Mill vs. Williams

Group Eudaimonistic Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which asserts as happiness is the only thing humans ultimately desire, then the greatest good would be actions which result in the happiness for the greatest amount of people. Group Eudaimonistic Utilitarianism functions with the Utility Principle which states all actions should aim for that which is worth pursuing, and in the case of Group Eudaimonistic Utilitarianism, that which is worth pursuing is happiness for the greatest amount of people. As such, Group Eudaimonistic Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory, meaning the rightness or wrongness of any action is determined based on its consequences, or again in the case of Group Eudaimonistic Utilitarianism, if the action results in happiness for the greatest amount of people. John Stuart Mill is a proponent of Group Eudaimonistic Utilitarianism, whereas Bernard Williams argues against the theory.

In “Utilitarianism,” John Stuart Mill defends the ethical theory of Group Eudaimonistic Utilitarianism. Mill begins by asserting The Greatest Happiness Principle, which states “that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (211-12). Furthermore, he explains happiness equals pleasure and/or lack of pain, which is the ultimate goal of humans (212). I would like to focus on the next portion of Mill’s argument in which Mill defends Epicurean ideas regarding pleasures. He states there exists different kinds of pleasures and some are more worthy of human pursuit than others. His argument is:

(1) If humans seek pleasures above and beyond mere bodily pleasures, then humans are not satisfied with simply obtaining bodily pleasures. (2) Humans seek pleasures above and beyond bodily pleasures, such as “intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments” (212). (3) Therefore, humans are not satisfied with simply obtaining bodily pleasures. (4) If (3), then humans ascertain which pleasures are more worthy of pursuit. (5) Therefore, humans ascertain which pleasures are more worthy of pursuit. (6) If (5), then humans can only ascertain which pleasures are more worthy of pursuit by experiencing and having knowledge of both pleasures. (7) Therefore, humans can only ascertain which pleasures are more worthy of pursuit by experiencing and having knowledge of both pleasures. (8) If (7), then intelligent humans who have experienced and have knowledge of both pleasures will choose the pleasure which satisfies their “higher faculties” (213). (9) Therefore, intelligent humans who have experienced and have knowledge of both pleasures will choose the pleasure which satisfies their “higher faculties” (213). (10) If (9), then no intelligent human would choose a limitless amount of bodily pleasures over pleasures which satisfies their “higher faculties” (213). (11) Therefore, no intelligent human would choose a limitless amount of bodily pleasures over pleasures which satisfies their “higher faculties” (213).

According to Mill, these pleasures which satisfy a person’s “higher faculties” would lead the person to logically accept Group Eudaimonistic Utilitarianism. However, I question premise (8), because I am not sure how he jumps from people experiencing both kinds of pleasures to it being “an unquestionable fact” people would choose the pleasure which satisfies their “higher faculties” (213). Mill explains a person with “higher faculties requires more to make him happy” and people would not choose to “sink into a lower grade of existence” (213). To opine on Mill’s argument, it doesn’t necessarily follow just because a person is intelligent they would, without a doubt, choose pleasure of the mind over bodily pleasure. The possibility exists for an intelligent person to choose bodily pleasure over the pleasure of the mind, so it would not be “an unquestionable fact” they wouldn’t. Mill could argue against my opinion by stating anyone who chooses bodily pleasure over pleasure of the mind would not be intelligent. But, then the question becomes, what criteria does Mill use to define intelligent people? If intelligent people are those who choose pleasures of the mind over pleasures of the body, then Mill’s argument becomes circular. However, Mill does respond, in a different direction, to my question further in the article by stating intelligent people would “voluntarily choose the lower description of pleasures in preference to the higher” because “they have already become incapable of the other” (214). So, his response to my question and opinion would be, an intelligent person who is no longer able to experience the pleasures of the mind would choose bodily pleasures. However, even Mill questions this response when he says, “It may be questioned whether any one who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures, ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower” (214). To provide my opinion once more, Mill’s questioning of the possibility of an intelligent person, with access to both kinds of pleasures, choosing bodily pleasure over mental pleasure demonstrates a conflict between the calculative, literal utilitarian application of the theory and practical human nature.

