Maarten Maartensz

Text Philosophy - Mill - Utilitarianism - Chapter I
 


 


Notes to Chapter I:
General Remarks


Note on these notes

These notes date from december 2006 - january 2007, based on notes in my paper copy of "Utilitarianism" that date from 1977.

The format is that I quote the text of Mill that I comment in blue, and write my own notes in black, with a "Back" at the end of every note that moves the reader back - provided he or she is on line, or has downloaded the relevant files in similar directories, or uses a CD of my site - to the beginning of the quotation the note is concerned with. (See also the TOC.)

The result is that my quotations + my notes take more space than Mill's original text, but one advantage of the procedure I use is that the reader can read my quotations + my notes independently from the text, yet be moved thence - provisos as above - with a single click.


[0] 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 of it.

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:

"Utilitarianism 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.

But one 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 us

"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 of Kant."

Kant's moral rule shall be discussed in a later note. With regards to the present distinction between kinds of utilitarianism, Smart says

"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:

"Egoistic 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 two doctrines."

We are not yet done with distinctions:

"Hedonistic 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 last  distinction:

"Normative 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 about conduct."

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 and clarifications.

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:

"Properly 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 Bentham's time.)"

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.

That these 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.


[1] 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.

Second, there 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.

Incidentally, 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 cooperation.

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 hypotheses.

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 its members.

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, desires and 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.


[2] 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:

"This interpretation of Plato's Protagoras (..) is questionable (..)"

as indeed it is.    Back.


[3] 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 ethics.

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).

Back.


[4] 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 first principles.

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 note.    Back.


[5] 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 previous note:

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.

Normally, these 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 [18].)

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.


[6] 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 arguments.    Back.


[7] 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:

"Actions are 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' side."              
(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.


[8] 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.

Mill's point seems mostly to be what I outlined under [7].    Back.


[9] 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.


[10] 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 obligation.

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.

These 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.


[11] 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 self-evident.

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 you!".   Back.


[12] (..) 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 [0], 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 behavior.

  • Third, there 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.

  • Fourth, apart 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.


[13] 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 paradise.     Back.


[14] 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.


[15] (..) Kant (..) "So act, that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings."

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.

Incidentally, here is Himmler, who very probably could quote Kant on the moral law:

"We Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude towards animals, will also assume a decent attitude towards these human animals."

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.

Fourth, the 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 beings".

There are more possible objections, but this was sufficient to show the Kantian moral rule is useless - a sonorous piece of useless nonsense.    Back.


[16] 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.

Incidentally, I 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.   Back.


[17] 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.

These 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 the difficulty:

" "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 instructions.

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.


[18] 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 is desirable.

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, then.

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.")

This proof, 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.

This proof, 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 note.    Back.


[19] 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 [0].

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.