Mill’s Refutation of Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is famous for its many flaws (e.g. committing the naturalistic fallacy, positing a simplistic psychological theory, failing to come to terms with ethical distinctions). All these, and more, have been dealt with extensively elsewhere. Here I merely wish to show that if one of J. S. Mill’s arguments succeeds, then Utilitarianism fails.

Mill summarizes the Utilitarian stance as follows:

“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.”

This standard formulation could just as easily been found in Bentham’s writings or any other Utilitarian. What is remarkable, though, is that Mill immediately contradicts this creed.

Under Bentham’s account of Utilitarianism, an act can be better or worse than another by the amount of pleasure or pain that it produces. However, this pain (or pleasure) is to be thought of in strictly quantitative terms; the only difference between one pain and another is the amount of it. In this respect it is striking to see how this ethical theory parallels Newton’s atomic theory. Both posit uniform quanta that are the fundamental building-blocks of the whole theory. Each single bit is completely identical to every other bit and, ex hypothesi, the only way to change force or action would be to add or remove bits.

While this move might be plausible in physics it is hard to countenance such a notion in morality since it places the pleasure of hearing Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos on the same level as drinking a six pack of Bud.  If the former brings more pleasure it is only because it brings a greater quantity of it.  It is here that Mill departed from Bentham’s version Utilitarianism. It is also here that he rejected Utilitarianism in principle.

In taking what he called the “higher ground,” Mill argued that quality of pleasure as well as quantity should be allowed into Utilitarianism. Some activities (or things) are intrinsically better than others. Mill demonstrates this by showing that some men choose activities that they believe will bring a higher quality of pleasure even if these same activities bring with them greater discontent (i.e. pain) than other lower pleasures would. So, for example, Mill can make sense out of the fact that one chooses Bach over Bud since the former is of higher quality.

Mill gives away his hand, though, when he talks about a hypothetical man who is experienced in two different types of pleasures (say music listening and beer drinking). As it turns out, this hypothetical man will always choose the tastes of finer things (Bach) to that of the baser (beer).

But there are problems with this. First, there are cultured men who regularly prefer baser pleasures to higher ones (as the lives of Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde atest). Second, this ideal man is strictly a literary device. Through him, Mill is able to sneak in his own priorities. Third and most importantly, this ideal man becomes the final arbiter of goodness. Pleasure can now be evaluated by reference to something else. And if the standard of goodness lies outside the Principle of Utility, the Principle is at best usurped from its vaulted position and at worst becomes superfluous. In either case Utilitarianism fails.

Pure Benthamite Utilitarianism is too fatuous for serious considerations. However, the interesting ways in which Mill tries to “tinker” with Bentham’s views turns out to undermine the whole structure. Mill cannot have it both ways: either the principle of utility is the standard of good (and end up with Bentham’s pleasure calculus) or something else is. By introducing degrees of qualities, though, Mill added something that Utilitarian machinery is unable to handle; something that is, nevertheless, essential to moral discourse. Thus, insofar as Mill was able to recognize the necessity of degrees of goodness and reject the notion of quantified pleasure “atoms,” he improved on Bentham. Yet, Mill was unable to see, for whatever reason, that quality-talk is fundamentally incoherent on a Utilitarian view.

One thought on “Mill’s Refutation of Utilitarianism

  1. Would you agree that what happened in the USA was a move from “constitutional or not” (largely) to what provides the best for the greatest number” and that the latter is to be determined by majority vote? Out with the Republic and in with Democracy? Thus “just war” is not to be the standard by which we judge our foreign policy with Iraq, but utilitarianism (in theory). Even u. has failed, as the war-mongering cabal has taken over the government (neo-cons and their financial backers, the military-industrial complex).

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