John Stuart Mills View Of Utilitarianism

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John Stuart Mills View Of Utilitarianism



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Mill's Utilitarianism

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It is worth emphasizing that in no case does Mill think that the ultimately inductive nature of the sciences—whether physical, mathematical, or social—precludes the deductive organization and practice of the science Ryan 3— Manifestly, we do work through many inferences in deductive terms—and this is nowhere clearer than in the case of mathematics. In contrast to many in the empiricist tradition—including his father—Mill holds that mathematical propositions assert genuine facts. That we perform operations in a deductive manner in the following case:. We establish that two plus one is equal to three by generalization from specific instances: that two pebbles and one pebble together make three pebbles, that two horses and one horse together make three horses, and so on.

So too other such arithmetic laws. Geometrical propositions, too, are inferred from premises which themselves have real content. Such premises—that, for instance, we can draw a straight line connecting any two single points—are not mere verbal propositions. Indeed, Mill claims, such premises are not strictly even true of the real space we encounter in experience: neither perfectly single points, nor perfectly straight lines exist in nature. These are rather idealizations of that space—but idealizations which are based on principles that could only be known by inductive generalization of our observations. The same holds for the results of geometric reasoning System , VII: ff. Amongst the most pressing questions pertain to the status of the objects which mathematicians talk about.

The Platonist can characterize the claims of mathematics as claims about abstract objects—but, as a naturalist, no such option is open to Mill. Similarly, there are no real objects corresponding to the definitions of geometry System , VII: Mill, rather, claims that numbers are properties of aggregates and as such denote aggregates with those properties, and takes geometrical objects to be limit cases of real world objects System , VII: —1, —9. One can, perhaps, take mathematical objects to be fictions Balaguer —but specifying how such fictions can be subject to constrained standards of truth and falsity remains difficult.

That Mill holds that even mathematics is founded upon inductive reasoning is perhaps most interesting because it demonstrates the radical and thoroughgoing nature of his empiricism. Indeed, the rejection of the possibility of a priori knowledge as such challenges the notion that there are any necessary truths. Mill does not shy away from this implication.

Truths can be better or worse established—central or peripheral to our understanding of the world—and we can therefore be more or less willing to abandon them. But Mill shows little interest in principled or absolute modal distinctions between necessary and contingent truths. Rather, Mill argues, some propositions seem to us necessary because of processes of psychological association make them so ingrained that their denial seems to us inconceivable.

As such, they are subject to causal laws in just the same manner as the rest of natural world—empirical study of the mind, Mill holds, reveals that it is governed by the laws of associationistic psychology. Such modifications of his associationistic inheritance were, in part, a reaction to points made by the Germano-Coleridgean school. His account, nevertheless, remains firmly within the tradition of British empiricism—and he never wavers from a commitment to the claim that our mental life is governed by causal laws operating in a deterministic fashion.

The character of the mind of an individual, Mill holds, is a function entirely of the experiences that individual has undergone. Specific experiences, to be sure, write their lessons on our minds—but background conditions, which differ from culture to culture, play an equally important role. A great part of what seems observation is really inference […] For in almost every act of our perceiving faculties, observation and inferences are intimately blended.

What we are said to observe is usually a compound result, of which one-tenth may be observation, and the remaining nine-tenths inference. System , VIII: —2. What are properly inferences from our observations come by processes of association to seem as observations themselves. I observe, properly, only a certain sensory manifold, and infer that this is my brother—but, with repetition, the inference becomes merged by association with the observation, and I take the inferred content to be part of the observation itself.

Processes of association, that is to say, renders our observations deeply theory laden. And the theories with which they are laden, of course, will vary with social setting. No one who believed that he knew thoroughly the circumstances of any case, and the characters of the different persons concerned, would hesitate to foretell how all of them would act. Given that individuals are subject to such laws, there is little reason to think that the societies composed of individuals will not be subject to natural laws System , VIII: Understanding the human world scientifically—understanding it as part of the natural world—of course puts pressure on the notion that human beings are in any real sense free. Our actions are causally determined, but nevertheless, Mill maintains, we are free Ryan — Mill adopts a compatibilist account of human freedom.

Although it is true that our character and desires, in combination with a set of circumstances, causally necessitates some particular action, it is not true that if that person had some alternative character and set of desires that that same cause would necessitate that same action. Had that person had different desires, or a different character, he might well have acted differently. This, Mill concedes, would be of little consolation if our character and desires are beyond the control of an individual to influence. But, he points out, we can influence our character and desires. We can place ourselves in circumstances that modify our character, and we can practice better habits.

The raw content of experience is itself extremely narrow—indeed, Mill holds, we directly perceive only our own internal impressions. We have unmediated access only to the impression that are generated in us—we are directly aware only of our own mental content. We know of objects in the world only to the extent that they affect us and give rise to conscious impressions—and such impressions will only ever be presented by way of the mediating sense faculties. Examination , IX: 6. Our theoretical engagement with the world is always mediated by our conditioning faculties—and as such our representations of the world are always representations of what the world is like for beings such as ourselves.

