Recipes for Disaster: Utilitarianism and the Ethics of the Aloof

John Stuart Mill’s advocacy of utilitarianism as a moral theory induced from empirical knowledge is straightforward, and unembellished. It is written in a style that is deceptively austere, especially for an issue as tricky as moral philosophy. Confident in the certainty afforded by empirical reckoning, Mill uniformly constructs the foundations of utilitarianism perfectly level with the bedrock of scientific knowledge. However, it is often the case that merely opening up moral and ethical conventions to philosophical inquiry, by that very act, though appearing at first to clarify matters, serves only to irreconcilably undermine their authority, and their force. In fact, Mill bemoans the lack of consensus among diverging schools of moral philosophy in his general remarks. Admitting that mankind has been debating ethical conduct since the very dawn of philosophy, he undertakes to formulate a foolproof test of right and wrong to govern the entire spectra of human action. This is Mill’s departure point for the advancement of utilitarianism as a scientific moral system.

So, given the disarray of moral philosophy, how, according to utilitarianism are we to act? “All action”, writes Mill, “is for the sake of some end”. That end, in strictly Aristotelian fashion, can be none other than happiness. In fact, Mill himself refers to utilitarianism as the ‘Happiness theory’.

“The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or 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.”

So, utilitarianism would appear to be a consequentialist moral theory. That is to say, it holds that an action is moral if its consequences are good, and bad if its consequences are harmful. The morality, therefore, of an act is determined, not by the nature of the act itself, but by the consequences which flow from it. It is to this test of right or wrong that all human action must, therefore, be subjected. Thus, if the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain is to be our end, “A test of right and wrong must be the means”.

But, how is this different from Immanuel Kant’s imperative to, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”? Is that not a better test for determining the morality of any given action? Mill argues that this is not the case. Utilitarianism differs from moral principles determined a priori in that, “right and wrong, as well as truth and falsehood, are questions of observation and experience.” This claim as to its basis in objective experience is what, according to Mill, makes utilitarianism a scientific moral theory. This is why Kant’s theory, to Mill, derived as it is through a priori judgments, is “grotesquely unsatisfactory” when it comes to any sort of practical, real-world application.

Given this savage criticism of its premiere rival, one would expect utilitarianism to flourish brilliantly amidst the chaotic milieu of the hopelessly flawed real world. In fact, it fails dismally. One should not be too surprised. Given the historic difficulty of moral philosophy it should have been the result one should have expected. In fact, it is probably because of the scientific expectations heaped upon it that it fails so spectacularly.

Utilitarianism’s potential limitations are alluded to by Mill himself as early as Chapter Two. Right off the bat, he warns that we should not expect too much, and that our hopes for a utilitarian utopia should be tempered with realism. First, he distinguishes between “pleasures…of which swine are capable”, and “faculties more elevated than the animal appetites”. Mill takes great pains to insinuate that it is the latter which utilitarianism aims to cultivate, famously writing that, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Further to this proviso, and alluding to the perennial discontent with philosophical speculation (particularly scepticism), Mill addresses the sticky issue as to whether happiness, in this intellectual sense, is even possible at all, even going so far as to entertain the conclusion that were utilitarianism founded on such a premise, it would obviously be in ruins. Traversing a razor’s edge and recovering beautifully, he writes, “Even in that case something might still be said for the utilitarian theory; since utility includes not solely the pursuit of happiness, but the prevention or mitigation of unhappiness.” Already, a distinctly watered-down, almost neutered idea of utilitarian happiness begins to take shape.

At this point, it becomes difficult to distinguish Mill’s utilitarian virtues from those of Aristotle, or Epicurus. Indeed, Mill’s justification for the pursuit of happiness in the limited utilitarian sense is almost lifted wholesale from Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics. However, Mill’s prescription to, “not expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing” lacks Aristotle’s cheer, and charm, and somehow feels deficient on the spectrum of a courageous outlook prescribed by the Master himself. Nevertheless, Mill concludes the bleak paragraph with a note of optimism, “The present wretched education, and wretched social arrangements, are the only real hindrance to its being attainable by almost all.” What does Mill mean here by ‘wretched social arrangements’? Is there to be an ideal distribution of happiness among human beings? By what mechanism would such a distribution be achieved? What would this distribution look like at the local, national, and international level?

Here, things take an unexpected turn. From the very beginning, Mill claimed that utilitarianism was provisioned, and indeed explicitly conceived of in order to accommodate social concerns just such as these. But now, halfway through the chapter, he begins noticeably chafing against what he perceives to be the vulgar ignorance of the uneducated masses. This tone of impatience with the pace of social reform, and the lack of general cultivation, continues throughout the chapter, and pervades the rest of his work.

