Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Mill's Utilitarianism II, 2nd objection to utilitarianism


The problem with this objection is that it seems to misrepresent what happiness really is for human beings and what has been for moral philosophers as well.

On the one hand, even if happiness were proved to be unattainable, the utilitarian doctrine would ground its value in the “prevention or mitigation of unhappiness”. Mill’s reply implies that unhappiness - i.e. sorrow, sufferance, discontentedness, etc. -  is far less objectionable than happiness because pain is more simple to define and acknowledge than pleasure.
On the other hand, declaring happiness unattainable would be plausible only if by “happiness” we mean “a continuity of highly pleasurable excitement… a state of exalted pleasure” (p.12). But that state is clearly impossible to reach, as is fully acknowledged by philosophers and non-philosophers alike. It is worth noting, by contrast, that happiness is pictured by Mill as

an existence made up of transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive, and having as the foundation of the whole not to expect more from life that it is capable of bestowing.” (p.13).

We can find in this remark a reminiscence of teachings coming from classical philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, etc.), not necessarily related with the hedonistic tradition.

After that, and quite abruptly, Mill ends up lamenting the fact that both “present wretched education” and “social arrangement” are the ultimate obstacles on the way of attaining happiness (second reproach levelled against society).

However reasoned and commonsensical, Mill’s line of argument provokes the further objection that “such a moderate share” of happiness would not be worth pursuing for human beings.

 I. Mill’s reply to this reproach is complex and not easy to unfold. On the one hand, he acknowledges the necessity of balance between “tranquillity”, a state of repose, and “excitement”. This balance may resemble a sort of middle path between extremes, “vice” and “disease”, that recalls Aristotle’s theory of practical virtues. It is of course a matter of psychological constitution whether we are endowed with sufficient affections for others good, and interests in knowledge, such that we may attain a life worth living, but Mill thinks this condition is “sufficiently common” among human beings, especially among “civilized” men. “Genuine private affections and a sincere interest in the public good are possible, though in unequal degrees, to every rightly brought up human being” (p. 14). Hence, happiness can be achieved even though “positive evils of life” or “calamities” such as “disease”, “bad laws”, “subjection to the will of others”, losses, etc., cannot always be escaped. 

II. On the other hand, Mill ties up happiness with a sort of “moral interest”, which is necessary for its attainment. Vices like “selfishness” and “curiosity” thwart the natural development of positive intellectual and psychological endowments. However, Mill seems to think that the development of such moral capacities that makes human beings worth of happiness, ultimately depend on “human care and effort”. According to him, moral education, along with psychological endowment, is therefore a crucial requisite for happiness too.

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