Utilitarianism: Mill

Utilitarianism: Mill

Mill book IV.pdf

Mill’s theory of right action = “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.” (pp. 7-8) Mill’s theory of value = Pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things that are desirable as ends. (p. 8) Pleasure and freedom from pain = Happiness. So, happiness is the only thing that is desirable as an end. For Mill, being desirable as an end = being intrinsically good.

Utilitarianism: Mill

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Harriet Taylor (1807-1858)

1.  Just like in the case of a sound being audible, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable (as an end), is that people do actually desire it (as an end). (p. 25)

2.  People actually desire happiness (as an end).

3.  So happiness is desirable as an end. But, one’s own happiness or the general happiness?

Theory of Value: Mill’s Argument, first step

4.  Each person’s happiness is a good to that person (p. 25).

5.  The general happiness is an aggregate of each person’s happiness.

6.  So the general happiness is an good to everybody.

So, the general happiness is desirable by everyone as an end. But, is it the only end that is desirable? Do people ever desire anything else?

Theory of Value: Mill’s Argument, second step

7.  The sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable (as an end), is that people actually desire it (as an end) (p. 25)

8.  When people desire things other than (the general) happiness (virtue, money), they desire them as means to happiness or as part of happiness (pp. 26-27).

9.  The general happiness is the only thing

desirable as an end. “What was once desired as an instrument for the attainment of happiness has come to be desired for its own sake. In being desired for its own sake it is, however, desired as part of happiness. The person is made or thinks he would be made, happy by its mere possession; and is made unhappy by failure to attain it.” (p. 26)

Theory of Value: Mill’s Argument, third step


“I sketch out in this chapter some of the features and the dynamic of what I see as a particularly pervasive – though hardly theorized – form of ignorance, what could be called white ignorance, linked to white supremacy.” (p. 15)

“The phrase “white ignorance” implies the possibility of a contrasting “knowledge,” a contrast that would be lost if all claims to truth were equally spurious, or just a matter of competing discourses (…) mapping an epistemology of ignorance is for me a preliminary to reformulating an epistemology that will give us genuine knowledge.” (p. 15)

Charles Mills: White Ignorance

Charles Mills 1951-Present

White Ignorance = group-based cognitive handicap (p. 15) “that is not contingent, but in which race – white racism and/or white racial domination and their ramifications – plays a crucial causal role.” (p. 20)

“So white ignorance is best thought of as a cognitive tendency – an inclination, a doxastic disposition – which is not insuperable. If there is a sociology of knowledge, then there should also be a sociology of ignorance.” (p. 23).

White ignorance is a tendency of cognizers where privilege “tend(s) to produce self-deception, bad faith, evasion, and misrepresentation.” (p. 17)

White Ignorance: Definition

1. White ignorance is a historical phenomenon (whiteness is a product of the modern period) (p. 20).

2. Race plays a “determining role” in white ignorance (other types of ignorance may be present in white people, but they do not count as white ignorance if the ignorance is not caused by their being white) (pp. 20-21).

3. In some cases, it is hard to make the determination that something is properly classified as white ignorance (use of counterfactuals) (p. 21).

4. White ignorance need not always be based on bad faith (p. 21). 5. White Ignorance is not confined to white people (p. 22). 6. White racial ignorance can produce a doxastic environment where black racial

ignorance flourish (p. 22). 7. White ignorance includes moral ignorance (= incorrect judgments about the

rights and wrongs of moral situations themselves) (p. 22). 8. White ignorance is not the only kind of privileged, group-based ignorance (p.

22). Male ignorance is another example. 9. White ignorance is not uniform across the white population (people have

other identities besides racial ones. Such identities may allow them to overcome racially-based ignorance) (pp. 22-23).

10. The point of understanding white ignorance is that we want to avoid the cognitive processes that typically give rise to false beliefs. We want to “understand how certain social structures tend to promote these crucially flawed processes, how to personally extricate oneself from them.” (p. 23).

Clarifying White Ignorance

Perception: “the concept is driving the perception, with whites aprioristically intent on denying what is before them.” (p. 27) For example, the concept “savage” makes it so that whites do not see who they describe as “savage” as a human (p. 27).

Another example (?) not cited by Mills: Effects of belief on perceptual categorization (Payne 2001).

Participants primed with the face of a black man are more likely to take a hand tool (e.g. pliers) to be a gun, compared to participants who are primed with the face of a white man.

Examples of White Ignorance

Conception: “Whiteness” = full humanity (white normativity) “Savage” = not fully human

“In the classic period of European expansionism, it then becomes possible to speak with no sense of absurdity of “empty” lands that are actually teeming with millions of people, of “discovering” countries whose inhabitants already exist, because the non-white Other is so located in the guiding conceptual array that different rules apply.” (p. 27)

Memory: Deliberate forgetting (Armenians and Congolese genocides. The politics of colorblindess is also an act of deliberate forgetting according to Mills) (pp. 28-29).

Downplaying some historical events (the Indian wars or whitewashing the atrocities of slavery ) and elevating others (monuments of confederate leaders) (p. 30).

Examples of White Ignorance

Testimony: Testimonial injustice

“Yet if one group, or a specific group, of potential witnesses is discredited in advance as being epistemically suspect, then testimony from the group will tend to be dismissed or never solicited to being with.” (p. 31)

Black testimony is aprioristically rejected (p. 32).

Motivated (group) irrationality Emotion-biased decision or cognitive evaluation (p. 34).

