General remarks
We are concerned
in this text with John Stuart Mill's attempt to provide a
foundation for ethics, that he called himself "utilitarianism".
Since this first
chapter is concerned with some generalities, it may be as well if I
start my notes with an attempt to clarify the meaning of the term
"utilitarianism" somewhat, and to indicate some later precisifications
The reason to do
this at the start of my notes is mainly that the term "utilitarianism"
is not very common, while those who have heard it may have heard it
used in a sense that was later given to it, and that may not accord
with all or most uses of the term by Mill.
My text for this
note is mostly the article "Utilitarianism" in the Encyclopedia
of Philosophy, Ed. P. Edwards. The article is by J.J.C. Smart,
himself the writer of a book on utilitarian ethics.
First then, what
is our subject? Smart defines it thus:
can most generally be described as the doctrine which
states that the rightness or wrongness of actions is determined by the
goodness or badness of their consequences."
Here I am not
concerned with the question what this may mean, precisely, nor whether
it is a useful concept, term or definition. This will concern me later,
when dealing with Mill's text.
difficulty should be registered immediately, since it also will be a
difficulty I have with Mill's text. It is this: It is not laid down who
does this determining, nor what manner of criterions, or whose
interests, he may, or may not, use or appeal to.
Supposing for the
moment that the term "Utilitarianism" is sufficiently clarified, we
turn to a series of distinctions. I quote Smart again, and refer for
more details to his article:
Act and rule
utilitarianism. The first important division is between "act"
utilitarianism and "rule" utilitarianism. If, in the above definition,
we understand "actions" to mean "particular actions" then we are
dealing with the form of utilitarianism called act utilitarianism,
according to which we assess the rightness or wrongness of each
individual action by its consequences. If, on the other hand, we
understand "actions" in the above definition to mean "sort of actions,"
then we got some sort of rule utilitarianism. The rule utilitarian does
not consider the consequences of each particular action but considers
the consequences of some general rule, such as "Keep promises.""
Smart also tells
"Since, in this
context, the word "rule" can be interpreted in two ways, either to mean
"possible rule" or "rule actually operating in society," there actually
are two species of rule utilitarianism. If we interpret "rule" simply
as "possible rule," we get an ethical doctrine strongly resembling that
Kant's moral rule
shall be discussed in a later note. With
regards to the present distinction between kinds of utilitarianism,
"When we think
of the writers with whom the term "utilitarianism" is most naturally
associated, namely, Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, and Henry Sidgwick, we
must think of utilitarianism primarily as act utilitarianism."
This may please
the reader, but there is another distinction:
and universalistic utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism, unlike rule
utilitarianism, lends itself to being interpreted either in an egoistic
or in a nonegoistic way. Are the good consequences which must be
considered by an agent the consequences to the agent himself (his own
happiness, for example), or are they the consequences to all mankind or
even to all sentient beings? If we adopt the former alternative, we get
egoistic utilitarianism; and if we adopt the latter
alternative, we get universalistic utilitarianism. "
This will be part
of one of our problems with Mill's utilitarianism later on. And indeed,
Smart tells us
"Since what is
best for me is unlikely to be what is best for everyone, it is clear
that there is not only a theoretical but a practical incompatability
between egoistic and universalistic utilitarianism. This was not always
seen by the early utilitarians, who sometimes seem to have confused the
We are not yet
done with distinctions:
and ideal utilitarianism. Another distinction, which cuts across
that between act and rule utilitarianism, is the distinction between
hedonistic and ideal utilitarianism. (..)
A hedonistic utilitarian will hold that the goodness or badness of a
consequence depends only on its pleasantness or unpleasantness. As
Bentham put it, quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as
poetry. An ideal utilitarian, such as G.E. Moore, will hold that the
goodness or badness of a state of consciousness can depend on things
other than its pleasantness."
Here the reader
may be glad to know that Smart assures us that
"J.S. Mill took
up an intermediate position. He held that although pleasantness was a
necessary condition for goodness, the intrinsic goodness of a state of
mind could depend on things other than its pleasantness, or, as he put
it, there are lower and higher pleasures."
