In giving an account of utilitarianism, J.S. Mill seeks to identity what type of proof is sufficient to accept the utilitarian principle that happiness is our only desirable end. The proof Mill offers is particular to first principles and suffers from several weaknesses. I shall first outline Mill’s proof, in two parts, of the utilitarian principle. From there I shall introduce G.E. Moore’s criticisms that Mill commits the naturalistic fallacy and conflates means with ends . Following this I will explicate Henry Sidgwick’s attack of the notion that individual pursuits of happiness amount to any exhortation to pursue the general happiness, along with a general argument against psychological hedonism. Though partial defenses exist against each criticism, overall they lack sufficient force to negate Sidgwick and Moore’s concerns.
Proof for First Principles
Describing the first principle upon which utilitarianism stands, Mill writes that “happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end.”1 According to him such first principles, those that undergird our knowledge, require a particular type of proof and utilitarianism’s is no different. Mill’s proof of utilitarianism, then, is twofold: first, that we can know what is in itself desirable, and second that all that we desire is happiness, with all other seeming ends being but means to achieving the general happiness. It is a quick move, and admits more of analysis than exposition. The first aspect of Mill’s proof centers on an appeal to analogy of apprehending phenomena with our senses.
Beleaguered by criticisms that Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism debases human nature by setting mere pleasure as man’s greatest good, J.S. Mill proposes a qualitative distinction between higher and lower pleasures. However, Mill’s proposed change opens utilitarianism up to criticisms not present in Bentham’s formulation, and on these grounds ought to be rejected in favor of the original formulation (whatever its worth). I’ll begin by introducing the impetus for Mill’s proposed changes to utilitarianism and his panel-based test for higher versus lower pleasures. From there I’ll discuss key objections from Henry Sidgwick and G.E. Moore, who each argue that the nature of pleasure does not allow for nonquantitative distinctions unless they refer to some other property. Following these concerns, I’d like to introduce two additional problems for Mill’s proposal, viz. that his test for competing pleasures is plagued by ‘jury-stacking’ and that his proposed lexical scale for pleasure does not apply equally to pain.
J.S. Mill: Quality over Quantity
In setting pleasure1 as man’s highest aspiration, Bentham’s formulation of utilitarianism has been accused of debasing humans to the level of beasts. Bentham and Mill roundly reject this notion, arguing instead that the pleasures that sate beasts are not capable of sating man due to his higher faculties. Furthermore, such a view is not at all inconsistent with utilitarianism.2 Such anthropocentric pleasures, by Mill’s account, have previously been ascribed greater value due to the ease and safety with which we can promote and maintain them as opposed to physical pleasures.3
Mill argues further that an equally consistent, and more preferable, claim can be made by utilitarians, viz. “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 pleasure should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.”4 Mill states that the only possible method to test which desires are higher and which lower is a panel-based evaluation by competent judges.
So experience itself, no less clearly than reason, teaches that men believe themselves free because they are conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.
-Baruch Spinoza, The Ethics
Along with (a) a fundamental moral conviction that I ought to sacrifice my own happiness, if by so doing I can increase the happiness of others to a greater extent than I diminish my own, I find also (b) a conviction – which it would be paradoxical to call ‘moral,’ but which is none the less fundamental – that it would be irrational to sacrifice any portion of my own happiness unless the sacrifice is to be somehow at some time compensated by an equivalent addition to my own happiness. I find these fundamental convictions in my own thought with as much clearness and certainty as the process of introspective reflection can give: I find also a preponderant assent to them – at least implicit – in the common sense of mankind: and I find, on the whole, confirmation of my view in the history of ethical thought in England.
-Henry Sidgwick, “Some Fundamental Ethical Controversies” in Mind, 1889.
I’ve unfortunately had to abstain from blogging for almost two months now, for what [I think] are some very good reasons. Not only did I recently relocate, I did so in order to pursue my MA in philosophy at the University of Houston. Between settling into the area and acclimating myself to the schedule of being a student again I have had little time for updates, but hopefully now they will be more frequent. Also, I know a promised a new layout and in the next month or two I will be working with a local web designer to update the site!
