John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism Research Proposal

Pages: 5 (1730 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Black Studies - Philosophy

John Stuart Mill's philosophy of utilitarianism were a popular moral guidepost for leadership today, it would be interesting to see how many leaders embrace the idea that actions are correct so long as they lead to the promotion of contemporary definitions of happiness. It would be fascinating indeed to witness the justifications for actions by leaders on moral grounds made fertile through various and sundry interpretations of Mill's utilitarianism. [Who's happiness, for example, is to be achieved? And what are ends to which society must go for the greatest number of persons to find happiness? Would this philosophy be effective today - not likely - or is it just the fanciful philosophy of a very bright 19th Century mind? These are the moral and practical question that should be addressed - and even today as the U.S. faces crises that affect millions of citizens, Mill's ideas should be challenged and adopted if valid.] Among the many who claim leadership authority - even those who use questionable and/or deceptive tactics to obtain elective positions of power - there will be those whose definition of "happiness" dovetails with narrow constituencies, notwithstanding the moral repugnance of those definitions. And therein lies the potential for the perversion of John Stuart Mill. In the same way that quotations from the Holy Bible can be taken out of context to justify modern day homophobia, or even slavery, it is also easy to take what was written by Mill in the 19th Century and fit it neatly into the box of best ideas in 2008. Hence, a close examination of utilitarianism is preferable to broad generalizations or passages lifted out of context.

What is the nature of ethical action, according to Mill? Mill put forward the notion that actions are correct in direct correlation to the possibility that those actions "tend to promote happiness" (Mill, Chapter 2, p. 407). He believed that the rightness or wrongness of a person's action is not solely dependant upon the motive - but rather on the intention. Intention: when an individual has an aim towards accomplishing something that will promote a general sense of happiness; he visualizes the potential outcome of that action, and he ["she" could be substituted here] then has clear intentions and is committed to going forward with an ethical act. Motive: this is less than intention; motive is merely a sensation, a feeling and a sense that a certain action may be correct. The individual contemplates the outcome but is not ethically motivated to arrive there. And so, it is an ethical act under Mill's theory if the individual's act intends to further aggregate happiness for the greater society, and is not just based on a motive.

Rebuttal to Mill's assertions in the previous paragraph: In Chapter V Mill identifies utility as something a person has a duty to do in terms of promoting happiness. His intention is to provide evidence of his assertions - but what does he offers as proof falls short. To wit, Mill wants to maximize "aggregate happiness" through strong intentions by individuals - but for whose community? All communities do not seek happiness in the same light. "...The sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it... [and] 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, Chapter 4, pp. 438-439). Leading up to the above-mentioned passage, Mill asserts that to be "visible" is to be seen, and to be "audible" means something is heard. So, his logic continues, "The sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it," he continues on page 438. But wait, the rhythm of his assessment is broken: the word "desirable" cannot mean that something is "to be desired." And taking it a step further, simply because one village within the larger nation desires a certain thing (say, jobs, or rainfall, or lower taxes) doesn't mean that it is "to be desired" or even "should be desired" by the whole nation. What's desired for people in snowbound Wisconsin in January isn't what will be desired in south Florida in the same time of year. There can't be an aggregate happiness in that sense.

Mill states that the person of "higher faculties" needs more to make him happy and is "capable probably of more acute suffering" (Mill, Chapter II, pp. 409-410). Further, he asserts that the person of "higher faculties" has more opportunities to be unhappy and to suffer than the person of lesser faculties. A reader can assume here that Mill is referring to persons with better education, with presumably more intelligence, and likely as well persons of higher social standing. Still, Mill insists, that person of higher intelligence would not wish to "sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence" because that person of higher faculties has pride, or has power that is not easily given up. He goes on to explain that the reason a person with higher faculties would never wish to be a person with lesser faculties - even though being in the lower category might mean less suffering - because that person would not to give up the excitement and dignity that goes along with the higher category of intellect and achievement.

Rebuttal to Mill's assertions in the previous paragraph: First of all, Mill is seemingly delving into psychology in this portion of Chapter II. How does he know for example that persons possess dignity based on the level of their faculties? Is there not some human dignity in even the most simple, uneducated persons? Did he not study Plato, and did he fail to read Plato's story about the bad butcher, in which Plato points out through metaphor of cutting up meat that there is no objective way to determine how much dignity an individual has? That aside, Mill is only trying to point out that those with higher faculties want more power and more things and have more brainpower, hence they feel more pain than the person with lower faculties who either doesn't know enough to want more things or simply doesn't want that happiness because that person knows he can never achieve it. But by bringing in "dignity" to the discussion, he enters a sphere that seems more appropriate for psychology and sociology than philosophy. Also, Mill asserts on page 410 of Chapter II that it is "indisputable" that a "highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect." That is a very generalized statement and difficult to justify. While an alert and interested reader knows that philosophers often paint on a canvas of ideas with broad brushstrokes, Mill seems out of his league in this portion of his narrative. To wit, although the person more highly "endowed" will never be happy, that person can "learn to bear its imperfections" if those imperfections are "at all bearable." Again, Mill is dipping into psychology here, and he is going where only Sigmund Freud should go: no matter how highly endowed a person is, if that person's neighbor is equally endowed, there is no way they both have the same capabilities to bear the burden of their imperfections.

Mill expands his explanation that the limits of happiness are based on the level (high or low) of one's faculties with the pig vs. human equation: "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied," Mill explains (Mill, Chapter II, p. 410). The "intrinsic superiority" of "the higher" level of people leads them to understand, Mill goes on, that shooting for a lower level (more immediate level) of happiness and pleasure helps them avoid the unhappiness that may inevitably occur by not attaining the bigger prize. One takes that to mean for example, that rather than attempt to become romantically involved (Mill alludes to "sensual indulgences") with the most gorgeous woman in the room - and be turned down - a male may seek the "nearer good" (a woman not quite as lovely but more available) in order to remain happy and avoid what Mill asserts on page 410 of Chapter II as "the injury of health. He is specifically alluding to men who suffer from "infirmity of character" in this instance.

Rebuttal to Mill's assertions in the previous paragraph: First, Mill's comparison between a human and a pig along with the juxtaposition with Socrates and a fool is very elegant prose. Mill in fact probably gets away with numerous contentions in his Utilitarianism because the writing is so lovely and melodic. Indeed it is much easier reading than other philosophers such as Kant, for example. But while Mill is known as a brilliant thinker, when he alludes to "intrinsic superiority" in some people, he becomes… [END OF PREVIEW]

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