As Smart tells us
here, the reader should realize that this "intrinsic goodness" involves
some possibly none to clear verbal usage:
"It should be
noted that we have assumed that the only things that can be
intrinsically good or bad are states of consciousness. Other things can
of course be extrinsically good or bad. For example, an earthquake is
normally extrinsically bad, that is, it causes a state of affairs that
is on the whole intrinsically bad."
I leave this here
for the more intrinsic delectations of the reader, and turn to Smart's
and descriptive utilitarianism. Utilitarianism may be put forward
either as a system of normative ethics, that is, as a proposal of how
we ought to think about conduct, or it may be put forward as a
system of descriptive ethics, that is, as an analysis of how we do think
At this point,
the reader may feel that he has read the term "utilitarianism" too many
times, and that it can't be very clear if it needs so many distinctions
I don't say "No",
but it is true that the distinctions Smart has made that I quoted do
correspond to fairly natural and sensible questions, and that not being
aware of some of them has led to problems in discussing utilitarianism.
That was also my
main reason for listing them. To finish this review of part of Smart's
article, here is his placement of Mill's precursor and inspirator
Bentham in terms of the distinctions made, and an elucidation of what
is supposed to be a widespread fallacy in ethics:
speaking, utilitarianism began with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who was
a universalistic hedonistic act utilitarian. He put forward his view
essentially as normative ethics, but he was unclear about the
distinction between normative and factual utterances, and may justly be
accused of what Moore later called the naturalistic fallacy - the
fallacy of claiming to deduce ethical principles solely from matters of
fact. (David Hume had in effect pointed out this fallacy before
Indeed, one way
to describe the naturalistic fallacy in ethics (and without
prejudging either Moore's usage of the term or his explanantion of it)
is that it amounts to the thesis that ethical qualities, such as good,
bad, right and wrong, are qualities of natural things in just the same
sense as are the thing's (other) natural qualities, such as its mass,
size, shape, charge etc.
This is clearly
not so, since different men, or the same men at different times, may
have completely different ideas about the ethical qualities of things,
while being in complete agreement about their non-ethical qualities.
And the brief
reason is that, in the end, the ethical qualities of things, unlike
their non-ethical natural qualities, are in the minds of the men who
attribute these qualities to those things, and are based on their
personal appreciations, values, feelings and reactions to the qualities
of the thing.
attributed ethical qualities are, in the end, if e.g. philosophical
materialism is correct, themselves natural facts, states or relations
in human brains, is not relevant.
What is relevant
is that ethical qualities of things do not reside in the things to
which they are attributed, but in the minds of the persons who
attribute these qualities.
And this seems
correct, and makes for many problems concerning ethical judgements, and
especially concerning their validity, since this invites at least the
possibility that disagreements about the taste of spinach, which I like
and he detests, may be no more or less subjective, local, and
accidental than our disagreements about cruelty to children, which I
detest and he is fond of, and which he defends, if he deigns to speak
of it at all, by a proud and sneering "de gustibus non disputandum".
In short, ethical
judgments may be mere judgments of taste, without any other validity or
foundation than that someone happens to have that taste, and without
the least foundation in any other objective and testable matter of
fact, and hence also without any possible rational criticism, other
than that one's own tastes happen to be different.
To conclude this
long note with a reference:
There is a fairly
thorough treatment of many of the issues that relate to the present
discussion in my review of P. Edwards' On "The Logic of
Moral Discourse", where my own views are best rendered by my
additional Chapter 11. Back.
THERE ARE few circumstances among those
which make up the present condition of human knowledge, more unlike
what might have been expected, or more significant of the backward
state in which speculation on the most important subjects still
lingers, than the little progress which has been made in the decision
of the controversy respecting the criterion of right and wrong. From
the dawn of philosophy, the question concerning the summum bonum,
or, what is the same thing, concerning the foundation of morality, has
been accounted the main problem in speculative thought, has occupied
the most gifted intellects (..)
