PHL100: Consequentialist Hedonism (Utilitarianism)
Mill's Consequentialist Hedonism (Utilitarianism)
- Mill begins (our selection) by claiming that ethical claims
are not susceptible to (scientific or mathematical) proof. They
can be argued for on broader grounds of rationality, however, and
he will do this to argue for his view of Utilitarianism.
- Utilitarianism is the view that "actions are right in proportion
as they tend to promote happiness." And "By happiness is intended
pleasure." Here we have both Mills decision theory and his value
theory: hedonism with consequentialism.
- Hedonism = the claim that pleasure is good (or, is The Good).
- Consequentialism = the claim that actions are to be valued
in terms of their outcomes (as opposed to in and of themselves).
Hedonism (the happiness principle)
- Mill cannot give us a strong argument for hedonism, but rather
asks us to grant his claim -- he considers it an observation -- that
things are only ever desired for the pleasure they ultimately cause,
and only ever hated or avoided for the pain they cause.
- Traditional rejection of hedonism has viewed it as somehow
vulgar, but Mill responds that this is too low a view of human
beings. People find pleasure in fine things also. And such pleasures
as intellectual enjoyments are superior becuase of their "greater
permanency, safety, uncostliness, etc."
- Mill allows that pleasures have different qualities.
Pleasure x is of greater quality than pleasure y if those who
have experienced x and y prefer x. Mill argues furthermore
that the greater quality pleasures will tend to be those that
we typically consider more appropriate (e.g., Beethoven over
- Also, it would be wrong to conclude hedonism means a fat
pig sitting in slop is happier than a struggling genius human.
The pig is more content, perhaps, because it has all the
pleasures it desires, but the pleasures of the genuis, though
mostly unsatisfied, are of higher quality (and wholly beyond
- All things which are sentient should be taken into account:
(this form of) hedonism respects all pleasures, even if it ranks
those of humans above those of other species of animal in terms
- The happiness (pleasure) that must be taken into account
in valuing some action is the happiness of all concerned:
utilitarianism requires that we weigh our own happiness equally
with that of others (in cases of equal quality and quantity).
- An action then is good to the degree that it tends to
increase overall pleasure as a consequence.
- Mill also advocates what today is called "rule utilitarianism."
He recognizes that we can't constantly be computing the expected
outcome of our actions, so should instead in general set up the
rules of society in such a way that, when obeyed, they tend to
increase overall pleasure.
- Utilitarianism does allow for the breaking of such rules,
in principle, if this will lead to greater happiness. Mill saw
this as something we should agree to: for any rule we should
be able to imagine a situation in which it should be broken.