A Refutation of John Stuart Mills Quantitative Utilitarianism

The following discussion aims to refute Mills claim that a utilitarian approach ought to consider the quality of pleasure over the quantity of pleasure achieved in the process of determining the morality of an action. In order to prove this claim, the following discussion will initially present the foundation of Mills argument followed by an analysis of Mills claim in accordance to one of his critics and in accordance to my basis for refuting his claim.
John Stuart Mill, the famous utilitarian, laid the foundation of his moral philosophy by stating categorically that there is an ultimate good-a summum bonum. Mill argues that all moral actions should be aimed at attaining this good. Further, Mill insists that this good is happiness. Utilitarianism thereby refers to the ethical theory, which claims that happiness is the ultimate end of morality (Utilitarianism 61). He states,
According to the Greatest Happiness Principle, the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people) is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality. (Utilitarianism 16)
    Mill states this teleological position by insisting that the rightness of an action is determined by actual consequences. For Mill, the nature of the act is insignificant in determining the morality of an action. Such is the case since within his teleological position, the rightness of an act is judged and evaluated in terms of its consequences, that of maximizing the intrinsic good. Since the intrinsic good is happiness, it follows that any action that maximizes happiness is a right action and any action that does the reverse is a wrong action. In line with this Mill claims,
The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals Utility of the Greatest Happiness Principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness. Wrong, as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain, by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. (Utilitarianism 12)
In this context, Mill contends that happiness is the only intrinsically desirable thing. This is the basic argument of the principle of utility. Happiness is thus, the principle of action within his ethical theory.
    It is important to note that although Mill considers happiness as the principle of action his teleological argument differs radically from the initial version of utilitarianism given by Jeremy Bentham. Benthams version of utilitarianism is quantitative in character as can be seen in his hedonistic calculus according to which the quantity of pleasure ought to be considered in determining the morality of an action.
    Mills version of utilitarianism differs radically from Benthams on two important points. First, he is vehemently against the purely quantitative treatment of the principle of utility and second, he espouses that some pleasures are intrinsically superior to others. This is explicitly stated in the following passage wherein Mill disdainfully claims,
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides. (Utilitarianism 14)
To clinch this point, Mill cites Epicurus who also espoused the view that while the good life is the life of pleasure, Epicurus does not limit what is pleasurable to only bodily and sensual pleasures. There are higher forms of pleasure such as intellectual and spiritual pleasure. According to both Mill and Epicurus, some pleasures are thereby intrinsically superior in comparison to others.
    At this point, it is important to consider Mills criterion for judging the quality of pleasure. In order to provide this, Mill forwards the following argument
If I am asked what I mean by difference of quality of pleasurethere is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures if there be one to which all or almost all who have experienced both give a decided preference, irrespective of a feeling of moral obligation ton prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it be attended with a greater amount of discontent,.we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account. (Utilitarianism 13)
The introduction of quality of pleasure added undue complications to the earlier version of utilitarianism. The higher pleasures consist of the more intellectual, artistic, and even spiritual ones as opposed to the more sensual and physical ones. It is important to note however that Mill does not exclude the lower pleasure from consideration. However, he personally prefers the higher pleasures.
    In order to prove the soundness of his principle of utility, Mill constructs a proof of his argument, which takes the following form
Ones own happiness is the only thing desired by each person.
 It follows from this that the general happiness is the only thing desired for itself by all.
 The only test of somethings being desirable is its being desired,
It follows from this that (a) the general happiness is the only thing desired in itself and (b) the only test of the rightness and wrongness of actions is their tendency to promote the general happiness. (Utilitarianism 37)
    Given the background and the foundation of Mills argument, what follows is a presentation of an argument raised against Mills qualitative version of utilitarianism. Christine Korsgaard claims that Mills proof leads to a certain form of instrumental egoism. Instrumental egoist refers to the view that the only principle of practical reason is the principle that directs us to take the means to our ends (59). Korsgaard argues that Mills account of happiness inevitably resolves itself into a form of egoism where each individual pursues his or her own happiness (59). Such is the case since Mill maintains that happiness ought to be the end of all action and it is necessary to allow each individual to practice his liberty. The former view is apparent in his text Utilitarianism whereas the latter view is apparent in his text On Liberty. In the later text, Mill argues that man is a progressive being (Liberty 53). If such is the case, freedom and the availability of choices then are two important conditions that promote happiness and the development of our own humanity. A truly civilized society must learn to value differing positions and ideologies. This is because of the fact that these differences entail different ideas and different ways in and through which those ideas are formed. This is to say that a truly civilized society creates an atmosphere conducive for a culture of discourse to flourish.
Within this context, Mill may have managed to explain that happiness is indeed, desirable and that it ought to be the end of all human action however his account of happiness and his principle of utility along with his views on freedom of thought present us with a rather interesting scenario. Mills account of happiness inevitably resolves itself into a form of egoism where each individual pursues his or her own happiness. The problem is thus much deeper and intricate since this has serious implications on utilitarianism.
Mill contends that since ones own happiness is the only thing desired by each person, it follows that the general happiness is the only thing desired for itself by all. From a logical point of view, this assumption is mistaken. Apparently, Mill assumes there will still be a certain kind of uniformity concerning human beings desires and wants that will determine the bases for attaining general happiness. This is, however, a mere assumption.
The problem with Mills version of utilitarianism thereby is apparent as he fails to account for the effects of liberty in the attainment of the greatest happiness for all the members of society. In order to account for this, Mill may further develop his ethical theory by applying the principle of utility to general rules and not to specific acts. By doing so, it is possible to ensure the attainment of happiness of the greatest number of individuals in society. Such is the case since the morality of an action is no longer merely based on the end of an action but is also based on whether the end of an action is in accordance to a specific rule. Since the formulation of the rule ensures that the end of an action enables the attainment of happiness of the greatest number of individuals in society, it is possible to conceive of a scenario wherein the action of an individual is geared towards the attainment of societal good as opposed to his own egoistic end.


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