One has to start
somewhere, and since it is Mill's intention to provide what is
effectively a new foundation of ethics, which is a subject that Mill
himself might have defined as the science of right and wrong, his
starting statement is somewhat understandable.
Even so, I think
it is mainly misleading. Here are a few of my reasons.
First, as to "the backward state in which speculation on the most
important subjects still lingers". In fact, most positions on
morals and ethics had been known since Antiquity, where already some
fundamental differences between parties in these subjects had clearly
emerged: Some derive their notions of good and bad from religion, and
therefore, in the end, from their ideas about the nature and desires of
the divinity or divinities; others derive their notions of good and bad
from assumptions about human nature
or human society;
and yet others insist that there is no ultimate foundation of morals and ethics, and in the end all
is relative, subjective, temporal or a matter of convention,
possibly with some help from legalistic considerations.
also had been some progress since Antiquity, notably in the finding
that the Golden
Rule was an ethical or moral principle that all major religions
and men of all races had arrived at independently, in some form or
other, while Roman law had shown itself in Europe to be a
convenient and rather realistic foundation for outlining legalistic
approaches to rights, duties, and moral behavior.
Third, in as much
as there have been, since many centuries, and there still are, many
differences between men concerning religion, society, and human nature, it
is not very surprising that the related moral and ethical differences
between men have not been satisfactorily settled either.
this also leads to an important point: It seems at least desirable to
arrive at a moral or ethical system that does not logically depend on
religious hypotheses and that is capable of fairly and rationally
helping men of opposing beliefs to come to morally satisfactory agreements and modes of
This may be
described as the desideratum of a secular ethics: A
coherent set of ideas of what are good and bad ends, and what it is
right and wrong to do, that does not involve nor depend on religious
Fourth, as to "the question concerning the summum bonum, or,
what is the same thing, concerning the foundation of morality, has been
accounted the main problem in speculative thought". This is at
least a little misleading, in that it seems to suggest that there is
a "summum bonum", and also in that
it does not stress or state that in fact one of the concerns of a
system of morals coincides with the main concern of a system of social
laws, namely to keep or make a given society peaceful and safe for
Fifth, this last
point introduces one interesting point in discussions about morals and
moral and legal systems: That somehow the differences between men are
based on differences in beliefs,
perceived interests, and that moral and legal systems at least
in part serve to settle or at least contain such differences in
peaceful ways. Back.
And after more than two thousand years
the same discussions continue, philosophers are still ranged under the
same contending banners, and neither thinkers nor mankind at large seem
nearer to being unanimous on the subject, than when the youth Socrates
listened to the old Protagoras, and asserted (if Plato's dialogue be
grounded on a real conversation) the theory of utilitarianism against
the popular morality of the so-called sophist.
Part of what may
need saying here I said in the previous note,
but it makes sense to quote part of H.B. Acton's note to this passage,
in the paper text that I use, for the details of which see the TOC:
interpretation of Plato's Protagoras (..) is questionable (..)"
as indeed it
It is true that similar confusion and
uncertainty, and in some cases similar discordance, exist respecting
the first principles of all the sciences, not excepting that which is
deemed the most certain of them, mathematics; without much impairing,
generally indeed without impairing at all, the trustworthiness of the
conclusions of those sciences.
This is an apt
observation on "the first principles of all the
sciences", also relevant for Mill's third chapter, when he
considers the possibility of proving his utilitarian foundation of
Since mathematics has had,
since Euclid, mostly an axiomatic basis
of some kind, Mill seems to me somewhat misleading here about
mathematics, but - as suggested by Mill's using the term "algebra" - he probably thought of the square
root of minus 1 in that subject, and possibly also of Berkeley's
objections to the differential and integral calculus, which indeed at
the time of Mill's writing had not been properly dissolved (as they
mostly were in the 19th Century, by the mathematicians Cauchy,
Dedekind, and Weierstrass).
