Ethics of Europe: Mill
For this lecture, please read chapters 1 & 2 of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 CE) was the founder of Utilitarianism and a champion of progressivism, individual freedom, women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery. 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 economic hold over India. Perhaps this influenced his progressive views on opposing racism and sexism. Mill’s family was friends with the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and Mill’s father had Bentham tutor Mill as a child. It was from Jeremy Bentham whom Mill learned about Epicurus of ancient Greece, who taught that the goal of individual and social life was not law or morality, but happiness.
Bentham called his philosophy consequentialism, the progressive position that morals, laws and principles are merely tools for the obtainment of collective human happiness. However, it was Mill who found the word ‘utilitarian’ in a Christian text that used the term negatively. The more conservative author of the text said that we should not be “merely utilitarian” in our actions, following principles only when they lead to happiness. Mill picked up the name from the text and developed the thinking in line with Bentham, his mentor, becoming Utilitarianism’s founding father and central spokesman. Mill applied this progressive model of thought to logic, mathematics, economics and ethics. In all of these subjects, he advocated rethinking basic principles and assumptions based on the ongoing experiences of their usefulness.
For Mill and Utilitarianism, the true is not true in itself but true because it is useful for creating happiness and avoiding hardship. Any truth, no matter how accepted according to tradition, is to be questioned if it is not bringing about the long term and overall happiness of humanity. Political laws, ethical morals, mathematical rules, and scientific understandings are to be continuously examined and developed such that they are best A) for the greatest number of people, and B) over the longest period of time. It is wise and best to take the social view and the long term view. Apart from this, Mill argues there is no objective truth to things. Rather, the objective of truth is its beneficial use. This is similar to Wittgenstein, who argued in his later work that it is practice in particular situations that determines meaning. If a certain logic or form of mathematics is useful, proving itself a valuable tool that can be put to good work, then this is the only proof that it is solid and sure.
Neo-Confucians of the Song Dynasty debated about whether or not treating others the ways you want to be treated and not treating others the way you don’t want to be treated, two sides of the “Golden Rule” found across human cultures in ethical discussions (as if it is a continuous problem). The difference between Bentham and Mill reflects these positive and negative sides, and also parallels pro-active socialism and laissez-faire capitalism. Bentham argued that we should maximize happiness and do things for others we want done for us, such as collecting taxes from everyone to provide education for everyone, whether or not they can afford it. Mill, who is quite influential in American law and legal theory, argued that we should minimize pain, doing things for others only when they prevent harm, and otherwise leaving individuals free. Consider that in Denmark, which is more socialist in ways than America, there are places funded by taxes that alcoholics can go to get treatment, and places they can go to slowly drink themselves to death, or better yet sheer boredom and recovery, places that many American tax payers and many Danish tax payers would not or don’t want to pay for.
Bertrand Russell, the logical positivist, attacked ‘instrumentalism‘ and the idea that there is no truth to things other than how they are used and for whom they are used. Both Russell and Mill agree that the world has regularities, and that we use our minds to form concepts of these regularities. Utilitarianism was a powerful force in Britain against more traditional thinkers like Russell, who was fighting back against Hegelian process theory and Utilitarian ‘its whatever we want to do with it or make of it’ theory. Russell believes that things are factually as they are, and we should be logical and objective to have true knowledge rather than mere opinion. A Utilitarian would say we can arrange situations, but there is no single truth, purpose or nature of things beyond or beneath the situation. Consider that traditionally, women were considered subservient to men, but if women do not have a “true place”, we can arrange society however it makes the most of us happy, including women.
In the text Logic and Mathematics, Mill asks: If we admit that all is induction (British Empiricism, which Russell embraces) then why do we say there are “exact sciences”? We similarly say that there are ‘hard sciences’, such as math and physics. He argues that this is an illusion due to the fact that objects of math are conceptions and thus imaginary, hence they have perfect straight edges like an ideally straight line. A perfectly straight line, the example he uses, with no width, like a point, cannot exist outside of the imagination. Some, such as Russell, say without perfection of a sort there is no math, science or knowledge possible, but Mill argues this is silly as we have these things yet do not have an instance of a perfectly straight line in the real world. Our concept of a straight line is useful even if it is ideal.
