Ethics 11 – European Ethics: Mill

For this lecture, please read chapters 1 & 2 of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism.

MillJohn 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.

Jeremy BenthamBentham called his philosophy consequentialismthe 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.

Happy kid in riverFor 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.

russellBertrand 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.

Blue and red converging linesIn 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.


boy whittlingRussell 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?

MillLike 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.

daniel dennettCritics 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.

Tuskeegee studyConsider 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.

Kant Königsberg Monument StatueMill 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.

two sides of the same coinWe can see two sides to Utilitarianism, 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.

beach litter polutionMany 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 could still be too short for comfort.

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