Indeed, precisely where one might expect these questions to be addressed occurs one of the most conflicted paragraphs of the entire work. It begins unassumingly enough with a progressive flourish, “Now there is absolutely no reason in the nature of things why an amount of mental culture sufficient to give an intelligent interest in these objects of contemplation, should not be the inheritance of every one born in a civilised country.” Based on this introduction, one might quite reasonably expect a detailed discussion to follow into how the political institutions of the state, such as the legislature or the executive, could be tasked with ensuring the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If Mill’s formula were to be executed through to completion, it would seem logical for these institutions to exercise a role in the distribution of happiness. But, Mill never seems to get there.

If one wants to glean utilitarianism’s vision of an ideal distribution of happiness among society, one must resort to reading between the lines, for Mill has amply, if not implicitly, articulated this quite adequately. “Genuine private affections”, he begins, “and a sincere interest in the public good, are possible, though in unequal degrees, to every rightly brought up human being.” A life of intellectual reflection, and cultural refinement, according to Mill, is attainable by anyone possessing a “moderate amount of moral and intellectual requisites”. Furthermore, such an ‘enviable’ life is accessible to all, “unless such a person, through bad laws, or subjection to the will of others, is denied the liberty to use the sources of happiness within his reach…”

This brilliant promise, however, comes with a tangle of strings attached. One must unravel this knot if one is to, “escape the positive evils of life, the great sources of physical and mental suffering – such as indigence, disease, and the unkindness, worthlessness, or premature loss of objects of affection.” Inexplicably comprehending the obstacles arrayed against the disadvantaged, Mill acknowledges that, “The main stress of the problem lies…in the contest with these calamities, from which it is a rare good fortune entirely to escape; which, as things now are, cannot be obviated, and often cannot be in any material degree mitigated.”

But, why cannot these evils be mitigated? What is preventing them from being systematically addressed by a so-called scientific, moral theory advertised as the greatest happiness to the greatest number? The silence in response to these cries is deafening. Indeed, Mill proffers no social theory of his own, but adheres instead to a classical political ideology. It becomes unambiguously clear that Mill is in fact advocating for a philanthropic solution to mass poverty, disease, and illiteracy. This reading of Mill’s views with regard to the ideal distribution of happiness aligns uniformly with his unapologetic defence of individualism and liberalism, and is a scathing indictment of his integrity, and by extension, the integrity of his argument.

In his article entitled Famine, Affluence, and Morality Peter Singer heightens the urgency that accompanies the distribution of happiness in the real world, and focuses the issue to a critical point. Singer’s departure point for this watershed discussion into the practical utility of utilitarianism is the acute refugee crisis precipitated by the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. By way of baptism by blood, Singer transforms utilitarianism’s moral imperative for maximal happiness from an abstract, intellectual exercise into a life or death decision with the most final, and irrevocable of consequences. Singer is successful in this iteration of utilitarianism. This is due in no small part to the crystal clarity with which he renders not just the intellectual, but also the emotional impact of moral dilemmas starkly visceral. So, how would utilitarianism perform if tasked with the mission of alleviating the unhappiness of millions of desperate refugees? It is only when squeezed into this crucible of choice that the truth about utilitarianism becomes abysmally obvious.

In the case of the Bangladeshi refugees, Singer demonstrates that anything short of marginal utility would be viewed as unethical by the utilitarian standard. Utilitarians, therefore, cannot rely on the charity of their fellows because the fundamental premises of economics, and scarcity would testify to the overriding of altruism by self interest at every opportunity. In other words, no equilibrium of unhappiness alleviation would result, and the millions of refugees would perish in agony, as well meaning humanists stood by, and observed. Singer’s experiment, therefore, raises the fundamental question as to whether utilitarianism is even compatible with liberalism.

Therefore, it is Singer who devises the test that was promised by Mill. It is he who distills the crux of the problem into a truly mathematical ‘yes’ or ‘no’ equation, and returns an output unequivocally showing utilitarianism as an incomplete, and irredeemably unrealistic moral doctrine. Therefore, the moral imperative to maximize happiness is rendered totally impotent by the absence of a formula for a particular distribution of happiness. In the end, Mill’s moral imperative to maximize happiness is simply implausible without a mechanism to distribute happiness throughout society.