An apparent anomaly, the explanation of
which is, that the detailed doctrines of a science are not usually
deduced from, nor depend for their evidence upon, what are called its
This is at least
partially misleading, and what is true about it seems to be mostly due
to the fact that most empirical sciences consist of descriptions of
facts and things that belong to the science. And see the next
The truths which are ultimately accepted
as the first principles of a science, are really the last results of
metaphysical analysis, practised on the elementary notions with which
the science is conversant; and their relation to the science is not
that of foundations to an edifice, but of roots to a tree, which may
perform their office equally well though they be never dug down to and
exposed to light.
This continues my
No, "the first principles of a science" are usually
not, in any plausible sense of the term - except possibly for Kantians
- "the last results of metaphysical analysis",
but it is true that they may arrive rather late in the science to which
they are first principles.
Next, the reason "the first principles of a science" are, at any
given point in time, its first principles, is normally that they are
known or believed to explain an important part of the facts and things
that belong to the science, and that it should explain.
explanations are meant to be deductively valid, and indeed in a
well-developed science they usually are - and please note that this is
not a proof of the first principles, but a proof that the first
principles that have been adopted do logically imply and thereby
explain some of the facts and things that the science is meant to
explain. (For more along this line see .)
Finally, I am not
clear at all what manner of examples Mill had in his mind when he wrote
"the first principles of a science", but I
can say what I have in mind when I do: In mathematics, axioms for a
given field (Peano's axioms for numbers, Euclid's axioms for geometry
etc.); in physics, general theories for a given field (Maxwell's
equations for electro-dynamics; Einstein's theories of relativity;
Schrödinger's equation in quantum mechanics etc.); in chemistry, the
atomic hypothesis in Mendelev's formulation (i.e. the periodic system)
and the DNA-reconstruction for the basis of reproduced life; in biology
Darwin's theory of evolution. Back.
All action is for the sake of some end,
and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole
character and colour from the end to which they are subservient. When
we engage in a pursuit, a clear and precise conception of what we are
pursuing would seem to be the first thing we need, instead of the last
we are to look forward to. A test of right and wrong must be the means,
one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a
consequence of having already ascertained it.
That all "action is for the sake of some end" seems true
at least if this is taken to apply to conscious action, and is a
relevant consideration, but the rest of what Mill says in this
selection is less reasonable.
First, many of
the ends people do serve as a matter of fact are themselves again means
to other ends, or are provisory, experimental, temporary, or deemed not
very important. Indeed, much of what most men and women do is habitual
or done to conform to social pressures, and relatively little of what
they do involves clear moral deliberations on their part.
Second, for the
stated and other reasons, the acts one engages in that further "the end" one currently serves (say: being at
work in time), need not be acts that give or take much or any "character" or "colour"
to one's experiences. ("Most men lead quiet lives of desperation.")
Third, often one
neither has nor needs "a clear and precise
conception", in as much as there are quite important ends (world
peace, a lasting and happy marriage etc.) that one does not have clear
ideas about how to realize, and also one may have quite important ends,
especially those dictated by one's bodily and other needs, such as
satisfying one's hunger, that need no specific end, since they may be
served in many ways, and indeed may be hampered by having a prescribed
end, that may blind one to other ways of satisfying them. ("If you're
not with the one you love, love the one you're with.")
Fourth, in actual
fact one often has a "test of right and wrong",
even if one does not oneself like it, namely the opinions - tastes,
prejudices, desires - of one's fellows in society, who often have
outspoken ideas about what is "right and wrong",
who all have interests of their own, and who may be quite willing,
especially if they believe themselves to be the stronger party, to see
to it that their opinions prevail.
Fifth and last,
and continuing the previous remark, it is a safe guess that nearly
everywhere at nearly any time the moral principle that the majority of
men and women in fact have used is conformism: "If in Rome, do
as the Romans do"; if among cannibals, do as cannibals do; and never
deviate or stand out from the majority if you don't want trouble.
In fairness to
Mill it must be said that he very probably was aware of most of the
points I raise, but then I don't write my notes to say what may have
been or was in Mill's mind, but to test his
Our moral faculty, according to all those
of its interpreters who are entitled to the name of thinkers, supplies
us only with the general principles of moral judgments; it is a branch
of our reason, not of our sensitive faculty (..)