Russell argued that we can strip down or “whittle” to the pure straight edged truth, but Mill argues that this merely helps us to focus our observation and thinking but it does nothing to guarantee that our knowledge is certain at all. We can ignore aspects of a thing to focus on particular aspects or parts, but this does not completely take these factors out of the picture, even as far as relevance to the parts that are in focus. This is similar to Heidegger’s concept of distancing, as well as the later work of Wittgenstein. If we take a banana and put it in a lab, are we more or less capable of seeing it as it is? If we create abstractions about bananas with our minds, are these getting into the thing or away from it?
Like Kant, Russell wanted a first principle, the Principle of Non-Contradiction, to be certain. Mill argues that there are no first principles of geometry, mathematics or anything else. Mill argues that the “first principles” are in fact simply generalized observations of real world situations. Mill turns specifically to the two principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle with this skepticism. The Principle of Non-Contradiction, that a logical statement cannot be both true and false at the same time, and the Principle of Bivalence, that a logical statement must be either true or false at a given time, but not both, are articles of faith, first founding principles, of Rationalism and Positivism. Mill argues that these principles are in fact general observations acquired from practice. We can see that belief and disbelief oppose one another, that they are “oppositional mental states” as Mill says, just as we can see that opposing stories often but not always lead us to see that someone is mistaken or lying. Mill argues that the two principles are merely useful generalizations, as are all concepts used by human beings whether scientists, philosophers or common folk.
Critics of Mill and Utilitarianism have pointed out an interesting problem that we can call the Paradox of the Bad Example. Mill addresses this paradox, as do many modern Utilitarians. Consider that everything bad that happens can serve as a great example of what not to do, and thus is good as a learning experience. While this does not seem problematic in itself, it could lead an individual, institution or culture to do bad on purpose in order to learn from it. The Post-Positivist Analytic philosopher Daniel Dennett uses Three Mile Island as an example. After the nuclear reactor there exploded, it led to much better nuclear standards and restrictions. This might lead someone to conclude that causing harm can be beneficial and affordable if more good than the initial harm is the result.
Consider animal testing, as well as the infamous Tuskegee Study. In 1932, the US Public Health Service began studying the effects of untreated syphilis in black men who believed they were receiving treatment but were in fact guinea pigs, a study which lasted forty years until 1972 when its existence was leaked to the press. Consider Nazi scientists, the most infamous being Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death from Auschwitz, who, in part inspired by American Eugenicists, did experiments on Jews, including Jewish children. Mill and Utilitarians would of course reply that such experiments do more harm than good if we take the long and social view, as it would create a culture in which human life has little value or respect.
Mill completely agrees with Kant in so far as 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.
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. 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.
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. 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 could still be too short for comfort. Here is a chart someone made of how long it could take for things to recover.
Kant says we should never lie. Should we lie, and when, according to Mill? Daoists, much like Robin Hood, would not hesitate to lie for the promotion of the public good rather than themselves, which they don’t make public. Primatologists say that there are many examples of apes, our closest animal ancestor, hiding fruit behind their backs from others, or engaging in deceitful behavior, although there is still much debate about how much this is intentional, and by design, or instinctive, but the same can be said of human behavior, as studies do show that humanity lies and deceives across cultures much to the same extent. In one story, a baboon turned to baboons chasing him and gave the call for leopard, and then watched as the others ran off, clearly not believing there was a leopard.
We practice lying to children, who cannot tell the difference between fiction and reality before three or four, which is why they wonder where Thomas the Train Engine lives in real life. The Inuit are never angry with children, but they believe in lying mercilessly to children between two and four, as the children first learn language, telling them terrifying myths that they do not believe as adults to quickly adapt children to present dangers in their environment, and the children do not grow to resent the adults who tormented them in these ways, rather continuing to do the same to the younger generation, with practices remarkably consistent across Inuit tribes that haven’t had contact in many generations, perhaps centuries.
There are two stories about lying to children instrumentally, for the public good, that I often tell. One of my students wrote that as a young girl she had a pet goldfish and accidentally killed the fish by cleaning its bowl with hand soap. When she saw her fish was dead her mother, who did not want to torture the young girl with the truth, told her that the cat had walked by and the fish had a heart attack. Notice the utilitarianism here, and that Kant, much like the goldfish, would be mortified. Secondly, there was a news story about a boy in Thailand who was stuck on the roof of a tall building, and he would not climb into the arms of the firefighters who climbed a ladder to rescue him, so one of them dressed up in a Spider-Man costume, and the boy threw open his arms and leaped into the waiting embrace of Spider-Man, who carried him down to safety.
