Consequentialist Rule Ethics: Mill I. Introduction: Modernity



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Lecture VI

Consequentialist Rule Ethics: Mill


I. Introduction: Modernity

A. Beginning in the Modern period, philosophers diverged from the virtue-ethics emphasis of their predecessors.

B. Many Modern philosophers found the ancient and medieval focus on the virtue (the psychology, the character, the disposition) of the morally good person too abstruse.

C. It would be much more effective, Modern philosophers argued, to delineate concrete rules for conduct.

II. Rule Ethics: Consequentialism

A. One way to accomplishing this would be to identify the consequences, the results, of various actions and gauge one’s moral behavior accordingly.

B. The consequences of actions would, of course, have to be interpreted according to some notion of the highest moral good.

C. This might be:

1. God’s will (Divine Command Theory)

2. Self-determination given concrete earthly conditions (Existentialism)

3. Escape from the State of Nature (Social Contractarianism)

4. Individual pleasure (Egoism)

5. Collective societal pleasure (Utilitarianism)

III. Utilitarianism

A. First posited by English philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832 CE) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

B. Bentham: Pleasure is the highest moral good. He writes: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure” (The Principles of Morals and Legislation).

C. Upon this foundation Bentham erects his consequentialistic ethical framework: “It is for [pain and pleasure] alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne” (The Principles of Morals and Legislation).

D. An action is not to be calculated by the results for the individual alone, but rather for society collectively.

E. Social good distinguishes Egoism from Utilitarianism.

IV. Mill


A. According to Mill, it is a psychological fact that all people seek happiness (cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics).

B. All things humans do are either valued in-and-of themselves as ends of happiness, or as means to happiness. Mill writes: “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either fro the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain” (Utilitarianism).

C. Qualitative Hedonism

1. Happiness, for Mill, is physical as well as mental.

2. Whereas Bentham tended to focus on physical pleasure, Mill argues that pleasure for humans is also mental. Mill writes: “it is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that, while in estimating all other things quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasure should be supposed to depend on quantity alone” (Utilitarianism).

3. Pleasure, or happiness, is equivalent to the absence of pain, or unhappiness.

D. Principle of Utility

1. Mill weaves threads of consequentialism and happiness into one ethical principle, which is the keystone of his rule ethics, the Principle of Utility.

2. Mill writes: “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” (Utilitarianism).

V. Objections and Replies

A. Dispensability of happiness

1. Objection: People should learn to do without happiness (cf. Nietzsche’s criticism of Utilitarianism in On the Genealogy of Morals that morality should not be about the slavish pursuit of pleasure.

2. Reply: Yes, Mill says, people should learn how to do without the selfish, egoistic pursuit of pleasure, but not the pursuit of collective, societal happiness.

B. Unattainability of happiness

1. Objection: Happiness is a unattainable goal for humans

2. Reply: Yes, Mill says, this objection is true if “happiness” is taken to mean a constant state of continuous ecstasy. But happiness for humans is not a constant state of perpetual ecstasy. Rather, happiness is really periods of tranquility and calm punctuated by excitement, and this form of happiness is attainable.

C. Degradation of humanness

1. Objection: The Principle of Utility reduces humans to non-human animals, specifically, pigs in search of slovenly physical gratification.

2. Reply: Not so, Mill says, as there are different grades (qualities) of pleasures.

a. Mental pleasures, which humans are capable of enjoying, are qualitatively better than physical pleasures.

b. Mental pleasures are safer, more durable, and less likely to lead to unpleasant side effects than physical pleasures.

c. Why? Mill offers the Competent Judges Criterion: a “competent judge” a person who has experienced both mental pleasures and physical pleasure, and chooses, consistently, one type over the other. Mill writes: “Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure” (Utilitarianism).

d. The outcome for humans is that, as competent judges, individuals would never choose to forego mental pleasure for physical pleasures. Mill writes: “Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs” (Utilitarianism).

e. Mill drives the point home by comparing Socrates and a pig in one of the most memorable passages in Western ethics: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question” (Utilitarianism).

D. Conclusion: Mill’s ethical system is “qualitative consequentialistic collective hedonism.”

VI. Application of Utilitarianism: Two approaches

A. Rule Utilitarianism: adopt rules which forbid actions which are “generally injurious” in order to promote collective happiness in the long run.

B. Act Utilitarianism: since there will always be exceptions to general rules, moral agents must consider and analyze each situation individually.

C. Tension: a rule-utilitarian approach would probably suggest truth-telling, while an act-utilitarian approach would probably suggest lying in some situations, for example, to a person in a murderous rage.

D. Mill himself alludes to both approaches, but did not explicitly sort out the relative merits of each. This ambiguity in Utilitarianism has led to an enduring debate in ethics.

V. Virtue

A. Virtue for Mill is the multiplication of happiness (that is, the maximization of the greatest good for the greatest number of people).

B. This is not the virtue of Plato (harmony of the soul), Augustine (obedience to God), or Nietzsche (manifestation of individual creativity).

C. Rather, this is a practical notion of virtue that is very well-suited for public policy decision-making.

1. Catalogue the outcomes of various alternative factions, and then do a cost/benefit analysis of the “happiness” that results from the various alternatives.

2. Out of all the theories we will look at in these short lectures, Utilitarianism is the most useful in economic analyses.



3. The compatibility of Utilitarianism with economic public policy has made American culture fundamentally utilitarian.


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