Note that in fact
this says little else than that moral judgments indeed are judgments, that is:
some specific particular is brought under some kind of general rule,
and is reasoned about in terms of the rule.
And what Mill in
fact meant to deny is that our "moral faculty"
works with, or is capable of producing, intuitive moral
judgments that are necessary, infallible, and accessible to all (who
are sufficiently intelligent, educated or mature).
Indeed, it is a
fair guess, and seems to have been Mill's position, that if
some moral judgments do seem to have the force of intuition,
this is not due to either an innate moral faculty, or an innate
divine spark, but to prior education, including
possibly brainwashing, deception or misrepresentation.
Also, there are
few or no moral judgments, however intuitively valid or credible they
may seem, that are either necessary or infallible or accessible to all,
if only because there have been many different human societies with
many different moral systems, while also there turn out to have been
made exceptions to all moral rules, in the sense that e.g. most
societies who have practiced legal or moral rules to the effect that
"Thou shalt not kill" or "Thou shalt not steal" have found it very
convenient, and perhaps necessary for the societies to keep in
existence, to give up those rules when they concerned enemies,
foreigners, or people with unpopular beliefs. Here is a clear statement
of what is involved:
held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who
does them, and there is almost no outrage - torture, the use of
hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonments without
trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians, which does not
change its moral colour when it is committed by 'our'
(The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell,
vol 3, p. 419, written in May 1945.) Back.
This is a good and clear
statement of what may be called moral relativism, the
sign-change in morals, or moral political correctness: Acts
are often supposed to be good or bad dependent on the social interests
they seem to or are intended to serve, and the very same kind of act is
accordingly judged very bad if the enemy does it to our side, and very
good if our side does it to the enemy.
The intuitive, no less than what may be
termed the inductive, school of ethics, insists on the necessity of
general laws. They both agree that the morality of an individual action
is not a question of direct perception, but of the application of a law
to an individual case. They recognise also, to a great extent, the same
moral laws; but differ as to their evidence, and the source from which
they derive their authority.
Here it should be
noted that Mill himself was very much of "the
inductive", empirical school of philosophy and science, and that
he saw his opponents, whether Kantians, Christians or Conservatives, as
defending their positions in terms of intuitions, that to Mill
were neither valid as explanations nor decent morally.
seems mostly to be what I outlined under .
According to the one opinion, the
principles of morals are evident a priori, requiring nothing to command
assent, except that the meaning of the terms be understood. According
to the other doctrine, right and wrong, as well as truth and falsehood,
are questions of observation and experience. But both hold equally that
morality must be deduced from principles (..)
Note that both
theories, as stated, are clearly false, and also somewhat extremist
theories. Mill probably meant here to be clarifying matters of
principle by simplifying the basic differences, but it may be as well
to state why his simplifications here do not hold.
That "the principles of morals are evident a priori"
is false since there have been quite a few different and disagreeing
systems of morals, and that fact is quite incompatible with the usual
meaning of "evident a priori";
whereas "right and wrong, as well as truth
and falsehood, are questions of observation and experience" is
false because one palpable fact about moral judgments is that different
men may completely agree about the facts about something, while having
opposed moral judgments. Back.
Yet they seldom attempt to make out a
list of the a priori principles which are to serve as the premises of
the science; still more rarely do they make any effort to reduce those
various principles to one first principle, or common ground of
This seems to me
to be at least a little doubtful. It may be that there are not many
lists of moral or ethical "a priori principles"
that have been drawn up, but on the other hand most religions and
indeed most political parties and creeds have some sort of cathechism
of moral and metaphysical first principles.
may not satisfy Mill or myself, either for logical, empirical or moral
reasons, but they have satisfied the majority of those who have
been exposed to them, at least if they were already believers in the
religion or creed reduced to those first principles.
And also, as
indicated already, most religions seem to be in practice mostly based
on the principle that the summum bonum of the religion is to
do the will of its God(s), just as most political creeds seem to be
in practice mostly based on the principle that the summum bonum of
the creed is to do the will of its party leaders.
