John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) Utilitarianism (1863)

Addiction ‘Strange’ Pleasures

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  • ‘Strange’ Pleasures

    • The epistemic reading (though more plausible) fails to achieve Mill’s tasks on the constitutive reading the competent judges would prefer one pleasure for no reason.

    • Consistency worry. There has to be something that makes P1 more valuable than P2. This something cannot be pleasure. It has to be valuable. Thus, there are other things good, not only pleasure.

    Consistency Worry

    • Mill’s answer: In case of all other things (for example in case of ice-cream) we distinguish between quantity and quality.

    • Sosa’s answer: qualitative difference on the basis of quantitative difference (whisper and shout)

    General Worries About Hedonism

    • Bishop Butler (1692-1752): Pleasure (and happiness) as a by-product

    • Robert Nozick (1974): The Experience Machine

    • Mill’s answer in Chapter 4: The Formal Conception of Happiness

    Utilitarianism is Too Hard

    • ‘It is exacting too much to require that people shall always act from the inducement of promoting the general interests of society’.

    • Mill’s Answer: ‘But this is to mistake the very meaning of a standard of morality and to confound the rule of action with the motive for it.’

    • In other words, utilitarianism tells us which actions are right, it is silent about motives.

    Davies Objection (fn 2)

    • Saving to make him happy versus saving to harm him later on. Are they both right?

    • Mill’s answer: Had Mr Davies said, ‘The rightness or wrongness of saving a man from drowning does depend very much not upon the motive, but upon the intention’, no utilitarian would have differed from him.

    • The distinction is hard to make

    • It seems to involve a change away from his original answer.

    … but that is not the end of the too-hard objection

    • The objection is not only an objection on the level of motivation but it is an objection against the utilitarian account of rightness itself.

    • Isn’t it sometimes permissible to do what does not maximize general happiness?

    • Wouldn’t it sometimes be wrong to maximize general happiness?


    • An agent-neutral moral theory gives every agent the same aim, e.g. to maximize general happiness.

    • An agent-relative moral theory gives different agents different aims. You, for example, should care about your mother, whereas I should care about my mother.

    • Three areas of agent-relativity: Special Obligation, Personal Projects, Deontological Restrictions. (See T Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Chapter 9)

    Two More Objections

    • Utilitarianism is Godless

    • Utilitarianism is Impractical

    • Mill’s Answer: Don’t be Stupid

    • In more detail: ‘It is a strange notion that the acknowledgment of a first principle is inconsistent with the admissions of secondary ones.’ (That’s the second pointer towards rule-utilitarianism.)

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