Children believe in superheroes and villains. One would like to think that the use of heroes and myths ends with childhood, but the literature on propaganda tells us that all civilizations make myths that glorify themselves and demonize their enemies, both internal and external, when they grow into adults. Because children are raised with these myths, they often do not think to question them even when they are quite past the age of seven. Consider the use of superheroes in comics, fighting criminals at home and enemies of America. Consider that in the first appearance of Iron Man, it was originally set in a POW camp in Korea and included depictions of Koreans that would raise eyebrows today as racist caricatures, and then the more recent movie puts Iron Man in the middle east.
The Assyrians were masters of propaganda, and they were one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. Most of their conquest was through trade, though they invented all of the siege weapons used through the European middle ages. Rock edicts, tall carvings in cliffs and on monuments, declared glorious meanings for the common people to consume. Interestingly, the common people could not read, and someone who could read and pass the messages to others was called “one who makes the stones speak”. Just like a modern textbook, the human authors are lost and the media simply speaks for itself.
The old propaganda model is simple, and it is still in use particularly by traditional and communist countries: We are the king and state, we tell you what you need to know, namely that we look after you and our enemies are evil. WE are the great multicultural empire that looks after everyone (Assyrian did not denote a race, but a citizen of the empire), but our enemies will oppress you and kill you for no good reason. Very little has changed over several thousand years. In China today, the communist government says openly that they use propaganda to educate the people, and the same was admitted in the United States and Britain until just this last century. The government tells you “brush your teeth, it is good for you” and this is acknowledged as a message coming from authorities telling you what you should know and do.
The new propaganda, according to some experts, is even more effective, and strangely it does not call itself propaganda at all. “Propaganda” only recently became something evil, something that the enemy does. Rather than officially announce itself as part of the state, the new style of propaganda, taught to the Americans by the British in the course of WWI, appeals to experts rather than the state. In WWI, propaganda became something the Germans do, not the Belgians, British or Americans. In WWII, the Germans and Japanese do propaganda, and in the Cold War, the Russians. The British and Americans, however, would never do ‘propaganda’ by name, as they are the champions of liberty, democracy and freedom from tyranny (even as Britain and then America plundered and sought empire in the same way that the Germans, Russians and others did). Today, this is ‘Islam and the West’ where we have unbiased journalism while they simply put forward obvious propaganda. Watch the documentary Control Room for for more.
During WWI, The Germans invaded Belgium, and the British make up all sorts of things. The Germans become the evil Hun, and the Belgians the poor victim, even though they had just gotten bad world press along with their leader, King Leopold, by systematically killing 10 million Africans in the Congo. The British run propaganda in America to get us into the war, and teach us the techniques of British style empire and propaganda. You set up ‘free’ reporters to say your messages, rather than do the old way like Germany and Russia with a Ministry of Propaganda. Thus, after the horrors of WWI, ‘propaganda’ became a bad word in Britain and America. Since then, we do not do propaganda at all. We do ‘education’, ‘information’, ‘public relations’, ‘human relations’, and in time of war we may engage in psychological warfare, but we never do ‘propaganda’.
Chomsky says that Bernays was one of the first propaganda specialists in America and he is quite open about praising the use of propaganda. Bernays says, during WWI, that it is remarkable that the moment America propaganda explodes (advertising, PR), becomes a necessary tool of corporations, it becomes ‘evil’ in name. PR went from being Barnum and Bailey to every corporation running spin and ad campaigns. Bernays invented the committee of Doctors who tell you to eat eggs and bacon for a ‘hearty’ breakfast, saying old way is ‘Eat Bacon!’, new way: ‘Dr.s say, ‘Eat bacon’’. This is ‘free expert’ style of propaganda.