Those who think I
am a bit cynical may be right, but then conformism and the following of leaders and authorities in fact are
both very ordinary and at the basis of much - so called - moral behavior and of many
moral stances. Back.
Yet to support their pretensions there
ought either to be some one fundamental principle or law, at the root
of all morality, or if there be several, there should be a determinate
order of precedence among them; and the one principle, or the rule for
deciding between the various principles when they conflict, ought to be
As I argued in
the previous note, in practice there are fundamental principles of
religion and morals that seem to be followed by most believers or
followers, and that amount usually to: "Do as our leaders tell
(..) as men's sentiments, both of favour
and of aversion, are greatly influenced by what they suppose to be the
effects of things upon their happiness, the principle of utility, or as
Bentham latterly called it, the greatest happiness principle, has had a
large share in forming the moral doctrines even of those who most
scornfully reject its authority.
Here we have one
of Mill's (and Bentham's) basic motivations for "the
principle of utility", namely that "men's
sentiments, both of favour and of aversion, are greatly influenced by
what they suppose to be the effects of things upon their happiness".
That is true, and
it is noteworthy that Mill put far more stock in happiness as a
fundamental end or principle than did Smart, whose definition of
"utilitarianism" and distinctions I presented in note
, and who did not so much as mention happiness even once.
I will be
concerned later with this "greatest happiness
principle", but it is well to remark right away that one problem
is that, even if it is granted that this principle "has had a large share in forming the moral doctrines",
four rather obvious problems with it are these:
First, it is
none too clear what "happiness" is - and
quite clear that "different folks like different strokes", and that my
happiness may result from your misery, or vice versa.
Second, it is
none to clear how the "happiness" of
different men is to be measured and compared - and quite clear that in
any case so far one person's happiness is not directly accessible to
any other person, even if one may often make a fair guess from external
is the problem that much that has made people happy, satisfied,
contented or pleased, has been rejected by moralists, priests and clergy as quite immoral,
bad, reprehensible or sinful.
from the claims of moralists, priests and clergy, it is a fairly
commonsensical finding that what are quite obviously one's immediate
pleasures are not compatible with one's long range interests, and that
indeed the same may be said about one's happiness: Striving for one's
happiness is often not compatible with serving one's - financial,
social, religious, family etc. - interests.
There are Millian
answers to these problems, but is well to state the problems clearly at
the start. Back.
Nor is there any school of thought which
refuses to admit that the influence of actions on happiness is a most
material and even predominant consideration in many of the details of
morals, however unwilling to acknowledge it as the fundamental
principle of morality, and the source of moral obligation.
Indeed, and it
may as well be granted directly that for (attempted) religious
foundations of morals, that tend to center on the notion that the Good is to do God's Will, usually according
to the Holy Book in accordance with which one was religiously educated,
"the influence of actions on happiness",
at least of the ordinary earthly human variety, will not be
considered very important or relevant, at least in comparison to what
is taken to be God's Will and the promises of an eternal life in
I might go much further, and say that to
all those a priori moralists who deem it necessary to argue at all,
utilitarian arguments are indispensable.
I much doubt
this, for reasons outlined in the previous note. Mill's reason for his
remark seems to have been that all "moralists",
including the "a priori moralists" must
refer to some subject's feelings and desires to support their
making any moral choice. This seems to be correct, but it does not
imply that the sort feelings and desires a person appeals to when
considering his or her moral choices need to be "utilitarian"
in any sense. Back.
(..) Kant (..) "So act, that the rule on
which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational
I am one of those
(that include Bertrand
Russell) who don't have a high opinion of Kant, and this Kantian
foundation of morals is one reason why.
First, it is not
so much a rule as a meta-rule (a rule about rules), that gives no clear
directions at all, and includes many vagueries, such as "would admit", "a law"
and, especially, "rational beings".
Second, it is
useless as a rule, for anyone, including Heinrich Himmler and Gilles de
Rais, might describe himself as a rational being, and would like to see
his own principles widely practised.
here is Himmler, who very probably could quote Kant on the moral law:
who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude towards
animals, will also assume a decent attitude towards these human
Third, the notion
of "a law" is rather useless, for many
moral questions are not answered properly by an appeal to laws at all,
or if they are tend to involve, next to laws, a lot of casuistry and
particular facts, where part of the problem tends to be how to apply
the law to this case.