Looks like I have missed a bit of a shakeup with regard to the Philosophers’ Carnival. As readers know, I have hosted two Carnivals in the past, with the last in January of 2012. Apparently a mistake on the part of a recent host resulted in a very low-quality Carnival that failed to feature some legitimate submissions, and instead highlighted some very bad posts. As a result of this, it seems Brian Leiter has ceased publicizing the Carnival. Perusing Leiter Reports did not turn up a concrete post indicating this, but I did notice the last Carnival Leiter officially linked to was the April 2nd Carnival hosted by David himself.
Richard Yettier Chappell has handed the reins over to Tristan Haze at Sprachlogik, who will now be in charge of coordinating the hosting of the Carnival. You can find Tristan’s post explaining the switch here which is where I gleaned most of this information. While Tristan notes that the reason Leiter stopped linking was a decline in quality, I am a bit puzzled by this given the strength of Carnivals #140, 141, and 142. With regard to the controversy, it does seem like an honest but unfortunate mistake on the part of the host, and he has left up the post to take ownership of it which I respect. If anything, this indicates that the Carnival may be in need of a better vetting procedure for future hosts in order to insure that the host can handle the volume of submissions, adequately judge what is spam or has no business being posted, but also who have enough time in the blogosphere to know where to look for quality posts if the submissions run a little dry.
I am glad to see the Carnival continuing, and Tristan makes some good points about its scope and future. I will toss in my two cents and say I think all members of the philosophy blogging community need to embrace and popularize the Carnival more than they have in the past if they expect it to garner a strong reputation for rigor. For my part, I will be linking to each Carnival when it goes up, and will continue to submit posts and host when possible. To that end…
Tristan Haze pointed out that he has started an updated blogroll of active philosophy blogs, which can be found here. Thanks again, Tristan, for all of your hard work on the carnival already!
Ephemeris, the online undergraduate journal through Union College, has issued a Call For Papers for the upcoming 2013 edition. The submission deadline is February 11th, 2013. If you or your students are interested, see the site for details about submission protocol and also to check out the 2012 accepted works.
Also, for those interested in getting regular updates in various areas of philosophy, you should consider joining the e-mail list PHILOSOP. As a note, I have no professional affiliation with PHILOSOP, but it’s a great resource for keeping up to date with different CFPs, conferences, and interviews.
Even casual readers of my blog will have picked up on my skepticism of religion. To be sure, I have not arrived at my atheism lightly; I was raised in a Christian household and for much of my childhood my father was a Presbyterian pastor. I grew up sitting in the pews, those of my father’s church and others. I made the decision to stop going to church and strike out on my own spiritual path around the age of 15, much to the dismay of some members of my family. Though they have always been supportive of who I am and [moderately] respectful of my decision to leave the church, I often entertain criticism for my atheism. But I have the great fortune of having a loving and supportive family, and despite our differing beliefs they have never made me feel like an outcast or, perhaps more appropriately, a goat among sheep. For this and other reasons, whenever I visit family and am invited to church I make an effort to attend. I do so out of love for my family, and am respectful regarding my differing convictions. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write about them here…
This past Sunday I sat in on a Bible study and morning service at a Presbyterian church in the tip of the Bible Belt. I found the sermon to be interesting, but only because it was so typically problematic for Christian authority and ideology. I’d like to first present the pastor’s main point from the Christian perspective and then discuss the unaddressed issues in the passages and doctrines he underscored during the service.
The primary scripture reading for the sermon was Luke 11:37-54, wherein Jesus responds to the Pharisees and Lawyers who invite him to dine at their table. Refusing to partake in outward purifications, Jesus casts “woes” upon the Pharisees first and the Lawyers second. I won’t discuss the scripture passage in detail, as you can read it yourself in the link above. However, the pastor wanted to highlight the message in this passage that too often Christians neglect inner spiritual purity and believe that outward actions and ablutions make up for or hide inner sins. This is certainly an aspect of the passage. But I believe the larger, and more problematic aspects of this passage deal with problems of authority, sin, and punishment.
