, we have the strongest reason to believe, a negro civilization. The original Egyptians are inferred, from the evidence of their sculptures, to have been a negro race: it was from negroes, therefore, that the Greeks learnt their first lessons in civilization; and to the records and traditions of these negroes did the Greek Philosophers to the very end of their career resort (I do not say with much fruit) as a treasury of mysterious wisdom.”


Defense against anti-environment challenge:

Many could say that ‘use’ and ‘happy’ can easily lead to how we abuse the environment. More relevant today, Mill loved deep forests and argued that wilderness was necessary in the long view of use and happiness. We will read on wilderness for environmental week. This poses us an interesting question: when utilitarianism asks us to take the long view, how long a view can we take? If we pollute the earth and ignore it for hundreds of years, our long view can still be too short.