Ethics 2 – Consequence: Bentham & Mill

MillThe last class focused on the beginning and cause of an action rather than the end and consequence.  Today, we focus on the opposite position, that of John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism.  Mill opposed Kant, and argued that morals and laws are merely tools we use to make ourselves and others happy.  Mill says that if we take the long term view and the social view, trying to produce as much happiness and prevent as much suffering as possible, we can change and break the rules however we like.  Like Robin Hood, Mill believes we should be ethical rather than merely moral, seeking genuine lasting happiness rather than merely following the law.

53c7f-kantforpipesmokingBoth Kant and Mill agree that our desire to be ethical is unquestionably good in itself and that ethics must be securely grounded, but for Kant this means obedience to duty, while for Mill it means striving for happiness.  For Kant, if you start with good morals, you are being ethical regardless of the consequences.  For Mill, if you aim for good ends, you are being ethical regardless of following the rules.  While Kant appreciates happiness, and Mill appreciates morals, Kant puts morals above happiness and Mill puts happiness above morals.  Kant says: Always follow principle, and you will hopefully be happy.  Mill says: Always follow happiness, for others as well as yourself, and you will hopefully be principled.  Both positions have strengths and weaknesses.  Kant would not waver in the face of temptation, but Mill would change when the rules are wrong.  Kant gives us a fixed understanding, while Mill gives us adaptable reasoning.  Kant is better if we want to divide the good from the bad, but Mill is better if we want to see the good in the bad and the bad in the good.

Robin HoodDo the ends justify the means?  Sometimes yes, and sometimes no.  We can and should balance both positions to better understand the judgements and choices we make, defending as well as adapting to maintain and improve our lives.  In Mill’s Utilitarianism, he argues that we should always look at our actions and ask if the consequences are ethical, producing the most happiness and preventing the most suffering for the most people.  Mill specifically says that Kant is wrong about principles and mentions Aristotle’s virtue ethics as well, claiming that these two conceptions ignore how we use principle and virtue as tools for happiness and reduction of harm by taking each as a good in itself out of context.  For Mill, there are no absolute morals or virtues that are good in all circumstances.  Rather, we must determine whether or not we are doing good by consistently weighing the consequences and results of our actions.

Mill said that if you call it Utilitarianism, people think it is dry and boring, but if you call it Principle of Happiness or the Pleasure Principle, people think it is hedonistic and decadent, and this is why people called Epicurus of ancient Greece a hedonist.  Mill gives us a brief history of consequentialism, which begins with Epicurus.

Epicurus Epicurus (340-270 BCE) was the founder of Epicureanism in ancient Athens.  The word ‘epicurean’ is often used today to mean gourmet or enjoying the finer things in life, often food and drink, such as fine chocolates and wine (hence the recipe website,, but this is only a partial grasp of the ancient school of thought.  Along with Platonism and Stoicism, Epicureanism was one of the more popular philosophies of late ancient Greek and Roman times.  Only fragments of Epicurus’ works survive, quotations in the works of other ancient authors.  After traveling and teaching for some years, Epicurus returned to Athens to found a school in his private garden.  Known as ‘The Garden’, it was said to have been situated between the Academy of Plato and the Stoa of the Stoics.  While women were only admitted into other circles of philosophy as exceptions, Epicurus made his Garden officially open to women and slaves.

Tea GardenOn the gate of the Garden was an inscription, “Stranger, you would do good to stay awhile, for here the highest good is pleasure”.  Epicurus taught that good and evil are pleasure and pain, a doctrine for which he and his school were attacked by many others, labeling them as glutinous hedonists.  Many scholars argue that early Christians of ancient Greece and Rome were opposed to what they saw as the hedonism of the Epicureans, and as Christianity rose in popularity in ancient Syria, Greece and Rome, the popular schools of Cynicism and Epicureanism gradually gave way to Platonism and later Aristotelianism, schools of thought which taught that one should pursue the good and fulfill one’s purpose regardless of pleasure or happiness.  Mill argues that the Christians misunderstood the Epicureans.

confucius right sideEpicurus argued that the best way to make oneself happy is to make others happy, and so we should practice reciprocity.  Confucius of ancient China and Jesus both expressed reciprocity as doing for others as you would have them do for you, and not doing to others what you would not have them do to you.  Epicurus argued that it is impossible to live pleasantly without living wisely, and it is impossible to live wisely without living pleasantly.  Living wisely for Epicurus centrally involved friendship and working for the greater good.  Sometimes, Epicurus argued, we do suffer pain willingly, and this is for the purposes of greater pleasure.  For example, when one sacrifices and suffers for one’s friends or family, this is because one gets greater pleasure out of one’s friends and family over the long term than one gets out of what is sacrificed.  At other times, we pursue pleasure without thinking of the pain that we will suffer later, but this will prevent us from being tranquil and at peace, which will prevent us from being happy over the long term.