The pastor opened his sermon by saying that this passage troubled him greatly, and made him very nervous. While he did not say so, I assumed he was referring to the harsher judgement God will pass on leaders of the faith due to their elevated status in the Christian community as religious authorities (James 1:3). But he did not mention this passage. Nor did he mention the issue of authority presented in Luke. Which issue? Oh, just that the Pharisees pollute believers without their knowledge, and the Lawyers hamper believers in achieving salvation, all without their knowledge:
In chastising the Pharisees in Luke 11:44, Jesus says “Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.” At the time, the pastor said, Jews considered contact with the dead and with graves to be a polluting influence, and one that required cleansing to be seen as pure in the eyes of the Lord. By comparing the Pharisees to these unmarked graves, Jesus is apparently saying that the Pharisees are corrupting and misleading true believers.
As for the Lawyers, scholars of the Jewish laws, Jesus says in Luke 11:52 “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” Not only does Jesus rebuke the lawyers earlier in the passage for adding to the (presumably spiritual) burdens of the people and taking none for themselves, but in this passage he underscores how the actions of the lawyers have a very real and hindering effect on the spiritual progression of believers.
But the pastor did not mention James 1:3. He did not harken back to the Protestant roots of the Presbyterian tradition and encourage the congregation to question spiritual authority, to drink deep the words in the Bible over the words from the pulpit. Rather, he simply counseled that God requires us to tithe from our heart and soul, not just from our coffers. Further, feft unaddressed and lurking is the inherent tension in Presbyterianism between God’s utter sovereignty (affirmed in the service’s prayer), the influence of spiritual leaders, and the damning weight of sin. Growing up in a Presbyterian household, I often heard Romans 9:14-23 paraphrased:
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…
God’s sovereignty is such that he can at once harden Pharaoh’s heart and then put to death the first born of every Egyptian family as punishment for Pharaoh’s actions. He can close the eyes of some and cast them into eternal damnation, while opening the eyes of others at his whim. And the those stewards of his inerrant word, the modern day Pharisees and Lawyers, can mislead those in the pews without their knowledge either knowingly or unknowingly.
So how shall we be damned? By God’s will, or by the error of those in authority? The former is simply the latter one step removed. I think it a piteous consolation prize that false teachers would be judged more harshly than others; for what harsher judgement exists than to be damned to eternal punishment without trial, to be held accountable for that which is inescapable? John M. Frame defines apologetics, the defense of the Christian faith, as giving “reason for our hope.” But what hope do those who are not in God’s favor have?
Guest Post: Mattheus von Guttenberg on an Exploration of the Validity and Necessary Content of Transcendental Argumentation
The following guest post is from Mattheus von Guttenberg, who is currently studying history and economics at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida and writes for the blog Economic Thought. Click here to get in touch with Mattheus!
Charles Taylor, in his seminal work Sources of the Self, puts forward an argument on the relationship between identity and moral truth using a variety of methods, but most notably that of the transcendental argument. Taylor, belonging to what might roughly be called a Neo-Aristotelian camp of moral philosophers, argues that we can derive moral truth by virtue of a moral ontology intrinsic to us as perceptive and evaluative subjects. While the transcendental argument Taylor employs does not appear to us readily and clearly, it is nonetheless the entire vertebrae of his argument without which we would have no reason to accept his conclusions. D.P. Baker, of the University of Natal in South Africa, has written cogently on this topic. Because it carries such persuasive potential, I feel a devoted exploration of Taylor’s transcendental argument, as well as Baker’s contribution to the discussion, is in order. It is my opinion that Taylor does not successfully prove his claim on morality as the content of his argument is inappropriate to the form in which he carries it.