Kantian rule does not at all address nor solve one of the basic
problems of morals: Opposing individuals with opposing interests -
who may or may not agree on moral laws, but who mostly differ because
they have the interests they have, and these clash in the one world
they all live in.
Fifth, the rule
it makes it impossible to be moral in many cases, since it may be quite
clear what one prefers, morally or otherwise, but a complete riddle and
a major intellectual task to show whether or not one's preference could
"admit of being adopted as a law by all rational
There are more
possible objections, but this was sufficient to show the Kantian moral
rule is useless - a sonorous piece of useless
On the present occasion, I shall, without
further discussion of the other theories, attempt to contribute
something towards the understanding and appreciation of the Utilitarian
or Happiness theory, and towards such proof as it is susceptible of.
myself don't much like the term "Utilitarian",
though that is neither here nor there. More relevant in this context is
the remark that Mill himself first introduced it into moral philosophy,
and that he had seen it first used in some obscure Scottish
text. See note [5n] to Chapter II.
It is evident that this cannot be proof
in the ordinary and popular meaning of the term. Questions of ultimate
ends are not amenable to direct proof. Whatever can be proved to be
good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to
be good without proof. The medical art is proved to be good by its
conducing to health; but how is it possible to prove that health is
good? The art of music is good, for the reason, among others, that it
produces pleasure; but what proof is it possible to give that pleasure
is good? If, then, it is asserted that there is a comprehensive
formula, including all things which are in themselves good, and that
whatever else is good, is not so as an end, but as a mean, the formula
may be accepted or rejected, but is not a subject of what is commonly
understood by proof.
considerations will return in Chapter IV, Of what sort of Proof the
Principle of Utility is Susceptible, and may be illustrated by a
brief imaginary dialogue by James L. Adams, in "Conceptual
Blockbusting - A Guide to Better Ideas" (2nd ed) that illustrates
" "Why should
man be creative?" "Because creativity allows self-actualization." "What
good is self-actualization?" "It allows man to be happy." "What is
happiness?" "Well-being." "What is well-being?" "Go to hell." "(p. 106)
In general terms,
the difficulty is that one cannot explain anything by someting that
takes the form of an infinite regress: "Why A?" "Because of B." "Why
B?" "Because of C." "Why C?" .... (da capo ad infinitum).
There is an
interesting article "Why" in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
Ed. P. Edwards, and here I just note that a cogent explanation does
not take the form of infinite regress, and accordingly
ends with or starts at something that is, at least for the time being,
supposed to be as ultimate an explanation as one can give, in one's
present state of knowledge.
I will return to
this in my notes to
Chapter IV, and only want to make two remarks here, both mostly
concerned with the meaning of the word "proof".
First, as to "It is evident that this cannot be proof in the
ordinary and popular meaning of the term". Mill gives his reason
in his next sentence and the rest of the quoted passage, but especially
in case of "proof in the ordinary and popular
meaning" he is mistaken. For such a "proof"
is nothing better than a convincing or plausible argument, and this had
been forthcoming for ages in the form of revealed religion and God's
It is true these
proofs were not deductively valid arguments from evidently true
principles, but then that is no requirement for "proof
in the ordinary and popular meaning".
Second, as to "Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct
proof". This is not so for similar reasons as in the previous
point: In many cases - as e.g. for small children, dictators and adults
with little self-control - there is a perfectly convincing direct proof
that something is good, namely that they strongly desire it, and that
it seems to them that they could not live well or at all without it.
Again such a "proof" has no logical or mathematical validity
at all, but that normally hardly detracts from the subjective validity
it seems to have. Back.
There is a larger meaning of the word
proof, in which this question is as amenable to it as any other of the
disputed questions of philosophy. The subject is within the cognisance
of the rational faculty; and neither does that faculty deal with it
solely in the way of intuition. Considerations may be presented capable
of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to
the doctrine; and this is equivalent to proof.