In “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” Bernard Williams argues against the theory by highlighting how the theory conflicts with human nature. Williams makes three major points countering how Group Eudaimonistic Utilitarianism fails. First, he states the theory disregards personal moral feelings of right and wrong as “self-indulgent” and to a rational utilitarian “there is something dishonorable about such self-indulgence” (218). Williams argues, the theory determines right and wrong based on the happiness of the greatest amount of people. Therefore, just because someone is feeling bad about committing a certain action, such as killing one person to save another nineteen people, as long as the majority of people are happy, the person’s feelings are irrational and shouldn’t be considered.

In his second argument against the theory, Williams addresses the consequentialist aspect of the theory and states it leads to “negative responsibility” (219). He states it assigns causation responsibility for an effect inappropriately. Williams states the theory claims, “if I know that if I do X, O1 will eventuate, and if I refrain from doing X, O2 will, and that O2 is worse than O1, then I am responsible for O2 if I refrain voluntarily from doing X” (219). Williams states it is not the first person who is responsible for O2 because they refrained from doing action X, but another person who actually acts to bring about O2.

It is Williams’ third argument against the theory I would like to focus on and opine on. Williams asserts people seek out happiness through personal “commitments” and/or “projects” (220). To give my opinion, compare premise (2) of Mill’s argument where Mill states humans seek pleasures above and beyond bodily pleasures, such as “intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments” (212) to Williams stating people seek out happiness by being involved in their own personal “commitments” and/or “projects” (220). Since pleasure equals happiness to Mill, premise (2) for Mill’s argument reaffirms Williams’ argument that people seek out happiness by being involved in personal “commitments” and/or “projects,” because people achieve pleasures such as “intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments” through their own personal “commitments” and/or “projects.” Mill could argue his statement in question means these aspects are sought after and fulfilled in the individual only by their relation to the happiness for the greatest number of people. However, again to provide my opinion, these aspects of “intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments” are held in the individual and as such are generated in the individual through the individual’s own personal “commitments” and/or “projects.” Therefore, neither the individual nor the group would achieve happiness if it were not for the individual’s own personal “commitments” and/or “projects.” If, according to Williams (and affirmed by Mill), people seek out happiness through their own personal “commitments” and/or “projects,” then what is a utilitarian to do when his personal “commitments” and/or “projects,” which he has built his life around, conflict with the happiness for the greatest amount of people?

Williams states, “it is absurd to demand of such a man, when the sums come in from the utility network which the projects of others have in part determined, that he should just step aside from his own project and decision and acknowledge the decision which utilitarian calculation requires” (221). Williams argument is: (1) If Group Eudaimonistic Utilitarianism is sound, X is required to give up his personal commitment and/or project which he has built his life around because it conflicts with Y’s project and Y’s project creates more happiness for more people. (2) It is absurd to require X to give up his personal commitment and/or project which he has built his life around because it conflicts with Y’s project and Y’s project creates more happiness for more people. (3) Therefore, Group Eudaimonistic Utilitarianism is absurd. Williams is asserting, to be a utilitarian, you must selflessly give up any rights to personal happiness if it results in the happiness of the group, and this, according to Williams, is not only absurd but impractical to human nature.

Personally, I enjoyed reading both of the articles. I can appreciate the logic behind both arguments. However, I do have to agree with Williams, in that it does seem impractical for Group Eudaimonistic Utilitarianism to work because it seems impossible for anyone to be completely selfless. Additionally, it seems impossible for someone to find pleasure, and thus be happy according to Mill, if they were completely selfless. Unless, of course, utilitarianism is stating a person should be happy, even though they are not, simply because other people are happy.

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