“As emphasized at the start, then, these analytically distinguishable cognitive components are in reality all interlocked with and reciprocally determining one another, jointly contributing to the blindness of the white eye.” (p. 35)

Examples of White Ignorance

Mill book II.pdf

Mill provides both a theory of value and a theory of right action. Theory of value = account of what is of fundamental value, or of what is intrinsically good (Mill occasionally calls this a “theory of life”) Theory of right action = account of what makes actions good or bad. (Connection = what makes an action good or bad is likely dependent on what is of intrinsic value.)

Utilitarianism: Mill

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Harriet Taylor (1807-1858)

“A passing remark is all that needs be given to the ignorant blunder of supposing that those who stand up for utility as the test of right and wrong use the term in that restricted and merely colloquial sense in which utility is opposed to pleasure.” (p. 7) Actions are right or good in so far as they promote utility.

Mill’s Theory of Right Action

“Those who know anything about the matter are aware that every writer, from Epicurus to Bentham, who maintained the theory of utility meant by it, not something to be contradistinguished from pleasure, but pleasure itself, together with exemption from pain;” (p. 7) Greatest Happiness Principle: “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.” (pp. 7-8) So, when are actions right? Actions are right or good in so far as they promote happiness (pleasure and the absence of pain).

What is Utility? Happiness

Actions are right or good in proportion as they tend to promote happiness (they tend to promote pleasure and the absence of pain). “that standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” (p. 10) “I must again repeat that the assailants of utilitarianism seldom have the justice to acknowledge, that the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.” (p. 14)

Whose happiness? The general happiness

What is intrinsically good? “pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends; and (…) all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for pleasure inherent in themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.” (p. 8) “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 (…)” (pp. 10-11) Pleasure (and freedom from pain) are intrinsically good and they are the only things that are intrinsically good.

Mill’s Theory of Value

There are things that are good but not pleasurable. To think otherwise is to describe the life of swine (p. 8). Reply: 1. By “pleasure”, the utilitarian does not mean just the basic pleasures (pleasure is different from content). Intellectual pleasures are not just more durable, they are also qualitatively better. (pp. 8-11) How do we tell what pleasures are qualitatively better? We ask competent judges (people who have tried the different types of pleasure). (p. 8 -11) 2. What is at issue is the general happiness not the individual’s happiness. If some virtues do not make the individual happy they may still make the general public happy. (p. 10)

Objection to Mill’s Theory of Value

“Unquestionably it is possible to do without happiness; it is done involuntarily by nineteen-twentieths of mankind, even in those parts of our present world which are least deep in barbarism; and it often has to be done voluntarily by the hero or the martyr, for the sake of something which he prizes more than his individual happiness. But this something, what is it, unless the happiness of others or some of the requisites of happiness? It is noble to be capable of resigning entirely one’s own portion of happiness, or chances of it: but, after all, this self-sacrifice must be for some end; it is not its own end; and if we are told that its end is not happiness, but virtue, which is better than happiness, I ask, would the sacrifice be made if the hero or martyr did not believe that it would earn for others immunity from similar sacrifices? (…) All honour to those who can abnegate for themselves the personal enjoyment of life, when by such renunciation they contribute worthily to increase the amount of happiness in the world; but he who does it, or professes to do it, for any other purpose, is no more deserving of admiration than the ascetic mounted on his pillar. He may be an inspiriting proof of what men can do, but assuredly not an example of what they should.” (p. 13)

The Martyr and the Hero

“They say it is exacting too much to require that people shall always act from the inducement of promoting the general interests of society. But this is to mistake the very meaning of a standard of morals, and confound the rule of action with the motive of it. It is the business of ethics to tell us what are our duties, or by what test we may know them; but no system of ethics requires that the sole motive of all we do shall be a feeling of duty; on the contrary, ninety-nine hundredths of all our actions are done from other motives, and rightly so done, if the rule of duty does not condemn them. It is the more unjust to utilitarianism that this particular misapprehension should be made a ground of objection to it, inasmuch as utilitarian moralists have gone beyond almost all others in affirming that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent. He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty, or the hope of being paid for his trouble; he who betrays the friend that trusts him, is guilty of a crime, even if his object be to serve another friend to whom he is under greater obligations.” (p. 14)

Motives vs. Consequences

“for certainly no known ethical standard decides an action to be good or bad because it is done by a good or bad man, still less because done by an amiable, a brave, or a benevolent man, or the contrary. These considerations are relevant, not to the estimation of actions, but of persons; and there is nothing in the utilitarian theory inconsistent with the fact that there are other things which interest us in persons besides the rightness and wrongness of their actions.” (p. 15) “[Utilitarians] are also aware that a right action does not necessarily indicate a virtuous character, and that actions which are blamable often proceed from qualities entitled to praise.” (p. 15)

Worth of action vs. Worth of agent

Two examples: •  Suppose that a tyrant, when his enemy jumped into

the sea to escape from him, saved him from drowning simply in order that he might inflict upon him more exquisite tortures. Would it be right to speak of that rescue as a morally right action?

•  Suppose that a man betrayed a trust received from a

friend, because the discharge of it would fatally injure that friend himself or someone belonging to him. Would utilitarianism call the betrayal ‘a crime’ as much as if it had been done from the meanest motive?

The tyrant’s actions seem wrong in virtue of his motive. The man who betrays a trust deserves at least some exculpation in virtue of his motive.

What would (should) Mill say about these cases?

Do motives matter to the morality of actions?

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