Monday, October 28, 2013

Intro to Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill is a great example of a classic consequentialist.  His view in particular is called utilitarianism.   Utilitarianism is the view that in order to determine if an action is good or bad, we must look at the consequences of the act.  Specifically, we must ask whether we can expect the action to give us utility.  Utility is very similar to happiness.  A thing has utility if it causes us more happiness and pleasure than pain and sadness.  In short, utility is net happiness (the happiness left over after we take away all the unhappiness).  Mill's utilitarianism is not an egocentric or self-centered view.  One must not just look at the consequences for oneself; one must also consider the consequences for other people.  Utilitarianism thus requires that we have expectations about the consequences of our behaviors.  Although we may not know the consequence until we act, we must consider the consequences that we do expect to happen.  In short, what makes an action moral is to maximize net expectable utility.  Actions are good if they tend to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

One objection to utilitarianism might be that it excludes the happiness or utility of animals from being relevant to moral considerations.  Someone might think that it is not enough that an action promotes the good of human beings.  Someone might think that we must also consider whether an action promotes utility for animals.

Greatest Happiness Principle: The greatest end or goal is to achieve the absence of pain and to maximize the quality and quantity of our happiness.  We perform all actions in order to achieve this goal (this is a descriptive claim about what motivates our action).

Mill thinks that actions are right if they promote happiness and that actions are wrong if they promote pain or the lack of happiness (this is a normative claim that asserts that what is moral is what promotes happiness; Mill derives a moral normative claim from his psychological descriptive claim).  In other words, if an action multiplies happiness then that action is good.

Happiness is used as a technical term in Mill.  Happiness means pleasure.  Mill talks about two kinds of pleasure, or enjoyment.  Sometimes, he is talking about a kind of mental state, such as being happy or thinking that chocolate cake tastes really good.  Other times, he talks about actions or activities that are likely to produce such pleasant mental states.  Sven call pleasures that are mental states "subjective pleasures" and he calls pleasures that are activities or actions "objective pleasures".

Happiness is measured in two ways: quality (how good of a pleasure is it) and quantity (how much pleasure is there).  Quantity is measured by how many people experience the good.  We can also measure quantity by how long a pleasure lasts or how many time the pleasure is experienced.  Quality can be measured in two ways.  First, we can use a democratic method of determining which pleasures are better; the more people who think a pleasure is desirable, the better the pleasure is.  For example, if more people think that eating ice cream is more desirable than eating bananas, then eating ice cream is a higher (better) good.  Second, Mill thinks that pleasures that involve using our minds and our rational thinking are higher (better) than pleasures that only involve sensation.  For example, using our reasoning skills to solve a math problem is a higher pleasure than eating ice cream.

Mill's Utilitarianism is a Universalism.  This just means that we must consider the happiness of all people.  This means that it is not enough just to consider consequences for our friends, families and neighbors.  Rather, we must consider the consequences for all humans.  Moreover, we must give equal weight to the utility (net happiness) of all people.  This universalistic dimension of Mill's utilitarianism is indicative of the social justice issues that concerned Mill.

Mill thought that social reform could be motivated by utilitarianism.  In the time in which he lived, he noted that happiness was not possible for everyone because the education systems and other social institutions were terrible.  He wanted to create political change that could make happiness possible for even the lowest classes of people.  He thought that disease could be eliminated through sanitation and education.  Mill also thought that poverty could be eliminated by private charity and public welfare.  He also thought that the higher pleasures of the mind should be encouraged by social institutions such as education.

We can sum up Mill's view in four main theses:

Consequentialism: whether an action is right or wrong is determined by the consequences of that action.
Hedonism: we do seek and should seek happiness.  Utility is net happiness (the happiness that is left over after we subtract out our pains).
Maximalism: a good or right action produces the highest number of good consequences and the fewest number of bad consequences.
Universalism: we must give equal weight to the consequences for all people.

Motive vs. Intention. On the one hand,  Mill thinks that our motive is irrelevant to whether an action is good or bad.  Even if we want to do good, our action can still be morally bad if the consequences are bad.  While the motive is unimportant to determine moral worth of actions, Mill thinks that intention is important to determine moral worth of an action.  Motives may be used to determine if a person himself or herself has moral value, but the action is only good or bad if the consequences are good or bad.  On the other hand, intention is relevant to the morality of an action.  Intention is what a person wants to do by an action.  In other words, an intention is just what consequences a person is trying to achieve by his or her actions.  A motive is a feeling about why I want to do something whereas an intention is the consequences that I hope to bring about by my action.  For example, if I bring in ice cream for all my friends, my intention is to provide my friends with ice cream,  This intention is relevant.  However, my motive is irrelevant; it does not matter if my motive is to make my friends happy or if my motive is to manipulate my friends by buying them ice cream.

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