LucretiusEpicureanism became one of the most popular schools of thought of ancient Rome, rivaled primarily by Stoicism but also by Skepticism, Cynicism and Platonism.  Lucretius (99 – 55 BCE) was a Roman poet who wrote the philosophical poem On the Nature of Things, a central source for Epicureanism.  Other famous Epicurean Roman poets include Virgil, Dante’s guide through the circles of Hell, and Horace, famous for his Carpe diem, or “Seize the day” (what some now unfortunately call ‘YOLO’ on the internet).  While Epicureanism largely died out with the conversion of Rome to Christianity by Constantine and the fall of the Roman Empire, it was known in Islamic lands through the work of Lucretius and other philosophers.

Omar Khayyam

Omar Khayyam (1048 – 1131 CE), the Persian philosopher, poet and mathematician, discovered Epicureanism through Lucretius, who became a great influence on his own poetry.  Born in what is today Iran, Khayyam was a follower of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), arguably the greatest philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age, whose philosophical and medical works significantly influenced Medieval Europe, evident in his name being Latinized.  Khayyam is seen by some Islamic and European scholars as an agnostic hedonist, who wrote poems of sharing wine with friends (in spite of this being prohibited by Islam) and wondering who knows what for sure.  Others see him as a Sufi mystic, who found the rapture of the divine in the simple beauty of experience.

Thomas Jefferson

JohnLockeIn Europe, Epicureanism was rediscovered in Renaissance times and revived in the 1700s with the rise of scholarship and science in Europe.  Epicurus had an influence on both John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.  John Locke argued that people should have the political right to life, liberty, and property, and his political philosophy had a significant influence on the American Founding Fathers.  Jefferson, who considered himself an Epicurean, gave Locke’s triad a further Epicurean twist, and wrote in the Declaration of Independence that people should have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Jeremy BenthamJeremy Bentham (1750-1830 CE) was the first to come up with Utilitarianism, but Mill gave it the name.  Bentham was a friend of Mill’s family, and Mill’s father encouraged him as a boy to learn from Bentham.  Bentham argued that the goal of ethics is the maximum happiness for the most people, which Mill complemented this with the inverse idea of minimum pain for the most people.  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).  Bentham actually suggested that the state be run according to a felicitous calculus, a mathematical analysis of the degrees of twelve pains and fourteen pleasures that actions cause for the public.  While Mill took much from Bentham, he did not attempt to complete or create a precise calculus of pleasure and pain.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 CE)

MillBorn 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.

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.

Nelson MandelaMill addresses many attacks on Utilitarianism.  One is the interesting problem of the Bad as Good Example.  Everything terrible that happens is good, because it serves as an excellent example of what NOT to do in the future.  We can compare PBS documentaries on slavery and the US overcoming slavery as freedom and our view as Americans of the type of place South Africa is.  Are America and South Africa excellent places because they rose up against oppression, or are they terrible places where oppression likely still exists?  If there is a movement to overcome oppression, this could be celebrated as proof that the problem is over, or it could be viewed with suspicion as proof that the problem remains.  We can compare this to the typical prosecuting attorney arguing that a criminal past is evidence of a repeat offender, and the typical defense attorney pointing at the same criminal past as evidence of reform and pulling one’s life together after a bad upbringing and environment.

daniel dennettThe American philosopher Daniel Dennett uses Three Mile Island as an example of the good in the bad.  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 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.

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.

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.

Karl MarxKarl Marx, who was much into progressive change in society, attacked Utilitarianism in a different way.  He asked: Who are the ones who tell us what is useful or makes us happy as a society?  It would be the rich and powerful, 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 did approve of war to advance civilization, and he approved of colonialism for improving the lives of the “uncivilized”.  Marx could criticize him for this short sightedness.  However, much as Epicurus made his garden and school open to slaves and women, Mill was a champion against the enslavement of Black people and the second class status of women, an early champion of both.  He writes in The Negro Question of 1850:

egyptian wall birdsIt 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.

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