In 1938, writing his book, Bernays says that half the front page of the New York Times, America’s most prominent and widely distributed newspaper, is identifiably propaganda, stories planted by interested parties. He says the NAACP is a great PR group, and show a strong hand holding their annual conference in Atlanta. He got out of cigarette ads in the 40’s, tabloids having picked up on the health risks. It wasn’t till the 1970s that major media carried the story at all. 1953 Bernays helped United Fruit convince everyone that Guatemala was a communist threat, so the US overthrew the elected leader with a CIA coup and we supported dictatorship there for cheap labor to supply Americans with cheaper fruit.
In his autobiographical book Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that in WWI the Germans were not as good at propaganda as the British and Americans, but next time will be different. Nazi TV, engineering goes to American, America rises above Britain in wake of WWII. During WWII, the Americans and British praised Stalin and his Red Army as they all fought the Nazis. Then, as soon as the war was over, the British led the Americans in the Cold War anti-communism campaign. The book The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Saunders argues that after WWII, the French and Russians had largely convinced everyone that America has no culture, only cheap commercialism, and America talks a lot about Freedom, but treat black people terribly. Both the US and Soviets started ‘Congresses’, (Soviets for World Peace, US for Cultural Freedom) to convey their messages.
It is now know that these were the two big umbrella groups for a lot of fronts for propaganda campaigns. These groups used historians, scientists, poets, artists, philosophers, professors, you name it, to give the impression that individuals were lining up against ‘the evil’ of the other. The US wanted to fight the ‘French Flu’ and push European intellectuals away from Marxism as liberation towards free market capitalism as liberation. US used CIA and many fronts to tour black performers through Europe, increase publication of certain books, and promote the “non-communist left”. The US had spent $34 million on this by 1950. The money quadrupled in rate of expense after 1950, as China became the world’s largest communist country. The CIA set up French literature reviews, toured the Boston symphony orchestra, approached wealthy individuals about setting up art collections that praise US art and European art that honors the US.
The abstract minimal paintings of Jackson Pollock and others, in spite of the fact that Pollock and others were left-wing communists, toured through Europe to show that American has genius painters after all. Agent as director stockpiled abstract minimalist art at the NY Moma (Contemporary Chinese art exhibit in Berkeley today). The Ford and Rockefeller foundations remain serious fronts for money dispensed in America to artists, writers and performers who do work that promotes America even as it is art.
At home, Billy Graham got money knowingly from intelligence, toured America telling Christians that ‘Communism is masterminded by Satan’, never mind that the first communes were French Christian communes. John Wayne and Ronald Reagan were promoted as Soldier/Cowboys, both spied for the FBI against communism at home for the house of unAmerican activities committee of McCarthy. Disney and Warner brothers made cartoons for the US in WWII, then denounced their writers and animators as communists when they went on strike. Disney spied for the FBI, testified for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), while he was doing illegal things to his workers like sending strike breakers to beat people up and the FBI looked the other way.
In films, token black people began appearing well before the civil rights movement. Documents of agents who worked with studios on scripts say, ‘took out a drunk, added a black person’. One of the best examples is a black golfer and caddy added into the background of a scene on a golf course, at a time when white Catholics and Jews had a rough time getting into golf clubs. Consider that the civil rights movement was partly started by seeing token black people in the cinema, like the golfer and caddy, and wondering aloud why this could not become a real lived reality. Both US and Soviets fought over who liberates and who oppresses. In 1956, the ‘Melting Pot’ became a slogan for the US. We can see that many Russian films and Korean propaganda posters deplore the evils that America has done to black people as a simple tactic.
Today, if your movie has anything to do with police or military, they will give you heavy support as long as they go over the script and OK it. The six major media companies each need a friendly relationship with both cops and military to continue to put out films that feature cops and the military while staying under budget. That means: America is well aware of the streamlined view of America put out all over the world in TV and Movies. They are the BEST form of propaganda. There are consulting firms who specialize in getting your script ready for police and military approval, so that you do not get charged extra by the official government representatives who review the scripts for a fee. Meanwhile, stories pepper the news about how “Iran censors movies” and “China might be censoring the internet”. No further detail is drawn.
There is no better book on American propaganda and the stories both promoted and ignored by the American media. The book argues that the mass-media protects the interest of the wealthy and powerful individuals and institutions in America by promoting particular views and filtering out others. This process involves the ownership of media groups, the reliance of media on the government for information and support, the reliance of media on advertising revenue, flak heaped upon dissident views (particularly socialist views and those critical of business interests).