Here Mill is
mostly confused, and more so than is necessary, and also more so than
The reason is
mostly that he holds fast to "the word proof",
indeed to the extent of falsely claiming that the sort of support one
may give to a supposed first principle "is
equivalent to proof", and is besides that he did not have clear
enough relevant ideas of logic and probability theory.
To turn to these,
In actual fact,
there are at least two perfectly good lines of argument to support a
purported first principle or axiom for something, about which we shall
assume that indeed first principles cannot be proved deductively from
other principles, because if they can they are not first principles.
The first line of
support is this.
In general, a
first principle of any kind is appealed to or introduced to explain some supposed
matter of fact, that one cannot at all, or cannot as well, account for
on other principles one has. Therefore, one good argument in support of
a supposed first principle of any kind is that it does, as a matter of
provable logical fact, deductively entail the matter of fact it is
supposed to explain.
Note also that
since the principle normally exists and is appealed to in order to
explain certain things, it is at least a relevant consideration to show
that it in fact does explain those things - and indeed, for those who
know a sufficient amount of logic, this proof can be quite strict, and
deductively quite valid. (Note also that Montaigne's considerations are
quite relevant here: "Nothing is so firmly believed as that which is
least known." and "All general judgments are loose and imperfect." and
"I see men ordinarily more eager to discover a reason for things than
to find out whether the things are so.")
supposing it to be given or possible, is no deductive proof of the
first principle, but it is a deductive proof that the supposed first
principle does or can do what it is supposed to do, and that is the
reason it was thought of in the first place: That it can explain, in
the sense of deductively imply, whatever it is supposed to explain.
The second line
of support is this.
It is usually
possible, for any proposed first principle, to find statements that,
possibly with other first principles one has, must be true if those
first principles are true, and that, as yet, one does not know to be
true independently from assuming the first principle(s). Now, another
good argument in support of a supposed first principle of any kind is
that it does, as a matter or provable logical fact, deductively entail
matters of fact that so far were not shown to be facts, but that are
found to be facts when one investigates them.
supposing it to be given or possible, again is no deductive proof of
the first principle, but it amounts to a deductive proof that the
supposed first principle does or can do at least part of what it is
supposed to do, namely that it can explain, in the sense of deductively
imply, certain matters of fact, without also deductively implying
statements that are counter to fact.
The argument for
the last paragraph is in the end mathematical, and belongs to the field
of probability theory,
in which it can be proved that any given assumption that is positively
relevant to certain statements gets more probable if those statements
are verified, and less probable if they are falsified.
In neither of the
two ways of supporting a supposed first principle - namely, by showing
it explains what it is supposed to explain, and by showing that,
besides, it explains other matters of fact, and it implies no
statements that are false - we have conclusive deductive proof of the
first principle, but in either case we have some evidence that supports
the first principle. (Indeed, just as a proof that the first principle
does not explain what it is supposed to explain, or a proof that it
does imply statements that are known to be false or improbable, is
evidence against the supposed first principle.)
The two lines of
argument I have indicated to support (but not: prove,
in any deductive sense) first principles are both perfectly
mathematically valid, and are the correct logical ways of supporting
assumptions one cannot otherwise prove or support.
The reason Mill
did not mention them is that he was not aware of them, and indeed both
mathematical logic and the mathematical theory of probabibility have
progressed much since he wrote.
We shall have to
consider first principles and their proofs again when considering Chapter IV, but this
will happen along the lines and in the context of the present
But it is a preliminary condition of
rational acceptance or rejection, that the formula should be correctly
understood. I believe that the very imperfect notion ordinarily formed
of its meaning, is the chief obstacle which impedes its reception (..)
Apart from Mill's
attempts in this and the next chapters to clarify the principle of
utilitarianism, that I shall discuss, this may be the place to remind
the reader of a number of relevant distinctions quoted in note .
And the reader
may infer here, as I do, that the principle of utilitarianism, whatever
its ultimate merits or precise statement, was considerably less clear
than Mill supposed it to be. Back.