Mill’s Proof of Utilitarianism

April 8, 2019 by Essay Writer

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. If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons. Happiness has made out its title as one of the ends of conduct, and consequently one of the criteria of morality.– J.S. Mill, UtilitarianismMill’s proof of the utilitarian doctrine, that happiness is the only thing desirable as an end, has been accused of committing more than one error. Scholars have berated the fourth chapter of Mill’s Utilitarianism for containing sloppy logic, false analogies, and improper generalizations. He apparently misuses an analogy between the way the senses perceive information about what is true, and the way that we can tell if something is desirable, confusing what is capable of being desired with what is worthy of being desired. Later, he seems to make an unjustified generalization from the claim that happiness is a good to each individual, to happiness being a collective good worthy of promoting. In this paper, I will give an interpretation of Mill’s proof that rescues him from committing the naturalistic fallacy, and the fallacy of aggregation. This interpretation hinges on a close reading of the third paragraph of Chapter Four and a clarification of what Mill really means when he says that happiness is a “good” to each person. The origins of Mill’s method are empiricist; his proof is grounded in experience and observation, which empiricists believe to be the sources of knowledge. Alternative theories suppose the existence of a priori knowledge, or try to base proofs on intuitive or innate notions. But to evaluate Mill’s proof, we must first accept this epistemological theory of knowledge. This theoretical perspective informs proof and examples Mill offers, which draw from our experiences and from what seems innately true. The proof that appears in chapter four is meant to show that happiness is desirable as an end, and that it is the only thing desirable as an end. Essential to this proof is the controversial claim that the only way we can know if something is desirable is that people do actually desire it. This central contention is the source of much debate, but I will discuss its validity for now. First, I will examine the context in which Mill makes this claim. Mill’s project is to demonstrate that people do, in fact, desire happiness (and happiness alone). He admits that there are things that people desire which seem to be apart from happiness: money or power, for example. But the pursuit of an end that seems to be distinct from happiness, Mill argues, must be driven by a desire to seek pleasure. “Whatever is desired otherwise than as a means to some ends beyond itself, and ultimately to happiness, is desired as itself a part of happiness, and is not desired for itself until it has become so,” (Mill, 37). This is a fail-safe conception, according to Mill, for even if we desire things that are not happiness, we do them only because they produce pleasure, which is itself a part of happiness. In that way, when we desire things apart from happiness in and of themselves, we do so because they ultimately produce that happiness which is our ultimate end. While Mill acknowledges that people might pursue things other than happiness, he insists that they never desire to do so. Since, according to his conception, desire serves as the only evidence of moral value, happiness reappears as the only end worth pursuing.After addressing the separate ends apart from happiness that humans seem to pursue, Mill sums up his defense by claiming that with “practiced self-consciousness and self-observation, assisted by observation of others” we can discern that people do, in fact, desire happiness and happiness alone as the ultimate end, (Mill, 38). This is all the evidence Mill believes he needs to successfully prove that happiness is uniquely desirable for every- and anyone. Criticisms of Mill’s Proof: The Naturalistic Fallacy and the Fallacy of AggregationThe first objections to Mill’s proof arise from his earlier claim about the way we know something is desirable. In the first phrases of this third paragraph, Mill compares this process by engaging an argument from visibility to desirability: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, (Mill, 34).Just as we take someone having seen something as evidence that it is visible, so, Mill argues, do we take someone actually desiring something as evidence that it is desirable. This argument provides the shape for Mill’s claim that happiness it the only thing desirable as an end.Mill’s analogy is a response to the opening claim of the fourth chapter, which is that “questions of ultimate ends do not admit proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term,” (Mill, 34). According to Mill, proving that humans desire happiness uniquely as their ultimate end will not be possible by ordinary means. Instead, he seeks to convince the reader through this analogy. Mill asserts not simply the validity of his analogy from visibility to desirability, but also the exclusive power of his example to serve as proof for his claim.This is also where Mill supposedly commits the naturalistic fallacy, sometimes called the “is-ought” fallacy because it involves the confusion of what seems to be the case with what ought to be the case. It emerges as Mill appears to confuse two possible meanings of the word “desirable.” His line of reasoning posits that the only evidence it is possible to procure that something is visible or audible is that someone sees or hears it. We use our senses to assign these qualities to objects. Similarly, Mill would like to argue, the fact that something is desirable can only be proved by whether or not people view it as such. If people desire something, then, it is desirable. It is this line of reasoning which leads Mill to claim that he has provided the only possible proof that happiness is, indeed, desirable as an end. And from here, he goes on to show that happiness is the only thing desirable as an end. But critics of this argument argue that, even if his line of reasoning from visibility to desirability were valid, it would prove only that happiness is “capable of being desired’ in the same way that something might be capable of being seen. This analogy cannot make any claim about the second meaning of “desirable” — whether happiness is at all valuable or worth desiring. It is this second definition of desirable that Mill needs to prove. As Moore seems to points out:Mill has, then, smuggled in, under cover of the word ‘desirable,’ the very notion about which he out to be quite clear. ‘Desirable’ does indeed mean ‘what it is good to desire’; but when this is understood, it is no longer plausible to say that our only test of that is what is actually desired, (Moore, 67). Indeed, Mill’s original assertion is that there are no ordinary methods of proof available for the claim that happiness is the only thing capable of being desired. But once understood in this way – not as what it is possible to desire, but as what is worthy of being desired — desirability seems to admit alternative sources of evaluation. When