Discussion Summary for Mill

The first question brought up in the discussion is in reference to Mill’s support to the Greatest Happiness Principle (GHP), in which he states that “Utilitarians look not just to one’s own happiness, but to that of all concerned with action; impartiality between one’s own happiness and that of all others” (Mill, 5). The question is concerned with how Mill might view impartiality in terms of consequentialism and the GHP.

Q1: With this quote from Mill in mind, how do you think an Utilitarian would respond to a situation in which he/she were only given 2 choices: one choice would yield more happiness for you but less for someone else, and the other choice yielding more happiness for the other person and less for you. Assuming that the amounts of happiness were the same for each option, what choice would Mill make?

While it took a bit for the group to respond, they came up with an interesting look to the question. At first glance, it may seem like there is no one correct choice for this situation. Both options produce equal amounts of happiness, yet the difference is in terms of whether you or the other person experiences this pleasure. However, the group came to an interesting conclusion which stated that Mill would most likely choose to generate more happiness for the other person. This is due to his views on impartiality. Mill states that it is important to be impartial between your own happiness and the happiness of others, meaning that one must make a decision in which he/she must be satisfied with the outcomes of other people involved in the situation as if it was their own outcome. Therefore, in order to practice this in the selected situation at hand, the Utilitarian would pick to yield more happiness for the other, as it is the option that practices impartiality towards the happiness and outcomes of others and not one’s self.

The second question stems from Mills words: “[I]t is universally considered just that each person should obtain that (whether good or evil) which he deserves, and unjust that he should obtain a good, or be made to undergo an evil, which he does not deserve” (Mill, 14).

Q2: If Mill thinks that it is universally just that people should obtain what they deserve, good or evil, then what if one is confronted with a situation in which one was to either get what they deserve, even if it produces the most pain. Would Mill chose to the path of “justice” even though it produces more pain than happiness? An example of this is death sentence.

The group was a bit more hesitant to answer this question.  They believed that Mill would most likely choose the path of justice. This is partly due to that fact that, to Mill, the heart at what produces happiness is the security and justice: what people have a right to do, and what protects their security. If an individual has acted against the security of another, and thus has acted unjustly, it would be prudent that the individual obtains what he/she deserves in order to protect the security of others. Within the context of death sentence, it is important to enforce the consequences of those who act unjustly, and to not let an unjust action go under the radar and perceived as acceptable.

JS Mill discussion summary

The questions I chose for discussion were about how to interpret contrasting passages from Mill’s Utilitarianism. The central issue is that Mill indicates different things about his metaethical views in different places, in some instances seeming to support what we now call act utilitarianism, and in others seeming to support what we now call rule utilitarianism.

In chapter II, p. 2, Mill states the Greatest Happiness Principle (the proportionality doctrine), which is that ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness’. As David Brink explains in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry ‘Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy’, this passage seems to express a Bentham-like hedonistic view which would suggest act utilitarianism.

Conversely, when Mill expands his conception of utility in chapter V, he details the moral relevance of rights, duties, sanctions, and justice which seem hard to square up with act utilitarianism and which strongly suggest rule utilitarianism. For example, a right is ‘something which society ought to defend me in the possession of’ (p. 16) — even if that is not what would bring the most pleasure. The conflicting suggestions leave no clear answer as to how to interpret Mill’s point of view in the text.

I also touched briefly on the links between Mill and Epicurus, not only in terms of the foregrounding of happiness or pleasure as the highest good (or telos), but also regarding evidence towards either side of the act/rule distinction: on the act-utilitarian side, the analysis of different pleasures as sensual or intellectual vs kinetic or static; and on the rule-utilitarian side, the connection between Mill’s potential rules (rights, duties, etc.) and Epicurus’s virtues (courage, prudence, etc.)

My questions were:

  1. In light of the textual ambiguity, do you think Mill’s views are better characterized as act utilitarian or rule utilitarian?
  2. Which of the two doctrines do you personally find more convincing?
  3. Is Epicurus any more or less clear on the act/rule distinction? What are the similarities and differences?

The group didn’t come up with a clear answer to any of these questions (which makes sense as they’re pretty contentious even today). We evaluated textual evidence that could indicate either side of the question and arrived at no certain conclusion as to whether he was an act or rule utilitarian. Likewise, people’s personal leanings on the subject were mixed. People generally agreed that Epicurus was more definitely an act utilitarian (more hedonistic or ‘self-centred’) due to his central focus on pleasure.