The doctrine ultimately pushes Mill towards Idealism. One might hold that, though we are only familiar in experience with mental impressions, we can nevertheless infer the existence of non-mental objects lying behind such mental objects. But such an inference could not be supported within experience by enumerative induction—no non-mental objects are ever observed behind mental objects—but only by a hypothesis to some unobserved entity.

As was noted above, however, Mill rejects the method of hypothesis as an autonomous form of reasoning—no such inference to unobserved non-mental objects could for him be valid. Mill is forced towards the conclusion that we can have no warrant for believing in non-mental entities. All that can be established inductively is that a certain class of objects of sensation are stable—that they can be returned to, after durations in which they go unperceived. Such, Mill thinks, is the true content of our notion of the external world. Matter, then, may be defined, a Permanent Possibility of Sensation. If I am asked, whether I believe in matter, I ask whether the questioner accepts this definition of it. If he does, I believe in matter: and so do all Berkeleians.

In any other sense than this, I do not. The idea of an external world is not present in the content of experience. Rather, our idea of externality is derived from the recognition that certain sensations can be revisited: that. Examination , IX: —9. Whether this stance is entirely coherent, we shall consider below, in section 3. We know our own self, Mill claims, only as it phenomenally appears to us—and we know of other selves only by inference from our own case. But he also resists the total reduction of mind to the existence of sensations—or even to the existence of possible sensations—on the grounds that there remains a unity to apperception. As he points out, a reduction of self to sensations cannot be wholly satisfactory, because a sense of the self enters into many sensations as a constituent part.

When I recall a memory, for instance, the sensation is of a memory which has as part of its content that it is my memory. If, therefore, we speak of the Mind as a series of feelings, we are obliged to complete the statement by calling it a series of feelings which is aware of itself as past and future; and we are reduced to the alternative of believing that the Mind, or Ego, is something different from any series of feelings, or possibilities of them, or of accepting the paradox, that something which ex hypothesi is but a series of feelings, can be aware of itself as a series.

Examination , But the argument goes deeper, suggesting that we cannot even imagine what it would be to believe in the existence of non-mental objects. Indeed, Mill at times suggests a semantic version of the argument, which would establish that the very meaning of our words—determined, as they are, by experience—obstructs us from referring to anything beyond experience. It would, no doubt, be absurd to assume that our words exhaust the possibilities of Being.

There may be innumerable modes of it which are inaccessible to our faculties, and which consequently we are unable to name. But we ought not to speak of these modes of Being by any of the names we possess. These are all inapplicable, because they all stand for known modes of Being. As noted, Mill views enumerative induction—the sole method of warranted theoretical reasoning—as self-validating and self-improving. We spontaneously take certain initial inductive moves to be justified. Induction could have been self-undermining—its success as a form of reasoning about the world, established on its own terms, is not trivial. As such, it could only be arrived at by inductive reasoning.

Inductive investigation allows us to better understand that the mind is itself governed by natural laws—and to better understand the processes of sense perception that allow us to be causally receptive to the world. Such discoveries clarify and strengthen our sense of why a priori knowledge is impossible in the first place, and why empirical investigation is necessary for any genuine knowledge. The view that Mill sketches is rich in potential—and it has sufficient breadth to promise a successful means of theoretically orienting ourselves in the world. The issue, of course, is, whether naturalism is the only possible view. The question must remain whether there are equally good non-naturalistic ways of thinking about the world and our place within it.

Because naturalism is a substantive doctrine, that is a possibility to which Mill must remain open. Ultimately, he holds, the only things that we can be warranted in believing are permanent possibilities of sensation. But such objects are not—at least not obviously —natural entities. Mill is never entirely clear about the status of the permanent possibilities of sensation. To the extent that they are ideal objects, we might doubt their status as natural entities; the further reified such entities are in relation to actual sensations, the less plausible it is to characterise the inference from sensation to the possibility of sensation as an inductive one.

The worry enters from multiple directions. Perhaps most obviously, it calls into question the down-to-earth realism that Mill endorses within the philosophy of science. Mill claims that a priori knowledge is impossible because we cannot know. But if the world is fundamentally ideal —if, as Mill seems to claim, our world is the world as conditioned by our mediating senses, because we can know and represent it in no other way—we might wonder why a basic harmony between the architecture of mind and world should not be taken as given, and a priori knowledge not be possible.

One option to resolve this tension, of course, is to follow Kant in distinguishing transcendental and empirical levels of reflection—another is to follow the post-Kantian idealists in attempting to unite and overcome such oppositions wherever they occur. Mill, however, never worked through the internal pressures of his own position with sufficient rigour to feel the push within naturalism towards these positions. Whereas theoretical reasoning concerns what there is reason to believe , practical reasoning concerns how there is reason to act.

Just as Mill thinks that there is one fundamental principle of theoretical reason—the principle of enumerative induction—so too he thinks that there is one fundamental principle of practical reason. There are not only first principles of Knowledge, but first principles of Conduct. There must be some standard by which to determine the goodness or badness, absolute and comparative, of ends or objects of desire. And whatever that standard is, there can be but one. The principle of utility is examined in detail in Utilitarianism , during which it is both clarified and defended. The argument takes place by way of three subclaims. Mill argues for:. Mill takes the first subclaim— desirability —to be reasonably uncontentious.