Mill moves to ascribe moral value to the pursuit of happiness based on this apparent example of the naturalistic fallacy, critics claim that his analogy undermines his entire argument.In the very same paragraph, Mill continues to commit a second apparent fallacy; after moving from the observation that people do, in fact, desire their own happiness, to the claim that happiness is desirable as an end, he contends that the general happiness is desirable. To Mill, it seems to follow logically, from the conclusion that happiness is desirable to each individual person, that the general happiness is desirable: “No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness,” (Mill, 34). This is known to critics as the fallacy of aggregation, since Mill does not appear to provide any compelling reason we should believe that, since individuals perceive their happiness as a good, that the aggregate of all persons’ happiness would be considered a good. It seems just as reasonable to deduce that people would consider their own happiness to be a good, but have no similar feeling about happiness for all people.Rescuing Mill from These Two Fallacies: A Reinterpretation of What it Means to Be “A Good”Mill claims that whether or not happiness is the only thing desirable as an end cannot be proved by ordinary logical methods. “It has already been remarked that questions of ultimate ends do not admit proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term,” (Mill, 34). Instead, the validity of such a principle can be brought out by examining our experience, and determining whether or not it seems to be the case – based on the way we conduct ourselves – that something is a good.For something to be a good is for it to be recognizable as something that is desired in and of itself, and regardless of who is the recipient. Anyone would recognize a good as valuable and desirable, independently of whether or not it was valuable or desirable to them, personally. For example, suppose that there were delicious candy right in front of me. Regardless of whether or not I get a piece of that candy, I acknowledge that it is a good; it is something desirable, not in the sense that it is “capable of being desired” , but that it is worthy of being desired. The value we place on this candy makes it a good because it does not depend on whose good it is — its worth is intrinsic to its nature.This is what Mill means to convey when he declares that “the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it,” (Mill, 34). The only way to come to a conclusion about what is valuable as an end is to determine whether or not people recognize that end as an intrinsically valuable good. The only way that we know that candy is a good is that anyone would admit to its value: (and regardless of whether or not it was theirs). As Tim Mawson describes in his interpretation of Mill, “Actually being (ultimately) desired is the only evidence we could have that a thing is capable of being (ultimately) desired,” (Mawson, 397). It is this objective determination of what is desirable which leads Mill to claim that happiness is a good. Thus while it seems that Mill commits the naturalistic fallacy, such a reinterpretation of what it means to be a “good” has the immediate effect of rescuing him. While he appears to confuse what is the case with what ought to be the case, in fact, Mill is actually trying to make an empirical claim about the nature of the way we know something to be the case. According to this view, “we have the concepts, evidence, and knowledge we do only thanks to our having experiences of a certain sort,” (Sayre-McCord, 12). In this way, we can only know that something ought to be desired based on conclusions we can draw from what we observe people desiring. The things we desire are objectively valuable “goods.” Mill is depending on the fact that we desire something as establishing that we see it as a good. We have no other way of knowing that something should be desired other than to ascertain whether or not that thing is a good. If something is a good, then it is objectively valuable, and therefore worthy of promoting.It is Mill’s very conception of what it means to be a good which rescues him from the fallacy of aggregation. To Mill, that “happiness is a good to the aggregate of persons” is a corollary of happiness being a good. By “the aggregate of persons,” Mill does not mean to claim that the general happiness is a good to each and every individual. Instead, he claims that those individuals who hold that their own happiness is a good to them as an individual are committed to view the happiness of others as a good to those others. If I recognize that my own happiness is a good to me, then I acknowledge that happiness is a good to anyone who desires it. Thus, the happiness of all people is a good to all people. This, again, follows from Mill’s conception of the objective value of a “good.” In this light, we have rescued Mill from the apparent fallacy of aggregation that exists in his claim that:…we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons, (Mill, 34). This statement is logically valid so long as we accept Mill’s premise – his conception of a “good.” From that premise, it follows both that individuals desire their own happiness, and that the general happiness is desired by the collective of all people. ConclusionWhile this interpretation rescues Mill from committing two obvious and costly errors, it also adjusts the scope of his claim. When he wrote this defense of utilitarianism as a doctrine, he must have had a particular sort of audience in mind: someone who would be willing to acknowledge that they view their own happiness as a good. Mill then demonstrates that this acknowledgement is the only evidence we could ever possible ascertain to prove that happiness is desirable. He concludes that happiness must be desirable because people do desire it, just as something must be visible if people do see it.But what of those who would not agree to this original contention, that we view happiness as a “good?” This is a question which Mill himself does not address. His method is to identify notions which people generally hold, and show that those generally-accepted ideas commit people to further conclusions. Mill observes that happiness seems to be desirable, and intends to use this as happiness that happiness is the only thing desirable as an end. If we would not agree, as we very well might not, that people seem to desire happiness – that they instead seek other things, like power – then Mill has in fact done nothing in this chapter to convince us of his view. Works CitedMawson, Tim. “Mill’s Proof.” Philosophy. Vol. 77 No. 301 (2002): 375-405.Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Edit. George Sher. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1979.Moore, George E. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903.Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey. “Mill’s ‘Proof’ of the Principle of Utility: A More Than Half-Hearted Defense.” Social Philosophy and Policy. Vol. 18 No. 2 (2001): 330-360.

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