But, it is the influential 1863 articulation of utilitarianism, and its author, that are on trial here. The substantial number of issues Singer raises with regard to the plight of the Bangladeshis relative to the citizens of Western nations, as an interesting consequence, brings the social inequality of 19th-century Britain into sharp relief, and renders Mill’s character and motives much more transparent. There is a most palpable tension in Mill’s writing. He is noticeably, and indeed quite acutely aware of the material basis of happiness, and its potential for abuse by those in possession of the means of production relative to those classes rendered vulnerable by its disabling absence. At first, Mill walks a tightrope in attempting to strike a balance between the public and private utility. However, his initially persuasive, apparently self-evident position on the non-interference of the state upon the individual’s sacrosanct private utility becomes increasingly untenable. The more these are explored, the harder their inherent incompatibilities become to disguise.

At this point, what increasingly appears to be a wilful omission of what one would otherwise expect to be an integral component of a moral theory raises some uncomfortable, and indeed embarrassing questions for Mill. Curiously, as pointed out by Singer, the provision of a mechanism for the distribution of happiness would not at all be controversial, being in perfect accordance with the structure of utilitarianism. In fact, it is precisely because of Mill’s vociferous advocacy of utilitarianism that his silence appears so conspicuous. Indeed, there appears to be no justification at all for not explicitly providing for a just distribution of happiness, except of course perhaps Mill’s view to his own economic, and political interests.

This answers the question as to why Mill conveniently declines to provide a demonstration of utilitarianism’s application. If utilitarian policies, in conformity with its own core philosophy, were to be legislated, and duly executed, there would be radical consequences for 19th-century British society. Acknowledging this, Singer writes, “Despite the limited nature of the revision in our moral conceptual scheme which I am proposing, the revision would, given the extent of both affluence and famine in the world today, have radical implications.” When viewed in this light it is not surprising that Mill’s noticeably marginal treatment of the issue has raised suspicions as to his motives for expounding utilitarianism as a comprehensive moral system.
Indeed, Singer asks, “What is the point of relating philosophy…if we do not take our conclusions seriously?” Again, this is a charge which must be answered if utilitarianism is to be at all taken seriously. Mill is of course entitled to his political beliefs, and the tenets of liberalism are not objectionable, or morally reprehensible, in and of themselves. However, given the very public position he took with regard to ‘the greatest good’, his work comes across as philosophically dishonest. Moreover, that laws which would provide for the minimization of unhappiness would be a violation of the individual’s rights, and therefore, harmful to the aggregate utility of society appear, under closer examination, to be grossly unsound. Now, the question as to whether Mill was acting on his own to further his own interests, or campaigning on behalf of other concerned parties is ridiculously beyond the scope of this essay. But, the evidence does seem to point in that direction.

To those who value liberty, individuality, and resourcefulness above all others, John Stuart Mill’s clumsy attempt at deception in advantaging these virtues is quite tolerable, and even forgivable. It is rather the compromising of his moral integrity for the sake of unsavoury commercial policies that is the biggest disappointment for a student of his elegant philosophy. But, it is the potential for something as sinister as a justification for the most inhumane forms of imperialism that makes Mill’s hypocrisy so unpalatable, and for which utilitarianism has drawn the most vicious criticism by its opponents.

Ironically, Singer’s departure point for a test of the utilitarian doctrine returned to the affairs of a former colony which had gained its political independence from Great Britain not twenty-four years earlier. How British moralists could recite the mantra of ‘the greatest good, for the greatest number’ while keeping a straight face, while at the same time subverting the political aspirations of millions of its subjects is indeed a matter for wonder. Perhaps Bernard Williams’ categorical rejection of utilitarian moral theory in A Critique of Utilitarianism is, therefore, quite well-deserved. Truly, if one could choose from among Williams’ nearly endless list of near expletives concerning utilitarianism’s naïveté with regard to Marxist social theory, one would quite contentedly settle upon “simple-minded”. Williams, however is far more exhaustive in his denunciation, adding: ‘indifferent, elitist, nonresponsive, manipulative, coercive, complacent, and absurdly primitive’ to his laundry list of disdain. Finally, Williams drives in the last nail, provocatively referencing Mill’s lifelong association with the British East India Company, “It is not surprising that one should be reminded of colonial administrators, running a system of indirect rule.” In conclusion, upon assessing utilitarianism’s empty promises, and hypocritical practices one must overwhelmingly, and wholeheartedly concur with Williams in that “The day cannot be too far off in which we hear no more of it.”

© Felix Inparajah, 2017. All rights reserved.


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