Happiness, most will admit, is at least one of the things which is desirable Donner His argument for the claim, however, has become infamous. The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it: and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it. Utilitarianism , X: As such, happiness is shown to be desirable as an end.

As was observed above section 2. We do so, Mill claims, by virtue of our nature—and that propensity strikes us as reasonable upon inspection. That human beings universally do desire happiness, and take it to be reasonable to do so under free consideration, is evidence that happiness is desirable. Such evidence, of course, is defeasible—but real nonetheless. And in the absence of reasons to doubt our universal tendency to desire happiness, we are warranted in taking happiness to be desirable.

Many things, of course, are desired merely as means to happiness. Upon inspection, such things do not strike us as ultimately desirable, but merely as useful mechanisms for bringing about that which is ultimately desirable. Mill recognises, however, that not all desiderata besides happiness are desired merely as means. This does not threaten the claim that happiness is the only thing ultimately desirable, Mill argues, because for such individuals, virtue is desirable because it forms a part of their happiness. Virtue, according to the utilitarian doctrine, is not naturally and originally part of the end, but it is capable of becoming so […] There was no original desire of it, or motive to it, save its conduciveness to pleasure, and especially to protection from pain.

But through the association thus formed, it may be felt a good in itself, and desired as such with as great intensity as any other good. Utilitarianism X: —6. At this point, they may be desired in themselves—and quite apart from their results. We shall discuss this claim further below section 4. It allows Mill to argue that nothing apart from happiness is ultimately desired. The underlying thought is that the good of a group of people can be no other than the sum of the good of its members. But the argument goes deeper than this plausible claim, relying on stronger premises. One might well argue, for instance, that to add to the happiness of the already content or the undeserving is not to add to the general good at the same level as adding to the happiness of the discontent or deserving: that the value of happiness is in part determined by where it occurs.

Mill does not, however, consider these objections. It is not, of course, a proof in the traditional sense of being a logical deduction of the principle of utility. X: Being based on critical examination of how we do reason, claims about how we ought to reason—whether practically or theoretically—must remain provisional, and open to ongoing correction by further observations of our reasoning practices. The content of this claim, however, clearly depends to a great extent upon what is meant by happiness.

Mill gives what seems to be a clear and unambiguous statement of his meaning. That statement has seemed to many to commit Mill, at a basic level, to hedonism as an account of happiness and a theory of value—that it is pleasurable sensations that are the ultimately valuable thing. Mill departs from the Benthamite account, however, which holds that if two experiences contain equal quantities of pleasure, then they are thereby equally valuable.

In contrast, Mill argues that. Some pleasures are, by their nature, of a higher quality than others—and as such are to be valued more. If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference […] that is the more desirable pleasure. The claim is one purely relating to value ordering—that there can exist experiences h and l , such that h is more valuable than l , despite l containing an equal or greater quantity of pleasure than h.

Some commentators Riley have claimed that Mill holds that any quantity of a higher pleasure is more valuable than any quantity of a lower pleasure on the basis of the following passage:. If one of the two [pleasures] is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it […] and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality.

The claim that it would be rational to sacrifice any amount of a lower pleasure for a minuscule amount of a higher pleasure, though, seems too implausible to attribute to Mill—and in the passage cited, he only registers a sufficient condition for considering one pleasure of a higher quality to another, and not a necessary condition Saunders ; Miller In fact, Mill gives very little indication as to how to weigh quality against quantity of pleasure—he simply does not speak to the specifics of how varying quantities of pleasures at varying qualities are to be reconciled against one another. The question remains as to which sorts of pleasures are of higher quality than others. As well as pleasures of the mind, he holds that pleasures gained in activity are of a higher quality than those gained passively Liberty , XVIII: ; cf.

Ultimately, however, the quality of any given pleasure must itself be a substantive question, to be addressed by ongoing experimentation and comparison of the preferences of competent judges—those who have experienced, and appreciated, the sorts of pleasure being compared. The lurking suspicion for many has been that in distinguishing qualities of pleasure, Mill departs from hedonism. If Mill claims that a small amount of pleasure can be more valuable than a high amount , anti-hedonist interpreters suggests, it must be on the grounds of valuing something apart from the pleasurable experience itself—for if Mill valued solely the pleasurable experience , then he would always value more pleasurable experience over less.

Mill must, that is to say, consider high quality pleasures more valuable not on account of their pleasantness, but on some other grounds—i. But this would be to abandon hedonism. While talk of for instance virtue as a part of happiness is certainly intelligible, it is perhaps less obvious that it is compatible with his hedonism. Those who doubt whether Mill remains a hedonist have in general claimed that Mill moves towards a eudaimonistic or perfectionist account of happiness Brink 46ff. There are occasions when Mill makes claims which lend themselves to such an interpretation. It is certainly true that, in attempting to combine the best of eighteenth-century empiricism and nineteenth-century romanticism, Mill gravitated towards character as the locus of practical theorizing Devigne

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